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Brunel Museum makes an entrance with new underground venue

New staircase in The Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s legacy in London continues as his first ever project opens as the capital’s latest cultural attraction. Ever the showman, Brunel organised underground fairs and banquets inside the Thames Tunnel – once described as the Eighth Wonder of the World – in the mid-nineteenth century. He would approve of the transformation of his Grade II* listed shaft into the Grand Entrance Hall; a performance space, 190 years after construction began. 

The Grand Entrance Hall (or ‘sinking’) shaft is now accessible to the public as a new freestanding, cantilevered staircase has been completed, 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.

Jerry Tate, Partner of Tate Harmer said: “It was vital that the staircase and new entrance to the Rotherhithe shaft did not impact on its historical significance. We wanted to celebrate the raw nature of the Victorian industrial heritage while providing the public proper access for tours and performances”.

Robert Hulse, Director of the Brunel Museum said: “Brunel was a daring engineer and organised the world’s first underwater concert right here in Rotherhithe. Museums should be places to be inspired and places for celebration and performance. Happy Birthday Brunel!  210 years old this week”.

Mike Stubbs, TfL’s Director or London Overground, said: “It is testament to Brunel’s vision that the first ever tunnel built under water is now a key part of the London Overground network. We’re very supportive of the great work the Brunel museum do to promote his legacy and believe that the new theatre space will be an exciting addition for visitors.”

The Brunel Museum is on the south bank of the River Thames in Rotherhithe, immediately west of Brunel’s Rotherhithe sinking shaft in the tunnel’s Engine House, which is a scheduled ancient monument. The museum exhibits and educates the public about the construction and working of both Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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.


Notes to Editors

About Tate Harmer LLP

Founded in 2007, Tate Harmer is an award-winning international architecture practice based in East London, experienced in residential, cultural, leisure and education projects that require innovative construction methods in some of the most sensitive natural and historic contexts. The practice specialises in low-energy, low impact construction whilst maintaining the highest design standards.

A significant number of their projects are in very sensitive locations, unique landscapes or important historic settings. Recent projects include TREExOFFICE, Hollin House and Hoo House. The practice have also delivered a number of playful interventions at the Eden Project including a series of high level visitor walkways and a treetop research station. The practice works in and around London and as far afield as Devon and Cornwall.

About The Brunel Museum

There is more Brunel in London than in Bristol, and The Brunel Museum celebrates three generations of extraordinary engineers who helped shape our city. Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel is the oldest tunnel in the London Underground (and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first project). IK Brunel’s last project, launched on the Isle of Dogs, is the Great Eastern: first bulk carrier, ancestor of the super tanker, trans Atlantic cable layer and the ship that changed everything. Tower Bridge, designed by Horace Jones, was built by son and grandson Henry Marc Brunel, with his business partner John Wolfe Barry.

London’s Brunel Museum is a small museum with a big story, has no revenue funding and survives on sales and admissions. The Trustees and Museum Director lead a team of volunteers who staff the Museum and help run a busy programme of community and education events. They hope this dramatic new gallery space and a calendar of music, art and performance, will draw more people to a National Historic Landmarks Partnership Site that is also an International site for engineering. The Museum is proud to have received The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.
Brunel is not engineering in aspic. All good engineers offer accessible answers to important challenges. The Museum’s aim is to entertain as well as educate, and bring new audiences, as well as enthusiasts, to a greater understanding of the Brunels as daring engineers with radical solutions.

About London Overground

London Overground was launched in 2007, and immediately introduced staff at stations while trains are running, along with Oyster pay as you go facilities, increased the frequency of trains, improved reliability, and opened three line extensions and is now one of the most reliable train operators in the country, and is rated one of the best by customers.

The London Overground network serves 112 stations,  travels through 23 London boroughs, as well as southern Hertfordshire and was used by140 million people in 2014/15, compared to 33 million in 2008/09

Following completion of the link between Clapham Junction and Surrey Quays in 2012, 30% of all Londoners are within walking distance of a London Overground station.

Biffa Award

Since 1997, Biffa Award has awarded grants totalling more than £156 million to thousands of worthwhile community and environmental projects across the UK. The programme administers money donated by Biffa Group Ltd through the Landfill Communities Fund.

Landfill Communities Fund

The Landfill Communities Fund (LCF) is an innovative tax credit scheme enabling operators (LOs) to contribute money to organisations enrolled with ENTRUST as Environmental Bodies (EBs).  EBs use this funding for a wide range of community and environmental projects in the vicinity of landfill sites.  LOs are able to claim a credit (currently 5.7%) against their landfill tax liability for 90% of the contributions they make.

Since its inception in 1996, over £1.3billion has been spent on more than 51,000 projects across the UK.  For further information please visit or see HMRC’s general guide to landfill tax.

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