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  • The Thames Tunnel
  • Paul Dobraszczyk (bio)

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Watchpapers depicting the Thames Tunnel, 1840s. Hand-coloured copper engravings, 58 mm diameter (University of Reading, Rickards Collection, Watchpaper 8).

The thames Tunnel, from Wapping to Rotherhithe in London, was the world’s first subaqueous tunnel, begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but not completed until 1843 under the supervision of his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. With a lavish opening ceremony in March 1843, the Thames Tunnel became an important sight for any visitor to London, with Queen Victoria making a visit in July 1843. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, it was host to traders during the day and, beginning in 1852, the site of several spectacular fairs. On a day-to-day basis, traders would have lined the tunnel and sold souvenirs to passing tourists. Typical representations of the tunnel, such as those seen in these watch papers (small round printed paper inserts placed in pocket watches to protect their inner workings from rust), showed the construction process and perspective views of the inside of the tunnel (see fig. 1).

When Brunel conceived of his project, tunnels under rivers were not unknown—the Romans were said to have tunnelled under the sea off the French port of Marseilles—yet no one had yet tunnelled under soft ground like that on the bed of the Thames, which consisted of loose, uncompressed material such as gravel, sand, and mud. Indeed, others had already proposed [End Page 22] tunnels under the Thames: Ralph Dodd drew up plans for a nine-hundred-yard tunnel between Gravesend and Tilbury but ran out of money before he could begin excavation, while Robert Vazie proposed a tunnel in 1802 between Limehouse and Rotherhithe. Vazie succeeded in tunnelling under the Thames until 1808, when water burst in and flooded the excavation, causing him to abandon it with less than two hundred feet to go to reach the other side of the river. It was in this context of past failures that Marc Brunel came up with a new approach to tunnelling: using a shield. Brunel’s shield was an iron frame that faced in the direction of the excavation and contained a large number of adjacent cells, each housing a single miner working independently of the others. A miner would remove a board and dig into his area and then replace it and move on to the next board. When a miner had excavated his part, his cell would be propelled forward by a few inches by the jacks at the rear of the shield. Meanwhile, bricklayers gave the tunnel a permanent lining as the shield slowly progressed. Despite Brunel’s shield, construction was a torturous process; Marc became ill in 1826 and handed over management of the project to his son, Isambard. The tunnel was also inundated by water from the Thames in May 1827 and again in January 1828, the latter breach flooding six hundred feet of the tunnel and killing six of the workers. The tunnel was eventually completed in 1843 after several more accidents and deaths, finally opening to the public on 25 March 1843.

As with many souvenir images of the Thames Tunnel, the watch papers represent the tunnel as a curious combination of industrial technology and the picturesque, mechanization and individual work. In the watch paper shown in figure 1, a split-level view depicts a scene on the river rendered in perspective, and, below, an outsized cross-sectional view of the twin shafts shows the tunnel being built by the miners. The poses of the miners recall pre-industrial methods of working, while their rigid arrangement in the cells suggests another type of production altogether—one that characterized the emerging mechanization of industry. In the watch paper shown in figure 2 is a perspective view of the inside of the tunnel, its arches seeming to recede infinitely, their scale emphasized by the diminutive visitors. If the riverscape above the tunnel is picturesque, below it is an unequivocally sublime space. In the borders of both watch papers are Thames Tunnel facts and figures: on the left, text explaining the location of the image; on the right...


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