After being welcomed by Chairman, Chris Bellamy, Richard started by outlining Brunel’s family background and his unusual Christian names. “Isambard” (from the German “Eisenbart”, meaning “iron beard”) came from his French civil engineer father Marc Isambard Brunel, while “Kingdom” was from his governess mother, Sophia Kingdom. He was born in April 1806 in Portsmouth and had a happy and fruitful upbringing in spite of his father’s financial shortcomings. Most of his serious training took place in France, from which he returned in 1822. His father, Marc, had been working in New York supplying blocks to the expanding British navy. He returned to Portsmouth to continue in similar work but his greatest achievement came with the construction of the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, starting in 1825. In spite of the many dangers and difficulties it still exists today as part of the underground system. A museum at Rotherhithe displays some of the original artefacts.
The tunnel was completed in Marc’s lifetime but young Isabard had no further involvement with the tunnel after its completion. Instead, he used the abandoned site at Rotherhithe for his experiments with gas power. These turned out an utter failure. His main break-through came in 1833 with his appointment as chief engineer to the Great Western Railway, which ran from London to Bristol with a later extension to Exeter. As well as being the designer of Paddington Station, Brunel’s growing fame and status led inevitably to his involvement in bridge construction, many of which survive to this day. Richard showed pictures of the most famous, such as the Hungerford Bridge, the Maidenhead Railway Bridge - which, at the time, the largest brick arch bridge span - the Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar, and, of course, the iconic Bristol Suspension Bridge.
But Brunel’s vision extended even wider, seeing his railway as the stepping point to further destinations. This led to his other great exploit: Transatlantic Shipping. Pioneering work had been achieved in 1819 with the SS.Savannah, the first steam-assisted sailing ship to cross the Atlantic. In 1835, work started on the SS Great Western, financed by the newly-formed Great Western Steamship Company.
It was a wooden paddle steamer, built in Bristol at a cost of £35,000, although the engines were made in Lambeth. It was launched in 1837 and had its maiden voyage in 1838, crossing the Atlantic to New York with just seven passengers! However it went on to become a successful boat commercially. Its life included two Essex connections. During a fire in the Thames just off Leigh-on-Sea, Brunel fell down a ladder and broke his leg. Three crew members managed to row him ashore for treatment at Canvey Island. The ship was also involved in the drainage of Tollesbury marshes. It was finally scrapped at Millbank in 1856.
In spite of its success, SS Great Western illustrated the shortcomings of paddles as a means of propulsion. They were fine in rivers and on lakes, but the rough waters of ocean travel frequently lifted the paddles out of the water, causing major damage to the engines. Screws were clearly the way forward and were installed in the next of Brunel’s great ships, the iron-hulled SS Great Britain, built in Bristol in 1843. Its launch in 1844 was attended by Prince Albert. After a year of successful Atlantic crossings, it went aground at Dumdrum Bay, County Down. It was salvaged without too much damage but its short glory days were over and it was used to transport emigrants to Australia. It saw War Service in the Crimea at Balaclava Harbour in 1856 as a coal transporter and wool store. It ended its days in the Falkland Islands. Some of its metal salvage was used to repair the damage on HMS Exeter after the Battle of the River Plate in 1939. After much publicity and fund-raising it was towed back in 1970 to the Avon Gorge in Bristol where a major restoration was undertaken. It is now a popular and much-visited museum.
In 1852, Brunel turned to the third and last of his great ships, the Great Eastern, which was larger by far than its predecessors, earning the nickname Leviathan. The Isle of Dogs was chosen for its construction because it had the famous London Ironworks, which had successfully built other famous vessels, such as HMS Warrior. It was built as a double-skinned iron ship in the John Scott Russell shipyard. During the construction, a workman fell down between the two iron skins, never to be seen again. In fact, shipyard work was highly dangerous, with many major accidents and injuries. The works had an “ambulance” which was basically a wooden wheelbarrow. The Poplar Hospital was opened in 1855, specifically to treat injuries sustained in the shipyards. Although much of the original site has gone, such as the huge gates of Millwall Dock, there is an ambiance that persists till today. West Ham Football Club has for its logo two crossed hammers of the type used on the shipyard while part of the original plate is on display at Canning Town tube station. Because of its huge size, the Great Eastern had to be constructed 'sideways on'. Part of the original launching ramp can be seen in the Thames at low tide.
The Great Eastern was completed in 1857; 3000 tickets were sold for its launch in November of that year. After two trial trips it had its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 17 June 1860. The ship was the same size as a modern cruise ship but in spite of this (or because of?) it was not a success as a passenger ship. The intended long-haul to Australia was abandoned because of the shallowness of the Suez Canal. It was used to good effect in the laying of the first transatlantic telephone cable but it ended its days being used for entertainment and advertising. It was finally beached and broken up off Birkenhead in 1888. One of its flagpoles is on display at Liverpool FC.
In the meantime, Brunel, a heavy smoker, had suffered a stroke in September 1859 and died ten days later at the age of 53. He was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery. In 2019, an anniversary ceremony at the cemetery was attended by a piper and Brunel’s great-great-granddaughter. His son, Henry Marc, went on to be a successful engineer and worked with Sir John Wolfe Barry on the construction of Tower Bridge.