Brunel: Bristol's Brilliant Engineer

By Caroline Lewis | 29 July 2004
Shows a sepia photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in his top hat and frock coat standing next to some huge chains. He is reaching inside his waistcoat.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel in front of the massive anchor chains of his masterpiece, the Great Eastern. Courtesy University of Bristol.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of the greatest figures in the history of engineering. Born in 1806, he grew up and was educated on the South Coast and in France.

For his first engineering assignment, he joined his father, Sir Marc Brunel, in the building of the Rotherhithe tunnel under the Thames.

It is the city of Bristol with which he is most connected, though. He moved here in 1828 after he was nearly killed at Rotherhithe when the waters of the Thames broke through into the tunnel shaft

All round the city you can see the greatest accomplishments of this gifted character, who was as renowned in his day for his artistic design and skills of persuasion as for his innovative ideas.

No visit to Bristol would therefore be complete without going to some of the places on this trail, where you can see the works of this genius, who, incidentally, smoked 40 cigars a day!

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Clifton Suspension Bridge spans 214 metres over the picturesque Avon Gorge. A must-see for any visitor to Bristol, thanks to Brunel. Courtesy Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The most obvious starting point for any tour of Brunel’s Bristol is to step on to the spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon Gorge between Somerset and Bristol.

A competition was held in 1830 to gather designs for a bridge at Clifton, and 24-year-old Brunel beat a host of more experienced engineers (including Thomas Telford) with his 214-metre-long (702 feet) suspension bridge.

The foundation stone was laid in 1836, but money ran out a few years later after only the two piers at each end had been built. Brunel never saw the next stage of construction, which did not start until after his death in 1859, nor its completion five years later.

However, the ornamental stone lions and other expensive decorations he had originally planned were left out, and a local land-owner paid for the structure to be wider than planned so he could drive his carriage over it. This was a fortunate thing for today’s Bristolians, who would not otherwise be able to drive over the bridge.

The immense structure has stood the test of time and still reveals the odd secret. During maintenance work in 2002, huge chambers were discovered inside the stone abutment on the Somerset side of the bridge. No one could have been inside the 11metre-high cavities since the 1840s.

The best way to enjoy the Clifton Suspension Bridge is to simply stroll over its vast expanse, which will give you unparalleled vistas of the leafy Avon Gorge and Clifton Rocks. The view at nighttime is impressive, too, with lights covering the bridge and its suspension chains.

Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre and Tours

Re-opening in 2005, the visitor centre tells the story of how the bridge, Brunel’s first independent work, was born. In the meantime, group tours are available on request (call the centre) and free daily tours will take place at 12.00 and 14.00 – just meet at the toll gate.

Best visited on a bright day is the close-by Camera Obscura, or Observatory, on the hill beside the bridge. From this old snuff-grinding mill, you can take in a very Victorian view of the bridge and the surrounding view, and those brave enough can take an underground passage to a cave that eventually reveals a stunning view of the Avon gorge, 250 feet above the valley floor.

SS Great Britain

Shows a photo of SS Great Britain, a large ship with masts, chimneys and bunting flying from its masts. The ship has a black hull with white stripes along the side.

SS Great Britain in her dry dock. Courtesy SS Great Britain.

In the valley beneath the bridge you will find another of Brunel’s masterpieces. The now sits in the very same dry dock where she was built and launched in 1843.

The luxury liner was built for the transatlantic route as a part of Brunel’s established London to New York transport network along with the Great Western Railway. The first iron ship to be driven by screw propeller, it was not long before she ran aground in Ireland and Brunel was pained when he went to rescue his creation.

"I was grieved to see this fine ship lying unprotected, deserted and abandoned by those who ought to know her value,” he opined, “...the finest ship in the world, in excellent condition, such that four or five thousand pounds would repair all damage done, has been left and is lying like a useless saucepan kicking about on the most exposed shore that you can imagine."

Shows a photo of a brightly painted carving of fruits on the side of the ship, which also has gold painted bands.

Detail from the ship. Brunel paid as much attention to artistic details as to technical ones. Courtesy SS Great Britain.

Duly re-launched, the ship saw 40 more years of service as a cargo vessel and ocean liner, taking emigrants to Australia, before being damaged and left as a hulk in the Falkands.

The ship was returned to Bristol in 1970 and visitors can now see what wealthy travelling was like during the ship's happier days with the restored First Class Dining Saloon, Ladies’ Boudoir, Stewardess’s Cabin, and Captain’s Stateroom.

After exploring this massive Victorian steamship, take a ferry tour of the floating harbour, where there is another fantastic feat of engineering.

Shows a photo of a small crowd listening to historian Adam Hart Davis, who is standing next to the ship. Ornate windows and gold-painted carvings are visible on the stern of the ship.

Historian Adam Hart Davis with the SS Great Britain. Courtesy SS Great Britain.

Floating Harbour

The phrase “ship-shape and Bristol fashion” was coined to describe ships that could withstand the difficult circumstances of Bristol’s muddy harbour before it was dammed in 1803 to stop ships being frequently grounded – hence “floating harbour”. However, sewage and stinking silt was now trapped in the harbour, so Brunel, as engineer of the docks, was called upon for a bright idea to solve this smelly problem.

Shows a photo of the harbour, with a canal narrow boat motoring along in the water and other small boats moored up.

Brunel kept the waters flowing. © 24 Hour Museum.

To keep the harbour free from silt, Brunel designed a series of sluices, called the Underfalls, which were built in 1832. The area became known as Underfall Yard and all around this recently designated monument are warehouses and buildings that recall the time of Brunel. Some have been transformed into restaurants and bars – why not stop for a moment’s contemplation of one of the world’s industrial pioneers?

Bristol Industrial Museum

Shows a photo of a brick and concrete built warehouse at the edge of the floating harbour, with cranes at either end. There are various small boats and tugs in the water.

Bristol Industrial Museum, on the Floating Harbour, illustrates Bristol's rich industrial past. Courtesy Bristol Industrial Museum.

Also on the harbour is the Bristol Industrial Museum, where you can find out about all the improvements Brunel made to the docks and about other aspects of Bristol’s industrial past. Moored outside the museum you will find a dredger designed by the great man himself. Remarkably, this device was so sturdy that it continued to see service until the 1960s.

British Empire and Commonwealth Museum

Heading over to the east of the city, you will come to the site of one of Brunel’s finest achievements, which marked a defining point in modern rail travel. The Great Western Railway was the world’s first modern passenger railway system, initially running from London to Bristol Temple Meads.

Shows a photo of a pale brick building with arched windows and slim buttresses.

Brunel's Old Station, where Great Western Railway trains would terminate in the 19th century, is now home to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Courtesy BECM.

The Great Western Railway Act was passed in 1835, giving Brunel the go-ahead to build his proposed railway from London to Bristol at the behest of the Bristol and Gloucester Railroad Company. Previous Railway Acts had stipulated the narrow gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches (1.44m) – but not this one. Brunel persuaded the company’s board of directors that a broad gauge would be superior, and went ahead with a gauge of 7 feet (2.1m) to allow trains to attain faster speeds.

In 1841, the line from Bristol to London was completed at a total cost of £6,500,000, and nicknamed Brunel's billiard table because of its constant gradients. Brunel had stood his ground when challenged over the broad gauge, and overcame many technical challenges presented by the building of the line. Myth has it that he had the difficult Box Tunnel between Bath and Swindon constructed so straight that the sun would shine through it, but only on his birthday!

At the end of the present-day Temple Mead station’s gothic forecourt is Brunel’s original Old Station building, now the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Visit the museum to find out how Brunel was an archetypal Victorian innovator, uniting art and science in his vision for integrated transport.

A statue of a man sitting on a chair holding a top hat.

A statue of Brunel sits in Paddington Station, London, which was first connected to Bristol by rail with the opening of the Great Western Railway. Picture © 24 Hour Museum.

The original train shed at Temple Meads is now in use as a car park – but do all those motorists know that they’re parking under the world’s largest (22 metres or 72 feet) single span hammer beam roof?

Brunel was responsible for the laying of more than 1,600km (1,000 miles) of railway in the West Country, the Midlands, South Wales, and Ireland. As today, trains were sometimes delayed, and it is really the railways of the 1840s that introduced the concept of timetables. The Great Western Railway was the first railway to use London time in all its timetables and stations, rather than the varying local times of destinations. All the other railway companies followed suit, leading to an Act of Parliament that standardised time in different parts of the country once and for all.

Royal Western Hotel

Shows a photo of a yellowing stone building with verticle columns stretching along its length.

The short-lived hotel for passengers of Brunel's transatlantic service, which burned bright and brief. Courtesy Bristol City Council.

In 1839, with much publicity, the Royal Western Hotel, complete with Ionic colonnade, was opened to accommodate passengers travelling between Bristol and America on Brunel's steamships. The architect Richard Shackleton Pope designed the grand building in collaboration with Brunel.

Unfortunately, enormous ocean liners (following Brunel’s lead) found Liverpool and Southampton more suitable than the Bristol docks and the hotel closed in 1855. The building is now used as council offices, so you can still view its frontage and get a feel for Brunel’s vision of a luxury transatlantic service via Bristol.

University of Bristol Library, Brunel Collection

Finally, if you want to know the real Brunel, Bristol University has a massive collection of documents, from reports and sketchbooks to Brunel’s diaries and drawing instruments.

The original collection was given to the University Library by Brunel's granddaughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950. Since then, the University has amassed a huge collection of other Brunel-related documents, such as notebooks and letters, which give a fascinating insight into the life and times of Bristol’s favourite son. Items are available to see by appointment.

Related listings (121)
See all related listings »
Related resources (138)
See all related resources »