On 2 December 2019 we held our speaker meeting in Peter Street Rooms as the Council Chamber was in use for the lead up to the General ‘Correction’.
Our speaker was Barry Edwards who had been with us earlier this year with a talk on the history of Penguin books. This time, Barry gave us a talk on the life and work of the civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the 19th century’s engineering giants and generally responsible for the creation of the Great Western Railway (GWR)
Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1906. He married Mary Elizabeth Horley in1836 and had four children, two sons and two daughters. He was named after his father, the French civil engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, and his mother Sofia Kingdom.
The first part of the talk, Box and Tunnels, took us through Brunel’s involvement as an assistant engineer building the Thames Tunnel beneath the River Thames in London and the Box Tunnel between Chippenham and Bath. The Thames Tunnel was started in 1925 and was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages but was first used by pedestrians and in 1869 converted to a railway tunnel. During construction, the tunnel flooded twice and on the second occasion in 1828, Brunel was trapped in the tunnel and almost drowned. He was rescued and taken to Bristol to recover. Sadly, six men died in this incident. The Box Tunnel was a mammoth six year project started in 1838. The tunnel was almost two miles long through Box Hill near Bath, the longest in the world at that time. There were approx 4,000 men employed on the construction in poor conditions illuminated by candlelight. About 100 men were killed during the tunnel construction which finally opened in April 1841. A special train departed from London Paddington and completed the first journey to Bristol Temple Meads in four hours.
We then moved on to, Exeter, Water and Atmosphere, and heard about the continuation of the GWR from Bristol to Exeter and beyond. In 1844 the route was developed along the coast at Dawlish and on to Newton Abbot in Devon. It was along this stretch of line, part of the South Devon Railway, that Brunel attempted to construct an atmospheric railway, an invention that he had seen in Dalkey in Ireland where a short section of line was driven by atmospheric (vacuum) traction. The system failed for several reasons and the idea was abandoned in less than a year. The pumping station at Starcross on the River Exe still stands as a landmark and reminder of the atmospheric railway.
Under the heading Bristol and Stations, we were reminded of the time Brunel spent in Bristol recovering from the Thames Tunnel incident and where he was sworn in as a special constable during the Bristol riots of 1831. It was during his stay in Bristol that he heard about the competition to design and build a bridge across the River Avon. Two of the most important stations Brunel designed were Paddington in London the grand terminus of the GWR which opened in June 1838 and the old station and ticket office at Temple Meads in Bristol, the western terminus of the GWR, 116 miles from Paddington.
Another important phase of Brunel’s life was told with reference to Gloucester and Dreams, where he viewed the area of Gloucestershire as a stepping-stone in his plans to extend the GWR west into Wales. In 1853 the line reached Haverford West in Pembrokeshire and then extended south to the coast at Neyland. Although a very small village, Neyland had a deep water harbour and was an ideal location for a railway terminus and port for sailings to Ireland.
Saltash and Bridges covered not only his success in winning the competition to design the, now famous, Clifton Suspension Bridge but also his design and build of the iconic Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar between Plymouth and Saltash, opened by Prince Albert in 1859, subsequently taking the GWR into the heart of Cornwall. The foundation stone for the Clifton suspension bridge was laid in 1836 but sadly, due to numerous holdups, Brunel never saw the work completed as he died five years before the bridge was opened in 1864.
Brunel, who had been a heavy smoker, contracted Bright’s disease in September 1859 and died six months later at the age of 53 just on year after the launch of Brunel’s ship the Great Western, the largest ship ever built, able to carry 4000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling.
Brunel’s resting place is the family grave at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.