Isambard Kingdom Brunel - Engineer 1806-1859

I am a great admirer of this enterprising and energetic man, one of the reasons being that many of the things he worked on, quite often at personal cost, remain in daily use. This piece is mainly devoted to Brunel's London connections.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April the first child and only son of Marc Brunel, a French exile, and Sophia Kingdom. He received a technical education in England and France whilst working alongside his father in his engineering design office. Both Marc and Isambard lived at 98 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea once part of Lindsey House. In 1825 they began constructing the Thames Tunnel, the first of its kind, using a tunnelling shield designed by Marc Brunel. His son, as the engineer in charge of construction, was almost killed when water broke through and the costly project came close to bankrupting Marc Brunel. Work was suspended between 1828 and 1836 and the tunnel was finally completed in 1843. It was only available to pedestrians as there had been no money to build the access ramps required for horses. In 1865 it was adapted to serve as a railway tunnel, a function it retains as the East London line of the Underground now runs through it. You can view the tunnel from Rotherhithe and Wapping station platforms and it is depicted in the tiles at Wapping. The access stairs at Wapping are original and at Rotherhithe are the remains of the 80' diameter shaft and the engine house. This Grade II listed building contains the only surviving compound horizontal V steam engine built by Rennie and an exhibition about the construction of the tunnel.

After convalesing Brunel worked on drainage and dock schemes. He also built an observatory for Mr, later Sir, James South at Observatory Gardens, Kensington and the Engineers pub in Primrose Hill (1841). In 1831 Brunel had won a competition to design a suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge at Clifton, a project not completed until after his death. The suspension chains used came from Hungerford Bridge, a pedestrian link designed by Brunel in 1843. This was taken down when the South Eastern Railway Company constructed the line into Charing Cross, although Brunel's pillars were retained to support the walkway alongside the track. A new pedestrian link has now been constructed on both sides of the railway, its design echoing Brunel's former suspension bridge.

During 1852-4 the Crystal Palace Company, formed by designer Joseph Paxton, re-erected the structure which had housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 on land purchased at Penge. Paxton proposed making it bigger and better in a parkland setting with new attractions including splendid water features. The glass building was unable to support the tanks these required so Brunel designed two 200' water towers to be sited at each end. These survived the fire which destroyed the Palace in 1936 but were demolished in 1941 possibly in case they proved a landmark for aid raids. Explosives were used on north tower but the south tower was taken down brick by brick because of nearby housing. The base of this tower remains in the park.

In 1832 Bristol decided it needed a rail link to London if it was not to lose trade to Liverpool and appointed Brunel as engineer. The 110 mile broad gauge line was completed in 1841. The Great Western Railway was to share a terminus at Euston with the London and Birmingham Railway but had a temporary terminus at Bishops Road until 1854 when Paddington, designed by Brunel and Matthew Digby Wyatt was opened. By the side entrance on platform 1 is a statue of Brunel by John Doubleday commissioned by the Bristol & West Building Society. Part of the current redevelopment of Paddington involves the replacement of the Bishops Road Bridge with a new 5 lane structure. However as the old bridge was being dismantled an iron bridge across the Grand Union Canal was found within it. This matched sketches and notes in Brunel's private notebooks showing it to have been his first iron bridge. Demolition was halted and the bridge is to be dismantled and reassembled within the development, hopefully for the 200th anniversary of Brunel's birth in 2006. Details of the project are available on the website.

In 1859 the great Western and Brentford Railway Company opened a broad gauge line between Southall and Brentford Dock. Initially for goods traffic it carried passengers from 1860. Some remnants of this line can be found in Brentford including the remains of Brentford Town Station and some bridge rail sections in Dock Road which became obselete when the line was converted to standard gauge in 1876. The former trans-shipment dock has now become a marina and housing was built around it in the 1970s. At Windmill Lane, Southall is Three Bridges a unique, cast iron, three-level structure which took the lane over the canal and the canal over the branch railway line with the third bridge carrying a footpath. Just north of the Uxbridge Road is the Wharncliffe Viaduct constructed in 1837.

Brunel proposed extending the Great Western's route by building the Great Western steamship, fitted out in Blackwall. The ship was to make 22 round voyages from Bristol between 1838 and 1841 before being moved to Liverpool. In 1843 Brunel's second vessel for the company was the Great Britain of 1845, a screw propelled vessel with an iron hull. This was to be dwarfed by Brunel's next ship the Great Eastern, twice as long at 693' and nine times the tonnage! The contract for building this went to Scott Russell who had a yard at Millwall. Some of the timbers used to support the ship remain in situ along with some huge chains. It took several attempts over 3 months to launch the ship (sideways) so it could be towed to Deptford for fitting out.

By this time Brunel was very ill with Bright's disease and travelled to Africa. He returned to take charge of the project but suffered a stroke just before the ship left for trials. Paralysed at his home in Duke Street, Westminster he heard news of an on-board explosion. He died within a week aged 53 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetary. There is a statue of him on Victoria Embankment at the west end of Temple Place (see header).

There are numerous books on Brunel and his achievements. The Jarrold publication is a good introduction and there is the curiously titled but appropriate book 'What's left of Brunel'.
Design Museum held a Brunel exhibition from October 2000 to February 2001 asking leading contemporary practitioners to assess Brunel's designs. A book of essays was published to coincide with the exhibition.
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has some relevant items and its library is open to researchers on weekdays [
more info].
The famous photograph of Brunel backed by the huge chains of the Great Eastern is in the
National Portrait Gallery. 2005

[Brentford walk] [Deptford & Millwall walk] [Chelsea walk] [Paddington walk]