What was Proclaimed the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' on Completion in 1843, but 'An Entire Failure' Just a Decade Later?

Thames Tunnel
Wapping and Rotherhithe, London

Scheduled: 1995
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for Thame Tunnel

The Thames Tunnel, which dives under London's central waterway, is a scheduled monument and international landmark, being the oldest tunnel in the oldest underground system in the world.

Its connection with famed civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the impressive feat of its construction and its purpose as a vital tunnel for goods traffic all inspired its Victorian label as 'the eighth wonder of the world'.

Within 10 weeks of its opening in 1843, one million people - half of London's population - had visited the tunnel to dine in its cafés and browse its shops. But this transport artery, which connected north and south London, never offered the right environment for retail or pedestrians and wasn't intended as an entertainment space.

So what happened to provoke writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne to pronounce Brunel's tunnel 'an entire failure' just over a decade later?

From Wapping to Rotherhithe

By the early 1800s, the Port of London was the busiest in the world, and the need for a new connection between the north and south banks of the Thames was evident. A plan to carry cargo by horse-drawn cart underneath the Thames from Wapping to Rotherhithe was proposed, and in 1825, the Thames Tunnelling Company - with Isambard Kingdom Brunel's father Marc as chief engineer - began digging, much to the excitement of the national media.

Heralded the first successful tunnelling shield, Marc Brunel deployed his own patented shield on the Thames Tunnel project. This burrowed through the soft, fluid soil under the river bed whilst acting as a protective support structure. But work creating the 1,200-foot-long tunnel was slow - using the shield technique, the company was able to dig out just a few inches at a time - and conditions were appallingly hazardous.

Some miners died and others were harmed by poisonous methane gas, sewage-laden water or the impact of dim light conditions on their eyesight. Isambard himself, who was the resident engineer, was almost killed when trying to repair flood damage. So it's unsurprising that London saw the tunnel's eventual completion in 1843 as an international 'wonder' and crowds flocked to see it.

The Eighth Wonder, or an Utter Failure?

Despite the initial excitement, things didn't go well for the Thames Tunnelling Company. With no money left to build the ramps necessary for horses and carts to descend, the route had to be restricted to pedestrians. In 1869, final attempts to restore the tunnel as a freight transport network using steam engines were, unsurprisingly, unpopular as smoke made safe passage dangerous. It wasn't until the tunnel's absorption into the London Underground system that safe electric travel was introduced.

The fate of the underwater tunnel is now much more hopeful. Heritage campaigns saved its architectural features as a grade II*- listed structure in 1995, and its reopening in 2010 as part of the London Overground - and inclusion in future plans for the Orbital 'Outer Circle' Line - highlights its valuable role in London's railway network today.