Mystery of Brunel's Box Tunnel near Bath may finally be solved

Mystery of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s box tunnel near Bath may finally be solved after almost two centuries as researchers now believe it was built for the sun to shine through on his sister’s birthday

  • Retired engineer Peter Maggs made discovery after finding baptism certificate
  • He believes Brunel designed Box Tunnel so light shines through on April 6 
  • His little-known sister Emma Joan was born on April 6 in 1803 

A retired engineer believes he may have solved the centuries-long mystery of Box Tunnel after discovering its architect may have created the intricate design as a birthday present for his sister. 

Peter Maggs, from Chelmsford, Essex, had been researching different theories behind the famous tunnel for more than 30 years before having his ‘eureka moment’. 

Box Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1841, stretches two miles between Bath and Chippenham. 

A retired engineer believes he may have solved the centuries-long mystery of Box Tunnel (pictured) after discovering its architect may have created the intricate design as a birthday present for his sister

Box Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (pictured) in 1841, stretches two miles between Bath and Chippenham

For many years historians have believed that Brunel designed the tunnel so that the rising sun shone right through it on his birthday, April 9.  

However, this theory has been quashed in favour of a new one. 

Mr Maggs pored over the Brunel family tree until concluding that the great railway builder may have in fact designed the tunnel so the phenomenon occurred on April 6 – the birthday of his little-known sister, Emma Joan. 

He told The Guardian: ‘It was wonderful. For years I had been crunching the numbers and trying to work out if the idea that the sun shone through on Brunel’s birthday could be right. 

‘Then I found a record of Emma Joan’s birth and it fell into place.’  

Retired engineer Peter Maggs pored over the Brunel family tree until concluding that the great railway builder may have in fact designed the tunnel so the phenomenon occurred on April 6 – the birthday of his little-known sister, Emma Joan

The tunnel’s phenomenon was first noted in the Devizes Gazette the year after building work was completed and added to a wide-held belief that Brunel was a genius with a mischievous sense of humour.  

However, in 2017 the April 9 theory was decisively put to bed when the train line was shut because of engineering works. 

Teams from Great Western Railway and Network Rail positioned themselves at either end of the tunnel and waited for the sun to rise on April 9 but were disappointed when it didn’t shine the whole way through.

Brunel was responsible for building more than 1,000 miles of railway in the West Country, the Midlands, South Wales, and Ireland. Pictured is the Clifton Suspension Bridge that he helped to design in Bristol

His first notable achievement was in helping his father plan the Thames Tunnel (pictured) that stretches from Rotherite to Wapping and was completed in 1843

Other researchers had already analysed the science and concluded that a more likely date for the phenomenon was April 6 or 7 so Mr Maggs decided to research social theories rather than scientific ones. 

He was able to track down Emma Joan’s baptism certificate and found her date of birth was April 6, 1803. 

While Brunel’s older sister, Sophie, was well-known, Emma Joan is usually forgotten. 

However, Mr Maggs isn’t certain on his new theory. He said: ‘As to whether he really intended it, I reckon it’s 50/50. We may never know.’   

From the Clifton Suspension Bridge to the Great Western Railway: Who was Isambard Kingdom Brunel?  

In 2002 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was voted as Britain’s second best person after William Churchill in a BBC poll

In 2002 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was voted as Britain’s second best person after William Churchill in a BBC poll. 

The engineer was born on April 9, 1803, in Portsmouth. His father was a French engineer who fled France during the revolution, meaning Brunel was educated both in England and France.  

Brunel was responsible for building more than 1,000 miles of railway in the West Country, the Midlands, South Wales, and Ireland. 

He constructed two railway lines in Italy and was an adviser on the construction of the Victorian lines in Australia and the Eastern Bengal Railway in India.

However, most of his work was completed in England.

He worked for his father when he was old enough and went on to create many different bridges and tunnels which won him acclaim not only as an engineering genius, but as a rather mischievous man. 

He is known most for his work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. It was built to designs based on Brunel’s work and spans over 702 feet, while being 249 feet above the River Avon. 

It had the longest span of any bridge in the world at the time of its construction in 1864.  

His first notable achievement was in helping his father plan the Thames Tunnel that stretches from Rotherite to Wapping and was completed in 1843.  

He may also be best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts that made up the Great Western Railway.  

He may also be best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts that made up the Great Western Railway. Pictured is Box Tunnel 

In 1833 he was made their chief engineer and immediately began work on a line between London and Bristol. He created the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, Box Tunnel and Bristol Temple Meads Station. 

He is also awarded honour for introducing the broad gauge over the standard gauge on the train line. 

Brunel did not only work on bridges, tunnels and railways and was also responsible for the design of several famous ships.

The Great Western, named after the railway line, was launched in 1837. It was the first steamship in the world to travel across the Atlantic ocean. 

The Great Britain was launched in 1843 and was the world’s first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner. 

The Great Eastern was launched in 1859 and although it was not commercially successful, it was the biggest ship ever built up to that date.   

Brunel was also responsible for the redesign and construction of many of Britain’s major docks, including Bristol, Monkwearmouth, Cardiff and Milford Haven.

Brunel died of a stroke on 15 September 1859. 

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