Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was a Mechanical and Civil Engineer of great note and built the Great Western Railway, a number of steamships, dockyards, bridges, viaducts and tunnels.  Brunel was, to say the least, innovative, and had a marked impact on transport and modern engineering.

l_brunelatdeskIsambard Kingdom Brunel at his desk


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth on the 9th April, 1806 to Sir Marc Isambard (1769-1849) and Lady Sophia Brunel (1775-1855).

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel Collage(Left) Sir Marc Isambard, 1812, by James Northcote (1746-1831)

(Right) ibed, 1835, by Samuel Drummond (1766-1844)

It was his wish to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer and so he was sent to France for his education where he attended the Lycée Henri-Quartri and the University of Caen  (Université de Caen Basse-Normandie).

Lycee Henri IV CollageTour Clovis et Le Lycée Henri IV, à Paris (Left: Cdelagarde; Right: Kajimoto)

The alumni of the Lycée include: Léon Blum, Prime Minister of France (Front populaire party); Valentin Feldman, philosopher and member of the French resistanceAndré Gide, author; Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Baron, préfet, and city planner including the City of ParisGuy de Maupassant, author; Prosper Mérimée, author of CarmenÉric Rohmer, New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) director, writer and actor; and Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher; Georges Pompidou, former President of the Republic of France, was once a teacher at the Lycée.


By the age of 20, Brunel began his work as an assistant engineer on the building of the Thames Tunnel (1825-1843)* between Rotherhithe and Wapping where his father, the French Civil Engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), was Chief Engineer.  This project proved both difficult and dangerous and resulted in his suffering a serious injury in 1828, which required six months of recuperation.  Following this, he had no further involvement in the project.

IKBIsambard Kingdom Brunel, 1857

This photograph is in the Public Domain and was taken by Mr. Robert Howlett (1831–1858)


* The Thames Tunnel was the first tunnel to be constructed successfully beneath a navigable river.  It had originally been designed for, but never used by, horse-drawn carriages.  It was used by pedestrians who upon paying one old penny were able to walk through it.  In 1865, The Tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway Company and eventually became part of the London Underground system, as part of the East London Line, and today is now part of London Overground.

Thames Tunnel CollageThe Thames Tunnel

These pictures are by Urban 75 – awaiting permission to reproduce them here.





The Great West Railway (GWR) was founded in 1833 and was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1835 and had its first trains enter  service in 1838.  The GWR ran from London to Bristol and later to Exeter.  Through amalgamations and extensions of lines, the GWR eventually went on to link London with the Midlands, the South-West and West of England and most of Wales with Paddington Station being its main London terminus.

GWR network


In 1833, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the GWR, at which time he had not as yet completed his part in the building of The Thames Tunnel with his father.

Brunel advocated Broad-Gauge track of 7 feet (2,134 mm; also known as Brunel Track), as opposed to the Standard-Gauge track of 4 feet 812 inches (1,435 mm; also known as Stephenson Gauge after George Stephenson).  He believed that by having large wheels outside the bodies of the rolling stock, it would allow smoother running at high speeds.  Later Brunel added 14 inch (6.4 mm) to the Gauge, probably to reduce friction of the wheel sets in curves.

Standard Gauge CollageStandard & Narrow Gauges 

A Gauge War developed in 1845 between a number of Railway Companies.  At this time,  Broad-Gauge track totaled 274 miles, while the Standard-Gauge had reached 1,900 miles.  Supporters of the Standard-Gauge claimed that since this was of greater mileage, late arrivals in the field should convert. While the Railway Companies argued, the public suffered inconvenience arising from delays and changing over on to different lines at stations where the two gauges met.

Brunel Gauge CollageExamples of Broad-Gauge Track

Parliament set up a Gauge Commission, which decided that Standard-Gauge was to be used by all Railway Companies.  The last Broad-Gauge service left Paddington Station on Friday, 20th May 1892.  Following this, Standard-Gauge locomotives were employed on all services in the U.K.


During the building of the GWR, Brunel was to design and built a number of remarkable structures including Viaducts, specially designed stations and vast tunnels.

The Box Tunnel, which runs between Bath and Chippenham, was the longest railway tunnel in the world at that time, was built under the direction of Brunel.   Work began on its construction in 1838 and was opened on 30th June, 1841 without any ceremony.  It took two years to build and one hundred men were killed during construction.

The Tunnel is 1.83 miles (2.95 kilometres) long and is straight without curves and descends on a 1:100 gradient from the east.  Seemingly, the rising sun is visible through the Tunnel on the 9th April each year, which just happens to be Mr. Brunel’s birthday!

Box-Tunnel-in-2010The West Entrance/Exit to the Box Tunnel; this photograph was taken by Tony Phillips

The Wharncliffe Viaduct was Brunel’s first major structural design and was built between  Southall,  Hanwell and West Ealing.  The Viaduct is built of brick and is 886 feet long (270 metres) and 55 feet (17 metres wide).  There are eight semi-elliptical arches and each spans 70 feet (21 metres) with supporting piers that are hollow and tapered.

Hanwell-Ealing ViaductThe Wharncliffe Viaduct is a Grade I listed structure and is also a World Heritage Site

Brunel saw the advantages of the early Electric Telegraph system in the running of the railway.  In 1838, he persuaded Sir Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke to install their five-needle Telegraph system between Paddington and West Drayton Stations and to carry out experiments.  As a result of this, the Viaduct carried the world’s first commercial Electrical Telegraph on 9th April, 1839.  Later in May 1843, after the Telegraph system had been extended from Paddinton to Slough, it became Britain’s first public Telegraph service.  With the growth of Telecommunication traffic, the Viaduct has also carried one of the trunk routes for the transatlantic cables and now carries fibre-optic cables.

Brunel also designed Temple Meads Railway Station in Bristol, which opened in 1840 and the present London Paddington Station, which opened in 1854.

1862 ‘The Railway Station’ by William Powell FrithThe Railway Station (Paddington Station), 1862; painted by William Powell Frith (1819-1909)

Temple Meads Railway StationTemple Meads Railway Station; this photograph was taken by Mr. Hugh Llewelyn


An Interesting Story has been provided by Mr. Paul Bland regarding Temple Meads Train Shed:

Engraving of Temple Meads Train Shed (1843) by John Cooke Bourne (1814-1896)

When Brunel built the train shed at Bristol’s Temple Meads, he proposed a roof unspoilt by supporting pillars.  However, the GWR Directors insisted on supporting pillars and Brunel was forced to concede …. or so it seemed.

Restoration of the train shed in the 20th Century, saw engineers at the tops of the pillars for the first time since construction and guess what?  Although the demanded pillars seemed to support the roof in accord with the Directors’ wishes, they, in fact, fell short of the roof by a small margin!  The small distance between the pillars and the roof was impossible to perceive from the ground but, are a remaining proof of Brunel’s faith in the correctness of his own calculations.


Trains named for ISB CollageTrains named for Isambard Kingdom Brunel

(Top Left) GWR 4-6-0 Number 5069, Castle Class, Built at Swindon in June 1938 and scrapped in 1962; (Bottom Left): Diesel Electric Locomotive, Class 47 Bush Type 4, Built 1962

The Statue is in the grounds of Neyland Town Council; in 1856, Neyland in Pembrokeshire. became the western terminus of the Great Western Railway and the Transatlantic Terminal for the Brunel’s steamships to the U.S.


Paddington Station CollagePaddington Station

The Great Western Railway has also been called

God’s Wonderful Railway, the Great Way Round and Gone With Regret!



It was Brunel’s vision that passengers would be able to travel from Paddington Station to New York, changing from the Great Western Railway to the SS Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland, West Wales.


SS Great Western was launched in July 1837 and made her Maiden Voyage on the 8th April, 1838 and made forty Transatlantic Crossings before being taken out of service in 1846.  She was sold in 1847 and served as a mail-carrier until 1855 and then as a Troop Carrier.  She was scrapped in October 1856. 

SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 and was the largest ship built at the time; she left on her Maiden Voyage on 26th July, 1845 and was the first Iron-Hulled Steamship to cross the Atlantic.  Later she served on the UK-Australia run and carried many immigrants there.  In 1970, after many years of being left to rot in The Falkland Islands, she was salvaged and returned to Bristol where she was restored and is now maintained in the Dry Dock where she was built.     

 SS Great Eastern was the largest ship built at the time of launching in 1858;  her Maiden Voyage was marred on the 6th September, 1859 due to an explosion that resulted in damage and the death of five seamen and a number of others injuries; she was later sold and laid Telegraph Cable between 1866 and 1878 and finally broken up between 1889 and 1890.



????????????????????????????????????SS Great Western during her Maiden Voyage on 8th April, 1838

The SS Great Western was a oak-hulled, iron strapped Paddle Wheel Steamship and the first purpose-built Transatlantic Steamship.  She was fitted with four masts for sails, which provided auxiliary propulsion and also maintained the ship on an even keel during rough weather to ensure that both Paddle Wheels remained in the water.

The SS Great Western was built in Bristol between 1836 and 1838 for the Great Western Steamship Companywhich had been formed by Brunel and a number of Bristol businessmen in 1836 for the building of ships for the Bristol-New York sea route.  She was the longest passenger ship in the world between her launching in 1837 and 1839 and was 234.91 feet (71.6 metres) in length and 57.71 feet (17.59 metres) across the Paddle Wheels (i.e. Beam).

SS GReat WEstern

The SS Great Western made her Maiden Voyage from Bristol to New York on the 31st March, 1838.  Before she reached Avonmouth, a fire broke out in the engine room, which proved to result in minimal damage, however Brunel was injured and had to be put ashore and so missed the voyage.  As a result of the fire, a number of passengers canceled their bookings and when she finally set off, only seven passengers remained on board.

The Steamship was the model for all successful wooden Atlantic Paddle-Steamers and was capable of making record Blue Riband voyages until 1843.  Between 1838 and 1840, the SS Great Western averaged 16 days, 0 hours (7.95 knots) westward to New York and 13 days, 9 hours (9.55 knots) home.

Although the sailings of the SS Great Western were profitable, the Great Western Steamship Company suffered financial difficulties with the building of its second steamship, the SS Great Britain.  Construction was prolonged and she was not ready to enter service until 1845.  In September 1846, the SS Great Britain ran ashore because of a navigational error and was not expected to survive the winter.  As a result the company’s fortunes declined and the directors decided to suspend all sailings of SS Great Western and went out of business.

GW stamp - painting by J. WaltersPostage Stamp of The SS Great Western from a Painting by Joseph Walter (1783-1856)

The SS Great Western Steamship made forty-five round trip voyages across the Atlantic between 1838 and 1846 until the Great Western Steamship Company ceased to be.  Following this, the ship was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in April 1847 and went into service on the SouthamptonWest Indies mail run.  In 1855, she served as a troop ship during the Crimean Warand following her service, she was scrapped in 1856.


The SS Great Western Steamship inaugurated the era of the Trans-Atlantic Ocean Liner



SSGB Stamp

Once a transatlantic steamship service was shown to be commercially viable, The Great Western Steamboat Company put the SS Great Western into regular service between Bristol and New York. When the service became commercially successful enough, the Company agreed that a sister ship was needed.  The same engineering team that were responsible for the building of the SS Great Western were brought together with Brunel designing the Steamship, which was to be built in a specially adapted Dry Dock in Bristol.

1857 ISBIsambard Kingdom Brunel, 1857 

While working on the design for the new Steamship, two recently built steamships, the SS Rainbow and the SS Archimedes. visited Bristol and were to have a profound effect upon Brunel’s thinking:

In 1838, the largest Iron-Hulled ship in service, the SS Rainbow, visited Bristol.  Brunel sent several of his associates to look at the ship and assess the value of the new material used in ship building.  The associates returned with glowing reports as to the value of the Iron-Hull, which resulted in Brunel deciding to build the Hull of his new Steamship of iron.

Brunel presented the advantages of having an Iron-Hull as opposed to the traditional wooden type in his presentation to gain his colleagues support:

  • Wood no longer as cheap as it was while iron was becoming more plentiful and cheaper;
  • Iron Hulls were not subject to Dry Rot or Woodworm;
  • were less bulky and lighter in weight; and
  • of much greater structural strength;
  • Wooden Hulls greater than 300 feet in length were subject to Hogging*, while Iron Hulls were not subject to this.  As a result, the potential size of an Iron-Hulled ship was greater than that of a Wooden Hulled ship.

* Hogging: is the stress a ship’s Hull or Keel experiences, which causes it to bend upward.  Stress is generated as the waves pass beneath the Hull; when it becomes too great, it results in the flexing of the Hull or Keel.

The SS Archimedes was the first Screw-Propelled Steamship and was built in 1839 by Francis Pettit Smith‘s Propeller Steamship Company.  The ship was to exert a great influence on both the Royal Navy, who went on to adopt this mode of propulsion for its ships, and on future commercial ship building.

SS_Archimedes_by_RosenburgAn Engraving of the SS Archimedes by C. Rosenburg and appears in A Short history of Naval and Marine Engineering, page 70, Edgar C. Smith (1905); printed for Babcock & Wilcox Ltd. by University Press, Cambridge

In 1840, the SS Archimedes visited Bristol.  Brunel was greatly interested in this form of propulsion, as he was always looking for ways to improve a ship’s performance.  He was allowed to subject the SS Archimedes to a series of tests employing a variety of especially built Propellers by Francis Pettit Smith in order to find the most efficient.  Although, a four-bladed model proved to be the most efficient, the new Steamship was fitted with a six-bladed Propeller at the time of launching.


In order to convince his colleagues of the greater efficiency of the Screw Propeller over the Paddle Wheel, he offered the following advantages:

  • The Screw Propeller was lighter than a Paddle Wheel and would be more economic to run;
  • as it was lower in the Hull, it would lower the ship’s  Centre of Gravity and make ship more stable in bad weather;
  • while the depth of a Paddle Wheel depended on the weight of the cargo on board and the movement of the waves, a Propeller remained submerged at all times; and
  • a Propeller offered less resistance as it moved through the water.

Brunel’s arguments were persuasive and in December 1840, the Company agreed to his proposals of building the ship with an Iron Hull and with a Screw Propeller.  The changes were not without problems in that they proved both costly and prolonged the completion of the Steamship by nine months.

However, the SS Great Britain became the first ship to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship and was the first iron Steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1845 and with a time of 14 days.

Joseph Walter Bristol in 1845Painting of the SS Great Britain at Bristol in 1845 by Joseph Walter (1783-1856)


Work began on the construction of the SS Great Britain in July 1839 and was launched in on the 19th July, 1843.  The ship was 322 feet (98 metres) in length, 50 feet 6 inches (15.39 metres) across her beam and with a Draught of 16 feet (4.9 metres).  Propulsion was by one Screw Propeller with six blades and by six masts complete with sails allowing a speed of 10-11 Knots (12-13 mph).  The ship was equipped to carry 360 passengers (which was increased to 730 at a later time) and 130 officers and crew and was able to carry 1,200 tons of cargo.

Launching of Great Britain Collage(Left) Detail of The Launching of the SS Great Britain by Joseph Walter; this picture is the copyright of the Lordprice Collection ; (Right) Engraving of the Launching by Johann Jacob Weber  (1803–1880), which appeared in Illustrirte Zeitung, Nr. 21,18. November 1843


Leaving Blackwall - National Maritime MuseumEngraving of the SS Great Britain leaving Blackwall; (c) National Maritime Museum

The SS Great Britain was to be towed to the River Thames following launching for the remainder of the work to be done.  However, since the necessary modifications to Bristol Harbour had not been completed, the ship could not be floated out.   Adding to the problem was that the Propeller engines had been added prior to the launch, causing the need to widen the ship, which then necessitated a deeper Draught.

As a result, the ship sat for more than a year before the Harbour authorities agreed to the finish the modifications and allow the ship to be floated out.  However, difficulties continued, as the ship was unable to pass through the second set of lock gates.  Through combined skill of the captain and Brunel’s direct intervention in removing the offending lock obstacles, the tug, SS Samson, successfully towed the ship into the River Avon.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

SS Great Britain; (c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


KA Griffin painting 1843SS Great Britain by Keith Alastair Griffin (1927-)

The SS Great Britain made her Maiden Voyage from Liverpool to New York on the 26th July, 1845, which was five years later than planned and with 45 passengers on board.   Unfortunately the transatlantic crossings of the SS Great Britain suffered from a number of problems, which proved costly for the Company.

In 1846, on her third journey to New York, the SS Great Britain ran aground in Dundrum Bay on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland, as a result of a navigational error.  Wooden ships in this location would have been lost, but due to its Iron Hull, the SS Great Britain was able to withstand the winter storms and survive.  Brunel personally supervised the measures to protect the ship until she could be floated free and repaired and returned to service.

SS Great Britain aground in Dundrum BaySS Great Britain aground in Dundrum Bay

The cost of salvage and the refitting of the SS Great Britain proved too costly for the Company and sent it into bankruptcy.   As a result the ship was sold and then refitted and returned to service between the U.K. and New York.  However after only one round trip, she was sold to Antony Gibbs & Sons

ssgb-first-voyage-to-australiaSS Great Britain during the First Trip to Australia

The new owners converted the SS Great Britain to a Steam-Powered Clipper and completed a third refit that allowed the number of passengers carried to be increased to 730.  Following this, she entered service between the U.K. to Australia.


In 1852, the SS Great Britain made her first voyage to Melbourne carrying 630 emigrants.  Her arrival caused great interest there and 4,000 people paid one shilling each to inspect her.  Although the ship was not fast, she proved to be efficient and became the favourite Australian Emigrant Ship also bring the first England Cricket Team to tour there in 1861.

English_cricket_team_1861The English Cricket First XI that was the first to tour Australia

The SS Great Britain remained in service on the England–Australia route for almost 30 years with short interruptions to become a Troop Ship during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.

In 1882, the SS Great Britain was converted into a Sailing Ship and employed to transport coal, however in 1886 a fire broke out on board and upon arrival at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, she was found to be damaged beyond repair.  She was next sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a storage bunker for coal and wool until 1937.  As a bunker, she supplied the South Atlantic fleet during the First World War and was scavenged in the Second World War to repair the HMS Exeter.

In 1933, after almost seventy years of service, the remains of the SS Great Britain was towed to Sparrow Cove, 3 1/2 miles from Port Stanley, where she was scuttled and abandoned.

Abandoned in The FalklandsThe abandoned remains of the SS Great Britain at Sparrow Cove


A group of people hit upon the idea to salvage the remains of the SS Great Britain and return her for restoration in the U.K.  This was made possible by several large donations, including from Sir Jack Hayward and the late Sir Paul Getty, and was organised by the SS Great Britain Project and chaired by Richard Goold-Adams.     

Jack Hayward and Author Collage  Sir Jack Hayward (1923-2015) & Richard Goold Adams; this photograph appears on the SS Great Britain website

Click here

to watch the video, CHRONICLE -THE GREAT IRON SHIP,

the salvage of the SS Great Britain


Townsend - FlickrThe Hull of the SS Great Britain; this photograph appears with the permission of Paul Townsend


In 1969, the naval architect Ewan Corlett helped organise a rescue mission to bring the remains of the SS Great Britain back to the U.K.  Inspection of the Hull revealed a large crack on one side, which needed to be repaired before it could be returned home.  A large pontoon, the Mulus 3, was submerged beneath the Hull and then raised thereby bringing it out of the water.   Once this was achieved, the holes and cracks were covered and made water tight with mattresses, which had been donated by Falkland Islanders.

On the pontoon in Port Stanley, Falklands Is. borderAboard the Pontoon, Mulus 3, in the Falkland Islands

Once made water tight and secured well, the pontoon and its cargo were towed by Varius II from the Falkland Islands  to Montevideo. and then across the Atlantic to Bristol. which took fours months.  However the pontoon and cargo were not, as yet, home and dry, for another great obstacle was waiting on the River Avon.

Great Britain on Pontoon CollageThe Remains of the SS Great Britain aboard the Mulus 3 being towed


Observer CollageFrom The Observer Sunday Magazine, 1970

Click here 

to read the full article


Getting the Hull and pontoon from Avonmouth on the Severn Estuary to the Dry Dock at Bristol Harbour where the Ship had been built, would not prove an easy matter, since it had to be maneuvered around the horseshoe bend of the River Avon, which was a daunting task!

Tow R. Avon red.Towing the Pontoon and Cargo around the Horseshoe Bend of the River Avon

The skill of the tug keepers was such that on the 19th July,1970, exactly 127 years after her launching in 1843, the SS Great Britain was returned to the dock where she had been built.

During the Ship’s passage along the River Avon, she passed under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, another Brunel design.

SS-Great-Britain-Clifton - GuardianSS Great Britain being towed under the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1970; this photograph is owned by Popperfoto/Getty Images; awaiting permission to reproduce it here; it appears in The Guardian on the 19th July, 1970

The Ship had to wait for two weeks in the Cumberland Basin for a tide to be high enough to take her through the locks to the dock.  The dock had been abandoned for over one hundred years, but Bristol Borough Council had had it restored in preparation of the return.

ss-great-britain-bristol  SS  Great   Britain  Restored;   this  photograph  is  credited  to  Mandy   Reynolds,   coutesy  of   the SS Great Britain Trust

Between then and 2005, the SS Great Britain was returned to its original glory and today it is moored sits in its Dry Dock, which is now Grade II* listed.  The Dock and the Ship are now available to the public and many have visited them and will hopefully continue to do so.

Bristol_MMB_43_SS_Great_BritainBristol MMB 43 SS Great Britain; this photograph was taken by mattbuck and this file is licensed under the Creative Commons  Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


The following photographs of the SS Great Britain at Bristol are credited to Mr. David Noton and appear here through the courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust.  Special thanks are given to Mr. Dominic Rowe of The Trust for his help and consideration in this matter.

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England

ss Great Britain, Bristol, England


Click here

to watch the video, Brunel’s SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain was designated as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers  and is only the fourth such designation awarded outside the U.S.   In addition, a number of awards have been bestowed on the SS Great Britain including the IStructE Award for Heritage Buildings (2006), the Gulbenkian Prize (2006) for Museums and GalleriesThe Crown Estate Conservation Award (2007),  the European Museum of the Year Awardthe Micheletti Prize for Best Industrial or Technology Museum, and in 2008, the Sandford Award for Heritage Education.



GEBooklet red

Brunel believed that it was possible to build a large ship capable of traveling to Australia without the need of refueling and compete with the fastest Clippers that currently dominated the route.  Brunel and John Scott Russell, an experienced naval architect and ship builder, approached the The Eastern Steam Navigation Company in July 1852 with a plan to build large Steamships.  The Company had been formed in January 1851 with the aim of exploiting the increase in trade and emigration to India, China and Australia.


Brunel proposed that propulsion of such a large Steamship would be by a combination of a single Propeller and Paddle Wheels together with sails for auxiliary power and have a capacity to carry 4,000 passengers.  Following consideration of their proposal, the Company announced that it would support it and appointed Brunel as Engineer of the project.


For the aim of The Eastern Steam Navigation Company’s to come to fruition, it needed a subsidywhich is a form of financial aid or support.  At the time, an attractive subsidy would be a mail contract from the British General Post Office.  Unfortunately, in March 1852, despite its efforts, the British Government announced that it was awarding their mail contracts to other companies and not to The Eastern Steam Navigation Company despite its tender being lower.  As a result, the Company was left without financial support.


The Steamship was built by J. Scott Russell & Company at Millwall in London.  Apparently, Brunel enjoyed referring to her as the Great Babe.  Work began building the ship in 1854, and due to its extreme length, it had to be built sideways, and later launched in this manner.

Building Great EasternSS Great Eastern Steamship during building

The Steamship was the largest ship built at the time of launching in 1858 with a length of 692 feet (211 metres) and a maximum width of 82 feet (25 metres) and a weight of 22,500 tons.  She was one of the few ships built with five funnels, which was later reduced to four.

Great_Eastern_painting_smooth_seaSS Great Eastern Steamship

The Paddle-Wheels were 56 feet (17 metres) in diameter and the four-bladed screw-propeller was 24 feet (7.3 metres)  across.  The power came from four steam engines for the Paddles with an additional engine for the Propeller.  The ship was equipped with six masts for sails.  However, the sails were proven to be unusable at the same time as the Paddle-Wheels and Propeller since the exhaust from the funnels set them on fire.  The maximum speed that the ship was able to achieve was 24 kilometres/hour (13 Knots).

The Hull of the ship was made of iron and was the first ship to be built with a Double-Skinned Hull.   This feature was not immediately adopted for several years, but is now a compulsory feature in all ships built today for reasons of safety.


Building the ship was not without its difficulties.  Costs rose and in February 1854, the J. Scott Russell & Company suspended all payments to its creditors and dismissed all workmen.  As a result, The Eastern Steam Navigation Company had to look elsewhere to complete the building.  Work was resumed in May 1854, but took longer than expected to complete.

First Launch of Gt. BabeThe First Attempt to Launch the SS Great Eastern on the 3rd November, 1857; this photograph appears on John Speller’s Web Pages – Brunel’s Steamships – SS Great Eastern;

From Left to Right: John Scott Runnel, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel & Lord Derby (attempts to contact Mr. Speller have failed)

The SS Great Eastern was launched on the 31st January, 1858, but not without difficulty.  Unfortunately, Brunel did not witness the ship take her Maiden Voyage, which eventually took place on 6th September, 1859, during which she was damaged by an explosion, which resulted in the death of five seamen and a number of others injuries.  At the time Brunel was ill and died soon after on the 15th September, 1859.

News of Explosion

Explosion on 9th Sept. 1859 off HastingsThe Maiden Voyage of the SS Great Eastern on the 6th September, 1859 and the explosion while close to Hastings in the English Channel


One week before his death (before GE) 2Isambard Kingdom Brunel aboard the SS Great Eastern one week before his death from a stroke


Brunel had planned for the SS Great Eastern to make voyages between the U.K. and Australia.  However it only served as a passenger liner between the U.K. and the U.S. from 1860 to 1863 and these voyages were plagued with difficulties.

GreatEasternengravingAn Engraving of the SS Great Eastern – artist unknown


Great_Eastern_1866-Robert Edward HollowaySS Great Eastern, 1866; this photograph was taken by Robert Edwards Holloway (1850-1904)

Following it use as a passenger liner, the SS Great Eastern was chartered in 1864 to the newly formed Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company to lay Transatlantic Telegraph Cable.  The ship underwent a number of modifications in order to make space for the cable.  Such changes included the removal of the fourth funnel and some boilers together with a number of passenger rooms and saloons.  Between 1866 and 1878, the SS Great Eastern laid over 30,000 miles (~48,000 kilometres) of telegraph cable including that from Brest, France to Saint Pierre & Miquelon (close to Newfoundland) in 1869, and that from Aden to Bombay (1870).

G-E-loading-1865-cable at SheernessSS Great Eastern laying Telegraph Cable in 1865 near Sheerness

On the last occasion that the SS. Great Eastern traveled from England to Bombay via the Cape of Good Hope, she carried an enormous displacement of 32,724 tons that required a draft of 34 foot 6 inches, which was remarkable for the time.


Despite efforts to return the ship to passenger service, these failed.  The ship spent her last working years as a Showboat, a floating Concert Hall and Gymnasium and also acted as an advertising hoarding by sailing up and down the River Mersey for Lewis’s Department Store.

Great_Eastern_SLV_AllanGreenSS Great Eastern before being broken up; this photograph was taken by Allan C. Green (1878-1954) and is present at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia  

Following this, the ship was sold and broken up between 1889 and 1890 in Liverpool.  This was a sad ending for such a magnificent ship that was far advanced for its time.

Footnote: The Liverpool Football Club purchased the top mast of the SS Great Eastern and uses it still as a flagpole and it may be seen at the Kop end of the grounds.


John Spiller's WebsitesSS Great Eastern; this picture appears on John Speller’s Web Pages – Brunel’s Steamships – SS Great Eastern (attempts to contact Mr. Speller have failed)



As a result of Brunel’s work with the Great Western Railway, he built a number of bridges, train, railway stations and tunnels.  As part of his work building steamships, he also was involved in the construction of dockyards.



Suspension_bridge_at_Clifton drawing 1878Drawing of The Clifton Suspension Bridge, 1878

Brunel is perhaps best remembered for his designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.  A competition was held in 1829 to find the most suitable design for bridge across the River Avon-Avon Gorge with Thomas Telford (1757-1839) as judge.  He rejected all designs and then put forward his own, which was not well received.  A second competition was held in 1830 and was won by Brunel.  He was 24 years of age at the time and this was his first commission.  The bridge was designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn traffic, but was found later to support automobile traffic.  Seemingly the Bridge is able to support ~500 tons of weight with only a slight sag at its centre.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

The Bridge was built based on his designs, but with significant changes.  Spanning over 702 feet (214 metres), and nominally 249 feet (76 meters) above the River Avon.  In the early stages of construction, the workers crossed the river in a basket, which ran beneath an iron bar that was ~1,000 feet long (307 metres).  At one point, the basket became stuck.  Apparently Brunel climbed up and freed the rollers and the basket continued on its route.

Work began on the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1831, but was suspended due to the Queen Square Riotswhich drove away investors.


The riots were the result of the rejection by the House of Lords of the Second Reform Bill.  Passage of this Bill would have seen an end to some of the Rotten Boroughs.  A Rotten Borough was a Parliamentary Constituency with few constituents and often controlled by wealthy landowners.  Passage of the Bill would have allowed an increase in the number of Parlimentary Seats in the House of Commons that represent the fast growing industrial towns.

During the riots, between 500 and 600 young men besieged the Bristol Mansion House in Queen Square and demolished a number of other buildings including the Jail.  With stoppage of work on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Brunel  was sworn in as a Special Constable.


Clifton Suspension Bridge CollageThe Clifton Suspension Bridge; these photographs were provided by Paul Bland

Brunel died in 1859 and did not live to see the Bridge completed.  However, his colleagues and admirers at the Institution of Civil Engineers believed that the Bridge would be a fitting memorial to him and started to raise new funds and to amend the design.  Work recommenced in 1862 and was completed in 1864.  The Bridge had the longest span of any bridge in the world at the time of construction.

This photograph was provided by Paul Bland

At the time of building, Brunel’s Hungerford Bridge across the River Thames was in the process of being demolished.  The suspension chains from the Bridge were removed and used to complete the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  Seemingly the Abutments of the Bridge house a number of tunnels and vaults whose constructions reduced the cost of building, but without reducing its strength.

Driving across the Bridge; photograph provided by Paul Bland



Hungerford Bridge 1845Brunel’s Hungerford Bridge

The first Hungerford Bridge, a suspension footbridge across the Thames near Charing Cross Station, was built by Brunel.  The first stone was lain in 1841 and opened in 1845.  The span of the central opening was 67612 feet and was greater than that of any suspension-bridge in Britain at the time and second only to the suspension-bridge at Fribourg, Switzerland whose span is almost 900 feet.

WhistlerHungerford Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

The Bridge was named after Hungerford Market, which was on the North Bank of the Thames.  In 1859 the original Bridge was bought and replaced by a new railway bridge so as to allow the South Eastern Railway into  enter the newly opened Charing Cross Railway Station

Hugerford Br 1845 James HollandHungerford Bridge by James Holland (1799-1870)



Brunel also built the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also known as the Maidenhead Viaduct and The Sounding Arch.  The Bridge carries the main line of the Great Western Railway over the River Thames between Maidenhead, Berkshire and Taplow, Buckinghamshire and was completed in 1838, but did not come into service until July 1839.

The Bridge has two brick  arches, which at the time of building was the widest and flattest in the world.  Each span is 128 feet (39 metres) with a rise of only 24 feet (7 metres).  The flatness of the arches was necessary to avoid putting a hump in the bridge, which Brunel disliked, preferring flat, gentle gradients.

Maidenhead Brick Bridge 1Maidenhead Railway Bridge

The Thames Towpath passes under the right-hand arch (facing upstream), which is also known as The Sounding Arch, because of its remarkable echo.

Bridge on the Taplow sideThe Sounding Arch

When the Bridge opened, it carried two 7 feet (2,134 mm) wide Brunel Gauge Railway Tracks.  In 1861, mixed track (i.e. Brunel and Standard Gauge Tracks) was added between London and Bristol.  Between 1890 and 1892, the Bridge was widened on each side to carry four Standard Gauge Tracks, which would soon totally replace the Brunel Gauge Tracks.  Widening of the Bridge from 30 feet (9.1 metres) to 57 feet 3 inches (17.5 metres) was conducted under the supervision of Sir John Fowler (1817-1898).



The Bridge is featured in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, painted by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) in 1844.

Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_Railway redRain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway



Royal Albert Bridge opened 3 May, 1859

In 1845, the Cornwall Railway Company applied for an Act of Parliament that would allow the Company to build a railway line that would link Plymouth in Devon to Falmouth in Cornwall via a coastal route and which would pass through the naval town of Devonport and the industrial area of St Austell.  This proposal was supported by the Great Western Railway, as it wanted the line to join up with the South Devon Railway at Devonport and others routes that it operated.  However, Parliament rejected the proposal mainly because of William Moorsom‘s plan to carry trains across the Hamoaze on the Devonport-to-Torpoint Ferry.  The Hamoaze is an estuarine stretch of the tidal River Tamar, between its confluence with the River Lynher and Plymouth Sound.

Following the rejection of The Bill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was consulted and he agreed to take over as the engineer of the project and proposed that the railway line should cross the river further upstream via a bridge to be built at Saltash.  Parliament agreed to the change of plan with the result that The Act was passed on the 3rd August, 1846.


Royal_Albert_Bridge_2009Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar

The Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash was Brunel’s final bridge. The authorities demanded that it be a bridge with a minimum headway of 100 feet (30.5 metres) above mean high spring tide.

The River Tamar is 1,100 feet wide (335.28 metres) at the point where the Bridge was to be built.  Brunel planned originally to build a bridge with one 850 feet span, but the final accepted design was one with a double-span of 455 feet (138.7 metres) together with long approach viaducts.

The Company planned a two-way track across the Bridge, but the Cornwall Railway Company lacked sufficient funds to achieve this aim.  Despite settling for a sing track the Company went bankrupt.  Brunel decided to take on the contract himself and on the 4th July, 1853, the foundation for the first piers on the Cornish side of the River was lain down.

On the 1st September, 1857, the first Truss of the Bridge was floated into the centre of the River Tamar and then raised at a rate of 6 feet per WEEK by the use of Hydraulic Jacks.  On the 1st July, 1858, the Truss had been raised to its final height of 100 feet above the River.

The second Truss was floated into the centre of River on the 10th July, 1858 and work began to ease it into place.

2011-02-18_0024Royal Albert Bridege; this photograph appears with permission of the photographer, Ms Annie Barnes

A test train went across the Bridge on the 11th April, 1859 and, on the 2nd May, 1859, Prince Albert officially opened the Bridge.  Illness stopped Brunel from attending the Opening Ceremony and had to be represented by his Chief Assistant, Robert Brereton (1818-1894).  However, Brunel did cross it two days later in an open wagon.  The Bridge entered public services on the 4th May, 1859.

From Annie Barnes red.Royal Albert Bridege from beneath the Tamar Bridge; this photograph appears with permission of the photographer, Ms Annie Barnes

With Brunel’s death on the 15th September, 1859, the Company decided to make the Bridge a memorial to him with the adding of the following words in metal letters at the both ends of the Bridge:


Between the 21st and 22nd May, 1892, the Track Gauge over the Bridge was converted from Brunel  (7 feet 14 inch; 2,140 mm) to Standard Gauge (4 feet 8 12 inches; 1,435 mm), as part of the conversion process being undertaken by the Great Western Railway.


Royal AlbertIn 1952, the Royal Albert Bridge was Grade 1 listed by English Heritage


In 1961, the Tamar Bridge was opened, which runs adjacent to the Royal Albert Bridge.  The bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the U.K. and in 2001 became the world’s first suspension bridge to be widened using Cantilevers.

As attractive as the Tamar Bridge is, I cannot but feel that it would have been better for those of us who are admirers of Mr. Brunel had it been built a little further up- or downstream in order for both sides of his Bridge to be equally admired and enjoyed.  I wonder who makes these decisions.

Tamar_Bridge_from_train David McCormickTamar Bridge from train by David McCormick; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Click here

to watch the video, Great Britons: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson



In the midst of an illustrious carrier, Brunel was taken ill just before the SS Great Eastern was to make her Maiden Voyage to New York.  He had suffered a Stroke and died ten days later at the age of 53 on the 15th September, 1859.  Brunel was a heavy smoker and a work-a-holic and unfortunately a likely candidate for suffering a Stroke.

One week before his death (before GE) 2Mr. Brunel, one week before his death

Brunel was buried in his family’s grave at the Kensall Green Cemetery (All Souls Cemetery) with his parents.  Later, his wife and son would also be buried here.

Kensal Green Collage(Left); Main Entrance to the Kensal Green Cemetery, London

Grave Site CollageThe Brunel Family Grave, All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green, London


There is a Memorial to Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the outside of the western edge of the Temple Garden on Temple Place close to its junction with the Victoria Embankment.

The Memorial CollageMemorial to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Temple Garden

The Memorial was erected in 1877 and features a statue made of bronze.  This statue and that of George Stephenson (1803-1859) present at Euston Station were made by Baron Carlo Marochetti (1805-1867) and were originally planned to be placed in Parliament Square.  The masonry part of the Memorial was designed by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912).


Brunel Statue CollageStatues of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

In addition to this Memorial, there are a number of statues of him at Brunel University and Paddington Station, and also at Bristol, Plymouth, Swindon, Milford Haven and Saltash.  The statue once present at Neyland was stolen in 2010 and I presume that it is still missing.

A Memorial Window to Mr. Brunel was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1868 on the north side of the Nave, but was moved to the south side in 1952 together with some slight alterations being made.  The Window was designed by Norman Shaw with figures drawn by Henry Holiday and stained glass made by Heaton, Butler & Bayne.

Click here to see the Brunel Memorial Window


Apparently Brunel did not care about money and accolades.  He refused a Knighthood.  It seems that Prince Albert suggested to Queen Victoria that he be Knighted for his services to the country.  However, when offered Brunel refused it stating that it was enough reward to serve his country!  (It is a pity that some of the more recent Knights of the Realm did not refuse theirs!)

Brunel was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in June 1830.  He was a great supporter of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was a member of the building committee.

Brunel joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an Associate in January 1829 and became a Member in 1837.  He was elected to its council in 1845 and, from 1850 until his death, he held the position of Vice-President.  Brunel declined being President of the Institution in 1858 from ill-health.

UK, Civil Engineer Records, 1820-1930 2



As a final point, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was placed second in a BBC Public Poll to determine the 100 Greatest Britons with Winston Churchill being voted in first place …… and who can disagree with this?!!!



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I would like to thank Mr. Paul Bland for allowing his photographs to appear here.

I would also like to thank Ms Annie Barnes for her help and consideration and for allowing some of her photographs to appear here.

Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Dominic Rowe of the SS Great Britain Trust for his help and consideration and for allowing some of the Trust’s photographs (credited to Mr. David Noton) to appear here.

12 thoughts on “Isambard Kingdom Brunel

  1. Clair Sedore

    Charles, your material always astounds me, and I had never heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel before. I now feel fairly informed about this man’s genius. Thank you for such great research material. Since I met you online I have learned so much, not only about theatre, which is my main interest, but about material I did not know I had an interest in, prior you.

    Thanks so much

    1. Charles Post author

      Clair: Thank you very much for your comment. It is most flattering! I am glad that you enjoyed reading the piece and learning about one of the great minds of the Victorian Age (or of any age for that matter). Charles

  2. Peter lane

    Well done Charles, how long did that take? I regularly use, the box and Severn tunnels and often see the wonderful Clifton suspension bridge.
    A piece of his railway bridge over the river lough or is displayed near the new one. I will send you a pic.
    We visited the restored as Great Britain a few years ago

  3. Ray Bridgewater

    Dear Charles, never would I have guessed that as classmatmes together in Sir John Cass Foundation school in Aldgate, London, that you would be producing such interesting and fascinating history on your website. As a chartered engineer I am familiar with Brunel for his engineering feats, but must admit I had no detailed knowledge of his super achievements. Thank you for producing this very valuable piece of history. It is beholden on teachers of engineering to educate future engineers on this great mans skills.
    Thank you and best wishes, Ray

  4. rob humphreys

    Nice interesting piece Charles. While familiar with a couple of bridges I never knew he did so much in his lifetime.

  5. Dave Hill

    Charles, very good! I was familiar with his story. Always made me laugh, the pic of Brunel in front of the chains was reproduced in Brunel students union bar with the Rousseau quote “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”!

  6. Steve

    Thanks Charles.

    I’m currently enjoying this book:

    which is chock-full of interesting snippets about London and, of course, I.K. Brunel gets a couple of mentions – Hungerford Bridge (chains removed and used on Clifton Suspension Bridge as mentioned in your article) and the sideways launching of the Leviathan (later the Great Eastern) from near Millwall. His father, Marc Brunel, also mentioned in your article, is said to have got the idea of the excavation shield which enabled the Thames Tunnel to be built, from watching a worm nibbling its way through some wood and passing the material along its body and ejecting it at the back. It may be apocryphal, but it’s a good story anyway. He was in a debtor’s prison at the time.

    Good to see images of the S.S. Great Britain. One of the main donors for its restoration was ‘Union Jack’ Hayward, as you point out. He also, virtually single-handedly, rescued my football club, Wolverhampton Wanderers from near-oblivion. He used to watch Wolves as a youngster. The main stand at Molineux is now named after him.



  7. Kenneth Henderson

    Just got around to reading this wonderful article and what a long one it is. It seems that the people of the time considered their railways seriously in that the saw the value of building such wonderful railway termini, an expense they would not do today.

    I have just started a new book(to me) that I borrowed from my council library last week: THE ITALIAN BOY BY Sarah Wise, published 2004. Subtitled: Murder & Grave Robbery in 1830s London. It is full of many sketches from the period. So far it is a very well-written and involved story hovering around Guy’s Hospital, Old Bailey, City Road, the then new Covent Garden and mention of the 100 or so kids who used to bed down at the market every night. At over 300 pages I am going to really enjoy this slice of old London.

  8. Irene Pugh

    Thank you Charles for highlighting the genius and absolute brilliance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However, I for one, believe Brunel’s name should have been ahead of Winston S Churchill’s.

  9. Sharron

    A fascinating piece! As an Australian I had no idea about the contributions this extraordinary engineer had made – or, indeed, that the the SS Great Britain had plied the seas between the UK and Australia for such a long time.

  10. Ray Powers

    Charles good day to you. My farther worked on the GWR for 25 years and I loved Padd. I have always been interested in Brunel and you filled in a lot of missing bits for me. A very enjoyable read. I did get you email regarding Langley, did you get my reply?


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