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Brunel Biography
Home Entrance to Thames Tunnel (Private collection)

  Entrance to Thames Tunnel
  (National Trust)

Artist’s impression of Clifton Suspension Bridge (Private collection)

  Artist’s impression of Clifton
  Suspension Bridge (National Trust)

Thames Tunnel Banquet (Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

  Thames Tunnel Banquet
  (Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge
  Museum Trust)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Brunel Biography
Childhood and Family Background The 1820s The 1830s The 1840s and the 1850s
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Brunel in Context

The 1820s

In 1820, Isambard Kingdom Brunel travelled to France to acquire a more thorough academic grounding in his chosen field (there was no formal engineering training in Britain until the mid-nineteenth century).

He studied at the College of Caen in Normandy and the Lycée Henri Quatre in Paris. He also served an apprenticeship with Abraham Louis Breguet, a master-craftsman skilled in the making of watches and scientific instruments. Brunel returned to Britain on 21 August 1822 and joined his father’s drawing office at 29 Poultry Lane, London where he gained practical experience to complement his formal training. One of the projects his father passed over to him was the development of a gaz engine that Marc hoped would come to replace the steam engine: Brunel persevered with the project for several years but eventually abandoned it. While working in his father’s office, Brunel also made regular visits to the works of the engineers Maudslay, Son and Field in Lambeth to widen his experience.

Brunel was an ambitious young man, looking for fresh challenges, who chose for his motto En Avant – Get Going. He readily admitted to his need to be seen as important, perhaps in part compensating for his lack of physical stature (he was 5ft 3in/1.60m tall). He wrote in his diary:

My love of glory is so strong, even on a dark night, riding home, when I pass some unknown person who perhaps does not even look at me, I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony… I often do the most silly, useless things to attract the attention of those I shall never see again.

His admirers would later give him the nickname Little Giant. He was always willing to take risks and was prepared to invest his own money in his schemes as a point of principle, leading to occasional good fortune but also heavy losses.

In 1824, the Thames Tunnel Company was formed with Marc as its chief engineer and the Brunel family moved from fashionable Chelsea to the less salubrious Blackfriars. Construction of the tunnel began on 2 March 1825. Brunel was formally appointed its resident engineer on 3 January 1827. Despite his youth and lack of experience, he had been supervising work on the project for some time, gaining the respect of his men through his dedication and bravery. On 10 November 1827, Brunel organised a grand banquet in the tunnel to celebrate the resumption of work after a serious flood six months previously: 50 invited guests and 120 miners attended. The walls were hung with crimson drapes and candles blazed while the band of the Coldstream Guards played. This was an early example of Brunel’s awareness of the value of making a grand public gesture to generate interest in his work. Through his involvement with the Thames Tunnel, Brunel discovered his self-confidence and capacity for leadership, and he emerged from the project as a fully equipped engineer. (Read more about the Thames Tunnel on the Major Projects page).

ne of Brunel’s submissions for the Clifton Bridge competition (University of Bristol)

One of Brunel’s submissions for the Clifton Bridge competition
(University of Bristol)

In January 1828, Brunel was seriously injured during a major flood at the tunnel in which six men drowned. His knee was badly damaged by a falling timber and he also suffered internal injuries. When he was well enough to travel, Brunel spent his convalescence in Brighton and Bristol, where he heard of plans to build a bridge across the Avon at Clifton. In March 1831, one of Brunel’s designs submitted for the second Clifton Suspension Bridge competition was formally awarded first prize and a ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone on the Clifton side of the gorge took place on 21 June. In October that year, Brunel was sworn in as a special constable during the Bristol Riots, which were centred on Queen Square. He actually arrested a man who he unwittingly passed over to a fellow rioter disguised as a constable. The disruption caused by the rioting contributed to delays in the construction of the bridge as business confidence in the city fell. Although work was eventually resumed and the foundation stone for the abutment on the Leigh Woods side of the gorge was laid on 27 August 1836, the bridge was not completed until 1864 following another long period of inactivity. (Read more about the bridge on the Clifton Suspension Bridge page).

Ceremony of laying foundation stone at bridge (Private collection)

Ceremony of laying foundation stone at bridge (Private collection)

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