A visit to the Brunel Museum, 7 July

Brunel Museum (from their site)

I was hardly expecting very much from an office outing to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, but in the event I was pleasantly surprised.  The museum itself is the building occupying most of the picture above, while we actually went down the shaft on the left of the picture, after having coffee and cakes outside.

Happy people outside the Brunel Museum (picture by Ambrose)

Robert our guide told us about Marc Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames and how it had involved many and various technical advances.  These were explained using pictures from the book The Brunels’ Tunnel as visual aids.

Robert speaking (picture by Ambrose)

The reason for the tunnel was that the Thames was crowded with sailing ships so you couldn’t transfer goods from one side to the other and you couldn’t build bridges either.  Building a tunnel in soft ground rather than rock had necessitated many ingenious advances, such as a caisson which sank slowly into the earth to produce the initial shaft, and a tunnelling shield so that the workmen could dig slowly through small portions of the ground while the shield saved them from disaster.

Caisson (from The Brunels’ Tunnel)

Tunnelling shield (from TBT)

There had of course been various problems with money, and financing had eventually been taken over by HM Treasury on typically stringy and obstructive terms.  In the end, while the tunnel had been build there had been no money to build a large shaft so that horses and carts could use it and so the thing had been restricted to foot passengers who would only ever pay a penny.

Shafts actual and putative (From TBT)

However, in the end shops had been set up beneath the Thames so that for the first time in history men could show their bravery by lingering to buy overpriced tat.  Robert was very keen to point out that the invention of tunnelling had made mass transport and hence the urban city possible; that the Victorians were more sexually aware than we give them credit for, especially those who had seen the can-can in Paris; that the tunnel was Marc Brunel’s greatest achievement; that the contractors for the East London Line had been persuaded to pay for a concrete floor for the shaft so that we could now go down in it and so as to ensure their eternal glory; that the space was now going to be used for cutting-edge dance and similar events in honour of the Brunels’ can-can.

Some of that may have been a bit far-fetched, but I was certainly well inspired by this contact with a time when we in Britain actually did things, and led the world as well.

Note that to go down the shaft (or Grand Entrance Hall)  you need to go on a guided tour,  or perhaps make a special group booking.

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