World’s first tunnel under a river

The exterior of the Brunel Museum Rotherhithe

It may not look much on the outside, but this is authentic, world first London.  The building in the photograph houses the entrance to the first tunnel known to have been constructed successfully underneath a navigable river.  It connects Rotherhithe with Wapping in London, is still in use and you can visit it.  Descend the Victorian spiral iron staircase and marvel at this engineering feat of 1843.

Marc Brunel was a (royalist) Frenchman that fled France at the early stages of the French Revolution.  He took a passage aboard the American ship Liberty, bound for New York, arriving in New York on 6 September 1793.  In New York Brunel made his mark as an engineer and architect.  He traveled to England in 1799 and made his fortune mass producing wood blocks for ships rigging.  These were used in sailing ships to house the sail ropes. It’s not hard to imagine the suspicion the English had of this American/Frenchman! However, he had a sponsor in General Hamilton who introduced him to Earl Spencer of Althorp – who’s loyal support was key to Brunel and later has famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel’s most famous underwater tunnel is near London, at Rotherhithe. When it opened in 1843 the Thames Tunnel was described as the Eighth Wonder of the World. People came from far and wide to see the first tunnel under a river!  On the first day alone, fifty thousand people descended the staircase and paid a penny to walk through the tunnel. Soon, it was the most successful visitor attraction in the world.

Whilst In New York, Brunel surveyed the course of a projected canal to link the River Hudson with Lake Champlain. He was also one of the few people ever to hold American and British citizenship! He was even appointed the Chief Engineer of New York – and advised on the defences of Long Island and Staten Island. His winning design for a new Congress Building at Washington was not built but adapted as the Palace Theatre in New York (destroyed by fire in 1821).

Today, near the tunnel at Rotherhithe is a commemorative plaque erected by the American Civil Engineers and the British Institution of Civil Engineers – it celebrates Brunel’s tunnel as one of the most important civil engineering sites in the world! Still today Brunel’s method is used to provide works a protective shield to work within – used to build all underground systems in the world and the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France. Brunel was knighted by Queen Victoria for his achievements.

Londoners are not sure whether to thank America or France for the great gift of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel.

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