The Thames Tunnel - A Big Problem

Previous Attempts

Richard Trevithick had tried, and failed, to build the first tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Limehouse as part of the Thames Archway scheme.

A New Way Of Working

Designed by Marc Brunel, construction of the 406m/1,506ft long tunnel began in 1825. When completed 18 years later in in 1843 the tunnel was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world.

The Thames Tunnel was the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river and the first to use a tunnel shield. Because it took so long to build the company ran out of money so could not build access ramps for horse and carts, access to the tunnel was only by a stair case in the shaft. It was to be the only project that both Marc and Isambard worked on together.

Work started with the construction of the Rotherhithe shaft. A large brick tower was built where the shaft was to be and then the earth was dug out from underneath so allowing the brick tower to sink under it's own weight into the hole and become the lining of the shaft. Once the shaft was at the required depth it was underpinned to stop it sinking any further and work started on the tunnel proper heading north for Wapping. It was many years before the Wapping shaft was constructed when the tunnel was close to completion.

The shaft at Wapping now contains the access to the railway station whilst at Rotherhithe the station is South of the shaft, the shaft itself just being a large empty void.

Due to the shallow depth at which the tunnel was dug the threat of flooding was very real during construction. The Thames at the time was something of an open sewer so methane gas was a constant presence which was sporadically ignited by the unguarded candles used for lighting the tunnel construction works.

People came from all over Europe to view the completed tunnel, but soon the novelty wore off and it acquired a seedy reputation for some of the more unsavory characters of the time.

In 1869 after 26 years as a not very profitable foot tunnel it was converted into a railway tunnel to create the East London Railway which became part of the Southern Railway in 1923 and then became part of London Underground in 1948. The East London Line was completely refurbished between 1995 and 1998 to stringent criteria laid down by English Heritage whose primary aim was to retain the original shape of the tunnel. Today the line carries around 14 million passengers a year and a project to extend the line has started.

The tunnel was the greatest achievement of Sir Marc Brunel's career and the beginning of  Isambard Kingdom Brunel's long and varied engineering career. Modern tunneling was born of methods first tried during the Thames Tunnel's construction and improved on by James Greathead leading to the extensive Underground network that London has today. It was, and still is, an absolutely historic achievement.

Historical Context

The tunnel is still in use today over 180 years after work started on building it. Construction started in 1825, the year the Stockton and Darlington railway began operating, only ten years after the Battle of Waterloo had seen Napoleon exiled to Saint Helena and before India had become part of the British Empire.