Thames Tunnel Peepshow, 1830

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About the object

  • This delicate double peepshow was probably sold to raise both money and interest in the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designed the tunnel to link the two sides of London, separated by the River Thames, together.
  • Published around 1830 in Germany and produced out of paper, the peepshow gives an idealised view of how the tunnel would look when finished. It shows views from both inside the Thames Tunnel and what is taking place on the river above.
  • Looking through the top peephole gives the viewer a chance to see life on the river, full of boats of all different sizes carrying goods and people. The bottom peephole shows horse drawn carriages and people strolling through the Thames Tunnel; it is shown to be less busy than the river above.
  • When finished the real Thames Tunnel was nearly 400 metres long; it is still being used today as part of the London Overground Train network.

The Story

The Thames Tunnel

Marc Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father, wanted to create a tunnel under the River Thames. The city’s bridges were becoming very congested, so a tunnel that would allow horses and wagons to pass under the river was suggested as a solution. At this time no one had successfully built such a long tunnel under a river, and many people thought that it would be impossible. The Thames river bed was soft, making it difficult to hold the structure of the tunnel as it was built, and the shale ground they were digging through leaked water. Marc Brunel designed a “tunnelling shield” to help the builders construct the tunnel but progress was very slow and conditions for the workers were terrible.
In 1826 the chief engineer, William Armstrong, left the project due to illness, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was promoted to chief engineer, he was only 20 years old. Brunel would spend days at a time underground, working incredibly long hours, sometimes up to 30 hours per shift!

There were a number of floods during the building of the tunnel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was seriously hurt during a flood in 1828; he had to leave the project to recover but Marc Brunel continued to work on the tunnel. After nearly 20 years of hard work and setbacks, including a 6-year break when the project was stopped due to a lack of money, the tunnel was finally opened in 1843. There was so much public interest in the tunnel around 50,000 people visited in the first few days alone. Stalls selling souvenirs lined the tunnel allowing visitors to buy mementos of their trip.

Due to a lack of money the ramp to let horse drawn carriages enter the Thames Tunnel was never finished, meaning that carriages never travelled through the tunnel. Without access for horses and carts, the tunnel did not help reduce congestion on the city’s bridges or river.

Continue the story


Peepshows offer the viewer the opportunity to peer into another space in miniature. They are often full of detail and show all types of scenes including coronations, balls, tourist landmarks and even battles. In the early 1820s peepshows made from paper were becoming popular, they were cheap to produce, light-weight and often pocket-sized. The paper design allowed for them to be expanded or folded away quickly.

Less than a year after the Thames Tunnel project was given the go ahead, widespread interest in the project both in Britain and abroad meant that many different peepshows started to go on sale. They showed what the Tunnel would be like when finished, with pedestrians, carts, and carriages in the tunnel, some even provided statistical details such as the length of the ramp to get into the tunnel.

In early 1827, tourists could visit the tunnel whilst it was still being built, they were charged a shilling each. A souvenir guide and other types of memorabilia were created to help raise further funds for the project. As the project went on, some peepshows even included details such as the tunnelling shield and the hole in the river bed from when the tunnel flooded in 1827.

Extra Resources

Thames Tunnel Peepshow: Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Clive Richards OBE DL and allocated to the SS Great Britain Trust, 2017