The entrance to Brunel's Thames Tunnel is now being used as an arts space.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: revolutionary man

Burnt, broken, buried and half-drowned, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a one-man building machine whose constructions helped lay the foundations of modern industrial Britain and are still making headlines today.

A 19th-century engineering giant, a revolutionary Briton, and one of the most prolific figures in engineering history, Brunel stopped at nothing. He overcame personal injury, often severe, as well as project dangers and financial difficulties, to build under rivers and through hills, creating the longest tunnels, the biggest bridges and the fastest ships the world had ever seen. Many of his constructions survive to this day in common use and as a reminder of his continuing legacy.

Born in 1806, the son of distinguished French engineer, Sir Marc Brunel, the young Brunel received a sound education and practical training, unlike most engineers of the time. Pleased that his son showed an interest in engineering, Marc taught him arithmetic, scale drawing and geometry at home.

Aged eight, the young Brunel understood the principles of geometry and draughtsmanship, and, despite the continuing financial struggle that the Brunels found themselves in, Marc decided it was money well spent paying for his son’s education, sending him to a highly regarded pre-preparatory boarding school in Hove, East Sussex. While there, the young Brunel demonstrated early signs of the engineering mind to come, undertaking a survey of the local town, and impressing his classmates with the prediction of the partial collapse of a building being constructed opposite the school.

Upon finishing his education, and still just a teenager, Brunel entered his father’s office in 1822, to become chief assistant engineer on the latter’s project to create a tunnel under the river Thames as a means of getting cargo across the river without disrupting the tall-masted ships on the water. The 1,200ft (365m) long tunnel was to be their first, and last, project together and is still making headlines today with the news that the original entrance to the tunnel, a grand chamber used by Isambard himself to host banquets and fairs, has opened as a new London arts space.

The Thames Tunnel was the first in the world to be constructed underwater and was built to connect the districts of Rotherhithe and Wapping for pedestrians and horse-drawn freight. Despite the engineering genius of its inception, the project was beset with problems and dogged by financial difficulties, the reoccurring scourge of a Brunel project, and was only completed in 1843, with the younger Brunel having taking control as resident engineer in 1826.

Isambard worked for several years as an assistant engineer on the project, funded by the Thames Tunnel Company, with tunnellers driving a horizontal shaft from one side of the river to the other under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. The composition of the riverbed at Rotherhithe was often little more than waterlogged sediment and loose gravel. Despite Brunel senior having invented a tunnelling shield to protect workers as they progressed, the work was extremely hazardous. Breaches and collapses often halted the project for long periods.

One such incident occurred on Saturday 12 January 1828 and saw six men swept to their deaths on a tidal wave of sewage, debris and water, badly injuring the 22-year-old Brunel. Pulled unconscious, and slightly stinky, from the water having narrowly escaped death, he was seriously injured and spent the next six months recuperating, seeing work on the tunnel come to a halt for several years.

When it finally opened in 1843, the Thames Tunnel was described as the Eighth Wonder of the World. People came from far and wide to see the first tunnel under a river, with some 50,000 people paying a penny to walk through the tunnel on its first day open. A lack of funds, however, meant the Brunels’ original plans were never fully realised, and the cargo ramps were never built, although it remained one of the most popular visitor attractions in the world.

The 65ft (19.8m) deep entrance shaft to the Thames Tunnel was descended by a million Victorian thrill-seekers in its first month, but closed in 1869 when the twin tunnels were converted to take trains. Subsequently, the tunnel became part of the London Underground system and remains in use today, originally as part of the East London Line and now incorporated into the London Overground.

Fast forward to the present day and this extraordinary built legacy is once again the talk of the town with Isambard’s grand entrance chamber echoing to the sound of music and conversation once more.

Architecture practice Tate Harmer has made the entrance hall to Isambard’s 19th-century tunnel newly accessible to the public by constructing a freestanding, cantilevered staircase and viewing platform down the tunnel’s shaft. The 50ft-wide space in the grand entrance hall is once again a cultural venue for performances and events.

Commenting on the project, commissioned by London’s Brunel Museum and funded by the Association of Independent Museums, the National Heritage Landmarks Partnership and the London Borough of Southwark, Tate Harmer partner Jerry Tate said: “It was vital that the staircase and new entrance to the Rotherhithe shaft did not impact on its historical significance. We wanted to celebrate the raw nature of the Victorian industrial heritage while providing the public proper access for tours and performances.”

That “raw nature” is in evidence still, on the scarred walls and in the remains of soot still clinging to the brickwork; an echo down the years that tells of a dramatic, revolutionary past reaching through to the present, drawing crowds of modern-day Londoners to marvel anew at its engineering ingenuity.

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