The Thames Tunnel was both a historic achievement for the engineer Sir Marc Brunel and a practical necessity for people of the Rotherhithe who had easier access to docks across the River Thames.  It was the first tunnel ever constructed beneath a navigable river and required a special machine invented by Marc Brunel. 

Work began on the tunnel in January 1825.  The intent was to provide a road connection from the Port of London (Wapping or North side) to the community of Rotherhithe (Rotherhithe or South side).  A bridge was considered but rejected since it would impede the increasingly larger ships that traveled to and from the docks.  The tunnel was first attempted in the early 1800s but ran into trouble in 1808 when quicksand and river water flooded the chamber.  The scheme died until 1824 when the Thames Tunnel Company was formed by Marc Brunel an inventive engineer.  Earlier, Brunel had patented the great shield, an iron cylinder with workers which could be propelled forward by a cutting edge, followed by more workers lining the newly excavated sections. 


The Illustrated London News of March 25, 1843 described how the tunnel was built. "The mode in which this great excavation was accomplished was by means of a powerful apparatus termed a shield (see one frame in figure), 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" (see orange bricks in figure)

In January 1825, Marc Brunel laid the first brick of the shaft on the south side (Rotherhithe) of the River Thames and his teenage son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, laid the second.  The project would take 18 years to complete. 

The tunnel was to have two sections, one to allow two carriages and the other to serve as a footpath.  Construction was slow, proceeding 8-12 feet a week, with each foot requiring 5,500 bricks to barrel vault the chamber.  Several times water broke through, followed by the drowning of seven miners.  During 1828-35 all work was suspended due to a lack of funds.  With much financial aid from the government, the work continued and finally on March 25, 1843,  the 1,300 feet long and 35 feet wide tunnel was open to foot traffic.  There was not enough money to build the necessary carriage ramps so it remained a foot-tunnel, charging a modest toll of each user.  About 50,000 people walked through the tunnel during the first two days of operation. Perhaps Dr. John Snow was among them. 


The tunnel had elegant twin house-shoe shaped archways at various intervals, and was lined throughout with brick.  Yet for many, the tunnel walk was not a pleasant experience.  The reason why was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1855. "It consisted of an arched corridor of apparently interminable length, gloomily lighted with jets of gas at regular intervals ... There are people who spend their lives there, seldom or never, I presume, seeing any daylight, except perhaps a little in the morning. All along the extent of this corridor, in little alcoves, there are stalls of shops, kept principally by women, who, as you approach, are seen through the dusk offering for sale ... multifarious trumpery ... So far as any present use is concerned, the tunnel is an entire failure." 

Hawthorne was partially correct in his assessment. The tunnel as a foot-path was not a financial success. In 1865, it was sold to the East London Railway, converted in 1871 to railway use, and remains to this day as an important part of the London Underground system.


(Quarter Mile Section - N 28)


Barker F, Jackson P. London -- 2000 Years of a City and Its People, 1974.

DeVries L. History as Hot News, 1842-65, 1967.

Halliday S. The Great Stink of London -- Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of Victorian Metropolis, 1999. 

Richardson J. The Annals of London -- A Year-by-Year Record of a Thousand Years of History, 2000.

Weinreb B, Hibbert C (eds). The London Encyclopaedia, 1993.

Construction of Tunnel in 1830

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Picture of Plans in 1832

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Picture in about 1840

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Picture in about 1843

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Site in Davies' London Map of 1843

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Site in Cruchley's London Map of 1846

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Site in Mylne's London Map of 1856

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Picture in 1858

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Site in Stanford's Map of 1862

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