I have been reading among other things a biography of the Great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is written by his son, also called Isambard. The author’s grandfather was also called Isambard, and was also a very fine engineer. Is that quite clear? No, not really, and it doesn’t help that the author seems blithely unaware that readers might be confused and almost never makes clear which one he is talking about.
Fairly early in the book there is a fascinating description of the building of the Rotherhithe to Wapping Tunnel, which was a work of Brunel 1’s, although our hero, Brunel 2, was just coming of age at the time and played a large part in the work. Unfortunately, following a serious breakthrough of the Thames, work was abandoned, and it wasn’t completed until much later.
There is of course much more in the book, but for today I’ll confine myself to this tunnel. Now if you take the District line of the London Underground out east to Whitechapel, and then change to the little north-south branch down to New Cross — I often did this as a preliminary move in hitchhiking from London to Dover — it of course passes under the Thames. Looking out of the window every time I made the journey, I came to the conclusion that it uses Brunel 1’s tunnel, which was originally intended as a road tunnel, with pavements at either side for foot passengers, who descended or ascended to and from the tunnel by the vertical shafts at each end. These shafts were made by the ingenious method of building them, bit by bit, above ground, then undermining them and allowing them to sink.
Some years ago London Transport in its wisdom decided that the walls of the tunnel needed strengthening: they proposed to spray Brunel’s magnificent blind-arched walls with a thick coating of cement rendering. I’m glad to say a fuss was made and they were stopped. It is in any case unlikely that any of Brunel 1 or 2’s works would need messing about with.
That’s all; perhaps more on Brunel (2 mostly) another time.
Here is a picture of a bit of the shaft at the Rotherhithe end: