back to article Bridge, ship 'n' tunnel – the Brunels' hidden Thames trip

When you mention Brunel to most people, they think of the one with the funny name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A few folks will know that his father Marc Isambard Brunel was the first famous engineering Brunel, but not many will know that Isambard's own son, Henry Marc Brunel, was also an engineer and finished some of Isambard’s …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I regret being 3000km away.

    1. Peter Simpson 1
      Thumb Up

      Re: Wow!

      On my list for the next time I'm in your fair city.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Don't Forget....

    Other engineering feats designed by Mr Brunel

    1) the GWR bridge over the thames at Maidenhead. Many respected engineers thought that it would fall down

    2) Box Tunnel on the GWR. The sun is reported to rise and shine through the tunnel on Brunel's Birthday.

    3) The GWR itself. Railway Locos at the time (circa 1840) were not very powerful. The London & Birmingham Railway had to haul its trains up the incline when leaving Euston. Brunel engineered the GWR to have very little in the way of gradients. That and the large boilers that were possible with the broad gauge (7ft 1/4in) allowed the GWR to run trains at speeds that other railways could only dream about.

    IMHO, Brunel was one of, if not the greatest Enginner in thr world. Railways, Bridges, Tunnels and even Ships. A true genius.

    1. ratfox Silver badge

      Re: Don't Forget....

      The Brunels are featured in no less than three videos of the Big, bigger, biggest series: Bridges, tunnels, and cruise ships.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Don't Forget....

        The one over the Tamar is pretty cool, too. First I knew about it I was on a train for Plymouth and suddenly we were crossing it. 'King Alfred Bridge'?

        Really enjoyed Rotherhithe having read all about it before hand. Shame I couldn't walk through it. Went back and forth a few times on the tube. Almost makes you want to work for TfL. And what with all the abandoned stations down there.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Don't Forget....

          Royal Albert Bridge

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Don't Forget....

            Indeed; it's the Royal Albert Bridge, and a very clever bit of design it is too.

            Essentially, it's a suspension bridge that doesn't need anchors.

            Normally, in a suspension design, you need to anchor the suspension chains/cables to some very solid ground but with the Tamar crossing this would have lead to an unfeasibly long (for the time) single span (because suspension bridges with multiple spans are a bit tricky). So instead of using outlying anchors to counter the inward pull of the suspension chains upon the towers, the towers are kept from falling inwards by the outward force of the upper bowed tubes. Neat stuff.

            1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. KitD

      Re: Don't Forget....

      > 1) the GWR bridge over the thames at Maidenhead. Many respected engineers thought that it would fall down

      AIUI, it still holds the world record for the lowest height/width ratio for a brick bridge. It also has a fantastic sounding echo underneath.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't Forget....

      Some of IKB's handwritten notes are on display in the foyer of the National Archives in Kew. One book is open on his load calculations for the roof of Paddington Station ISTR. Perfect handwriting and incredible pen and ink sketches.

    4. Ed 13

      Re: Don't Forget....

      Box Tunnel on the GWR

      Have a look in to the conditions under which it was built. IKB was in a hurry, so rather than just starting from both ends, he dropped shafts down from the hill and then started tunnelling along from the bottom of these. As it took some while to get every one up and down the shaft, they would blast the face of the tunnel with the miners cowering at the other end of the tunnel. In excess of one hundred men died in the construction of that tunnel alone.

      The GWR itself

      Over long and meandering (the Great Way Round)? I would also credit most of the locomotive achievement in the early history of the railway to Daniel Gooch (Locomotive Superintendent at the age of twenty one!) who managed to knock the original locomotives in to a decent level of reliability and usefulness. Brunel was the man who thought an Atmospheric Railway was a good idea!

      Don't get me wrong, he was a fantastic civil engineer (and something the size of the Great Eastern more or less qualifies as civil engineering).

  3. Cliff

    Looks fabulous

    Thanks for the heads-up

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Thames Tunnel

    I seem to recall that London Underground (as they were known at the time) were going to use their favorite brand of spay on concrete to repair the tunnel many years ago. Fortunately, someone mentioned to them that perhaps it had some historical significance. LU thought that spray on concrete was the solution to just about every problem.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Thames Tunnel

      It's the duct tape of civil engineering...

    2. AdamT

      Re: Thames Tunnel

      I was lucky enough to get on the "walk through the tunnels" trip they did when line was closed for extended engineering works. I suspect the last photograph in the article (of random people walking alone the lines) is actually from that event as I have a very similar one myself. I think they have done a pretty good job in the end with a reasonable balance between preservation, exhibition (albeit that you won't really see it from the trains) and waterproofing!

      There is also a slightly nerdy thrill from walking along tracks through a tunnel and occasionally stepping on the live rail...

  5. a cynic writes...

    One for the summer holidays...

    ...not only is it the sort of trip out my youngest likes it also means I can visit my old local. I used to drink in the Mayflower before I met his mum mumble years ago.

  6. cheb

    It's an excellent museum, I visited a couple of years ago and did a connected walking tour.

    The only museum where I've been given a cup of tea as the guide was making one for himself.

    1. Chris Holford
      Thumb Up

      Cuppa included

      I've visited The British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum a couple of times and been given a cuppa; I believe some visitors had meals as well. An excellent Geek's museum.

      1. Pedigree-Pete

        Re: Cuppa included

        Have an upvote for that link.

      2. Rick Brasche

        Re: Cuppa included

        put another stop on my wish list! :)

  7. Chris G Silver badge

    Them were the days!

    When you think of the feats of engineering carried out by the Brunels was all done with pencil and paper and at best a slide rule or 'arithmometer'.

    No mathematical modeling, CAD or even a calculator with the four basics.

    What is even better, a lot of their stuff is still standing and working.

    1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

      Re: Them were the days!

      > No mathematical modeling, CAD or even a calculator with the four basics.

      > What is even better, a lot of their stuff is still standing and working.

      Yes, but we tend to forget the stuff that isn't still standing - and there was a lot of it. Back then, stuff was largely done by "rule of thumb" and trial and error - build something, if it doesn't fall down then it's (probably) strong enough. Went to a talk not long ago about cathedral building - there was a lot of error, and many fell down (towers especially) or needed some serious intervention to prevent collapse.

      Still, back then it was "real engineering", seat of the pants stuff, and the engineers actually involved in the work.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Them were the days!

        "Yes, but we tend to forget the stuff that isn't still standing"

        A very good point i.e. Thomas Bouch's Tay Bridge.

        In fairness, the quality of the castings weren't up to spec, and it was poorly maintained, but the design was still marginal; the massive over-engineering of the Forth Railway Bridge was, in part, a reaction to the marginal design of Bouch's Tay Bridge.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: Them were the days!

        Back then, stuff was largely done by "rule of thumb" and trial and error

        We have this guy largely to thank for the end of that approach:

        David Kirkaldy

        He is also responsible for the rather fantastic motto, "Facts not Opinions," one which is still applicable, and which should be applied, to so many things today.

    2. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Them were the days!

      "What is even better, a lot of their stuff is still standing and working."

      And, thankfully, no longer exploding.

  8. cheb

    We also tend to forget just how many workmen died while building these things. IKB was the only survivor of one the Thames tunnel floods, six navvies weren't so lucky. And that's before non fatal industrial injuries are considered.

  9. Mike 16 Silver badge

    I can't resist

    Mentioning the role Great Eastern played in laying the Atlantic cable. Not the first one, but the one that actually worked for a while (1865).

    1. billse10

      Re: I can't resist

      You could always visit the birthplace of the Great Eastern (Isle of Dogs), Rotherhithe (shame can't do that via tunnel), now keep going round to Greenwich (doh) and up to Morden Wharf & Enderby's Wharf - not a bad stroll through tech history. [Something should be done at Enderby's Wharf, where those first transatlantic cables were made]

      And if you are more interested in ships - or, more importantly, "landmarks" named for ships, there's always the Great Eastern, the afore-mentioned Mayflower, the Gipsy Moth, the Cutty Sark. ...

      ok, so i might perhaps be a local and ever-so-slightly biased, but we have a decent amount of history around here :-)

      1. AdamT

        Re: I can't resist

        I think Enderby's Wharf is at the site of the current Alcatel facility (near the Blackwall Tunnel south entrance). When I worked there (a couple of decades ago when it was still STC) a lot of the cable handling equipment was still there although cable hadn't been made on that site for quite some time. Things may have changed since then, of course...

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Meeting

    Politicians, meet engineer. Engineer, meet the politicians. You must learn to speak in monosyllables and say everything at least three times to the politicians. Also, be wary of news reporters. Even the friendly ones will prove themselves to be ignoramuses and your personal enemy.

    Politicians: Do try to stay awake and pay close attention to the engineer.

  11. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Excellent article

    Now I need to return to London, again!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    It's how tunnels are made.

    Engineers rock.

  13. MJI Silver badge


    I still think the GWML is his greatest acheivement, still used today with 125mph trains, no realignment needed, just right to begin with.

    Also allowed steam to maintain some of the fastest regular schedules in the 30s

    And Royal Albert Bridge is a national monument!

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: GWML

      Oh and I have chatted with someone who has travelled at 152mph on the GWML

      A real boffin no less!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What!? No mention of the Brunel ship that you can actually visit!, and bridge you can walk across!?

    I realize that you'd have to leave London and come to Bristol, but we really don't bite, there's good food and friendly people, my lover...

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Both got mentioned, you should read closer me babber...

      Here's a nice view of the bridge though:

      1. MJI Silver badge

        And travel on his railway

  15. taxman

    I remember breaking ground on this back in 1975 when working for the Brunel Exhibition Rotherhithe through CSV. Two of us a shovel and a sledgehammer working a derelict site. Didn't make much of an impact and annoyed neighbours on a Sunday morning but found interesting hoards of illicit goods buried under rubble on the site.

  16. Gobhicks

    The Brunels, ladies and gentlemen...

    ... brilliant at engineering, rubbish at everything else...

    1. Lars

      Re: The Brunels, ladies and gentlemen...

      Because he was French?.

  17. Snow Hill Island

    For the engineers out there, also visit...

    Another "must see" for anyone visiting London with an interest in engineering is the Kirkaldy Testing Museum in Southwark Street. The main feature of the museum is the (still functioning) test machine which takes up most of the ground floor.

    The testing museum marks a change in approach from "seat of the pants" guesstimates of material strength to proper engineering testing.

  18. andy gibson

    Great Eastern

    A piece on the Great Eastern and finding a piece of it in the mud from "BBC Coast" here:

    1. Mike Richards

      Re: Great Eastern

      Her top mast is still standing outside Anfield Stadium. Not sure how it got there so long after she was broken up.

  19. Bill 11

    I think the author missed out the most important aspect of the Great Eastern history especially for the El Reg. readership I would have thought.

    The Great Eastern may never have performed the function that it was originally built for and the author leaves off the telling in a fashion that might lead one to think it's history was a failure but the ship was the only vessel of its day large enough to accommodate all the cable required to lay the first Transatlantic Telegraph cable (or at least one that worked)

    Far from being a failure the ship performed admirably in its role as cable layer and no other ship could have handled the sheer quantity of heavily armoured cable required to complete the link. If it wasn't for IKB and the Great Eastern the telegraph link between America and GB would have taken years longer to complete as there was no other comparable vessel at the time.

  20. steveking1000

    Under the sprayed concrete....

    ...there is an amazing decorative brick and clay tunnel lining with integral water management. They left one bay when they covered the rest so you can still get a bit of a sense of what it looked like if you peer in from the platform end.

    I was fortunate to go through on a trip organised by the Institution of Civil Engineers in the early 1990s just before it was coated, and it was spectacular.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I went on the Brunel walking (and boat) tour last year. As an American fan of the Brunels, it was a great tour. The guide was very informative and we got to learn a bit about the tunnel, bridges, and boats.

    The museum has some fascinating artifacts, but given the importance of the Brunels, it is smaller than they deserve (but the location is very appropriate).

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. GWR bridge over the thames at Maidenhead - this is thought to be the bridge feature in the painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway' by JMW Turner. And yes, it is lovely.

    Went on a tour (of sorts) of the Thames Tunnel a few years ago - it involved, as well as a spoken presentation on the platform at one end, sitting on a train that went through the tunnel very slowly while all the lights were on. (Many anoraks were present). Museum excellent too, well worth a visit.

    Been a fan of the Brunels since being knee high to a short thing - enjoyed the article, great to see them getting more exposure.

  23. Brentmc

    I worked a winter season (late 1970's) at the Mayflower Pub, living upstairs. This revitalised museum will require a visit next time in London. I usually revisit the Mayflower each time for a pint and lunch. You should see the old cellars of the Mayflower, the only real original bit as pub was hit by bomb in WW2 and rebuilt, hence normal ceiling heights. Cleaner of pub at the time used to man one of the local AkAk guns in WW2. She had many stories to tell at morning tea time. Quite open about how much 'hanky panky' actually went on!

  24. Diogenes Silver badge

    Quibble about coal

    Coal certainly had been found in Australia. There was a settlement called Coal River (now Newcastle) on what had been called Coal River (now known as the Hunter River)

    1796 Informal accounts reach Sydney of the reserves of coal at ‘Coal River’.

    1797 Lt Shortland and his crew enter Coal River and confirm the coal resources.

    1801 Formal identification of the great potential of the coal reserves and the river. First brief attempt to set up a coal mining camp.

    1804 Formation of a permanent convict/military outpost to mine coal, harvest timber and prepare lime. A light beacon and gun emplacement built on the southern headland. Nobbys Island seen as a useful place for confinement. Aboriginal-European encounters.

    1839 End of era of government-controlled coal mining and beginning of private enterprise mining by the Australian Agricultural Company.

    by the 1850s the AACoy was exporting coal to the American west coast.

    ...and in case anybody wonders I am an 'anorak' and the coal railways of Necastle(on Hunter) are my 'thing'.

    Museum added to short list of things I want to visit London for.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Decompression sickness

    I think they also started investigation into decompression sickness - as the tunnels were pressurised, a lot of navvies got decompression sickness (aka 'the bends') although at the time nobody knew what it was. The only thing they could do was get drunk after work to ease the pain, and hence where the myth of drunken Irish navvies comes from.

    A bit of a story here:

  26. Rick Brasche

    admiration of great engineering knows no national boundaries

    if I ever have the wherewithal to travel across the Atlantic, the boat tour is definitely on my list.

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