Our tour guide gave a very good talk about the background of the Thames Tunnel and its unique construction. Apparently a 22 year old Chief Assistant Engineer worked on his father’s project to build a 365m tunnel under the Thames. The work was extremely hazardous. Breaches and collapses often happened and in January 1828, the tunnel flooded and six men were drowned, with them the Chief Assistant Engineer, who was pulled, unconscious, from the water, and eventually made a full recovery. So, Isambard Kingdom Brunel survived to go on to build over a hundred innovative bridges, twenty five railway lines and the largest and fastest steam ships the world had ever seen.
His most famous creation was the Clifton Suspension Bridge, spanning a 250ft deep gorge, built after a professional “spat” with arch-rival Thomas Telford who maintained that such a bridge would not be safe to use. Brunel began the construction in 1831.
To transport materials across, a 1,000 ft iron bar was suspended between the two ends and a man sized basket was pulled back and forth. The first man to test it was Brunel himself. But the rope snagged, stranding Brunel. So, 200ft up, he climbed out and freed the rope allowing his return. The stunt brought Brunel huge publicity, although he was never to see his dream fulfilled; the bridge being completed in 1864, five years after his death.
In 1833, Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway and he started connecting the South West of England with London. In total, he built 25 railway lines.
His constructions were costly, both in terms of men, as much as money. His Box Tunnel (see pictures below), then the longest railway tunnel in existence, took five years and 4,000 men with dynamite to build. In percentage terms, you were more likely to die building the Box Hill tunnel than in the trenches of the First World War.
In 1835, Brunel had offered his services free to the Great Western Steamship Company believing that steam powered ships could cross the Atlantic. It was to complete his vision of a passenger being able to buy one ticket that would get them from London to New York.
Work commenced on the 2,300 ton behemoth, the Great Western. Brunel was badly burnt during an engine fire on her launch but, in 1838, the longest ship in the world set sail for New York.
He was able to use wrought-iron and not wood for his ship, Great Britain (below), now considered to be the first modern ship because she was screw propeller-driven rather than by a paddle wheel. Her strength was demonstrated when she was run aground on only her fifth journey and left to winter in that state. On release, her hull was found to have no damage. But her 1845 journey was only between London and New York again. Brunel wanted more.
His next Leviathan project was the Great Eastern (below). She was built to be capable of taking 4,000 passengers between London and Sydney, Australia. It would be another 50 years before the world would see another ship of the same size.
In 1859, as the engines of Great Eastern were tested, Brunel, like his father before him, suffered a stroke. He collapsed on deck. Ten days later, on 15 September, Isambard Kingdom Brunel died.
His Great Eastern became a commercial catastrophe. The ship intended to transport thousands to a new continent, instead ended its working days laying telegraph cable.
Isambard Brunel’s French father preferred to be known by the middle name he gave his son but history now remembers him as ‘Marc’ because of his famous son. But Marc’s legacy lives on. The tunnelling shield he invented, said to have been copied from the techniques that destructive shipworms use to burrow holes in wood, is essentially the same model used in modern tunnelling today.
Before settling in Britain, Marc not only fled the French Revolution, he went to New York and became an American citizen. And after coming to Britain, he nearly left for Russia to escape his debts. If the government hadn’t intervened to free him from his debts and jail, Isambard Brunel may have been born Russian.
See some of Brunel’s masterpieces below: