Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel this week (9 April 2006)* marks one of the real pioneers of British industrial design. A multi-skilled engineer who built tunnels, bridges, steamships, railway trains and railway stations.

As well as a prodigious appetite for work, Brunel was a man who took risks, and alongside his spectacular successes were dramatic failures … sometimes with tragic consequences. The anniversary has particular significance for the East End of London. Brunel had worked on the Thames Tunnel, and during the 1850s he would launch the Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever, from the Isle of Dogs.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth the son of Sophia and Sir Marc Brunel, who had emigrated from France. The young Brunel was sent back to his father’s country to study, and at just 20 was made chief assistant engineer on his father’s Thames Tunnel project. The tunnelling shield, the first of its kind, supported the bore of the tunnel and allowed men to work inside. The technology forms the basis of tunnelling to this day.

It was unpleasant and dangerous work. The diggers were waist deep in foul water, there were two major floods, and several men were killed. On one occasion Isambard himself was almost drowned, and was never to fully recover. The tunnel took years to build, was a financial failure as a foot tunnel, and was then converted for use for the East London Line (Wapping-Rotherhithe).

Brunel had gained an extraordinary amount of engineering knowhow by his late twenties and began a prodigious career – one littered with ‘firsts’. In 1830, aged 24, he won the competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol – it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Brunel became a bridge specialist: the new railways and roads meant bigger and better bridges were being built. The Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar followed, as did the Maidenheead Railway Bridge. It was another first – the widest and flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Brunel seemed able to work in any material, and on any project.

Aged 27, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. Again he went out on a limb, deciding the lines from Paddington should be broad gauge, which he argued offered greater comfort than the standard gauge – Brunel brushed aside the fact that every other railway was using the standard gauge pioneered by George Stephenson. His railway became an engineering monument that defied nature – with dramtic viaducts and tunnels making light work of any obstacle (Box Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world). After Brunel’s death, though, the Great Western adopted standard gauge.

Some inventions never got off the ground, including the Atmospheric Railway, which was to use vacuum power to move trains through Devon. But Brunel looked ever forward, and even while he was wrestling with the demands of the railways, he was looking at transatlantic passenger travel. New ways of making steel and the advances in steam power meant this was now a reality, and the bold Brunel convinced his bosses at the GWR to build the Great Western, simultaneously. advertising the railway. Typically it was to be no normal ship.

At 72 metres in length, she was the biggest steamship ever. The Great Western eventually made 74 crossings to New York, cutting the journey time in half. He went on to build bigger and better ships, including the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, this vessel dwarfed the Great Western, being 700ft long and carrying 4000 passengers.

Thousands flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the work in 1858. She was the pride of Britain but, just before completion things began to go wrong. Several men died during the final stages of her construction: it was rumoured that a riveter and his mate were entombed between her twin hulls. From then on, hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night, horrifying the supersititious workers.

The launch was a disaster. Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt with a man was dead and four others badly hurt. It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by inch to the water. As the ship steamed into the Channel, the skipper allowed steam to build up and there was an explosion. Scalded seamen struggled to the deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s huge wheel. Three more died before the day was out. Visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles built for the Great Eastern.

The strain told, and Brunel died of a stroke in 1859, just days before the maiden voyage to New York. He was just 53. Yet in the BBC poll of ‘Great Britons’ in 2002, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill. The reason is probably that in his risk taking he came up with so many firsts.The Great Eastern would never make money, yet it had an importance that Brunel could never have anticipated. It was the ship used to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable … putting Europe and America in telecommunications contact for the first time.

*Events take place all year. A complete programme of the events during the Brunel 200 celebration can be found online at www.brunel200.com.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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