The Brunel Museum and the first tunnel in the world that goes under water

You might be wondering how much more can be squeezed into this relatively short little walk eastwards from London Bridge through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe.  I’m sure you’ll agree that there is something for everyone who visits.

Today’s post relates to one of the few things I actually knew about before visiting the area recently and that is the Brunel Museum.  Marc Brunel and his arguably more famous and even more brilliant son Isambard Kingdom Brunel were two of the very finest engineers of the 19th century.  An entire blog could be set up and perhaps already has been about their achievements from bridges to ships and everything in between.  If there was an epitome of Victorian engineering than it is they and so fantastic and visionary were there creations that a vast majority don’t just survive today but are still very much in use.

The Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe is just a little way further through the maze of streets  and alleyways, that it is here at all is because of something that was then unimaginable.  The Brunels built the very first tunnel under the River Thames and not just the first tunnel under the Thames but the first tunnel under water.



The 1,300ft long Thames Tunnel connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping in east London was such an amazing engineering feat it was described as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

It was actually designed by Marc Brunel, the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His son was a 19-year-old assistant engineer at the time who was involved in the project.

Work on the tunnel, which was 35ft wide, 20ft high and 75ft below the river, got underway in 1825.


But a combination of unfortunate accidents and spiralling costs meant it took 18 years to build, not the three years as Marc Brunel had predicted.

The archive includes drawings by Marc Brunel in 1818 laying out his plans for the tunnel and a sketch by Isambard Kingdom Brunel illustrating how he lowered a diving bell from a boat to repair a hole at the bottom of the river in 1827.


In the decades after the Thames Tunnel was completed, the Tower Subway in London, the Severn Tunnel under the River Severn and the Mersey Railway Tunnel under the River Mersey were constructed replicating Marc Brunel’s methods.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The tunnel was designed by Marc Brunel, the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (pictured above).Today, the tunnel is part of the London Overground railway network, a testament to Marc Brunel’s remarkable design.

A direct descendant of his tunneling invention is doing the tunneling under the Thames for crossrail today.


So why the need for this tunnel at all when London is famous for its bridges?  Basically the docks were so incredibly busy, it was literally taking forever for cargo unloaded on one side of the river to queue up and cross over a bridge and get to the other side… something that is a familiar feeling to many of us still today.

A new land connection between the north and south banks of the Thames was needed at the start of the 19th century to link the expanding docks on each side of the river. In 1805, a group of Cornish miners set out to dig a tunnel farther upriver between Rotherhithe and Wapping but four years later they had to admit defeat because of the difficult conditions of the ground.

Marc Brunel patented the tunneling shield in 1818 and five years later unveiled his plan for the Thames Tunnel which would be dug using his new technology.  Financing was found from private investors including the Duke of Wellington and the Thames Tunnel Company was formed in 1824.

The project began in February 1825 but many workers fell ill from the poor conditions caused by filthy sewage-laden water seeping through from the river above. Work was slow, progressing at only 12ft a week, and excavation was hazardous.

The tunnel flooded suddenly on May 18, 1827 and then again on January 12, 1828, with six men killed. Financial problems followed, leading to the tunnel being walled off and abandoned in August 1828.

It was not until December 1834, when Marc Brunel received a £247,000 loan from the Treasury, that work re-started on the tunnel. They were impeded by further floods, fires and gas leaks but the tunneling was completed in November 1841.

It was then fitted out with lighting, roadways and spiral staircases and finally opened to the public on March 25, 1843.


The overall cost of the tunnel was £634,000 – far more than budgeted – but it became a major tourist attraction, attracting two million people a year who each paid a penny to pass through.  Queen Victoria herself took the opporunity to walk through this engineering marvel though it is doubtful that she paid to do so.

As monumental as this tunnel was, it was planned to be a precursor for a larger tunnel with even grander entrances for use with horse and carts.  Sadly though the tunnel was never quite the success it was hoped for and in subsequent years it became the haunt of prostitutes and ‘tunnel thieves’ who lurked under its arches and mugged passers-by.

The first train ran through the tunnel on December 7, 1869 and it is part of the London Overground network connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping today.

Going Underground

Going Underground

These days devotees to the Brunel family and their industrial heritage can be found around the country if not the world.  Only Rotherhithe however can claim to be home to this particular world-first and a friendly group now operate the Brunel Museum.   There are some great educational videos, a cafe and book shop as well as the opportunity enter some of the original Brunel era buildings including the entry below.

The entrance chamber is now only a fraction as deep as it used to be but it is still atmospheric and as is the trend with this walk, it is now sometimes used for lectures, films and even performances.


Of course having come all this way, you really should try out the marvel that is the original underwater tunnel by walking a hundred yards (metres) or so to Rortherhithe station and heading north under the Thames through the old tunnel itself.

Before you do that though, there is just one last place here that you should absolutely think of visiting and you will find out what this is in my final post on this walk through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe later in the week.

If you’d like to tour with me on this trail that will culminate inside the Mayflower pub with its famous connections with the Pilgrim Fathers who established the USA then visit

If you missed my first post on the area, you can read all about the The Angel Pub in Rotherhithe, which has a long and often murky history and is actually adjacent to the statue of Dr. Salter.  The second post is all about the notorious Jacobs island which incredibly is now a luxory housing and retail area whilst the third and  on the ruins of a manor house belonging to King Edward III which is also about 20 feet from the statues.  Don’t forget the more recent post on The Watch House Cafe with its fascinating, gory past and very yummy present and future.

Don’t forget my most recent post on Dr Alfred Salter and his formidable wife Ada who more than a century ago did so much to improve Rotherhithe and the desperately poor people who lived here.

My personal favourite part of the entire walk, the Sands Film Studio and Rotherhithe Picture Library      but the most recent post being on St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe and the resting place of Captain Christopher Jones, the famous mariner who took the Mayflower and pilgrims to North America.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to The Brunel Museum and the first tunnel in the world that goes under water

  1. Pingback: The Mayflower Pub – Rotherhithe | Stephen Liddell

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