Squeezing like a sardine into a sweaty train is hardly our idea of a fun day out, but believe it or not the London Underground was once the biggest tourist attraction in London.
Before the ingenious invention of the worming transport system, the space was used as a tunnel beneath the Thames.
The idea that people could walk beneath water sold tickets tenfold.
On March 25, 1843, around 50,000 people paid one penny each to descend the staircase and walk through the passage underneath the River Thames for the very first time.
Word spread and within a couple of months visitors were coming from far and wide.
An estimated one million people visited the pedestrian tunnel.
During a time when people could only travel using boats and horse-drawn carriages, it really was astonishing that so many journeyed to the capital simply for an attraction.
And it wasn’t just domestic travellers that visited the tunnel – affluent tourists from all over the world arrived.
Londoners, being the savvy, business-minded entrepreneurs they’ve always been, capitalised on the influx of visitors by selling souvenirs and providing entertainment in the tunnel’s arches.
The creator of this extraordinary architectural feat was French-born engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel.
It had been the most challenging engineering project he had ever tackled. It was beset with problems, so the fact it had opened at all was a tribute to the engineer’s skills.
The name ‘Isambard Brunel’ may be familiar to those budding historians among you.
They weren’t your everyday family. Marc’s famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designed and built many iconic structures in the 19th century, such as the Royal Albert Bridge across the 1,100ft-wide River Tamar in Cornwall.
But it was his father who was responsible for the beginning of what we Londoners rely on so heavily to navigate around the city.
Marc was also a pioneer in protecting worker welfare. He invented the ‘tunnelling shield’, also known as the ‘miners’ cage’ – a solid structure that enabled miners to dig inside its protective frame without the walls collapsing in on them.
Cornish miners had attempted the same thing before Marc in 1807, under the lead of British inventor and mining engineer, Richard Trevithick.
But conditions became treacherous after completing more than 1,000ft and it was considered too dangerous to continue. The project was abandoned.
Using his protective invention as a sway point, Marc wrote to every influential person to ask if it could go ahead.
In 1824, his perseverance paid off as The Thames Tunnel Company received royal assent and the tunnel was finally allowed to begin construction.
Construction began in 1825 and was finally finished in 1843 after nearly 20 gruelling years of hard labour.
Workers were flooded with raw sewage and had to dodge flames caused by the ignited methane gas.
It was described as the ‘worst job in the world’ and was so exhausting that men could work only a four-hour shift before being replaced by a new batch of workers.
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If they worked any longer, they would pass out.
There was once a flood in the tunnel when Marc himself was underground and he had to flee for his life, while six other men tragically drowned.
Without their hard work and sacrifice, we wouldn’t have the London Underground today – the oldest underground system in the world.