Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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The Thames Tunnel

The first successful tunnel constructed beneath a navigable river was built between 1825 and 1843 by Thomas Cochrane and Marc Brunel, along with Brunel’s son, Isambard. Although it was meant to facilitate horse-drawn carriages traffic, that never happened. Currently it is part of the London Overground railway network.

From Wikipedia:

Brunel and Cochrane patented the tunnelling shield, a revolutionary advance in tunnelling technology, in January 1818. In 1823 Brunel produced a plan for a tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, which would be dug using his new shield. Financing was soon found from private investors, including the Duke of Wellington, and a Thames Tunnel Company was formed in 1824, the project beginning in February 1825.


The tunnelling shield, built at Henry Maudslay’s Lambeth works and assembled in the Rotherhithe shaft, was the key to Brunel’s construction of the Thames Tunnel. The Illustrated London News described how it worked:

Scale model of the Brunel shield

Scale model of the Brunel shield

The mode in which this great excavation was accomplished was by means of a powerful apparatus termed a shield, consisting of twelve great frames, lying close to each other like as many volumes on the shelf of a book-case, and divided into three stages or stories, thus presenting 36 chambers of cells, each for one workman, and open to the rear, but closed in the front with moveable boards. The front was placed against the earth to be removed, and the workman, having removed one board, excavated the earth behind it to the depth directed, and placed the board against the new surface exposed. The board was then in advance of the cell, and was kept in its place by props; and having thus proceeded with all the boards, each cell was advanced by two screws, one at its head and the other at its foot, which, resting against the finished brickwork and turned, impelled it forward into the vacant space. The other set of divisions then advanced. As the miners worked at one end of the cell, so the bricklayers formed at the other the top, sides and bottom.

Although it was a triumph of civil engineering, the Thames Tunnel was not a financial success. It had cost a fortune to build – £454,000 to dig and another £180,000 to fit out – far exceeding its initial cost estimates. Proposals to extend the entrance to accommodate wheeled vehicles failed owing to cost, and it was used only by pedestrians. It became a major tourist attraction, attracting about two million people a year, each paying a penny to pass through, and became the subject of popular songs. The American traveller William Allen Drew commented that “No one goes to London without visiting the Tunnel” and described it as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Flooding on the Thames Tunnel

Isambard Brunel

Isambard Brunel

This stupendous work had considerably advanced by May 1827, when the bed of the river being examined by a diving-bell, the soil was found to be extremely loose; and on the 18th of May, as the tide rose, the ground seemed as though it were alive. The water was pressing in at all points, and it was not long in entering. Occasional bursts of diluted silt were followed by an overwhelming flood of slush and water, which drove all before it. The men, forced out of the shield, fled towards the bottom of the shaft. The water came on in a great wav, threatening to sweep them back under the arch by its recoil against the circular wall of the shaft. The lowest flight of steps was reached, and the recoil wave surged under the men’s feet. They hurried up the stairs of the shaft, and it was thought that all of them had come in, when the cry was raised, “A rope! A rope! Save him! Save him!” Some unfortunate workman had been left behind, and was seen struggling in the water. Young Brunel, seizing a rope, slid down one of the iron ties of the shaft, reached the water, passed the rope around the man’s body, and he was immediately drawn up. It proved to be old Tillett, the engine-man. The roll was then called, and every man answered to his name; but the Tunnel works were, for the time, completely drowned.

Thamestunnelcutout1840On examination of the bed of the river from the diving-bell, a large hole was found extending from the centre of the Tunnel excavation to a considerable distance eastwards. Measures were taken to fill up the opening with bags of clay, laid so as to form an arch in the bed of the river immediately over the work. More bags of clay were then sunk; and after about thirty thousand cubic feet of clay had been thrown into the hole, the pumping was resumed, and the state of the work could be examined from the inside in a boat. On the 10th of November following, the Tunnel had again been so far cleared of water that young Brunel determined to give a dinner in one of the arches to about fifty friends of the undertaking; while above a hundred of the leading workmen were similarly regaled in the adjoining arch. The band of the Coldstream Guards enlivened the scene, and the proceedings went off with great éclat. The celebration had, however, been premature; and the young engineer had been ‘hallooing before he was out of the ‘—water; for in two months the Thames again burst in, owing in some measure to the incautiousness of young Brunel himself, and the river held possession of the Tunnel for several years.


Thames Tunnel construction, 1830

The funds of the Tunnel Company were by this time exhausted; and it was determined to make an appeal to the country for the means of finishing it. A subscription-list was opened, and 18,500l promised; but this sum was a mere “flea-bite,” and the works remained suspended. The Government, at length, consented to make a loan of 246,000l for the purpose of enabling the Tunnel to be completed, and the first installment was advanced in December 1834. The water was then pumped out of the Tunnel, and the works were recommenced, after having been at a standstill for a period of seven years. A new shield, of excellent construction, was supplied by the Messrs. Rennie, which was satisfactorily placed in position by the 1st of March 1836. But the difficulties of the undertaking were not yet entirely overcome; the river broke in again and again—three times in twenty weeks, within a distance of only twenty-six feet; but by perseverance and skill the water was ultimately mastered, and the work was at last brought to a completion, and opened to the public on the 25th of March 1843.



2005 Thames Tunnel from Wapping

2005 Thames Tunnel from Wapping

The Brunel Museum

Nearby in Rotherhithe, the original Brunel Engine House is open to visitors as the Brunel Museum. It was built to house the drainage pumps for the tunnel and has now been restored. Wikipedia says that “[I]t is still possible to take a walking tour through the tunnel to Wapping from Rotherhithe and back, but these are infrequent and on an ad-hoc basis as they can only take place when that section of the line is closed for maintenance.


Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

8 thoughts on “Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel

  1. What a fascinating story! I lived in London for ten years and went over (and possibly under!) the Thames routinely, and this whole wonderful history was completely unknown to me, as I assume it was to most of my fellow travelers. Thanks for enlightening at least one of us.


  2. I think it’s remarkable how they kept working on this tunnel for so many years and so many setbacks until it was finally completed. I would love to see it in person.


  3. I think it’s remarkable how they kept working on this tunnel for so many years and after so many setbacks until it was finally completed. I would love to see it in person.


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