The Brunel Engine House - the Miner's Life Exhibition



Sickness '…Torrents of filth…'

Working conditions made both 'men' and 'gentlemen' seriously ill. Everyone who worked in the tunnel must have been infested with lice. A more serious problem was the filthy condition of the river. London's population of over 1 million people was dumping their sewage untreated into the Thames.

1837: Professor Taylor of Guy's Hospital analysed the water coming into the Tunnel and found that the water was contaminated with gas (2 or 3% sulphurated hydrogen gas). He predicted that in time breathing the gas would cause

'nausea, loss of appetite, great feebleness, tremor of the limbs and general wasting of the body...'

He advocated immediate sinking of the shaft on the Wapping side to allow ventilation; Marc Brunel and his fellow engineers had been arguing this point for some time, but the Company was unwilling or unable to finance the northern shaft until it was structurally necessary.

Exhaustion, 'tunnel sickness' and noxious gasses

The main problems for the miners were exhaustion, stress and illnesses caused by gasses, damp, and foul water. There is no mention of any deaths from cholera, though vomiting was commonplace. The dangerous gases rotted the men's fingernails and brought their skin out in sores. Often it ignited, singeing the men.  Since it was more effective to remove the 'spoil' with their bare hands, many miners worked in bandages. The gases also temporarily blinded the men; some were left with partial sight.

The Tunnel nears Wapping

As the tunnel neared the northern shore, sulphur-saturated water was seeping in continuously, and the river was now so near that earth shoveled from ahead of the polling boards contained live eels. The Company now had less money available than ever before, and had to compile documents for the Treasury showing how much each foot of digging was costing in clothing, in illuminating gas, candles, food, beer, and whisky.

If the Company had been able to give the go-ahead to excavate the Wapping shaft earlier, lives could have been saved, and many men's health would have safeguarded, as 'tunnel sickness' was proving as deadly as flood and fire. There were now so far from the Rotherhithe Shaft that little fresh air could get to them.

Marc Brunel's Diary 1838

'26th of May…Heyward [a miner] died this morning. Two more on the sick list. The air excessively offensive…I feel much debility after having been some time below! All complain of pain in the eyes…

'28th of May…Wood, a bricklayer, fell senseless in the top floor.

'30th of May…This night…I could not refrain from the reflection that the brave men who are the agents for the execution of a work like this are so many men that are sacrificed and my assistants likewise - that in a few weeks most probably, they will be lingering under the influence of a slow and insidious poison.'

'4th of June…Sullivan: sent him to the hospital [Guy's in Southwark] he being almost blind…The best men are very much affected…'

Depression and Madness

The disturbing and noxious working conditions affected the men psychologically: one workman, Williams, was committed to a lunatic asylum. He was said to have been behaving strangely since the last 'irruption' of water, and had suddenly become violent.

Lung Complaints

On the 17th of April 1827 Isambard Brunel wrote to the Directors, urging the necessity of giving the men a gratuity (which they did not get):

'It may be necessary to inform the Committee that there are thirty sick men, mostly colds and complaints in the lungs…'

Compensation of Widows and Orphans

The Thames Tunnel Company offered compensation to the widows and orphans of 'tunnel sickness'. It also paid for the burials of the miners who had died. As most working people lived from week to week and did not save money, this meant that the the dead men's families were saved the shame of paupers' funerals.

Not just the Miners

Illness and stress did not just affect the working men - it also affected the Gentlemen. Within ten months of the work commencing, one assistant engineer, William Armstrong, had resigned due to serious ill health; another, Francis Riley, caught 'fever' from the foul water and died, aged twenty-four. In 1827 Marc Brunel suffered a paralytic stroke thought to be caused by stress and Richard Beamish caught pleurisy. Thomas Page, the acting engineer from 1836 was at one stage 'sinking fast' but recovered.



Email the Museum. Page Last Updated on 20 April 2002. Designed by Kevin Flude of Cultural Heritage Resouces