Adrian marks a half century enthusiastically with a pint and a packet of Nice 'n' Spicy Nik-Naks!
Well it has been a long time coming, but on the 20th March I hit the big birthday of 50. As the photo above suggests I am not big on parties so the day was spent in a rather low key manner with Gunta and a day off work.
As ex-residents of London Town both of us still love the city and require fairly regular fixes of its vibrancy and atmosphere. I am fascinated by London's 2000 years of history and this was to be a focus of the day. Figuring that it was unwise to spend an entire day in a pub we decided to do one of the walking tours offered by London Walks. One of the walks available on the day was entitled Brunel's London. My association with Brunel started rather tenuously in 1988 when I went to Brunel University. The university had a reputation for good engineering courses (although I opted for chemistry) but that establishment's relationship with Brunel the man never struck me as being particularly strong. True, there were multiple images of the famed engineer in his stove pipe hat in the library and university shop and the rugger buggers would get pissed on a Wednesday night and bellow some semi-intelligible refrain in honour of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but that was about the extent of the connection. But Brunel was a Londoner himself living in St James' in the West End so I suppose it is fitting to have 'The University of West London' named after him.
I have seen his work in Bristol but was less familiar with the mark that he and his family had made in London. Our three hour tour started at Embankment with a riverbus journey down the Thames and under our first Brunel construction from 1845, the Hungerford Bridge. Here Brunel's original bridge was an architecturally appealing work, in great contrast to the dowdy railway bridge that followed. Post construction, but still in the Victorian era, Sir John Hawkshaw's rail bridge was considered to be the most unsightly bridge to span the river. The modern bridge is still reliant for support on the brick built piers of Brunel's original.
Passing under the iconic Tower Bridge, again unknown to me to owe a considerable debt to the engineering talents of the Brunel dynasty, we motored at greater speed towards the modern wonders of construction at Canary Wharf before alighting on the Isle of Dogs, bankside at Masthouse Terrace. Facing the bitter early spring wind on the Thames walkway we gathered at one of the slipways that were constructed to facilitate the launch of Brunel's last engineering feat, The Great Eastern. The vast dimensions of the ship necessitated a launch sideways i.e. parallel to the course of the river, a fact that presented our top hatted hero a multitude of operational problems. Being approximately six times larger than any other ship that had been built, a conventional prow first launch would have taken out half of Depford on the southern bank.
The Eastern slipway that launched The Great Eastern
(Masthouse Terrace, Isle of Dogs, March 2019).
Just around the corner from the slipway can be seen the workshop in which the steel plates of the hull were produced. It is a rather lovely industrial building don't you think.
Due to the logistical complexities of such a launch it was Brunel's intention that it should be a low key event, but it would appear that word got out and on the day the bankside was thronged with thousands of spectator's eager to witness such a momentous occasion. Brunel's concern's cannot have been allayed when a breaking chain impaled one of those sightseers! The launch ran into difficulties resulting in a delay of some weeks which prompted scathing press reportage of 'Brunel's folly'. Finally, a successful launch was achieved and the ship sailed to Southampton from where she was to embark upon her maiden voyage. Nevertheless, under steam to New York the troubles continued when a boiler exploded killing several stokers.
All told, the Great Eastern, whilst a triumph of engineering was a bit of a white elephant, a vanity project for Isambard. The ship pointed the way for future shipbuilding and show cased what was/would be possible in the years to come. For example one of the boasts made of the ship was that it could carry sufficient coal to complete a round trip to Australia without the need for refueling at its destination port, but Australia was a coal rich territory so carrying the fuel for the return passage served only to increase operating costs. Ultimately the Great Eastern was broken up and even then the shipping scrap merchant lost money since so many man hours were required to complete the task for such a huge vessel.
Leaving the perishing environs of the Isle of Dogs the party travelled to Rotherhithe and the location of the Brunel Museum which is centered upon the Rotherhithe to Wapping pedestrian tunnel workshop and the adjacent sinking shaft. With a little bit of time-travel permitted we had crossed in a couple of miles from Brunel's last project to his first (in association with his father Marc). In the 1820's when the project was first commissioned access across the Thames was very limited, the bridges that did exist were quite some distance up river. Worker's living on this stretch of the Thames who needed to cross daily were reliant upon ferry boats with limited capacity.
Marc Brunel embarked upon an audacious and possibly mad solution that would resolve this workforce conundrum..... no less than a tunnel (strictly speaking two tunnels) right under the Thames for pedestrian access. Today we see red when major construction works overrun in terms of time and money... the Rotherhithe tunnel perhaps set the benchmark for this phenomenon. Construction ran years over plan and the building work was stopped and restarted as funds dried up and moreover the project almost cost the life of Britain's most famous engineer.
Marc Brunel ordered that a shaft be sunk from where the boring towards the north bank could commence. Progress was slow but what was so special in the planning of this work was that Brunel had devised a 'shield' which both held back the earth whilst allowing twelve men to work simultaneously at the tunnel face. As progress was made, the shield was moved forward allowing brick layers behind to line the newly dug section of tunnel.
Contemporary illustration showing the principal by which Brunel's shield operated.
This was the remarkable innovation that makes this particular tunnel world famous and an engineering wonder. The principal of Marc Brunel's shield is still applied to all subterranean tunneling projects nearly two centuries later.
Engineering innovation aside, conditions for the navvies working within the tunnel were pretty atrocious, the atmosphere was wet and fetid (remember that at this time the River Thames was effectively an open sewer). Danger was ever present, at no times more so than on 12th January 1828 when a major inundation of the tunnel occurred. Isambard was at the time in the shield assisting two miners when the water broke through. Initially he was trapped by fallen timber but managed to free himself to make his way back along the tunnel toward the sink shaft. There followed a massive deluge of water such that the wave thrust him upwards within the sink shaft from where he was rescued through a vent some 42 feet above the shaft floor. Six people lost their lives on this occasion.
The interior of the sink shaft showing the vent at the top through which an injured Brunel was dragged on 12th January 1828.
In the 18 years that it took to construct the tunnel, both the engineers involved and the project itself experienced many changes of fortune but finally on 25th March 1843 the first paying customer entered the pedestrian tunnel. In a very Victorian manner, the tunnel became a major tourist attraction, truely a sight that had to be seen and in keeping with the expectations of the elite of Victorian society the sink shaft was spruced up somewhat. Sweeping staircases were built to convey Victorian ladies down to the tunnel entrance.
Descending staircases to the pedestrian tunnels.
Whilst the stairs are long gone their position on the walls can still be seen on the soot begrimed walls of the tunnel as it is today.
Compare with the illustration above and you can see whether the right hand staircase was attached to the shaft wall.
These days access to the tunnels is no longer possible as it forms a part of the East London rail network , but nevertheless it is quite something to think that the Brunel's tunnel is still fulfilling its intended purpose of getting people from one side of the Thames to the other.
Details of the Brunel Museum and the London Walks associated walk can be found on their respective websites.