Today marks 195 years since the Banquet under the Thames – one of the strangest locations for a dinner party! Our volunteer Keith Turpin reflects on the event and the painting that depicts it!
Loud music, alcohol and food consumption may sometimes be intrusive companions on a journey using London’s underground, or part of a good night out, depending on your point of view.
Imagine then a full blow out banquet to the accompaniment of the band of the Cold Stream Guards, where “the tables were lighted with large handsome candelabra of portable gas” and tunnel arches hung with Crimson drapery. If such a vision appears “more like enchantment than reality”, this was no dream resulting from a can too many on the Night Tube, but an event that took place in a tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, a route now used by London’s Overground train service.
The occasion, on 10th November 1827, was what we would now describe as a major PR or publicity event, an attempt to reassure shareholders and investors in the Thames Tunnel company that the much delayed and over budget project to complete the world’s first tunnel under a major navigable river was back on track, after a series of technical and financial problems. That event was the subject of a remarkable and probably unique painting, depicting the fundraising Banquet in the Thames Tunnel by the artist George Jones RA (1786-1869).
The Brunel Museum has been fortunate to have the painting on loan from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust over recent years, but it will soon be returning home. The picture is a showpiece for the tunnel itself, warmly illuminated by the relatively new invention of gas light and rather dominating the scene, the standing figure of the Duke of Wellington, one of the project’s staunchest champions, uncharacteristically diminutive amongst the Crimson tailcoats of his fellow diners.
The two figures in the left foreground, doubtless willing the success of the evening’s festivities, are Marc Isambard Brunel, director of the project who masterminded the technical innovations of the self-sinking caisson (tunnel shaft) and the tunneling shield, and his more celebrated son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This was the only project where the two worked together, Isambard having been appointed resident engineer earlier that year. The fact that Marc Brunel, who had recently suffered a paralytic stroke, was not actually well enough to attend the celebration, did not deter Jones from employing artistic license to include him in the composition. This was after all a Georgian marketing device, designed in part we think (the history of the painting is somewhat obscure) to reassure and inspire confidence in the project’s viability after the first major flood in May of that year.
A second primary source for the interpretation of the stellar Thames Banquet is a contemporary eyewitness newspaper article from the Standard, dated 12th November 1827 ( reference blog ? ) and which reveals much about late Georgian London society as well as many fascinating details about the event itself.
A series of toasts are proposed and drunk to the accompaniment of appropriate musical renditions ( such as the National Anthem and Rule Britannia ) according to what appears to be a rigid hierarchy, descending through the King and aristocracy, Engineers both military ( the Royal Engineers) and civil, celebrating the technical expertise and innovation for which the Thames Tunnel would become justly world famous; then “the health of the miners, bricklayers, and labourers” who were enjoying their own celebration in an adjoining arch (perhaps, numbering over a hundred, they were deemed unsavory company for the assembled worthies ) complete with ringing toasts and raised spades and pick axes, the most basic of tools which powered the digging of the tunnel some 1400 feet across to Wapping.
Is it surprising, in the context of this testosterone fueled company, the ladies present were at the bottom of the toasting ladder and marked the termination of the evening’s conviviality!
There are other rather starkly jingoistic and macho posturings that can be decoded from the text of the article, which also bear witness to racialized stereotypes that were prevalent in the period. Reference is made to news recently in from the Gazette Extraordinary of ” a glorious victory gained on that element under which they were assembled”. That element, water, was the embodiment of British naval and mercantile supremacy, and of the Port of London at its heart, the commercial reason for constructing the tunnels being to transport goods and cargo offloaded there.
The glorious victory is celebrated again rather obliquely in one of the seemingly interminable toasts, the proposed being Sir Edward Codrington, both a Director of the Thames Tunnel and a naval officer credited with the defeat of “the wine-abjuring prophet conquered by water”. This must be a reference to the Battle of Navarino (20th October 1827) when Britain in alliance with France and Russia defeated forces of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, delivering ” a severer check than it has ever suffered since Mahomet drew the sword.” It was part of a complex global power struggle involving Russian expansionism and a small nation (Greece) fighting for independence against the backdrop of the declining, but once great Ottoman Empire.
Both this extraordinary artwork and the accompanying contemporary account celebrate one of the many milestones in the completion of the Thames Tunnels, which finally opened in 1843, as does of course the Brunel Museum itself. Do try to see it and tease out more of the many stories hidden in image and text.