Advent calendar / History

Door 13: A Geological Voyage through History Part 1 – Under the River


The First Christmas Card by John Callcott Horsley

The First Christmas Card by John Callcott Horsley

Geology encompasses, by definition, the entire world as well as whole epochs of time.  Yet the world of geology can also be exceedingly small.  Here in the Library, members of the Society often bump into faces familiar from early jobs and student days completely by chance.  Researches get put to one side and lunches are planned.  Further back in history, there were fewer members and those interested in the subject were significantly less numerous, yet still these coincidental connections between people, places and events occur and often in the most intriguing ways.  I would like to take you on a little voyage through some of these connections from the past – and it begins with a Christmas card.

John Callcott 'Clothes' Horsley

John Callcott ‘Clothes’ Horsley

It’s now 173 years since the first Christmas cards were sent.  The very first one was designed by John Callcott Horsley, treasurer of the Royal Academy just across the courtyard from us here in Burlington House.  Introduced as a way of promoting the new-fangled Uniform Penny Post, citizens could now buy pre-paid envelopes and stamps to wish a Merry Christmas to their friends and relatives throughout the land, and as with all new innovations, the first Christmas card caused some controversy.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

John Callcott Horsley was not known for his permissive ways (he had been dubbed John ‘Clothes Horse-ly’ owing to his opposition to the use of live models and to portraits of  nude models), nevertheless he contrived to produce a picture of a family gathered around a Christmas lunch including a young girl downing a very large glass of red wine.  It would have horrified the increasingly noisy Temperance Movement.  It sold over 2000 copies at a shilling each.

Celebrating with John Callcott Horsley at his well-stocked Christmas table that year would have been his brother-in-law, who also had a reason to celebrate.  The very same year a project he’d worked on in his youth, and that had nearly claimed his life, had finally been completed.  It was being described as the Eighth Wonder of the World and all fashionable Londoners were flocking to it to explore its arches and experience this incredible new manner of travelling through London.  John Callcott Horsley’s brother-in-law was Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his first project, the Thames Tunnel, was finally open after 18 years of work by his father and at the cost of the lives of several of the tunnellers.

Cross-section of the Thames Tunnel during construction

Cross-section of the Thames Tunnel during construction

For the best part of the year in 1843, the tunnel had been opened to pedestrian traffic.  Pay a penny and you could start your journey south of the river in Rotherhithe and emerge a short time later in Wapping on the northern bank of the Thames.  It was the very first tunnel beneath a river in the world and a miracle of modern engineering.  Stalls and shops selling memorabilia had been opened amongst its arches and fairs had been held.  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had visited in July.  Unfortunately his father, the newly knighted Sir Marc Brunel had suffered a paralysing stoke the year prior to the tunnel’s completion.

Sir Marc Brunel by James Northcote

Sir Marc Brunel by James Northcote

Isambard had supervised the excavation of the tunnel on his first engineering project as a 19-year-old.  The first years of works were beset by problems and catastrophes.  The tunnel flooded on several occasions, claiming lives and necessitating the use of a diving bell to fix the leaks.  One of the floods nearly claimed the life of Isambard himself.  Owing to these problems, poor financing and clashes between Marc Brunel and the chairman of the Thames Tunnel Company, William Smith (not that one), the tunnel had been bricked up for seven years.  By the time tunnelling recommenced, Isambard had moved on to building bridges leaving his father to complete the project alone.  However, at the moment the tunnel had broken through to the Wapping side of the river Isambard was there.  The very first person in the world to travel beneath the Thames from one side to the other was Henry Brunel, Isambard’s son, handed over by his father to workmen on the other side.

The Thames Tunnel had been made possible by the invention of the Tunnelling Shield by Marc Brunel.  Dreamed up when he saw what woodworm could do to a ship’s timbers, improved versions of the Tunnelling Shield are still used today in many engineering projects.  However Marc Brunel’s name is one of two on the patent for the Tunnelling Shield.  We’ll be finding out more about the other patent holder in my next blog…

2 thoughts on “Door 13: A Geological Voyage through History Part 1 – Under the River

  1. Pingback: A Geological Voyage through History 2 – Ring of Fire | Geological Society of London blog

  2. Pingback: Door 24: Christmas greetings from the geoadvent blog team! | Geological Society of London blog

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