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Isambard Kingdom Brunel 1806-1859

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Isambard Kindom Brunel
Isambard Kindom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an almost legendary figure in British engineering. Embodying the energy and ambition of the period, he had a huge capacity for innovation in design, and was at the forefront of the group of engineers who enabled the industrial revolution.

Born in 1806, his father (prominent French engineer and inventor Sir Marc Brunel) always intended that he become part of the family business, sending him to France at the age of 14 to study practical mathematics. Upon his return he began work on his father's Thames Tunnel Project, helping establish the world's first pedestrian tunnel under a river. Brunel became famous for his involvement at all stages of the construction process, (cutting a characteristic figure onsite in muddy trousers and a stovepipe hat in the latter stages of his career) and was severely injured in 1828 when a flood damaged much of the tunnel. He went to Bristol to convalesce; but typically didn't remain idle whilst there, entering and winning a competition to design a bridge across the Avon Gorge. His pioneering design for the Clifton Suspension bridge was completed after his death.

In 1833 he proposed plans for the rail line from Bristol to London and was appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. Always good at imagining the practical realities of design, he wanted passengers to be unaware of the physical struggle of the train, and to this end incorporated bridges, tunnels, viaducts and embankments into lines, so that trains could move through the landscape as smoothly as possible, and passengers enjoy a uniquely luxurious travelling experience.

Paddington Station had to be a flexible space to accommodate the extra influx of people expected in London for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Brunel sat on a committee overseeing the construction of Crystal Palace for the exhibition, and used the same contractors to realize his design for Paddington's elegant arches and spacious roof. Another successful construction was the Royal Albert rail bridge over the Tamar; an attractive design crossing the river at its narrowest point. England's railway system was an immeasurable success. Transforming the possibilities of commerce and trade, it brought prosperity and modernity to the areas it served; and Brunel achieved great fame as its chief engineer.

Given how universally Brunel's designs are revered today, it's surprising to learn that during his own lifetime they were often subject to controversy. He fought for progress and forward-thinking in engineering, and had a long and only temporarily successful battle to try and get broad-gauge track used on all railways, to allow greater speed in train travel. Always seeking new challenges, he turned to shipbuilding, producing ideas for steamships far ahead of their time. The Great Eastern in particular was an unprecedented design: far and away the biggest ship ever created at that point, it featured a screw propeller and a wrought-iron hull. The project was heavily criticized and suffered major financial difficulties. Under great strain, he endured a major heart attack in 1859 whilst onsite. He died 10 days later; having been unable to witness the ship leave on its maiden voyage.

extract from 1851 census page

Brunel in the 1851 census

To view the full pages (in Acrobat format), click here for first page, click here for second page.

On the 1851 London census we can see him at the age of 44, with his wife Mary, mother Lady Sophia, and children Isambard, Henry Mark and Florence Mary. They're shown living at 17 and 18 Duke Street, Westminster, above the offices in the premises that they moved to as his business expanded.

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Find out more about the UK Census and life in Britain in 1851 on the UK 1851 Census website:

UK 1851 Census

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