Brunel’s Museum Rotherhithe – August 2014

, Alex and Beryl Palmier

We had a snack lunch at the Mayflower Inn where we were seated upstairs from where we had a good view of the craft going up and down the Thames. There had been an inn on the site since 1550. When the Pilgrim Fathers set out for the New World the Inn was called the Shippe Inn. This was burnt down in the 19th Century and renamed The Spread Eagle & Crown. Finally it was bombed in World War II and rebuilt in 1957 and renamed the Mayflower after the nearby steps down which the Pilgrims went to board the Mayflower ship.

Mayflower Inn, Rotherhithe
Mayflower Inn, Rotherhithe

Brunel’s Museum is near the original engine house where the water was pumped out the Tunnel. It was Marc Brunel who conceived the idea of a tunnel. The official start was in 1825 and the tunnel was united to the Wapping Shaft on the opposite side of the Thames in 1841. The first tunnel in the world to be constructed under a river. This was especially difficult as the river bed is soft. We saw models of the iron frame divided into 36 man-sized compartments, which was placed against the surface which was excavated by the workers using hand tools. We looked at an informative video about the Brunels and the tunnel.

Double entrance to Brunel's Tunnel under the Thames
Double entrance to Brunel’s Tunnel under the Thames
Curator Robert Hulse in Tunnel Great Chamber
Curator Robert Hulse in Tunnel Great Chamber

Robert Hulse, the curator, then took us on a short walk to the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Rotherhithe where he showed us the modern monument to Christopher Jones, the Captain of the Mayflower ship.

Modern Monument to Capt. Jones of the Mayflower
Modern Monument to Capt. Jones of the Mayflower
Plaques on Tower, St. Marys Rotherhithe
Plaques on Tower, St. Marys Rotherhithe

He also showed us the tomb of the young prince, Leeboo, from the Micronesian island of Ulong in the Palauan archipelago, whose inhabitants, in 1783, rescued the crew of HMS Antelope just before it was about to sink. This was the first time that the Palauens had contact with Europeans.

 

We returned to the Museum and made a rather perilous descent into the Great Chamber from which the tunnelling had started. The Chamber was 50 ft wide and 32 ft high with an iron ring at the top and bottom and reinforcing iron rods in the thickness of its walls so it sank gradually into the ground due to its weight. It was very impressive. Robert Hulse told us about the numerous difficulties that had to be overcome in the course of construction. Marc’s son Isambard Kingdom Brunel had to take over temporarily when Marc had a stroke. Isambard had several haemorrhages and in addition there was a worker’s strike, 5 floods, fires, poisonous gas and lack of money.

Side of the Great Chamber
Side of the Great Chamber

The completion of the tunnel was a fine example of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.