The Thames Tunnel, built between 1825 and 1843 under the direction of Sir Marc Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) was the first tunnel under a major navigable river. It was intended
for use by horse-drawn vehicles, but the builders had insufficient money to complete the approaches, and for more than two decades it was a pedestrian tunnel and a tourist attraction. It extends 396 m from Wapping to Rotherhithe in east London, and is 23 m below the river. A shield built at the Lambeth works of Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) was used in its construction.
From 1865 the tunnel was used by the East London Railway, and in due course became part of London Transport’s Underground network, but it was accessible from main line railways, and was used by cross-London freight trains until 1962. It was closed between 1995 and 1998 for maintenance and the construction of links with the new Jubilee Line. During this period there was controversy over the treatment of the walls and eventually a small part was left in its original condition. It was closed again between 2007 and 2010 for a complete renewal of its track and signalling, and since its re-opening has been part of the London Overground circuit.
The Brunel Museum was established in 1961, in a building that housed the tunnel’s drainage pumps. It includes the Grand Entrance Hall where work on the tunnel began, and where I K Brunel nearly drowned in 1828.
Brunel later organised fairs and banquets there and it currently served as a performance space. The museum provides a full history of the tunnel and visitors are encouraged to travel by boat, train or on foot the short distance to the site where Brunel’s ship the SS Great Eastern was launched in 1858 (Great Eastern Launch Ramps, Masthouse Terrace, Napier Avenue, London E14 3TD).