Thursday, 3 February 2011

Brunel Museum

Rotherhithe  - an upward-facing 'chunk' of South London bounded by the Thames on three sides. Historic home of docks, ship building and repair, and, I now know, the South end of the first world's first underwater tunnel. This picture (courtesy CC share-alike license, taken by Bryan Jones) shows this quite clearly:
Brunel Museum on right; tunnel shaft on left
The museum has been developed since that shot and the front entrance is now quite a bit snazzier, with trays of cakes on the reception desk (although there was only one piece left when I visited, and I wasn't hungry.) Indeed, the museum has ambitious plans to re-furbish the underground 'entrance hall' to the tunnel, which seem to be going on at the moment. They also do weekly tours to the underground chamber as it is now, although not, sadly, on the day I popped in.

It's a small museum, so easy to get to grips with the story they're telling - which is basically, men try incredible engineering feats, succeed, but end up not quite fulfilling what they originally intended. The essence of the story is:
  • Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, wanted to address a fundamental problem London faced - namely, the Thames had too much traffic going along and across it, it was essentially as congested London's roads are today. More crossing were needed, so North-South traffic could use them, rather than ferries and barges, and hence start relieving the congestion
  • So, rather than build a bridge, as was traditional, he decided a tunnel was just the thing. I'm a little hazy on just why he didn't build a bridge - it's claimed the solution needed to interfere neither with shipping nor docks. To build a tunnel required new techniques and huge effort to build the first underwater tunnel. I suspect he had a classic engineer's mind and simply fell for the challenge, ignoring the difficulty and somewhat uncertain business case.
  • Work started in 1825, and was not completed until 1843. That's how hard it was.
  • The work was dangerous, damp, dark and probably thoroughly unpleasant. The miners got paid a pound a week, which wasn't bad wages for the time.
  • The miners had to dig through alternating layers of clay, gravel, quicksand and "stinking river mud"
  • Brunel invented an iron 'Tunnel Shield' which was used to keep water and collapse as Bay while the tunnel was being dug.
  • The original engineer resigned only months into the job, and was replaced by the genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Yes, he was the boss's son, but I don't think many people would disagree with his place in history as possibly the greatest engineer of all time.
  • The tunnel flooded five times during building
  • Doctors of the day, when faced with possibly dead drowning victims, would place hot bricks on their hands and feet. I wonder how effective that was...They also used to give them brandy, which almost certainly worked better.
Working in the double tunnel

By the time the tunnel was completed in 1843, there was no money left to build the spiral roads at either end, which were needed to allow goods to drive straight into it. Consequently, the tunnel was never used to carry goods, the only reason it had been built.
But...the tunnel gripped Victorian, and European society, and so thrived as, well, a tourist attraction:
  • Within fifteen weeks of opening, one million visitors had been in the tunnel. Worth nothing that the population of London was only two and a quarter million at the time.
  • It was held as one of the wonders of the world, an amazing feat of engineering
  • Funfairs and stalls filled the tunnel. Apparently many of the stall-holders saw light once a week if they were lucky.
  • The homeless could pay one penny to sleep in the tunnel overnight. I'd imagine it was nice and warm.
Commemorative tunnel stuff from the time

I don't know if the investment was recouped, if they made a profit even. The tunnel was sold in 1865 and steam trains made use of it for transport. Today it's owned by Transport for London, and is still in use (the Rotherhithe to Wapping link on the newly refurbished Overground line).
It's thus the oldest section of tunnel, in the world's oldest underground rail system.
As an aside, I picked up a leaflet which describes a journey down the Overground line from Dalston to Croydon, stopping off for the museums along the way - named the 'CultureLine.' Some very fine and off-the-beaten track museums on the way, I will be using this route to visit them. (Also revealed another museum I didn't know about, the Museum of Methodism in Shoreditch.)

IK Brunel also built the Great Eastern at the same location, which I believe was the last thing he worked on. There is an exhibit on this, but it was mostly closed as a result of the underground refurbishments.

A great little museum. I'd ring ahead and try to make sure you can get on a tunnel tour. Although maybe it will be open permanently once they finish the refurbishment.
I can't say I'd ever been to Rotherhithe, its very much out of the way, unless you live there. An historic industrial part of London, and on the same street as the museum is a barge building and repair workshop which has been in existence since 1789 (there's a plaque saying so.) That was the year of the French revolution, which was an awfully long time ago. Something very nice and re-assuring about seeing it still there, I hope they're doing well.

Food and Drink: As mentioned, there were cakes on reception, so I think they can cater to basic needs, where basic = tea/coffee and a piece of cake. Nice.
Toilets: Once again I forgot.
Travel: It's here. Its an obscure place - I was passing by on my way back from a conference at the Excel centre, so Jubilee line to Canada Water. Its a brisk walk through very quiet semi-residential areas. A much better bet would be to take the Overground CultureLine and see a few more of the museums along the path, details here

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