The other day I caught the East London Line train from Canada Water to Wapping, travelling through – I think for the first time – Marc Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames. Taking 17 years to complete, between 1825 and 1842, it was his crowning achievement, only made possible by the tunnelling shield, his own invention. The device hosted a team of miners digging and removing spoil while workers behind them lined the tunnel with a sleeve made from bricks or iron hoop lining. Construction commenced on the Rotherhithe bank in the south, eventually linking to Wapping on the opposite bank. Like most of these affairs, the project was dogged by financial and practical difficulties. In 1834 the government had to bail out the Thames Tunnel Company to the tune of £246,000. The tunnellers lived with danger every day, from flooding, from poisonous flammable gas, and seepage of pre-Bazalgette sewage-infested Thames water. Many lost their lives, almost including Brunel’s more celebrated son, Isambard. Unquestionably, the work adversely affected the health of both men.
Originally conceived as a road tunnel, the passage never served that purpose, eventually becoming a rail link for the East London Railway in the 1860s, a function it serves to this day.
Marc Isambard Brunel (1769 – 1849) lived a life of extraordinary highs and lows. He was born of Normandy farming stock, trained as a cabinet maker, then as a young man, went to sea. As a Royalist in post-Revolutionary France, Brunel was forced to emigrate to the USA, but not before having met an English girl, Sophia Kingdom, who years later became his wife. The self-made engineer spent most of the 1790s making a name for himself on large-scale projects such as canal construction, eventually becoming chief engineer of New York City. The opportunistic Brunel then invented a method of mass-producing wooden pulley blocks for the Royal Navy, settled in London and married Sophia, who had in the meantime returned to England. Collaborating with some of the leading engineers of the day, the ambitious engineer undertook many projects, many for the army and navy throughout the wars against his homeland. But during the years after Waterloo he overstretched himself on the business side and ended up in debtor’s prison in 1821. The resourceful Brunel saw an escape route by offering his services to the Tsar of Russia. Only then did the government swing into action, led by the Duke of Wellington, deciding to pay £5,000 to release the man who’d been so instrumental, in his way, of defeating Napoleon.
Marc and Sophie had three children, the youngest of whom – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – became our most famous engineer. Prompted by Prince Albert, Brunel senior was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1841. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1814. Marc Brunel died in 1849 after a number of strokes and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Marc Isambard Brunel has been overshadowed in history by his remarkable son. But everything IK Brunel achieved was done on the shoulders of his father, a man who carved his engineering career from scratch not just through his genius and energy, but with huge dollops of self-belief, vision, ambition and chutzpah. As a city and a nation, we owe a debt to this remarkable Frenchman.