Apr 092014


Today is the birthday (1806) of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS, British mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous revolutionary bridges and tunnels. His designs utterly transformed public transport and modern engineering.

Though Brunel’s projects were not always successful, they often contained innovative solutions to long-standing engineering problems. During his short career, Brunel achieved many engineering “firsts,” including assisting in the building of the first tunnel under a navigable river and development of SS Great Britain, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship, which was at the time (1843) also the largest ship ever built.  There’s too much to say about all his projects so I am going to say a little about his personal life and then focus on the Great Western Railway (GWR) which is dear to my heart because I lived on it, and used it both for commuting and for long distance travel all the time.

Brunel was the son of French civil engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom (hence his middle name). He was born in Britan Street, Portsea Island which lies within Portsmouth in Hampshire.  At the time his father was working on block-making machinery. His family moved to London in 1808 for his father’s work. Brunel had a happy childhood, despite the family’s constant money worries, with his father acting as his teacher during his early years. His father taught him drawing and observational techniques from the age of four, and he had learned Euclidean geometry by eight. During this time he also became fluent French and mastered the basic principles of engineering. His father encouraged him to draw interesting buildings and identify any faults in their structure.

When Brunel was eight he was sent to Dr Morrell’s boarding school in Hove, where he learned the classics. His father, a Frenchman by birth, was determined that Brunel should have access to the high-quality education he had enjoyed in his youth in France. Accordingly, at the age of 14, he was enrolled first at the College of Caen in Normandy, then at Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris.

When Brunel was 15, his father, who had accumulated debts of over £5,000, was sent to a debtors’ prison. After three months went by with no prospect of release, Marc let it be known that he was considering an offer from the Tsar of Russia (perhaps a bluff). In August 1821, facing the prospect of losing a prominent engineer, the government relented and issued Marc £5,000 to clear his debts in exchange for his promise to remain in Britain.

When Brunel completed his studies at Henri-Quatre in 1822, his father had him presented as a candidate at the renowned engineering school École Polytechnique, but as a foreigner he was deemed ineligible for entry. Brunel subsequently studied under the prominent master clockmaker and horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, who praised Brunel’s potential in letters to his father. In late 1822, having completed his apprenticeship, Brunel returned to England where he took up work as a civil engineer, assisting his father in the construction of the Thames Tunnel.

In 1833 (at age 27), before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain, running from London to Bristol and later Exeter. The company was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. It was Brunel’s vision that passengers would be able to purchase one ticket at London Paddington and travel from London to New York, changing from the Great Western Railway to the Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland in South Wales. He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself, with the help of many including his Solicitor Jeremiah Osborne of the Bristol law firm Osborne and Clarke, who one occasion rowed Brunel down the River Avon himself to survey the bank of the river for the route.

Brunel made two controversial decisions: to use a broad gauge of 7 ft ¼ in (2.14 m) for the track, which he believed would offer superior running at high speeds; and to take a route that passed north of the Marlborough Downs—an area with no significant towns, though it offered potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester—and then to follow the Thames Valley into London. His decision to use broad gauge for the line was controversial in that almost all British railways to date had used standard gauge, that is, 4 ft 8 1?2 in (1.435 m). Brunel said that standard gauge was nothing more than a carry-over from the mine railways that George Stephenson had worked on prior to making the world’s first passenger railway. Brunel proved through both calculation and a series of trials that his broader gauge was the optimum size for providing both higher speeds and a stable and comfortable ride to passengers. In addition the wider gauge allowed for larger carriages and thus greater freight capacity.



Drawing on Brunel’s experience with the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western contained a series of impressive achievements—soaring viaducts such as the one in Ivybridge, specially designed stations, and vast tunnels including the Box Tunnel, which was the longest railway tunnel in the world at that time. There is an anecdote that the Box Tunnel may have been deliberately oriented so that the rising sun shines all the way through it on Brunel’s birthday.  It was excavated starting from both ends at the same time, and when the workers met the two tunnels were off by inches, such was Brunel’s skill.


The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory, apart from the North Star locomotive, so Brunel appointed 20-year-old Daniel Gooch (later Sir Daniel) as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate their locomotive works at the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon valley at Bath, and where locomotives were changed.

brunel7 CRE

After Brunel’s death the decision was taken that standard gauge should be used for all railways in the country. Despite the Great Western’s claim of proof that its broad gauge was the better (disputed by at least one Brunel historian), the decision was made to use Stephenson’s standard gauge, mainly because this had already covered a far greater amount of the country. However, by May 1892 when the broad gauge was abolished the Great Western had already been re-laid as dual gauge (both broad and standard) and so the transition was a relatively painless one. At the original Welsh terminus of the Great Western railway at Neyland, sections of the broad gauge rails are used as handrails at the quayside, and a number of information boards there depict various aspects of Brunel’s life. There is also a larger than life bronze statue of him holding a steamship in one hand and a locomotive in the other.

dual gauge

dual gauge

The present London Paddington station was designed by Brunel and opened in 1854.The train shed design was much copied by British engineers around the world, including in Buenos Aires.


Examples of his designs for smaller stations on the Great Western and associated lines which survive in good condition include Mortimer, Charlbury, and Bridgend (all Italianate) and Culham (Tudorbethan). Surviving examples of wooden train sheds in his style are at Frome and Kingswear. The great achievement in building the Great Western Railway has been immortalized at Swindon Steam Railway Museum, but, for me, just simply traveling the lines is enough.

Overall, there were negative views as to how society viewed the railways. Some landowners felt the railways were a threat to amenities or property values and others requested tunnels on their land so the railway could not be seen. On the whole, however, the public viewed railways positively as immortalized by Turner.


The GWR was called by some “God’s Wonderful Railway” and by others the “Great Way Round,” but it was famed as the “Holiday Line” taking many people to English Channel and Bristol Channel resorts in the West Country and the south-west of Wales such as Torquay, Dartmouth, Minehead and Tenby. The company’s locomotives, many of which were built in the company’s workshops at Swindon, were painted a Brunswick green color while, for most of its existence, it used a two-tone “chocolate and cream” livery for its passenger coaches. Goods wagons were painted red but this was later changed to mid-grey.


Great Western trains included long-distance express services such as the Flying Dutchman, the Cornish Riviera Express and the Cheltenham Spa Express. It also operated many suburban and rural services, some operated by steam railmotors or autotrains. The company pioneered the use of larger, more economic goods wagons than were usual in Britain. It operated a network of road motor (bus) routes, was a part of the Railway Air Services, and owned ships, docks and hotels.

I’m pleased to say that Brunel was not only a great engineer, but a trifle eccentric. Well, he’s British after all.  He was so absent-minded that he caressed the hand of a lady, not his wife, at dinner. He would get on the wrong coach and not realize until he had traveled a long way. He would forget his own name; hand out other people’s calling cards. But he had great presence of mind too: once he was inspecting the Birmingham railway, and found himself between two lines when two trains were approaching from opposite directions. While spectators stood in horror, he buttoned up his coat, brought the skirts close to his body, and stood firmly between the two railway lines. The trains swept past and left him unscathed.


The GWR had splendid restaurant cars for long distance trips with trains specifically advertizing that they did not make long stops at meal times.  The menus were much the same as could be found in good restaurants so, in theory, I could serve you up any good Victorian recipe from Isabella Beeton. But everyone who used the restaurant cars on the GWR in the post-war era will have not-so-fond memories of the pallid liquid that was served under the name “brown Windsor soup.” It was an inedible thin brown fluid that was cheaply made and canned and simply reheated on the trains.  It was the kind of muck that gave English cooking a bad name in the 1950’s and 60’s.  However, the original is a marvel.  It was queen Victoria’s favorite soup and was often served at royal banquets.  Here is an original recipe.  Some people serve the soup without using a blender but this is a mistake.  In Victorian times it was a “royal” pain mashing and straining the ingredients, but that is how it was made.  Thank your stars for modern technology.


Brown Windsor Soup


2 tbsps butter
¼ lb stewing beef
¼ lb lamb steak (or mutton if available)
4 cups rich beef stock
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
2 tbsps flour
1 bouquet garni
salt and pepper
¼ teaspoon chili powder or cayenne pepper
½ cup cooked rice (optional)
¼ cup madeira wine (optional)


Cut the lamb and beef into cubes and dredge with the flour.  Shake off any excess flour and reserve it.

Place the butter in a large saucepan over a low to medium heat and melt to a light brown. Sauté  the meat until browned and then add the rest of the flour and sauté until the butter and flour form a golden roux.

Add the sliced vegetables, stock and bouquet garni. Partly cover the saucepan and simmer very gently for 2 hours.

Purée the soup in batches in a blender before adding the cooked rice if you are using it (I don’t) and return to the pan to reheat. Serve very hot with crusty bread rolls. Traditionally a tablespoon of Madeira would be stirred into the soup at the table.