Brunel: the flawed genius

To his modern admirers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is the man who “built the world”. A cigar-smoking, top hat-sporting genius whose creations stand as testimony to all that was most innovative about Victorian Britain. So why, asks Crosbie Smith – as a new Brunel museum opens in Bristol – did so many of his projects turn into commercial disaster zones that left investors cursing his name and their luck?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel. “For the century following his death, the British public was less inclined to revere Brunel than we are today”, says Crosbie Smith.(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When the roof of the newly constructed Thames Tunnel collapsed in 1828, one of the most glittering, celebrated careers in British engineering history – that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – was almost snuffed out before it began, under a pile of rubble.

The Thames Tunnel Project was meant to be the young Brunel’s big break: a vast, complex, high-profile enterprise that would link the docks north and south of the river and secure his reputation as a coming force in the world of engineering. Instead, it almost cost him his life.

Brunel had been groomed for a major project like this for years. His father Marc, a brilliant French engineer who had fled his homeland during the French Revolution, had made his son his apprentice and then his assistant, and done all he could to pass on his extensive repertoire of skills.

So when Marc was given charge of the Thames Tunnel Project – which aimed to facilitate the secure transport of goods from one side of the imperial capital to the other – it was only natural that he would appoint Isambard as his resident engineer. Unfortunately, the father was handing the son a poisoned chalice. Thanks to unstable gravels and silts on the bed of the Thames, the tunnel was routinely inundated by river water. The digging was blighted by poor internal ventilation – and soon costs were spiralling.

Worse was to follow. Shortly after tunnelling reached the halfway point in 1828, the roof collapsed. Six men died and Isambard had the closest of shaves, making a dramatic escape after sustaining serious injuries. With capital exhausted, work on the project ceased for seven years (it was eventually completed as a foot tunnel in 1843).

Only Brunel’s knack for self-promotion – spinning the debacle into a heroic, against-the-odds brush with death – limited the damage to his reputation. For the young engineer, it had been a sobering experience.

Building the world

Today, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–59) is widely remembered as the Victorian engineer par excellence, the man who (according to one recent book) “built the world”. And, of course, in 2002 he came second only to Winston Churchill in the BBC’s quest to find the greatest Briton in history.

And if you don’t believe what you’re told on TV and read in the history books, the evidence of his genius appears all around us: in the extraordinary marriage of form and function that is Paddington Station, the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, the SS Great Britain and his Great Western Railway.

But as the disaster of the Thames Tunnel Project proves, Brunel’s career was far from an uninterrupted procession of sublime designs implemented to universal acclaim. For all his brilliance, Brunel was prone to mishaps, miscalculations and, above all, an inability to match his own vaulting ambition to cold, hard commercial reality. This latter failing would haunt him throughout his career and – as hard as it is to believe today, given his exalted reputation – expose him to criticism, even ridicule.

Perhaps the best example of Brunel’s inability to accommodate his design genius to contemporary commercial exigencies is the project for which he is arguably best remembered: the Great Western Railway.

The GWR was founded in 1833 by a group of Bristol merchants inspired by the much-publicised inauguration of George and Robert Stephenson’s Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830. These merchants were ambitious men. They sought a railway that was fast, grand and spectacular – fitting for Bristol’s wealthy business community and visitors to genteel Bath – and identified Brunel as the engineer to fulfil that vision.

Brunel aimed to deliver the grand and spectacular elements of the merchants’ brief through impressive architecture. Speed would be achieved via an innovative wide track gauge – one that, at 7ft, was far wider than Stephenson’s 4ft 8½in design.

Brunel demonstrated the superior, more comfortable performance of the 7ft gauge in practical trials. But there was a problem. The gauge fixed a railway system; if it changed, everything else had to change – bridges, tunnels, locomotives, rolling stock and platforms. Brunel’s vision was of a perfectly integrated railway system, but one effectively isolated from all others.

This very fact was to prove decisive in the mid-1840s when a Royal Commission recommended standardising all tracks to Stephenson’s 4ft 8½in gauge. Ultimately, the GWR broad gauge was undone by the fact that it accounted for a mere eighth of the total mileage of the narrower-gauge networks.

Brunel’s ambition had, it seems, got the better of him – a fact acknowledged in private by GWR directors. “There have been too many mistakes, too much of doing and undoing,” they noted. Brunel’s individualism sat uneasily with more conventional railway engineers such as the Stephensons, who delivered a system regarded as more economical, more reliable and more accessible to the wider public.

Great Western blunder

Henry Cole, mastermind of the 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, once called Brunel a “railway eccentric”. That eccentricity was in full evidence in another project that withered under the harsh glare of reality: an atmospheric railway system that aimed to dispense with locomotives altogether.

The system may have looked great on paper. It proposed placing pumping houses at intervals along the line, supplied with compressed air through a special pipe running between the tracks. A piston in the pipe, connected to the carriage, would then transmit the motive power. However, when the project was installed on the GWR’s Exeter to Teignmouth section in 1847, it proved unsuccessful (partly due to an inability to maintain high air pressure in the pipes). Daniel Gooch, Brunel’s assistant, rated it “certainly the greatest blunder that has been made in railways”. Even in his most celebrated project, Brunel’s bold promises sat uneasily with contemporary commercial expectations.

By the mid-1830s, Brunel and his Bristol associates had turned their attention to the potential of ocean steam navigation, and embarked on an ambitious project to operate steamers between Bristol and New York. The result was the construction of the largest passenger ship in the world, the Great Western, and a dramatic race with a smaller vessel named Sirius to be the first merchant vessel to cross the Atlantic westbound under steam. The Sirius arrived first, but when the Great Western did eventually make the crossing, it arguably completed it faster because it had departed later.

The Great Western may have been an ocean-going Goliath but Brunel was determined to build something even bigger, faster and more technically advanced – one that would become a standard bearer for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service.

That vessel – the SS Great Britain – redefined steamship design. Launched in 1843, it was fitted with an iron hull and a cutting-edge screw propeller, making it the first large ocean-going ship to boast both innovations. And it was the beneficiary of an equally impressive PR campaign, which culminated in it being unveiled in its Bristol home in a spectacular naming ceremony attended by Prince Albert.

But for all the innovations and the hype, Brunel and his associates had misjudged the commercial realities once again. While the Great Western Steamship Company had invested all its energy in a single vessel, its great rival, Cunard, had won a British government contract for the carriage of the Royal Mails between Britain and North America, built around a small fleet of four identical wooden paddle steamers.

Soon, Cunard’s line, supported by a mail contract of more than £80,000 a year, introduced a New York service to compete directly with the Great Western Steamship Company. Worse still, problems with the Great Britain’s screw often meant that voyages were completed under sail alone. With its financial position thoroughly weakened by the lack of a mail contract and by the enormous cost of its massive iron ship, the Great Western Steamship Company was effectively finished.

Failing to deliver

The naval architect and shipbuilder John Scott Russell later said of the Great Britain that every feature of the vessel’s design could be categorised as “experimental”. As a result, he concluded, the vessel was unique: an experiment never to be emulated.

The same charge can probably be levelled at Brunel’s final steamship venture, the Great Eastern (launched in 1858). Brunel envisaged the vessel as a vast, self-contained engineering system making round voyages with passengers, mail and freight to India or Australia without refuelling. To achieve this unprecedented feat, the Great Eastern had capacity for 12,000 tonnes of best Welsh steam coal. Once again, the Brunel PR machine went into overdrive, attracting the attention of numerous investors and high levels of confidence.

But, like the wide track gauge and the Great Britain before it, the Great Eastern project was soon mired in problems. The unconventional broadside launch into the Thames on the Isle of Dogs took around three months. Building time lengthened to almost six years. An explosion on the trial trip from the Thames resulted in several deaths.

As confidence in the vessel plummeted, the troubled owners abandoned plans for an eastern service in favour of North America. But that didn’t turn round the vessel’s fortunes: at least one of the nine Atlantic voyages practically disabled the ship (when huge Atlantic waves damaged the rudder) and generated yet more adverse publicity. The trauma of constructing the vessel may even have contributed to Brunel’s early death.

Once again, grand engineering promises had failed to deliver. While Brunel reached for the stars, it was the more cautious ship-owners such as Samuel Cunard who ultimately fashioned the British institutions that maintained the global trade networks of the Victorian empire.

This fact wasn’t lost on Brunel’s contemporaries – some of whom evidently enjoyed watching his more grandiose projects falling flat on their face. The merchant ship-owner WS Lindsay declared that, if embedded into Brighton beach, the Great Eastern “would be a marvellous attraction for the cockneys [of London] who would flock to her in thousands”. Some years later, the marine engineer Alfred Holt remarked sarcastically of the Great Eastern: “Considering Mr Brunel’s genius and the flow of capital [that] his designs attracted…[the] only wonder was that she was so small.”

Lindsay and Holt’s comments jar with modern perceptions of Brunel. But the fact is, for the century following his death, the British public was less inclined to revere Brunel than we are today. The historian Christine MacLeod has recently shown that, far from being inspired by a wave of public adulation, the few memorials erected to Brunel following his death were funded by his family and railway company subscribers.

Such apathy is simply unimaginable in the 21st century – as the BBC’s ‘Greatest Briton’ poll proved. So why the change in fortunes?

The answer may lie in an industrial sea-change that swept Britain in the 1960s. It was during that decade that the once dominant steam locomotives and British ocean liners went into a terminal decline. Amid the grand promises of high-rise apartments, cheap nuclear power and motorway expansion, railway and maritime enthusiasts quietly began to salvage what they could of the fast-disappearing Victorian legacies. Discontented with modern imitations, they were motivated by a respect for authenticity, for the preservation of artefacts created by craftsmen in an age of British heavy industry.

Naval architect Ewan Corlett’s letter to The Times in 1967 on the plight of the Great Britain in the Falkland Islands resulted, against the odds, in the steamship’s return for a slow but spectacular restoration in Bristol. The city, too, rediscovered Brunel and its industrial past, including the GWR. A new era of heritage was taking shape, culminating in the construction of a museum dedicated to Brunel, which is just about to open.

More broadly, there continues to be a shared desire in a post-industrial, post-steam age to reconstruct heroes – to make public space for an iconic genius of invention and of engineering. And this energetic son of a French migrant has played that posthumous role to perfection.

Crosbie Smith is emeritus professor of history at the University of Kent. He co-authored the book Engineering Empires (Palgrave, 2005) with Ben Marsden.

To listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests – including Crosbie Smith – discuss Brunel on Radio 4’s In Our Time, click here.

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For more on the new Brunel museum in Bristol, go to ssgreatbritain.org