Tunnel Shaft

Grade II* listed structure and the world’s first caisson. The chamber is half the size of Shakespeare’s Globe, and is open again for the first time in a hundred and fifty years. This is where work on the tunnel began, and where Isambard Kingdom Brunel nearly drowned. When it opened in 1843 it was the world’s most popular visitor attraction, Brunel organised underground fairs and banquets inside the Thames Tunnel – once described as the Eighth Wonder of the World – in the mid-nineteenth century. It boasted a million visitors in the first three months. We think he would approve of the transformation of his Grade II* listed shaft into the Grand Entrance Hall; a performance space, almost two hundred years after construction began. There are guided tours every lunchtime, and regular music and theatre events.

We proudly unveil the newly transformed Grand Entrance Hall (or ‘sinking’) shaft, accessible to our visitors via new freestanding, cantilevered staircase designed by architects Tate Harmer. The project is part of the Brunel Museum’s plans to widen public awareness of the built legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and our industrial heritage. The architects have also created a new doorway into the shaft.

The project has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Museum’s grantors AIM/Biffa Award (Association of Independent Museums) and the National Heritage Landmarks Partnership, as well as generous donations from London Borough of Southwark and great operational support from Transport for London.

The former entrance shaft to the historic Thames Tunnel will become a newly accessible underground space and a key exhibit for the museum, hosting events and performances and breathing new life into this important fragment of Brunel’s first project. Brunel’s father Marc began the tunnel with his teenage son, Isambard, who later became resident engineer. It is the only project that father and son worked on together, and Isambard’s first. The Thames Tunnel opened in 1843 and is the first underwater tunnel in the world – and the birthplace of the modern metro system.

The shaft is approximately 50ft in diameter and 50ft deep – with smoke-blackened brick walls from steam trains, providing a raw but atmospheric backdrop. Tate Harmer’s ingenious ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ design means that the staircase is completely independent of the important historic fabric of the structure. Visitors will use this new access point as a means to descend into a rarely glimpsed portion of our industrial heritage, and intriguing underground space.

The Thames Tunnel once provided a pedestrian crossing of the River Thames nearly two miles downstream of London Bridge. The shaft has now been sealed with a concrete floor, following the transformation of the tunnel for the construction of the East London Line and London Overground.