Tag Archives: Marc Brunel

James Greathead


Born in South Africa, Greathead arrived in the UK in 1859 and studied under a noted engineer called Peter Barlow.

At this time, Marc Brunel had developed his Tunnelling Shield and used it to eventually dig the Wapping Tunnel.

Barlow created a smaller version of the shield which in turn was further adapted by Greathead to build the Tower Subway in 1870.

In 1886 a shield developed from this one was used to bore the City and South London railway (which become today’s Northern Line) and, in 1898, the Waterloo and City line – something Greathead never lived to see.

Sextant and Octant

Many of us have heard of a sextant – but maybe not an octant.

So called because it traverses an arc covering 60 degrees or one sixth of a circle.

It would be used on a ship to measure the elevation of celestial objects – sun, moon, planets or stars – and then by reference to tables, clock or calendar determine how far north or south the vessel was – to an accuracy of around a thousand feet.

The sextant was preceded by the octant which worked through an arc of 45 degrees or an eighth of a circle. As a navel cadet, engineer Marc Brunel made his own octant.

The sextant found favour in the late 1700s when new navigational techniques required a device which would compare the elevations of the sun and moon. The octants 45 degree ‘sweep’ was often insufficient as larger angle were needed.

Marc Isambard Brunel


Born in Normandy, Brunel trained as a carpenter in his youth and became a competent cabinet maker. He then joined the navy as a cadet and made his own octant.

This was the time of the French Revolution and in 1793 Brunel – a Royalist – made some unwise remarks about Robspierre, the revolutionary leader.

His life at risk he managed to flee to the USA where he worked as a civil engineer before coming to England where he invented several items of factory equipment. He invested heavily in machinery for making boots for the army but failed to gain the expected government contract. As a result his business was bankrupt and he was sent to a debtors’ prison.

He began correspondence with Alexander 1 – Tsar of Russia who was interested in discharging Brunel’s debts if he’d come to work in Russia.

Potential loss of one of the country’s talented engineer caused alarm. Several influential figures – including Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. – petitioned successfully for a government grant to clear his debts and he was released from prison.

The Wapping Tunnel was the pinnacle of his career and, due to ill health, his last project.

Tower Subway

A little way north of the Uber boat station by the Tower Of London you might notice a small cylindrical building called the Hydraulic Tower,

Today it carries a water main, hence the name, but its heritage is rather different.

Quite possibly you have used the nearby Tower Hill underground station which is not far from the site of the old Tower Of London station which opened in 1882 as a terminus for the Metropolitan Railway.

Even this, though, was not the first railway on Tower Hill.

In 1870 the Tower Subway, a 2’6” narrow gauge railway, was built from Tower Hill under the Thames to Vine Lane off Tooley Street by London Bridge station. There was a single carriage which was pulled by cables connected to a static steam engine at each end. It proved unreliable and a passenger died in an accident with the lift.

In 1871 the railway was taken up and it became a pedestrian tunnel with a toll of a halfpenny. It attracted a million transits each year. A bit of maths: 480 halfpennies to the pound, divide by 52, works out at £40 per week which was not a bad bit of bunce in the late 1800s – equivalent to £4,700 in 2020.

In 1898 it went out of business because of the free crossing afforded by Tower Bridge which opened in 1894. Today it carries a water main and phone lines. You can, however, see the original entrance.

The tunnel was bored by pioneer engineer James Greathead using an adaptation of Marc Brunel’s tunnelling shield as used to build the Wapping Tunnel.

The Tower Subway features on my Tower Hill tour.

Wapping Tunnel and Station

Wapping station opened in December 1879 as part of the East London railway but its story began over 50 years earlier.

in the early 1800s there was a need to connect the north and south docks. There were two unsuccessful attempts to dig a tunnel but these were thwarted by the soft clay and quicksand which caused the tunnel rooves to collapse. The project was declared impractical.

A French engineer, however, believed that he had a solution. Although he he no record of tunnel building he persuaded investors to finance a tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. One of those investors was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. That engineer was called Marc Brunel who had patented a device called the tunnelling shield.

How did this work? Brunel had chanced upon a marine creature called a Shipworm. This bored tunnels through wood but in its wake secreted a coating of limestone particles on the tunnel walls to stop them collapsing.

The shield had similar principles, a round framework accommodating a dozen or so men who would dig into the sand and mud whilst bricklayers reinforced the tunnel walks behind them.

Construction started in 1825 and progress was slow, about a foot per week. There were often leaks and noxious river water would poor through. Other hazards were methane which was inflammable and hydrogen sulphide which was poisonous.

In 1827 the roof was breached and Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, repaired it using a diving bell lowered from a boat. Afterwards they held a dinner party in the tunnel to celebrate!

It was finally completed in 1843 at a cost of £630,000. Instead of being a thoroughfare between the docks it was ornately decorated and accommodated London’s second shopping arcade!

The tunnel was fashionable to visit, charged an admission fee of one penny to over 2 million people each year.

In 1865 is was purchased by the East London railway and became it’s northern terminus.

It is now the deepest underground station on the Overground network.

In the 1860s a young engineer called James Greathead, inspired by Brunel’s shield, developed his own version and used this to build the second tunnel under the Thames from Tower Hill to Southwark (if you want to know more, come on my Tower Hill walk). Greathead’s shield was subsequently used to build the first tunnelled underground lines including the Waterloo & City and Northern Lines.

The Wapping Tunnel is part of my Docklands North Bank walk.