The Brunel Museum - History and Facts | History Hit

The Brunel Museum

Peta Stamper

25 Feb 2022
Image Credit: The Brunel Museum

About The Brunel Museum

Housed in the historic 19th century Brunel Engine House in Rotherhithe, The Brunel Museum is a small museum that tells the story of one of the world’s great engineering dynasties.

Alongside exhibits that include the personal belongings of the Brunels, the museum is home to the famous Thames Tunnel shaft, once described as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Brunel Museum history

The Engine House – now home to the museum – was designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel as part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel project. The tunnel would provide a connection between the ever-growing docks on both the north and south banks of the River Thames.

A tunnel beneath the Rotherhithe-Wapping stretch had been attempted before in 1805-1809 but failed because of the difficult soft ground conditions. The project was deemed a lost cause. Yet the Anglo-French engineer Marc Brunel refused to accept defeat. He designed the tunnelling shield, a revolutionary technology which soon gained funding from private investors including the Duke of Wellington. The project began in February 1825.

The shaft in Rotherhithe was constructed with Brunel’s ingenious iron ring, 50 ft in diameter above ground. On top of the ring lay a brick wall 40 ft high and 3 ft thick. On top of that, a powerful steam engine drove the excavation’s pumps. In total, the design weighed 1,000 tons. The soil below the ring’s bottom was removed by Brunel’s workers as the whole shaft slowly sank under its own weight, slicing through the soft ground like a giant pastry cutter.

The tunnel opened to pedestrians in 1843 – the world’s first tunnel to be built under a navigable river. The project had not been without issues or danger. A flood in 1828 resulted in the death of 6 men and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Marc’s son who helped lead the project) was lucky to survive. He went to recuperate in Bristol where he heard of a competition to design a bridge over the Avon Gorge, which would become the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Despite becoming a major tourist attraction, the tunnel was bought in 1865 by the East London Railway Company, who eventually converted it for the railway line which still runs today.

The Brunel Museum today

Today, the Brunels’ original engine house and tunnel shaft remain open to the curious public. For just £6, visitors can explore a wide range of objects commemorating the tunnel, from plates to Victorian paper peep shows before being led 16 metres underground by the volunteer guides into the original shaft, long blackened by age.

Brunel organised the world’s first underground concert party here in 1827, and the Museum celebrates and interprets music and theatre as well as engineering. In fact, the shaft also now features a peaceful rooftop garden within which the Museum hosts regular events.

Getting to The Brunel Museum

The Museum is only 100 metres from Rotherhithe Overground station, which heads to Wapping via the original Thames Tunnel, where the 381 and C10 bus stops.

For those cycling, the museum is on the Q14 Quietway from Cycle Superhighway 4 into Surrey Quays. It is also within walking distance of both Greenland Surrey Quays Pier and London Bridge Pier.