The Brunel Engine House
The Thames Tunnel project was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th Century - driving the world's first tunnel under a navigable river. It is perhaps Marc Brunel's most insistent claim to fame.
However, it took a team of courageous and unsung heroes to drive the tunnel through soft, waterlogged sediments, through noxious fumes and in the face of impending inundation.
This is the story of the miners
Many of the work force were not miners as a whole army of men worked above ground: carpenters, smiths, pumpers, and stokers. Etc.
Gentlemen and Men
Craftsmen and Labourers
The second, the labourers, took the 'spoil' from the excavation, lime-washed the brick walls, mixed the cement, carried building materials, or stoked the boilers. Sheer physical strength was an important requirement for both categories, though some are described as 'old' or elderly. Some are described as 'boys', and would have been 18 years old or younger.
The Working Day
Both 'gentlemen' and 'working-men' worked extremely hard. During the construction of the shaft, bricklayers were laying 1000 bricks a day and subsequently miners battled with stinking, semi-liquid mud and river detritus seeping through the frames of the shield, and poisonous, inflammable gasses. Isambard Brunel had an office in the shaft and was known to sleep in the shaft. Once he stayed for 36 hours without sleep and then snatched a couple of hours of rest on the bricklayers platform behind the shield
The men were given half an hour to eat their lunch and drink. The miners would normally eat down the shaft. The food was provided for the men. The alcohol was provided by the Thames Tunnel Company and included whisky and porter. Porter - a type of stout was considered a great fortifier.
At times the length of shifts were reduced to 6 hours - for example, when noxious gases were causing problems.
Brave, Rough and Tough
Drunk and Disorderly
Tunnelling - an unlikely spectator sport!
That none will killed or injured is a matter of complete luck!
The Brunels did not engage contractors to work the tunnel, but employed men directly. The Thames Tunnel Company, always looking for ways to keep costs down, suggested a piecework system - which Brunel rejected - as not being in the interests of good quality work. Like other 19th century bosses the Brunels were tough bosses, maintained the social disparity between the classes, and enforced strict discipline. Isambard Brunel was the link between his father and 'the men', working with them in the tunnel. He demanded high quality work; if bricks were set unevenly, the offending bricklayer would be fined; if a brick came loose, he would be sacked on the spot. Sometimes a whole day's pay would be docked for slow work. The Company employed site policemen to watch out for pilfering or fighting and who must have been tough characters.
'The men' got some time off apart from Sundays, when only watchmen and pumpers attended; during Christmas week only a few men continued to work, and at Easter work was suspended for three days.
The Brunels gained the respect and admiration of their workforce by their willingness to risk danger and to participate in manual work as part of a punishingly hard schedule. By today's standards the Brunels might seem harsh bosses, but compare favourably with mine owners in the north of England such as Lord Londonderry, and others of more humble origin, who were hated for their inhuman treatment of their workers.
Miners' and Bricklayers' Wages
The Strike - May the 1st, 1827
William Gravatt's report for April the 6th - 'Nothing was done
yesterday at the night shift; all the bricklayers came in sober, but not
one-eight part of the miners made their appearance, and upon sending
round to the public houses the others were found drunk. Circumstanced as
we are now are we cannot turn out these men, because a stoppage would be
very injurious, if not fatal; but we shall endeavour to prepare
substitutes from among the runners.'
' declaring that they would not work without an increase in their pay; and having become exceedingly riotous and disorderly, a reward of £10 was offered for the conviction of the ringleader.'
The Brunels sacked all those who instigated the strike but others who joined them were later reinstated. The strike lasted for a few days amidst 'scenes of riot and confusion'. Conditions in the already lethal tunnel deteriorated during the strike, and there were several inundations in the next months leading to a major tragedy in 1828
It was a metal apparatus big enough to be manned by 18 miners. Each miner occupied a separate 'cell'. The face of the tunnel, which would have been semi-liquid was supported with elm boards, 3 foot long x 6 inches deep x 3 inches deep (0.9m x 0.15 x 0.075m). Each board was separately supported by screw jacks bearing against the wall of the appropriate cell
At the start of a shift the miner unscrewed the top board, and started to remove the 'spoil', sometimes with a pick-axe, if it was hard, or even sometimes with bare hands, which was found to be the most efficient way of dealing with the semi-liquid substance. After removing a set amount of spoil, perhaps six inches to a foot, the elm board was replaced and supported by the screw jacks. The next board down was removed and the process repeated removing each board at a time. In this way, only a horizontal 6 in. section of the tunnel was unsupported minimising the risk of inundation.
In addition, each 'cell' moved independently, depending on how fast the occupying miner could work, and on the quality of the earth behind the boards. This provided a flexible and relatively safe way to work.
'Apart from the loss of those six poor fellows the whole affair was well worth the risk…'
Isambard Kingdom Brunel's journal, 22nd of April 1828
Now that tunnels are common it is easy to forget what a novel enterprise the making of Brunel's tunnel was, and what difficulties its makers faced. This first tunnel under a navigable river claimed ten lives, one man's sanity, the health of countless scores of men, and bereaved many women and children.
Marc Brunel had no real idea about the difficulties he would face - he had forecast that the tunnel would be complete in three years. Sixteen years later, as the tunnel reached the Wapping shaft, he wrote to his friend that the project
'…has been one of inconceivable labours, difficulties and dangers…the four elements were at one time particularly against us; Fire from the explosive gases, the same that are fatal in mines; Air…by the influence of which the men most exposed were sometimes removed quite senseless; Earth from the most terrific disruptions of the ground; Water from five irruptions of the river, three of which since the resumption of the work in 1836!'
12 July 1825 - the First fatality.
Richardson Drowned! 27 June 1827
Extract from the Annual Report of the Royal Humane
So highly regarded was Richardson that Isambard Kingdom ordered that work on the Tunnel should cease for the night
April 1827: warnings of the danger ahead - broken glass, coal, and old boots were coming into the frames of the shield. Marc Brunel was told by some Thames watermen that he was tunnelling into an underwater quarry from which gravel had been dredged out. If this was the case, the riverbed above the shield would collapse, and the Thames would burst through. On May the 18th, as the tide was rising in the evening, water suddenly came roaring through one of the frames of the shield, but luckily everybody escaped unhurt.
'Wives and children in a state of nudity, the accident happening at such an early hour, were seen in the utmost state of distress, eagerly enquiring after their husbands and fathers.'
Isambard Brunel, who suffered internal injuries, convalesced in Brighton, keeping a diary that contains a vivid account of the flood -
'When knocked down I certainly gave myself up…The roar of the water in a confined space was very grand, cannon can be nothing to it …'
"I had been in the frames with the workmen throughout the whole night, having taken my station there at two o'clock. During the workings through the night, no symptoms of insecurity appeared. At six o'clock this morning, (the usual time for shifting the men,) a fresh set or shift of the men came on to work. We began to work the ground at the west top corner of the frame (No. I.); the tide had just then began to flow, and finding the ground tolerably quiet, we proceeded by beginning at the top, and had worked about a foot downwards, when on exposing the next six inches the ground swelled suddenly, and a large quantity burst through the opening thus made. This was followed instantly by a large body of water.
The rush was so violent as to force the man on the spot where the burst took place out of the frame L2 on to the timber stage behind the frames. I was in the frame with the man, but upon the rush of water I went into the next box (or cell), in order to command a better view of the irruption, and seeing that there was no possibility of then opposing the water, I ordered all the men in the frames to retire. All were retiring, except the three men who were with me, and they retreated with me.
I did not leave the stage until those three were down the ladder of the frames, when they and I proceeded about twenty feet along the west arch of the Tunnel. At this moment the agitation of the air by the rush of water was such as to extinguish all the lights, and the water had gained the height of our waists. I was at that moment giving directions to the three men in what manner they ought to proceed in the dark to effect their escape, when they and I were knocked down, and covered with a part of the timber stage. I struggled under water for some time, and at length extricated myself from the stage, and by swimming and being forced by the water, I gained the eastern arch, where I got a better footing, and was enabled, by laying hold of the railway rope, to pause a little, in the hope of encouraging the men who had been knocked down at the same time with myself. This I endeavoured to do by calling to them.
Before I reached the shaft, the water had risen so rapidly that I was out of my depth, and therefore swam to the visitors' stairs; the stairs for the workmen being occupied by those who had so far escaped. My knee was so injured by the timber stage, that I could scarcely swim or get up the stairs, but the rush of the water carried me up the shaft. The three men who had been knocked down with me were unable to extricate themselves, and I am grieved to say they are lost; and I believe also two old men and one young man in other parts of the work."
Marc Brunel's report to the Directors, dated the 22nd of January,
The weather was all the time most tempestuous, cold, and rainy, the tides very violent both up and down, and our barges were exposed to be fouled at every instant by the craft and shipping. At seven p.m. I went down, Mr. Gravatt being with me, but our sextant having fallen overboard, we were not very sure of our position, and the signals not being well understood above, we were carried against the west side of the cavity, and exposed to the danger of being upset: we were obliged again to come up. Tuesday, the 15th. At half-past six a.m., having procured a sextant, we found that we had been driven off near twenty feet, but having removed our position, I was able to stay under water as long as the chain would enable us so to do. I found No. I. covered with about two feet six inches to three feet of ground, which the tide had washed down upon it. I was not able to ascertain with sufficient degree of accuracy the state of No. II., where Mr. Gravatt had made his observations before. He had, however, brought up a brick, a wedge, and a rope, which must have come from No. I., from the side brickwork. The ground rises on the east, which indicates that the frames on that side have not been disturbed. Wednesday, the 16th. I went down again, and remained upwards of two hours and a quarter, having then about forty-two feet of water, but could obtain no addi- tional information; I therefore ordered the men to throw two barge loads of bags of clay, and after they had been thrown in the way we had done before, I descended to examine how they laid. Finding them as well as could be expected from the state of the tide, I ordered, on the 17th, to proceed in throwing large bundles of bags through an opening made in the raft. All hands were employed in tempering clay, filling the bags, and throwing them in, when the tide was low enough; I thus proceeded as we had done before. On the 18th, continued the operation of filling bags of clay, and when the tide was low, I availed myself of that time to have soundings taken, which indicated that the bags were taking their right direction."
The Floating Fire Ship
Sickness '…Torrents of filth…'
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 Tunnel nears Wapping
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
'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
'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
Not just the Miners
Brunel had adapted many old buildings and demolished others to make way for houses for his assistant engineers. Despite this, the wife of ex-army officer Richard Beamish, one of the Assistant Engineers found it unbearable to live in the area.
Many of the workforce lived close to the site in Cow Court, where the Brunels also lodged for most of the time, Marc and Sophia in one 'cottage', and Isambard in his own. They lived alongside shipwrights, ropemakers, sailmakers, mariners, watermen and lightermen, leatherworkers, smiths, ships' caulkers, washerwomen, seamstresses, street-hawkers, knife-grinders, and small shopkeepers. The really poor lived in common lodging houses which were vastly over-crowded and a danger to anyone who lived in them
The houses in which the miners lived were unlikely to have had running water, as working families often depended on taps in the courtyards; if running water was supplied, it was usually only for a limited period every day. Before waterclosets became commonplace later in the century, the 'privy' drained into a cess-pit. This was emptied by a 'night-man', or, in some cases, left to overflow, as sometimes residents could not afford to pay regularly for the service.
Cess-pits sometimes leaked into wells, contributing to the spread of Cholera. In the very worst alleys and courts inhabited by the very poor there were often no sanitary arrangements except throwing waste out into the street. Many of the small streets may have been little more than unpaved lanes, and the mixture of horsedung, human excrement and refuse would have provided a distinctive smell.
Southwark obtained its drinking water at this time from the Thames which was so highly polluted that it could no longer support fish and was described (as late as 1957) as almost devoid of life. The public often preferred to drink ale to water which being fermented was a safer option. St. Thomas' Hospital, for example, provided each patient a ration of 3 pints of ale a day.
"Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens 1837
At such times, a stranger looking from one of the wooden bridges across this ditch will see the inhabitants on either side, lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets and pails in which to haul the water up. And when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves his utmost astonishment wilt be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to took at the slime beneath; windows broken and patched, with poles thrust out on which to dry the linen which is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrust themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it -as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage, all these ornament the banks of Folly ditch.."
The Rotherhithe miners were an elite working class group. So by contemporary standards they were not poor, and were better off than many of the unskilled who made a scanty living by scavenging rags and bones from dust-heaps or vending food-stuffs in the streets. Even though heavy drinking was widespread among labouring men, the miners earned enough to feed and clothe their families, and would not have lived in the wretched conditions of the very poor in common lodging houses. But the men and their families certainly would not have been able to afford luxuries or any of the trappings of 'gentility', and their standard of living would be unbearably low by our standards. Labourers and casual staff would have had a harder time making ends meet. Interiors would have been sparsely decorated and interior decorations in poor repair.
Wives may have earned something selling small goods or food in the street. Children would contribute to the economy of the home by minding their younger siblings whilst their mothers went out, or if they were older, selling goods on the street themselves, or cooking and doing other household chores.
But there was an unbridgeable gulf between the social and economic world of the miners and that of the educated Brunels and the other gentlemen. A fine cloth dress coat fit for a 'gentleman' cost more than seven weeks of a miner's wages, and for a cloth dress waistcoat, more than one week's wages.
In the 1840's the average age of death for a gentleman was around 45 years old, but for those involved in the trades it dipped to circa 30. For Factory workers it could dip to as low as 20. However, the figures were so low mainly because of childhood mortality. The grime reaper struck most often in the first 5 years of life. Dickens' Tiny Tim, who appears in the Christmas Carol, was a sad reality of many if not most families - a child not destined to survive.
Early Victorian London was also a cruel place for those who fell on hard times. The Government was determined to encourage self-help by making the life-style available to those who had to resort to the Work house as mean as possible. Dickens satirised this cruel policy in the famous scene in which Oliver Twist asks for 'more'. After 1834, the corpses of those who died in the Workhouse without providing for their funerals could be dissected for scientific research even against their, and relatives, expressed will
Henry Mayhew, in the mid 19th century, reports an interview with an old female street pedlar: 'I bought a quartern of wine, which was 4d, and I gave 5d for a bit of tea and sugar, and I gave 2d for coals, a halfpenny rushlight I bought…'
One of Mayhew's other informants, a ham sandwich-seller, reported that he paid 7d for a pound of ham. Fish was cheaper than meat. Working people bought 'block ornaments', the small, dark coloured pieces of meat exposed on the cheap butchers' blocks or counters. Fruit and also meat pies were commonplace. A pint of soup from a cheap cook-shop would cost 2d a pint. Carrots, cabbage, potatoes and onions were the main vegetables available and stews were thickened with dried peas. Working people often ate just bread and dripping or treacle and a cup of cocoa or tea with sugar for a light meal; butter was a luxury. Until the 1870s only a quarter of the food eaten in Britain came from abroad and most people's diet was limited to what could be grown or reared here, so food varied from season to season.
A family required about 12 shillings (60p) a week to live on just to keep starvation at bay and a roof over the families head. Around 8 shillings (40p) a week would be spent on food, the rest on rent. clothing and fuel. The weekly shopping bill of a poor family might be: Bread and Flour 6s 8d. Yeast and Salt 4d. Bacon or other meat 8d. Tea, Sugar and Butter 1s. Soap. starch and blue 2d, Candles 3d. Thread,Thrum and Worsted 3d. Cheese, beer, meat and bacon were only bought when funds allowed
Henry Mayhew describes the entertainment that working people would have enjoyed, including listening to ballad singers in the pub, watching street conjurors, fire-eaters, and 'Jim Crow' performers with blacked faces. Irish and Scottish musicians also feature in Mayhew's report, including a blind Irish piper, and the English and German street bands. Some entertainments were more ancient; like the 'travelling fair', which might include a 'freak show', or bear-bating with dogs, which was witnessed in Southwark by John Keats just a few years before the tunnel was begun.
Drinking and playing cards or dice has always been a cheap entertainment after a hard day's work - as was going to the 'penny-gaff', often a shop converted into a theatre; the front seats cost 2d, and the entertainment consisted of 'comic singers' 'funny men' and risque repartee. However, these venues appealed largely to the very young, and were not considered suitable for the more mature. Pleasure gardens and boat trips were also popular activities. Cherry Gardens was the local tea garden in Rotherhithe.
Every year 'the Annual Fancy Fair' which took place in the Thames Tunnel and included panoramas, side shows and scientific demonstrations
Ball (a leading miner, drowned)