The Greatest Briton - On The Trail Of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

By Johnny Wilson | 05 April 2006
A statue of a man sitting on a chair holding a top hat.

A statue of Brunel in Paddington Station, for once not wearing his trademark stovepipe hat. © 24 Hour Museum

In 2002, the British public voted Brunel as the second greatest Briton of all time. It is a testament to his enduring popularity in this country that the only person who surpassed him in the 100 Greatest Britons TV poll, was the wartime leader Winston Churchill.

In celebration of the Bicentenary of his birth, a series of events named Brunel 200

were planned across the UK, highlighting the work of this Victorian visionary.

Like many great Victorian thinkers he left behind a great body of work that is today thought as way ahead of its time. But unlike people such as Darwin and Lyell whose ideas can be found in the books they wrote, Brunel’s works are engineering projects that to be appreciated have to be seen.

Not all were successful but that is part of his appeal. The inventor and engineer James Dyson says this of his hero, “Brunel’s disease was that he couldn’t help himself, always wanting to find a different and better way.”

a painting depicting a banquet in a tunnel

A full blown dinner party under way in the Thames tunnel that Brunel designed and dug with his father. For a brief time it was the biggest tourist attraction in Britain. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum

Born in Portsmouth on April 9,1806, Brunel was introduced early to the world of design and construction by his father, the eminent engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. After completing his education in France and England, he joined his father’s company in 1822, which was at that time trying to dig a tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe in Eastern London.

Four years later he took over control of the massive project, only for an unfortunate series of accidents and disasters to blight its progress, one of which very seriously injured Brunel himself.

The tunnel was temporarily abandoned due to a lack of money, only to be finished after 18 years. On its completion in 1843 it became the biggest tourist attraction in the country with an estimated 2 million visitors in its first year alone.

The tunnel, now used by London underground as part of its East London Line, between Rotherhithe and Limehouse, taught Brunel a lot about the need for adaptability. Much of the underground digging technology he pioneered is still in use today.

Shows a photo of a grey brick building with a large red wooden door and a tall chimney

Brunel's Engine House in Rotherhithe, London, the site of major engineering breakthroughs. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum

The original Brunel Engine House, used to pump out water from the tunnel, is open to the public and offers an insight into the conditions that the tunnelers had to face on the turbulent dig. Floodlit tours are available that reveal the subterranean stalls and shops from the time when it was hailed as the 8th wonder of the word.

Though the Thames tunnel was revolutionary in size and innovation, Brunel’s most enduring legacy in the capital is probably Paddington station. Brunel was made Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway in 1833 and immediately set out to modernise the whole network.

Contrary to the views of people such as the Duke of Wellington who was opposed to a railway, as “it will only encourage the lower classes to move about”, Isambard had a passion to build a fast and efficient train line for the masses.

This was the heart of his vision of a modern rail infrastructure linking London to the rest of the then remote regions of southern England. In team with Sir Matthew Digby Wright he designed Paddington to have a feeling of space and grandeur that is mirrored in the station that bookends the GWR at its other end, Bristol Temple Meads.

A stamp showing a photograph of a large train station with an arched roof.

Paddington Station with its then uber-modern iron arches. From a set of Royal Mail stamps to commemerate Brunel's 200th birthday.

Finished in 1854 the original building had a shed made of three wrought iron barrel arches which supported a glazed roof, which though refurbished, retains the original shape.

A picture of the station features as one in a series of stamps printed by the Royal Mail to celebrate the anniversary of his 200th birthday. Before boarding a westward bound train it is worth a quick look on the main concourse to find the statue of the engineer, having a much-earned rest on a bench, with his stovepipe hat uncharacteristically doffed.

The 100-mile train ride from London to Bristol is one way to see a range of Brunel’s innovations by actually riding over or through them.

Just outside London is Maidenhead Bridge in Berkshire, which claimed several records when it was built in 1838. At that time its two brick arches were the widest and flattest in the world and carried two of Brunel’s Broad gauge tracks. His use of caissons and compressed air in its construction was to lead to great leaps forward in the building of underwater structures. A painting of the bridge is also available on the specially released stamps.

A stamp showing a painting of an old stone bridge with a train passing over it.

Maidenhead Bridge, Brunel designed and built both the bridge and the railway that ran over it.

Though famous for his successes, he was the author of many failed ideas, one of which was his advocating broad gauge rail track seven feet wide. He believed this to be safer and faster than other competing designs, but rival rail engineer George Stephenson’s narrower standard gauge was ultimately adopted as the track of choice in the UK.

Between Bath and Chippenham is Box Tunnel, at almost two miles long, it was one of the longest in the world when completed. The tunnel, which took five years to dig, ensured the Bristol-London route could be completed and the fact it is still used on the main line between the two is a tribute to his skilled routing.

It is said he laid it out so the sun shines through its Eastern entrance on his birthdays, though this has never been verified.

Upon alighting from the train at Temple Meads in Bristol the architecture enthusiast will be sure to enjoy the grand scale and functionality of the building. Like many of his projects, he tried to meld art and science together harmoniously.

Only a few yards away is the Old Station Building, housing The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which traces the history of the Empire including the many transport innovations of the Victorian era.

Shows a photograph of the exterior of the Great Western Railway Bristol terminus, now the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

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..

Bristol was the epicentre of Brunel’s feverish activity and he altered this city more than any other. As was the case in his life, not all his projects were successes.

A visit to the docks known as the Floating Harbour is a must in Bristol as this was the ground zero of his imagined transatlantic fleet. Now a fashionable area of restaurants and bars, this stretch of river was once a rancid stretch of muddy water.

By improving the lock gates down stream from the harbour with a system of sluices Brunel believed Bristol could be the embarkation point for ships to cities such as New York. The Bristol Industrial Museum in the harbour gives an overview into the work that he did in improving this waterway.

His desire to create much larger passenger vessels would lead to his designing three of the best-known ships of the Victorian age: the Great Western, Great Britain and Great Eastern.

The Great Western, which started service in 1837, was the first steamship to provide a regular and rapid transatlantic crossing. Bolstered by the ships success, he launched ssGreat Britain in 1843, which was the first of its kind for two reasons; being both iron hulled and driven by a screw propeller.

Today is a working museum offering an interactive view into the everyday life of this famous ship. The tour includes a look at the luxurious first class accomodation in contrast to the squalid conditions of third class (complete with authentic smells).

colour photo showing the front of an iron steamship

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

After a career that involved taking over 15,000 people to Australia the ship was finally abandoned in the Falklands. Rescued in 1970, it returned to Bristol and is now fully restored and stands in the same dry dock (Brunel designed) in which she was built.

A tour of the ship’s First Class Dining Room, Ladies Boudoir and Captain’s Stateroom highlights the lavish detail Brunel put into the design of all his ships. At 98 metres it was by far the largest steamship of its day and raised the bar in nautical engineering.

The last ship Brunel built was ssGreat Eastern (nicknamed the Leviathan because of its huge 213 metre length) in 1852. Though the ship was a technological marvel the disappointment that came from its technical problems and ultimate failure as a passenger vessel were to haunt him for the rest of his life.

From anywhere in the dock area one only has to look up to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is arguably Brunel’s most famous bridge design and Bristol’s best-known landmark.

A stamp showing a painting of a suspension bridge over a gorge.

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

Though only 24 when his competition winning design was chosen, (much to the disgust of rival big name engineer Thomas Telford), it was like many of his projects not finished in his lifetime. He only ever saw the pier stones on either side of the gorge laid as the project was abandoned for many years due to money problems. It was finally completed in 1865, five years after his death.

Walking over the 214 metre long expanse allows unparalleled views of the Avon gorge and the Telford rocks and The Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre tells the convoluted story of its design and construction. With new lights due to be opened in time for Isambard’s 200th birthday on April 9th the structure will continue to dominate the skyline of Bristol’s riverside.

A short train ride away from Bristol is Swindon where the major engineering works for the GWR were based. The city retains a great sense of pride in its his railway heritage with the Steam-Museum of the Great Western Railway (or God’s Wonderful Railway to enthusiasts) showcasing a series of special celebratory events.

Travelling southwest from Bristol towards Devon and Cornwall the Brunel fan will find a range of ambitious projects he undertook with varying amounts of success.

A stamp showing a painting of a bridge with two arches over a river.

The Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash near Plymouth which was completed in 1859, the year of his death.

Perhaps the most radical idea that Brunel attempted was his atmospheric railway system that he planned to run between Exeter and Plymouth.

The trains were moved by a system of atmospheric (vacuum) traction that involved pipes under the trains being evacuated of air and by a linking piston the vacuum’s pressure would drag the trains along.

However the trains were beset by technical problems with the scheme abandoned in 1848 after being operational for only one year. A pumping station still stands at Starcross and the pub opposite is named the Atmospheric Railway in tribute.

Brunel’s final design for a bridge completed in 1859 is the Prince Albert Bridge just outside Plymouth. Completed in the year of his death it is still used by high-speed trains today on the main Bristol- Penzance line and many believe it his greatest bridge.

The two spans of 139 meters are made of wrought iron tubes in a ‘Bowstring Suspension Bridge’ design. It is still the only bridge of its type to carry main line trains.

a photograph of a man wearing a large top hat and smoking a cigar

The endearing image of Brunel as a man of vision, looking confidently into the future. © Institution of Civil Engineers

A fitting place to end this brief tour would be where Brunel had planned to spend his quieter days when he retired. He started the construction of his dream home called Watcombe Gardens near Torquay in his latter years but like many of his projects never managed to see it through.

He died at the early age of 53 after suffering a stroke. The estate now called Brunel Manor has used meticulous designs for the house and gardens to restore it to its former glory in time for his bicentenary, find out more details on the Brunel Manor website

The most famous photo of Brunel, bedecked in top hat, flanked by gargantuan chains with his imperious eyes gazing into the future is one of the iconic images of the 19th century.

Small of stature but a giant of both mind and energy he represents the person who more than any other helped Britain and the world progress into the modern era. By looking at his array of designs you can appreciate why he really was a Great Briton.

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