Definitely different from the usual museum, this is dedicated to the works of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; two of the greatest engineers of the Victorian era. The trade of the world came up the Thames, and there were three thousand tall masted ships in the river everyday. A tunnel was the only to get cargo across the river without stopping the tall masted ships, but no-one had tunnelled under a river before. Marc Brunel invented the Miners’ Cage, or tunnelling shield. Miners would dig inside a protective frame, and bricklayers would build the wall as they advanced. Horses would pull loaded carts down huge double helix ramps down into the tunnel and across to the other side. Work started in 1825 but conditions were appalling. Inside each cage, the miner would carefully dig out the wall in front, but in strips four inches wide. When he was done, and the man above and below as well, the whole row would be pushed forwards using screw jacks. Bricklayers working behind them made everything secure and the process began again. The Thames was tunnelled in four inch strips by miners using short handled spades. When it 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. On the first day, fifty thousand people descended the staircase and paid a penny to walk through the tunnel. By the end of the first three months there were a million people, or half the population of London. This was the most successful visitor attraction in the world.
The Grand Entrance Hall, where young Brunel nearly drowned, was the world’s first underground theatre. Before the trains came, the chamber echoed with applause for acrobats, tightrope walkers and serenaders. The first person to travel under the Thames was actually Isambards son Henry, he was passed through as a baby from hand to hand. Isambard also worked on other London projects such as the Great Western Railway from Paddington station, to Bristol, the West Country, and by Great Western steamship the New World; the Hungerford Suspension Bridge. Brunel’s distinctive brick piers still carry trains into Charing Cross, but the original bridge was demolished in 1864. The chains now span the Avon gorge for his famous Clifton Suspension Bridge; the water towers for the spectacular fountains at Crystal Palace and the Great Eastern steamship from Mill Wall on the Isle of Dogs.
The museum is housed in what was once the engine shed for the tunnel. From there the visitor can descend to the Great Entrance Hall for a Thames Tunnel tour. Try and pick a nice day for the visit as the terrace and gardens have much of interest (they are always open). You may want to combine a visit with a trip to the Great Eastern Launch site. Please note that, aside from the museum and gardens, the Thames Tunnel is accessible only by means of a low doorway and steps. Plans to improve access are in the works. Please call and enquire about the Boat Trips and guided River walks. Rotherhithe is very close, both underground stations are 10 minutes walk.
Location : Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF.
Opening Times: Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00
Open Late for Special Events.
Tickets : £3.00 , Concessions £1.50
Tel: 020 7231 3840.