Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Box Tunnel

Isambard Kingsom Brunel’s Box Tunnel

At the time when it opened, in 1841, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s tunnel through Box Hill in Wiltshire, between Chippenham and Bath, was claimed to be the longest railway tunnel ever built.

    • Difficult and controversial to build, it delayed the completion of the Great Western Railway, London to Bristol route and created a major headache for engineers, designer and navvies alike.
    • The problems were many and varied, dealing with the gradient and the various weak rock strata made its critics announce it to be ‘an impossible and dangerous task’

Brunel's Box Tunnel

Working conditions for the navvies were harsh.

    • They had to enter the tunnel via ventilation shafts up to 300 feet deep.
    • The oolitic limestone was like a sponge and water would pour into the workings making rapid evacuation both a necessity and a common occurence.
    • A thousand tons of explosives were detonated each week and the men, working by candlelight, used a ton of candles per week as well.
    • In the final push to complete the project 4000 men were employed and working conditions were harsh.

The tunnel was an incredible achievement, that cost the lives of 100 workers but which was opened with no official ceremony.

Isambard Brunel’s drawings for the tunnel can be seen at the Network Rail Archive

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