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Isambard Kingdom Brunel


Brunel Engine House, Rotherhithe

In the summer of 1858 Isambard Kingdom Brunel's huge masterpiece, the Great Eastern steamship lay in the stinking Thames at Deptford. This was the summer of the Great Stink, when sewerage from London finally turned the Thames into an enormous cesspool. Queen Victoria visited the ship, and held a small bunch of flowers to her nose at all times. An engineer called Joseph Bazalgette was about to take on one of the biggest engineering projects of the nineteenth century, building the London sewer system. Meanwhile the Great Eastern sat in the filthy black river water, waiting for money to become available to fit her out.

Parallels between Brunel and Bazalgette are interesting. Both men had families who originally came from France. Both took on huge engineering projects, at the cutting edge of available technology. Both engineers were egalitarian in their social attitudes. Bazalgette did not believe that people were free to poison themselves and their neighbours to death. There was a bigger picture to which they had to conform. Brunel meanwhile, in the words of his biographer John Pudney "could and would throw off his coat and work alongside any man he employed" (Brunel And His World P 50). But for all these parallels, and inspite of Bazalgette saving millions of people from disease with his work, Brunel is the much better known engineer today. On the Thames embankment, which Bazalgette built, there is a large statue of Brunel, and a much smaller memorial to Bazalgette. The possible reasons for this are illuminating. Apart from the fact that sewers are not exactly glamorous, Brunel was an entrepreneurial showman in a way that his contemporary was not. When Bazalgette became involved in railway design early in his career the stress led to a breakdown. Charming money out of people and taking exciting calculated risks, were not his thing, and he found a not overtly dramatic niche as head of the Metropolitan Board of Works. This did not make for such a good show. The Great Eastern was a highly visible tourist attraction even as it sat unfinished in the Thames. Down below the streets of London work was about to start on a hidden project that would transform the Thames in which the huge ship sat. The dramatically visible ship, and the hidden sewers explain why many know Brunel's name today, but few have heard of Bazalgette. History has a story to tell, and Brunel told a great story.



Mural showing tunneling shield on the entrance shaft at the Thames Tunnel Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe

Brunel's father was an engineering prodigy. Born in France, Marc Isambard Brunel joined the French navy, and as a naval officer he escaped the French Revolution by fleeing to New York in 1793. Here he became the city's chief engineer, before coming to Britain with an invention for machinery to make naval blocks, devices used in the rigging of a ship. Marc married and lived in Portsea near Portsmouth Dockyard where he supervised the installation of block making machines. It was here, in Portsea, that his only son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in 1806. It was soon clear that young Isambard showed the same aptitude for engineering as his father. An education in France was organised, the boy sent to school in Normandy, and to the Lycee Henri Quatre in Paris. Then at the age of seventeen Isambard went to work in his father's office in Chelsea. The project into which Marc was pouring his energy was a proposed tunnel beneath the Thames. The idea was for a crossing of the Thames up river from London Bridge, in an area where ocean going ships regularly made their way to London's docks. A bridge here would block the river to shipping, so the Brunels were working on a tunnel. No tunnel had ever been built beneath a navigable waterway before, but Marc had worked out a new method of tunnel excavation. Watching teredo navalis woodworm through a magnifying glass at Chatham Dockyard Marc saw the worms chewing wood into a pulp. Excretions would then form a smooth lining behind the worm as it advanced through a tunnel in the wood. Marc's observations gave rise to the idea of a tunneling shield. This consisted of a compartmentalised frame, with a man in each compartment hacking away at the rock face. Jacks would push the frame forward. Behind it's progress other workers would line the newly formed tunnel with brick. Isambard's first project is then reminiscent of Bazalgette's hidden work. The difference is that already the Brunels were demonstrating their flair for show business. Even as it was being built the tunnel was a popular tourist attraction. Banquets would be organised in the tunnel to impress investors. When roof collapses led to flooding of the tunnel, tourist trips in boats continued through the flooded workings. Isambard grew up with this project, the tunnel taking eighteen years to build. It formed his practical training in engineering, and the showmanship that would not only support, but would become part of his projects. The Thames Tunnel survives today as part of the London Underground system, and is commemorated at the Brunel Museum.




Clifton Suspension Bridge.

It was a disastrous tunnel flood in 1828 which injured Isambard Brunel, and started him on his own course through life. Sent to recuperate in Brighton, it soon became clear that Brighton offered too many distractions. The young convalescent was being carried home from late night parties when he should have been resting. A move to Bristol came next, which it was hoped would be more peaceful. Instead Brunel became fascinated by the Avon gorge, hearing about the legacy of Alderman William Vick, who in 1753 left money for the building of a bridge across the gorge. Submissions had been invited to win Vick's money, and a contract to build the bridge. Brunel made a detailed study of Thomas Telford's suspension bridge over the Menai Straits, and submitted four designs, eventually winning the competition. Work began in June 1831 with the usual Brunel razzmatazz, canons firing, the band of the Dragoon Guards playing. Unfortunately unrest in Bristol following the Reform Bill's rejection in the House of Lords meant that work had to be stopped. Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge wasn't to be finished until after his death.





Paddington Station

It may have seemed that the Clifton Bridge represented a false start, but that incomplete project led naturally on to Brunel's first major achievement as an independent engineer. Bristol was concerned about George Stephenson's Liverpool to Manchester railway which had opened in 1830. This was the world's first fully scheduled rail service for passengers and goods. Bristol was worried that the port of Liverpool would use its railway to enhance its status at the expense of its southern rival. Bristol had to keep up, by having its own railway running to London. Brunel was in the right place at the right time. He immediately carried out a survey and was selected to build the Great Western Railway. Work started in 1835, and was completed in stages by June 1841. The bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, the Box Tunnel, and the first purpose built railway station, Bristol Temple Meads, remain as memorials to Brunel's work. Much of Paddington station, the London terminus of the GWR, dates back to Brunel's 1854 design. The railway was subsequently extended into south Wales and Cornwall, with bridges at Chepstow, and famously at Saltash. The South Devon Railway preserves a former branch line of the Great Western Railway, and runs steam services using GWR rolling stock between Buckfastliegh and Totnes in Devon. In 1847 experiments were carried out on a railway system using air pressure to drive trains. A service ran for a short time between Exeter and Newton Abbot. Buildings used by this "atmospheric railway" survive near Totnes Railway station.



Dining Room aboard SS Great Britain

By 1835, while the Great Western Railway was being planned, work on a design for a huge steamship had begun. At a meeting of the Great Western company directors concern had been expressed about the length of the line. With typical exuberance Brunel exclaimed: "Why not make it longer and have a steam boat go all the way from Bristol to New York!" This was the kind of grand gesture that made Brunel a showman as well as an engineer. Brunel began discussing the possibility of an ocean going steam ship with his friend Thomas Guppy that same evening. The SS Great Western, built in Bristol, was launched in 1837. A fire broke out on her first voyage, injuring Brunel, and delaying her eventual arrival in New York on 22nd April, behind a smaller British steamship called the Sirius. The Sirius was the first British ship to reach New York using steam power, but very few people remember her name. Brunel's Great Western, expressing his exuberance and instinct for drama, is the ship that is remembered. A second ship, the Great Britain, was being planned almost as soon as Great Western had been launched. This ship was even bigger, and used a new screw propeller. Once again the size and emotional impact of the Great Britain was as important as the engineering. It is often said that the SS Great Britain was the first ship to use the screw propeller, when in fact Brunel got the idea from studying the propeller on a small experimental steamer called the Rainbow. Nobody remembers the Rainbow. The Great Britain survives as a tourist attraction in Bristol.



Great Eastern Launch Site, Millwall

And then came the last and grandest gesture of Brunel's working life, the steamship Great Eastern. Drawings for this ship began to appear in 1854. The Great Eastern was designed to carry enough coal to get her all the way to Australia. The Great Eastern was the biggest ship ever built at that time, and growing in a dockyard at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs, she encapsulated the larger than life Brunel story. The history of her building was itself fittingly dramatic. Brunel made the mistake of accepting a foolishly low bid for the tender to build the ship. His chosen marine engineer John Scott Russell could not complete the job for the price quoted, which led to great problems during construction. Brunel was by now ill with a kidney condition known as Bright's disease, but even so his almost superhuman energy saw the hull finally completed in November 1857. Problems continued, however, at the launch. Thousands of sightseers had flocked to Millwall. In the confusion and excitement, the crew manning one of the huge restraining cables were distracted. Hit by a spinning winch, two men were killed. The launch had to be stopped, and with initial momentum lost, the ship was now marooned over three hundred feet away from the Thames. Launching was to take months, hydraulic presses pushing the ship inch by inch towards the river. The strain wrecked Brunel's finances, and his health. Brunel was sent on holiday to Egypt. It was at this point that Queen Victoria visited, holding flowers to her nose the whole time to counter the stench of the Thames. The Great Eastern,sitting in the thick black water of the Thames, was a symbol of exuberance and power. She was the ultimate product of Brunel's instinct for drama. By September 1859 SS Great Eastern was ready to sail. Brunel went aboard to pick out a cabin for himself and his wife. He collapsed soon after having his photo taken standing against one of the funnels. Brunel was carried ashore, the Great Eastern sailing without him. A boiler then exploded violently, forcing the ship to put in at Weymouth. Brunel was told the news, and died within a few days, on 15th September. Great Eastern went on to a relatively short and troubled life, in which her main achievement was as a cable laying vessel. Meanwhile Bazalgette created a sewer system which continues to serve London today.


Brunel's statue at Paddington

In making a comparison with Bazalgette my intention is not to belittle the more exuberant engineer. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a great engineer, and an inspirational leader. He was also a natural showman, and it is perhaps only in comparing Brunel with someone like Bazalgette that we see how important this was. Brunel was the human embodiment of the nature of the Industrial Revolution. Some writers suggest that the Industrial Revolution took place first in England due to the unusual lack of involvement of government in the affairs of the people it governed. Land was generally in private hands, and private initiative was the driving force behind the great changes of the early industrial era. Later, of necessity, government became more involved, stepping in to provide social security, protective legislation, and to coordinate projects for the public good. Bazalgette was a symbol of this later industrial era, and it is fitting that he should have been starting his greatest work just as Brunel died. Brunel's death in many ways marked the end of the individualistic Industrial Revolution. Bazalgette marked the beginning of the modern age where government smoothed the edges of industrialisation.


The Great Eastern was a huge and impressive ship, built on personal energy, and showmanship. The nasty river it sat in was disgusting, and the sooner all the stuff floating in it was quietly eradicated the better. History is a story, and so prefers the exciting tale of Brunel. Meanwhile Bazalgette sits in his memorial on the Victoria Embankment quietly looking down at all the countless people he has saved from cholera. All those people need excitement and interest, and that's what Brunel gave them.







Bazalgette Memorial on Victoria Embankment