Ship Happens

A full day of traffic on the Thames, condensed into one image. Photo by Alisdair MacDonald, via The Daily Mail Online.

Traffic was a real problem in London long before the advent of the car. The Thames was a major artery for commercial transport – one which became fatally clogged after the industrial revolution. It is said that in the early nineteenth century, you could cross the Thames without ever getting your feet wet by simply stepping from one ship to the next. If that was true, it might have been your best bet for getting across, because there was no other way to cross on foot. For one thing, there were no bridges. Since huge ships (some with masts over a hundred feet tall) needed to travel down the Thames every day, any bridge would need to be taller than the tallest ship; in order to make a bridge that tall with a gradient gentle enough to be manageable by horses with carts, the approaching ramps would have to be impossibly long. (The technology to build bridges which open in the middle to allow ships through was decades away.) You could take a ferry across, but that was both slow (due to all the floating traffic) and prohibitively expensive. In fact, if you had cargo to transport, the price of crossing the Thames was comparable to the price of crossing the Atlantic ocean. That’s right: sending your goods from Southwark to Soho was nearly as expensive as sending them from Bristol to Boston. An alternative method of transportation across the city was desperately needed.

There had already been one failed attempt at tunneling under the river when Marc Brunel and his son Isambard were called in to do it right. Using an innovative shield inspired by the anatomy of the shipworm in order to keep the soft riverbed clay from caving in, they bored their way through the toxic sludge from one side to the other, on and off over the course of eighteen years. It was dangerous, disgusting work: the polluted river water seeped through into the tunnel and onto the workers, the tunnel flooded multiple times during construction, and at least five people died while working on the tunnel. Isambard Brunel himself almost died during one of the floods. 

The best part is that, by the time the nightmare was over, there wasn’t enough money left to actually make the tunnel accessible for commercial transport. The original plan included a small entrance for pedestrians and a larger one for cargo, but the money ran out before the large entrance could be added. With its original purpose annulled, the Thames Tunnel was free to become all things to all people. It became a major tourist attraction – the penny admission probably had something to do with it, but the tunnel was definitely a must-see for Londoners and visitors alike. People came from near and far to see for themselves whether something so implausible could actually exist, reveling in the novelty of walking underwater in their finery. There also seems to have been a certain cachet in making it across without losing your nerve. Many promenaders would try to stroll through as slowly as possible, browsing the shops in the arcade on their way, flaunting their nonchalance. Others were not so brave, though, and it was not uncommon to see people break into a run partway across.

Apparently, the Thames Tunnel was a good place for formal dinner parties.

The Tunnel came to house a diverse array of attractions, racking up world firsts. The painting above, which hangs in the Brunel Museum, shows the Tunnel tricked out for fine dining as the world’s first underwater banquet hall. Later, it housed the world’s first underwater carnival. Eventually, it became a venue for less savory activities, and the once-posh shopping arcade had to share its clientele with pickpockets and prostitutes…making the Tunnel the world’s first underwater brothel.

From innovative trade route to bankrupting deathtrap to dazzling wonder of the world to sketchy underground alley, the Thames Tunnel’s life was bizarre and schizophrenic from start to finish. But through it all, it was always a marvel of engineering, a testament to human willpower and the drive to make new things which pervaded the Victorian era.

[Originally posted 7/26/10]

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One Response to Ship Happens

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