Picturing the Thames Tunnel

Learn how Marc Brunel’s tunnel worked to promote trade and tourism in London!
Published on 11 February 2022


Katherine McAlpine, Director of the Brunel Museum

Visitors to Rotherhithe, whether they are motivated museum goers, Rotherhithe residents or just passing through via the Thames Path, can now get a glimpse of what this area looked like over 75 years ago. Outside the Brunel Museum on an unprepossessing planter is a reproduction of Arthur Burgess’ ‘Lower Thames and Limehouse’. The oil painting shows dock workers bobbing along the Thames shifting precious cargo during the Second World War.

Lower Thames and Limehouse Reach (1940) by Arthur Burgess. Museum Reference Number: 1309

This painting may date back to the 1940s but the docklands have been an essential part of London’s trade for much longer. By the end of the 1700s, millions of tonnes of goods passed through these wharves each year. These docks were so busy ships could wait for weeks before unloading their cargo! Goods were vulnerable to perishing or being stolen. 

London needed a new way of transporting cargo from the dockyards, which were on the south side of the river, into the centre of town, north of the river. Another bridge would not solve the problem – the masts of the ships were too high! And the technology needed to open and close bridges, which allowed Tower Bridge years later had not yet been invented. Therefore, the idea of an alternative form of river crossing – a tunnel – was conceived.

In 1825 this was risky business. Every other attempt to tunnel underneath a river had ended in disaster. This is where Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) enters the story. He was a French émigré who fled revolutionary France via a stint as Chief Engineer of New York, then ended up in debtors’ prison. Despite his life being more eventful than many Hollywood blockbusters, he is far less well known than his civil engineer son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). 

When it came to tunnels, Marc had a secret weapon – his tunnelling shield. The shield protected the miners from the worst of the mud underneath the river, allowing the bricklayers behind to build brick walls to keep out the water. That was the theory anyway. It didn’t always work as Marc’s own son Isambard discovered when he was 19 and almost died in a flood during the construction of the tunnel. He was lucky – six other workers that day perished in the flood. 
Watercolour by Marc Brunel of the tunnel. Image courtesy of the Brunel Museum

Watercolour by Marc Brunel of the tunnel. Image courtesy of the Brunel Museum

Even without the threat of floods, digging the tunnel was hard going. The men worked in 8 hour shifts, then slept 8 hours in the darkness with no natural light. The project also suffered money troubles and halfway through the project – when they hadn’t even reached halfway – it had to be paused due to lack of funds. After eight years of petitioning and campaigning, Marc Brunel generated enough funds to restart the work, and the tunnel was finally finished in 1843. 

The tunnel had been conceived as a cargo tunnel for horses and carts carrying their wares from one side to the other. However, by 1843, the area surrounding the tunnel had been sold or repurposed for other means and there was neither the space nor the funds to build the ramps required for the horses and carts. Instead, the tunnel opened for foot passengers, each paying a penny to get across the river. The novelty of doing so was so alluring that the tunnel became a bit of a tourist attraction, and within a year of opening nearly 2 million people had visited the tunnel. However, the tunnel never recouped its costs and in 1869 it was sold to the London Metropolitan Railway. Since then, tube trains have run underneath the river from Wapping to Rotherhithe and vice versa, underneath the cargo boats of the dockworkers pictured in Burgess’ painting.