50 objects 7: Thames Tunnel diorama

Libraries aren’t just about books, and they’re not just about words. Information can be passed on by images and by physical objects too, and the Thames Tunnel diorama is a great example of this.

Thames Tunnel diorama: view from the front

Thames Tunnel diorama: view from the front

This “peepshow” or perspective diorama is made from a set of printed cards, fastened together in such a way that, when expanded, they are at set distances from each other. The whole thing can be folded flat for storage, but ours has a bespoke box so it can be safely displayed in its expanded form and used as its makers intended. The viewer looks through one or both of the holes in the front image, and is transported into the interior of the tunnel, the set of two-dimensional images transforming into the illusion of a three-dimensional view.


Thames Tunnel diorama

Thames Tunnel diorama

Those who wished to were thus able to see at least an artist’s impression of the interior of the famous tunnel without having to venture there themselves. The diorama allows us today to see how the tunnel might have looked in its original state, designed for horse-drawn vehicles and not yet a route for trains.


The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping beneath the river bed, was the first tunnel to be successfully built beneath a navigable river, and pioneered “tunneling shield” technology invented by Marc Isambard Brunel and Thomas Cochrane. Brunel’s son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was heavily involved in the project.

Thames Tunnel diorama: looking inside

Thames Tunnel Diorama: looking inside

When the tunnel and its entrance shaft opened to the public in 1843, they were immensely popular. The entrance and the tunnel itself had sideshows and souvenir shops, and attracted a million visitors in the first three months. The view seen through this diorama is less dramatic and bustling, but shows pedestrians, dressed in the high fashion of the time, admiring the new structure.

The tunnel itself now forms part of the London Overground network, and the entrance shaft forms a concert venue. For more information see http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/.

Photographs by Sally Trussler.


One thought on “50 objects 7: Thames Tunnel diorama

  1. Pingback: Special Collections: 50 Things | Bookmark Daily

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