Explore engineering genius at the Brunel Museum


Individuals planning a getaway to the English capital that have a penchant for design and engineering will want to take some time out of their trip to visit a museum dedicated to one of Britain’s greatest engineering dynasties.

The Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe plays tribute to the life and works of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel – both renowned engineers of the Victorian era and designers of the first underwater tunnel to be dug beneath the River Thames.

Brunel Museum

A rich design heritage revealed

Opened in 1961, the Brunel Museum was originally known as the Brunel Engine House and in 2006 changed its name to its present guise.

A scheduled ancient monument and international landmark site in London, the Thames Tunnel was the first project to be delivered in collaboration between Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, with the museum now housed in the former Brunel engine house.

The engine house was designed to be part of the supporting infrastructure for the Thames Tunnel and held a series of steam-powered pumps designed to remove water from the Thames Tunnel both during its construction and after its opening.

It has now been transformed into the Brunel Museum and can be found on Railway Avenue. The museum is open to the public seven days per week between the hours of 10am and 5pm, with entry costing £3 for adults and £1.50 for concessions. Children under the age of 16 can get in for free.

Visitors will find out all about the intricacies in designing the Thames Tunnel, which runs beneath the capital’s famous river and connects the districts of Rotherhithe and Wapping.

Spanning more than 1,300 ft and running at a depth of around 75 ft below the river bed, the tunnel measures 35 ft in width by around 20 ft in height and is still used to this day as part of the ever-expanding and busy London Overground rail network.

A triumph of civil engineering, the tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843 and was originally designed for use by horse-drawn carriages, although these vehicles never actually set a foot into the structure even after its completion.

Famously difficult to successfully carry out, the digging of the first Thames underground tunnel had been attempted on several occasions prior to the efforts of Brunel and his esteemed son, with projects by engineers Ralph Dodd and Richard Trevithick all failing as a result of the extreme wet and sandy conditions on the Thames’ north and south banks.

It was not until the development and patent of a new ‘tunnelling shield’ technology by Thomas Cochrane and Brunel snr in 1818 that a successful attempt could be mustered, and it was the innovative nature of this new system that enabled the tunnel to be built without incident.

Using a series of boards, shields and props to excavate the earth beneath the river in a methodical – and above all safe – manner, workmen were able to dig out the tunnel without fear of the excavated area collapsing upon them, while the bricklayers following behind could shore up all sides of the tunnel before moving the apparatus forward to a new area.

Visitors to the Brunel Museum will be treated to watercolours, peepshows, engravings, documents and more all dating from the time of construction of this astonishing feat of engineering.

It is not just the Thames Tunnel that is celebrated at the museum though, as guests can also find out all about the many other works that helped place both Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father Sir Marc at the forefront of British engineering in their time.

Visitors to the museum are also afforded free entry to the SS Great Eastern, which resides just a few minutes’ walk from the museum at the Masthouse Terrace Pier on the Isle of Dogs.

Accessible via the Thames Clipper, the launch ramps of the SS Great Eastern can be visited, with the vessel described as the world’s first modern ocean liner.

It was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last great creation and was a steam-powered iron sailing ship that was the largest vessel of its kind on Earth when first taking to the waters in 1858, just one year before the great man’s passing in 1859.

Having undergone major renovation works in 2007 and 2010, the Brunel Museum now also offers the chance for visitors to enjoy live performances of concerts, lectures, heritage talks, theatre and more in the 150-year-old Grand Entrance Hall – an underground chamber half the size of Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre – a space where countless events can, and will, be held in the years ahead.

Travel options to the Brunel Museum

Located in the London Borough of Southwark, the Brunel Museum can be reached by several means, with visitors to the area able to draw upon bus services, the London Underground and their own transport to get there.

Nearby London Underground Tube stations include Bermondsey and Canada Water (both on the Jubilee line), while overground rail services can be found at the nearby stations of Rotherhithe, Canada Water and Surrey Quays.

Meanwhile, an array of local bus services are available for visitors, with nearby stops located on Rotherhithe Street, Salter Road and Lower Road. Regular routes operating in the area include the 381, C10, N381, 47, 188, N47 and P12.

Individuals planning to utilise local Underground Tube and public transport buses can find out more details by visiting the Transport for London website, including up-to-date service times, station openings and more.

Finally, anyone planning to visit by car could do so, but they should be aware that traffic in central London is often extremely thick and local parking opportunities are limited in the vicinity of the Brunel Museum.

Nearby parking options for car travellers include Hawkstone Gate Car Park, Butlers Wharf Car Warehouse Car Park and Tobacco Dock Car Park. However, in each of these cases, visitors will face a considerable walk (crossing the River Thames in the case of Tobacco Dock) to reach the Brunel Museum.

Other attractions near the Brunel Museum

For individuals planning to spend a prolonged period in the area around the Brunel Museum, there are many other local attractions that could be of interest.

Southwark Park offers a wealth of green spaces in the heart of the district, while also providing several cafes and an art gallery to ensure visitors will have plenty to see and do during their time in the London Borough of Southwark.

Meanwhile, the Design Museum is just a short walk from the Brunel Museum and is an attraction devoted to promoting the very best in contemporary design, architecture, graphics and fashion.

The facility can be found at 28 Shad Thames in Bermondsey and is open daily from 10am until 5.45pm. It prides itself on showcasing the biggest names in design from around the world, with a special focus on the latest in cutting-edge design innovation.