Two Brunels and a flood of sewage

This bank holiday I took the Resident Australian and her very expensive camera, and went to explore the first tunnel built under the Thames with a group of other nosy buggers, care of the London Transport Museum and, in my case, a friend who’d bought tickets and couldn’t use them.

Suited up in the same blue latex gloves I used to wear when my day day job was cataloguing dusty boxes of brain samples in a windowless basement, this time to prevent Weill’s disease from the omnipresent smattering of rat whizz, we descended undramatically down the escalators, and off the platforms onto the track.

Photos as always by J. Reilly

The tunnel runs from Rotherhithe to Wapping (or Wapping to Rotherhithe, if you prefer), and was finished in 1843 to great acclaim and a visit from approximately 50% of London’s then 2 million-strong populous. It was originally built as a goods tunnel, intended to relieve the pressure on the bridges and the ceaseless river traffic, but was only used as a pedestrian tunnel (with archways that quickly turned into the shagging grounds of London’s tireless hookers) before being sold to the railways, who extended it and ran the East London Line through it. Then the East London Line was incorporated into the London Underground, and later transformed into the London Overground. 

Interior of the Thames Foot Tunnel, mid-19th century

It took 18 years to build, thanks to a series of disasters including: a ship that dropped anchor through the roof and drowned several workers (and nearly did in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the tunnel’s creator Sir Marc, and future celebrated engineer and inventor himself); running out of money (which was resolved by holding a banquet in the half-finished tunnel to raise more cash, which at my estimation after having been down there seems like a tight squeeze!); and digging time being limited by a lack of air and pockets of methane created by seepage from the sewage-choked Thames above. We were informed that a new “super sewer” was even then being built beneath our feet, carrying water below the tunnel below the river.

Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of London you discover there’s more London underneath it.

Photo by J. Reilly

Most of this fascinating story I’d already had thanks to a book called London Under London (which I cannot recommend enough: the front cover even features the aforementioned banquet), and to Horrible Histories, but there is something to be said for hearing it all over again, especially from a cheerful and proud man with more than a little of the late Bob Hoskins about him, down an echoing hole under the river. There were six metres of mud above our heads, he said, and the tarpaulin Sir Marc used to plug the anchor-made hole in the roof so the tunnel could be pumped was, as far as he knew, still embedded in it.

London, which in the annuls of ancient cities isn’t even very old, still has so much history in it that you could waste a pleasurable lifetime studying it even without going into much detail.

J. Reilly (c)

One thing I hadn’t heard about was this: when the Royal Family – at this point consisting of Albert and Victoria – came to investigate this marvel of civil engineering, the ladies of negotiable virtue hadn’t yet moved into the archways you can just see above. Those little glimpses between the twin tunnels were instead reserved for traders, sellers of knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and general “tourist tat”. Given that the tunnel was also appallingly muddy, the seller of handkerchiefs was in luck when Queen Vic slid down to the tunnel: they were all purchased to lay in front of her royal footsies.

As our guide told it: the seller was then out of handkerchiefs and needed more stock. Being an enterprising fella, he gathered up the used hankies and began selling them as souvenirs – “as trodden on by the Queen” – a trade he kept up right until someone noticed that the muddy footprint on later hankies was that of a size 10 men’s boot.

“So there was entrepreneurship, and a little bit of fraud, too,” said Not Hoskins, with some pride. Absolutely the spirit of London, both Victorian and modern.

J. Reilly

The tunnel you see is not finished the way it was at first. The tunnel is, after all, more than 150 years old, and needs protection against wear and tear on its bricks. The story goes that the Underground surveyed the tunnel in the 00s (of the 21st, not 20th) and found it in desperate need of support. The day before a £23 million project intended to clad the tunnel in concrete was due to begin, Heritage in Parliament had the place listed as a Grade II historical building, and the whole process was set back.

The tunnel walk is a regular occurrence. This photo was taken in 2010 by Lars Plougmann.

What you can see is a compromise. The tunnel is clad, but the concrete conforms to the original shape of the tunnel. At the Rotherhithe end, the four arches that protrude out from under the river have been left as they were: blackened by coal smuts, crumbling like diseased wood, with a gas canister for the old lighting system still rusting in its alcove.

The history of London’s civil engineering advances is often a bittersweet one. Men died building this tunnel, and with the labour practices of Victorian England being what they were, I imagine their families were not well-compensated for it. The conditions were incredibly dangerous – even without the threat of drowning in the notoriously foul water of the 19th century Thames, the gas build-up in the later stages was so great that diggers had to be dragged out unconscious by their relieving shift.

Diagram of the tunnelling shield used to construct the Thames Tunnel, London. Contemporary image (19th century), probably from the Illustrated London News.

The tunnelling shield developed by Sir Marc and Thomas Cochrane made this enterprise possible at all – several attempts had already been made to tunnel the Thames and not succeeded – and was later improved by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead; the basic idea is still in use today, with tunnel boring machines replacing the labourers. The invention of the tunnelling shield in this project is almost certainly one of the developments that allowed the Underground Railway and its imitators around the world to be created.

We returned to the platform and then to the entrance hall of Rotherhithe station where, true to form, there were souvenirs on sale – as well as some hand sanitizer, for any inadvertent contact with the rats.  Both a recollection of the past, and a nice reminder of all the progress that has been made since the tunnel was built.

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5 thoughts on “Two Brunels and a flood of sewage

  1. Did you go on Sunday? As the description and the photo look very much like the guy that did our tour at 5pm that day 🙂

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