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Slavery Remembrance Day at the Brunel Museum

Today, 23 August, marks the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade. Below, our Director Katherine McAlpine, outlines how the museum is seeking to understand the impact of the slave trade on the construction of the tunnel, so we might better respond to its legacies today: 


International slavery Remembrance day marks the 23 August 1791 uprising led by Toussaint Louverture. It was almost another 2 decades until abolition of slavery act in 1807 but these uprisings and acts of rebellion were crucial to the abolition of slavery. The Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, a year after Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born. Although it prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire, it did not in fact stop the practice of slavery, as some had hoped. When work on the Thames Tunnel  began in 1825, owning enslaved people was still legal. This changed in 1833, but slave owners not the enslaved were compensated. How we put the story of the Thames Tunnel into that context is an important piece of work we are looking at. 


William Smith, MP for Norwich and Chair of the Thames Tunnel Company, was one of the first to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade back in 1787, and became a vocal advocate for the cause, and would go onto support William Wilberforce. In 1823 with Zachary Macaulay he helped found the London Society for the Abolition of Slavery in our Colonies, thereby launching the next phase of the campaign to eradicate slavery.


However, not all those involved with the Thames Tunnel company fought for the abolition of the slave trade, and many directly benefited from it.  Sir Alexander Crichton who had become a Thames Tunnel Company Director, during or before 1838, was at one point an owner of enslaved people, likely the result of his marriage settlement to Lady Crichton. Crichton was one of several people across the country who benefited from the compensation scheme to slave owners after slave ownership following the 1833 Act. 


Everyone who visits the Thames Tunnel today, whether be on the tube trains that run through the tunnel itself or visits the museum are affected by the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Today, only 9% of UK engineers from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.  Engineering a better future for everyone means understanding better how barriers have been constructed to stop communities of people reaching their potential, in order to help remove those barriers. As a Museum, we are seeking to both understand better how the transatlantic slave trade directly supported the construction of the Thames Tunnel, and to act to help minoritised communities today. 


We are seeking to understand better the impact of the Transatlantic slave trade on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. If you would like to support us in this journey, please email 

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