History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Brunel: a hard taskmaster

Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the most ambitious bridges, ships and railways of the 19th century. He may have been one of our greatest Britons, but as Steven Brindle reveals 200 years on from his birth, this engineering genius was far from being the easiest man to work for

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Published: March 23, 2018 at 9:50 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the great creators of the 19th century. From his office at 18, Duke Street, London, he controlled an engineering empire: a professional staff that was in the order of 30 engineers, clerks and draughtsmen, usually working on several different railway lines, and other projects, at one time.


What was it like to be part of Brunel’s team? Here is the testimony of John Brunton, then a humble assistant engineer working on a branch railway line in Dorset. On day in February 1855, he received an abrupt telegram from Duke Street ordering him, without explanation, to present himself there at 6am the following morning. Brunton packed a case, said goodbye to his wife, and left for town immediately.

At six the next morning: “a footman in livery opened the door, and told me in reply to my enquiry that Mr Brunel was in his office room expecting me. I was ushered into the room blazing with light, and saw Mr Brunel sitting writing at his desk. He never raised his eyes from the paper at my entrance. I knew his peculiarities, so walked up to his desk and said shortly ‘Mr Brunel, I received your telegram and here I am’. ‘Ah’, was his reply, ‘here’s a letter to Mr Hawes at the War Office in Pall Mall, be there with it at ten o’clock’. He resumed his writing and without a further word I left his office”.

The upshot, in fact, was that Brunton was sent out to Turkey, to supervise the construction of a prefabricated hospital for British troops, invalids from the Crimean War, which Brunel was then in the process of designing. The whole hospital, housing 1,100 beds, was designed, built, shipped and assembled in less than 10 months. Brunel must have realised that Brunton had great organisational abilities, which would be crucial to the success of this remarkable operation. But why this extraordinary treatment of an evidently capable and valued employee (Pall Mall was no more than a 15-minute walk from Brunel’s office)? The answer is that Brunel, in all his working relationships, was a dictator. As we shall see, a need to be in complete control emerges time and time again, as a theme in his correspondence.

Brunel had been trained in a hard school: it was a unique education, provided by his brilliant engineer father, Sir Marc Brunel. Sir Marc provided him with the best mathematical education available at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, then with engineering apprenticeships in the best workshops of the day, those of Louis Breguet in Paris and Henry Maudslay in London. But Isambard was learning much more than just engineering: he was learning how precarious life could be, in the turbulent market economy of late-Georgian Britain. His father, the most brilliant inventor of the age, was alas no businessman: several of his ventures failed, and in 1821 both Marc and his wife Sophia were imprisoned for three months in the notorious Marshalsea for debt. Isambard, then 16, was at school in Paris.

Returning to England, Isambard became his father’s apprentice. In 1827, aged 20, he became the resident engineer on Marc’s Thames Tunnel, the most daring feat of civil engineering that had ever been attempted. A year and a half of backbreaking effort followed, but Isambard somehow had time to keep a remarkably revealing personal diary. This entry is from October 1827: “As to my character. My self-conceit and love of glory or rather approbation vie with each other which shall govern me… I often do the most silly, useless things to appear to advantage before, or attract the attention of, those I shall never see again or who I care nothing about. My self-conceit renders me domineering, intolerant, nay, even quarrelsome, with those who do not flatter”.

The Brunels’ efforts were rewarded with calamity, when the tunnel flooded for the second time, in January 1828. Isambard was almost killed, the project went into abeyance, and at the age of 22 he was effectively unemployed (as was his father). Five years of intermittent employment on minor projects followed: five years in which the railway revolution was beginning. The Brunels, their efforts apparently wasted down the unfinished black hole of the Tunnel, seemed doomed to remain on the sidelines. Isambard’s diaries vividly convey his frustration: “It’s a gloomy perspective yet bad as it is I cannot bring myself to be downhearted… After all, let the worst happen – unemployed, untalked of – pennyless (that’s damned awkward)… My poor father would hardly survive the [failure of the] tunnel. My mother would follow him – here my invention fails. A war now and I would go and get my throat cut and that would be foolish enough. I suppose a sort of middle path will be the most likely one – a mediocre success – an engineer sometimes employed and sometime not – £200/£300 a year and that uncertain”.

It seems clear that these early struggles, and the memory of his father’s difficulties, were fundamental in the formation of Brunel’s remarkable, driven personality. The barren years ended in the greatest turning-point of his life, when in March 1833, approaching the age of 27, he was appointed engineer to the newly-formed Bristol Railway, soon renamed the Great Western Railway. He completed his survey for them in nine weeks and presented his plans. In July his appointment was confirmed, and the great work of designing the 118-mile line could begin. Up to now, he had never really employed staff at all. Now he had to set up an office and a team. Among the first to be appointed was his chief clerk, Joseph Bennett, who remained with him for the rest of his life. Draughtsmen, clerks, engineers, all had to be taken on.

After 1833, Brunel was too busy ever to keep a regular personal diary again: instead we have the office diaries, covering much of the 1840s and 1850s. They reveal a barely believable timetable. During the planning of the GWR in 1834, Brunel had confided to his first senior assistant, John Hammond: “between ourselves it is harder work than I like. I am rarely much under 20 hours a day at it”. The office diaries suggest that, even so, Brunel worked at least 16 hours a day, six days a week, for the rest of his life. From early in the morning until well into the evening, he was engaged in meetings, or visiting his works in progress, or appearing before parliamentary committees. Where, then, did he find time for the vast quantities of writing and design work, for which we have clear evidence in the shape of his immense personal archive?

Another assistant, GT Clark, left this account: “I never met his equal for sustained power of work. After a hard day spent in preparing and delivering evidence, and a hasty dinner, he would attend consultations till a late hour; and then, secure against interruption, sit down to his papers, and draw specifications, write letters or reports, or make calculations all through the night. If at all pressed for time he slept in his armchair for two or three hours, and at early dawn he was ready for the work of the day. When he travelled he usually started about four or five in the morning, so as to reach his ground by daylight… This power of work was no doubt aided by the abstemiousness of habits, and by his light and joyous temperament. One luxury, tobacco, he indulged in to excess, and probably to his injury”.

In total control

Did Brunel really need to work so hard ? The reason he did was that he was not at all good at delegating, or even at collaborating. His friend and rival, Robert Stephenson, the only one of his contemporaries whose achievements could really be said to match his, found it natural to collaborate with others over design issues, or delegate important pieces of work to members of his team: Brunel could not, or at any rate did not, do this. The 50-odd volumes of his sketchbooks, now in Bristol University Library, prove beyond doubt that he was ultimately responsible for most of the real design work on his railways: his staff were there to take measurements, provide data, work his sketches up, and oversee the contractors as they turned the designs into reality.

His need for control, which emerges in his correspondence, was fundamental. Here he is, in 1851, on his conception of his own role: “I never connect myself with an engineering work except as the Directing Engineer who, under the Directors, has the sole responsibility and control of the engineering, and is therefore ‘The Engineer’”. And here he is, in June 1836, writing to William Glennie, on the latter’s application for a post as assistant engineer with responsibility for the Box Tunnel: “what I offer now must not be a certain or permanent position. My responsibility is too great to allow of my retaining… anyone who may appear to me to be inefficient… it is an understood thing that all under me are subject to immediate dismissal at my pleasure. It is for you to decide if you are likely to proceed satisfactorily, and whether the chance is sufficient inducement”.

Brunel, evidently, was not a man to tolerate slackness in his employees, and where he detected it, he was merciless. In 1836, he wrote to a young engineer called Harrison, working on the Wharncliffe Viaduct at the London end of the line: “My Dear Sir, I am very sorry to be under the necessity of informing you that I do not consider you to discharge efficiently the duties of assistant engineer and consequently, as I informed you yesterday, your appointment is rescinded from this day. A great want of industry is that of which I principally complain, and thus it is entirely within your power to redeem the situation”. Brunel offered Harrison a further period of employment “on trial”, but on the same day, Harrison had forwarded the bill for a “circumferentor” (a kind of theodolite), which Brunel had ordered him to buy. Harrison had misunderstood Brunel’s instruction, thinking that he wanted the instrument to be bought for the company. Brunel re-opened the above letter, and added the following note: “You have acted with reference to this in a manner I do not choose to pass over. It indicates a temper of mind which excludes all hope of your profiting from the new trial I had proposed. You will please consider yourself dismissed from the Company’s service on receipt of this letter”.

Praise where it’s due

Yet Brunel, for all his apparent harshness, was capable of appreciating loyal service. His trusted assistant, Robert Pearson Brereton, was sent in 1844 to be Brunel’s man on the spot in designing the new Piedmont Railway. Italian officialdom proved impossible to work with, and Brunel wrote to the minister responsible: “My assistant, a peculiarly energetic, persevering young man, writes to me declining to remain as feeling entirely disheartened at the constant interference with every detail – and at the entire absence of confidence”. Brunel was also perfectly capable of appreciating ability in his staff: “(Bell) has been known to me for about ten years – I have a high respect for his integrity and zeal in the service of his employers. He is a very well informed young man in his profession and particularly also in those branches requiring mathematical knowledge which are too often neglected. He has been engaged on docks works as well as railway construction and if I had an opportunity I should employ him myself”.

But where an assistant called SC Fripp was concerned, for some reason Brunel was unable to sack the man, and instead, fired off the following missive: “Fripp. Plain gentlemanly language seems to have no effect on you. I must try stronger language and stronger methods. You are a cursed, lazy, inattentive, apathetic vagabond and if you continue to neglect my instructions I shall send you about your business. I have frequently told you, amongst other absurd, untidy habits, that of making drawings on the backs of others is inconvenient. By your cursed neglect of that you have wasted more of my time than your whole life is worth”.

If Brunel was a tyrant to his staff, he was at least capable of being a benevolent one. Where the contractors who built his railways were concerned, Brunel treated them with, at best, haughty distance. Here he is writing to Messrs Grissell & Peto, one of the most reputable firms of the age, about the Wharncliffe Viaduct: “Gentlemen – just returned from Hanwell, – observed that by far the largest proportion of the bricks upon the ground and actually in use were of a quality quite inadmissible… I examined the bricks on Monday last and gave particular orders to your foreman Lawrence respecting which I find he has neglected… I must request that he be immediately dismissed”.

Brunel and his staff, having produced the detailed designs for a railway line, would divide it into sections to be let as contracts. Contracts were advertised for tender, and a master-set of drawings was made available at Duke Street: contractors were invited to take tracings. They visited the site, made their own calculations, and entered a tender, typically to build five or so miles of the line with cuttings, embankments and bridges. The successful contractor would be expected to put up a £5,000 bond as surety for completion.

Assembling the armies of men, and moving the vast quantities of earth, brick and stone needed to build a railway involved formidable logistical problems – especially then, in a rural landscape and a largely pre-industrial society. Yet Brunel never seems to have appreciated this, or given his contractors any credit for their organisational skills. Instead, he treated them with unequalled severity. He became notorious for his insistence on exceptionally high standards of workmanship, frequently rejecting materials, as seen above. He would refuse “coursed rubble” masonry of a quality which any other engineer would have accepted, and insist that it be replaced with finely-cut ashlar (blocks of squared and finished stone) instead. One consequence was that as the GWR proceeded, it became harder to find contractors to bid for his work.

Another consequence was that his contractors got into difficulties. James and Thomas Bedborough became insolvent during the construction of the Maidenhead Bridge and had to withdraw. Another contractor, William Ranger, had taken on the digging of the huge cutting near Sonning in Berkshire, and a series of tunnels between Bath and Bristol. The work was delayed by foul weather, as well as by Brunel’s rejecting some of the work done, and in 1837 Ranger ran into difficulties. He, too, became insolvent, and Brunel was left with a problem. He solved it by transferring Ranger’s contracts to the well-run firm of Hugh and David McIntosh, father and son. One might have thought that Brunel would have been grateful to them, but he treated them even more badly. Brunel would reject work on grounds of quality, or vary his design and expect them to cope without increasing their price. Where there was a disagreement about price, by standard practice the arbitrator between the GWR and the McIntoshes was Brunel himself, and perhaps not surprisingly, he always found in favour of the former. If they were late with work, he withheld money. By 1840, Brunel was withholding from them payments to a total of over £100,000.

Close to bankruptcy

How could he get away with this? The answer would seem to be that the McIntoshes had sunk so much of their money in the building of the GWR that they didn’t want to walk away from the job and risk a lawsuit: Brunel was effectively getting them to fund the building of the railway with their own credit. However in 1840 old Hugh McIntosh died, and his son had had enough. The executors of Hugh McIntosh’s estate sued the GWR, and on Brunel’s advice, instead of settling out of court, the company fought the case. Tactically, this may have seemed a shrewd move, as the Court of Chancery was notoriously slow and inefficient (as readers of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House will know): at the time of Brunel’s premature death in 1859 at the age of 53, the case was still grinding on. However, unlike Dickens’s Jarndyce family, the McIntoshes eventually received justice: on 20 June 1865, the Lord Chancellor ordered the GWR to pay them the £100,000 of their claim, with 20 years’ accrued interest, and all legal costs. It came at a point when the GWR were severely financially embarrassed, and the following year the company came close to bankruptcy.

Brunel prided himself on his standards of conduct, and always insisted on gentlemanly manners from his staff. The McIntosh case, which seems difficult to reconcile with this view, was probably the most disreputable episode of his career. It is important to remember, in thinking about Brunel’s extraordinary achievements, that for all his genius as a designer and his insistence on being in control, without his staff and his contractors he would have built nothing. There is a dark side to the Brunel legend, and in this, his bicentenary year, it is important to bear this in mind, if we are to come anywhere close to understanding this great – but difficult – man.

Architectural historian Steven Brindle works for English Heritage. He is the author of Brunel: The Man Who Built the World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005) and Paddington Station: Its History and Architecture (English Heritage, 2004)

Engineering was a dangerous profession and Brunel had several close shaves, but as Tony Pollard relates, the biggest threat to his life came about through a magic trick 

When calculating the bill for Brunel’s feats of engineering the accountant of human endeavours must tot up much more than the vast sums of money provided by his backers and clients – for these projects also extracted a cost in human life. An untold number of workmen were to die on the engineer’s schemes – perhaps crushed under rocks in the Box tunnel or slipping from the unfinished deck of the huge ss Great Eastern. 

We would do well to consider the fate of the poor Victorian labourer who died for a pitiful wage in dreadful conditions, but on more than one occasion Brunel’s projects came close to adding him to the growing list of fatalities. First there was the Thames Tunnel, in which the engineer came of age while working for his father – his 21st birthday party was held beneath the river. The work was dangerous for labourer and engineer alike and on two occasions Brunel was almost drowned when the Thames burst into the brick vaulted chamber – in 1828 the most serious of these accidents killed six men and his injuries kept him off his feet for several months. Another near miss came ten years later on the Great Western, the first of his three ships, when he fell from a ladder while rushing to put out a fire – once again he was incapacitated. Brunel may have had a few close shaves, but ironically what may have been the most dangerous of these did not involve a huge construction but something as small as a coin. Nonetheless, the accident was to test his engineering skills to their fullest.

It seems a wonder that such a busy man managed to balance his work with family life, but he apparently did. Things didn’t always go to plan though, and in 1843 one family gathering ended in disaster when a coin-swallowing trick performed for his children resulted in a half sovereign trapped in his windpipe. All attempts to dislodge the coin failed and things looked bleak when it began to operate like a valve, limiting his breathing and causing dreadful coughing fits. His personal physician, Sir Benjamin Brodie, was powerless to assist and so it was left to Brunel to come up with a possible solution.

The result, based on his father’s suggestion, was a revolving table onto which he was suspended upside down, the idea being that a slap on the back, assisted by gravity, would encourage the coin’s departure. The attempt failed, but Brunel went back to the drawing board. The result was a pair of long, slender forceps manufactured in one of the engineer’s workshops. The device, known today as “Brodie’s forceps” but probably designed by Brunel, was inserted into the patient’s throat via an incision in his neck. But Sir Benjamin could not get a purchase on the coin, and he had to abandon the attempt. Things were desperate, so with nothing to lose Brunel tried another spell on the table. This time the blow on the back hit the jackpot and the coin dropped onto the floor. Weeks of discomfort were over and the news spread through London like wildfire, “It’s out, it’s out!”. Even The Times covered the story – such was the nation’s relief that its favourite engineer had been spared an unworthy end.

But when it did come the end was hardly less tragic. In September 1859, having already suffered a stroke, a bedridden Brunel was informed of an explosion on his new ship during her sea trial – five stokers had been killed. The boiler on the Great Eastern could be fixed, and the ship would go on to lay the first transatlantic cable, but the engineer’s broken heart could not be mended; the 53-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel died not long after receiving the news.

Tony Pollard has completed a novel based on Brunel’s life. He was one of the presenters of BBC2’s TV series Two Men in a Trench


This article was first published in the April 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Sponsored content