Discover how the world's first underwater tunnel was built on a visit to the Brunel Museum.
Ask someone for directions to the museum that’s dedicated to a great British engineer, and you probably wouldn’t expect them to point you towards a residential area of high-rise flats in Rotherhithe. But it was here, under the south bank of the Thames that Isambard Kingdom Brunel, along with his father Marc, worked on the world‘s first underwater tunnel. It’s funny to think that it all started with a woodworm. This was Marc Brunel’s inspiration for his “tunnelling shield” – the technique of digging into a rock face without letting in water. The project, which started in 1825, was supposed to take three years; it took 18 – and was described by the men who worked on it as the “worst job in the world“.
However, it was, of course, a very important one – the Thames Tunnel (as it became known) was the birthplace of the modern Tube system and the blueprint for the Channel Tunnel. Today, the Brunel Museum is housed in the Pump House, built above the tunnel to keep it dry. Don’t be put off by its industrial façade; inside watercolours, models and engravings tell the story of the tunnel’s colourful past.