Wednesday 4 February
The Brunel Museum
Railway AveRotherhithe SE16 4LF
Linda and I have known for some time how lucky we are to live along the Overground, and Rotherhithe is now specially easy to get to for both of us. This good fortune was brought home to us because the person who opens up the Museum at 10.00 comes via the hell-hole which is London Bridge and so was a few minutes late, giving us time to admire the charming benches outside the Brunel Museum.
The Museum is housed in the Pump House of Mark Brunel's Rotherhithe tunnel, along which I had just travelled on the Overground. It used to be possible to walk through the tunnel, but this is almost never an option now. The Museum contains a great deal of interesting information about the tunnel project; although it also contains much about the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
We began (after a welcome and warming cup of coffee) downstairs, with a video of the life of IK. But we also learned about the life of the Frenchman Mark, and his love for a British governess, Sophia Kingdom, whom he married after some years of trying to make his fortune. His inventive genius meant that the Royal Navy adopted his machine-made rigging blocks; and the authorities in London agreed to his ambitious scheme to make a tunnel crossing for the congested Thames, to relieve the bridges. Apparently the owners of the 3000 merchants ships a year which tried to unload in London often claimed that getting their goods across the river cost them as much as bringing cargoes from America!
The film, about the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, the Saltash Bridge and so on, had a certain level of interest; but it was made before the winter storms which destroyed Brunel's track past Dawlish, so felt a little out of date. And, since it was all about the work of the son rather than the father, it was not particularly relevant to the building we were in.
Upstairs, the display focuses on the tunnel, with a map to show its course, and pictures and models of the plans, including a watercolour by Mark himself. We enjoyed a model which pointed out all the skilled trades needed in those days: miners, bricklayers, boilermen (for the steam engines which worked the pumps and other machines). The point was also made that the unskilled labourers, many of them Irish, were poorly paid and did not even have their names recorded. We also saw pictures and a model of the tunnelling shield, the forerunner of the amazing machines that are now building Crossrail, though without the risk to workers at the front end.
The tunnel became a tourist attraction, even while it was being built, though Mark Brunel disliked the crowds of people, and various VIPs who came along and disrupted the work. The work was also disrupted by flooding, and by financial problems, neither of which could be blamed in the inquisitive public.
Once it was opened, in 1843, after 15 years of toil, it never fulfilled its original purpose of shifting freight. Instead it became, in a way, a curiosity, with thousands of people walking though it and purchasing souvenirs, such as paper stereoscopic vistas, and mugs, cheroot cases and figurines.
The many information boards around the walls were interesting, and linked the tunnel with its creator and his son. Isambard was 19 years old when he was appointed to an engineering position in his father's project, and he came close to death inn one of the several near-disasters which befell the construction work.
Next we were taken down into what had been the entrance hall of the tunnel. It originally had a grand pair of staircases leading down to it, appropriate to the smart guests who attended the underwater banquet and festivities of the opening. Now there is a steep metal staircase, accessed though a very small opening (but we all managed to mind our heads). The huge cylindrical space is over the current railway line, and the passing trains rumbled under our feet. It felt very bleak and damp, but the Museum is hoping that one day it may be fully restored and used for 'events' of one kind or another. This link will show you what it looks like now as well as how it was in 1843, when over a million visitors explored it in its first month.
We regained the surface, where there is a small raised garden, with more railway motifs, and then headed back tot he Overground station, a few metres away, to reuse Brunel's tunnel on the way home, and to warm up on this chilly day.