On 18 May 1827, after a rising tide, the Thames Tunnel’s ceiling collapsed under the weight of the river and a torrent of water filled the structure. Brunel narrowly escaped with his life.
As they worked on the upper frame of the shield, the Thames Tunnel diggers had found pieces of china, wood and coal, indicating that the bottom of the river was very close. The Tunnel itself was a proposed solution to London’s congestion troubles, with so many wagons needing to cross the Thames that there were not enough bridges.
Having just finished showing a group of aristocrats along the Tunnel, Brunel had fears for the structure’s safety. Those fears were justified, as that evening water came rushing through one of the shield frames. Brunel was in the Tunnel at the time and was forced to make a speedy retreat. He managed to reach the top of the stairs before the torrent of lethal, rushing water filled the Tunnel.
In order to inspect the damage caused by the flooding Brunel, never one to avoid getting his hands dirty, went down to the riverbed in a diving-bell; borrowed from the East India Docks Company. Crowds of people came to watch as the great engineer descended into the Thames in search of a solution to the problem and, in a little more than three weeks, the hole had been sufficiently sealed that water could begin to be pumped out.
There were no deaths as a result of the first flooding of the Thames Tunnel, although an unfortunate miner ironically lost his life when his boat capsized whilst taking a group of sightseers to witness the damage. His was to be the second death during the building of the Tunnel. There were to be six more on the collapse of the second ceiling.
Brunel’s projects were never short of danger; they often existed in the balance between risk and reward; risk to financiers, risk to integrity and risk even to life - but the rewards still stand for us to see today.