A small piece of Brunel’s former “eighth wonder of the world” has reopened today, bringing Rotherhithe its classiest new arts and exhibitions venue in 190 years.
The Grade II* listed entrance shaft designed by iconic Victorian engineer Isambard Brunel was originally the world’s first under-water transportation tunnel.
Renamed the Grand Entrance Hall, the Rotherhithe Street venue has been transformed, and is accessible via a majestic new staircase and doorway constructed by Tate Harmer architects.
The 50-foot deep, vertical tunnel will become the new home for Brunel Museum exhibitions, and host intimate concerts for classical music, jazz and opera for 200 free-standing guests.
“This place has a huge story to tell,” said museum director Robert Hulse.
“Brunel is well-known for projects like the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, but his greatest achievements were here in Rotherhithe.
“Brunel’s father Marc began the tunnel with his teenage son, and he later became the resident engineer. It’s about half the size of the Shakespeare’s Globe, and the entrance was only three-foot tall before we started.
“The shaft first opened in 1843 and is the first underwater tunnel in the world. Any kind of underground train network will have its design traced back to this site, and owes a debt to Brunel.
“Rotherhithe is fortunate to have this site. It’s an international civil engineering landmark.”
The gallery space will also host tours with recorded narration that tell the story of the underwater parties and fun fairs that used to be held in the tunnel with performers and wild animals.
Robert, 63, said: “When the place first opened it was a world attraction. It had 50,000 visitors in its first week and after three months there had been a million guests. People came from all over the empire because they couldn’t believe it was real.”
Robert says the venue will also be happy to host all manner of private parties and weddings, and above the chamber is a cocktail bar and herb garden called the Midnight Apothecary.
Funding for the £500,000 project was donated by the Association of Independent Museums, Biffa, and the National Heritage Landmarks Partnership, along with Southwark Council and Transport for London.
Visit www.brunel-museum.org.uk to see what’s on at the museum.