History Group Talks December 2013

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                       This month's illustrated talk was given by Brian Portch and the subject was
                       Isambard Kingdom Brunel the Victorian Engineer. (09.04.1806 - 15.09.1859)

 This talk covered a great deal of his engineering constructions and also quite a lot about the man himself and his family. This is just a résumé of an interesting talk
His work added so much to the development of public transport - just think of the bridges he constructed and of course "Gods Wonderful Railway" - Great Western Railway, G. W. R. - here in the South West.  The Bridge at Plymouth over the River Tamar connecting Devon to Cornwall, The Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol and the ships and railway, when he died at 53 years old what a heritage he left us all, and the majority of his work can still be seen today in 2013. His father Sir Marc Brunel, (1769-1849) an eminent engineer and entrepreneur himself, in 1803, built at Portsmouth a 'factory to produce on an assembly line style'  over 100,000 wooden pulley blocks a year, for the Navy. He was way ahead of his time as he developed a 'mass production' system. Sir Marc married Sophia Kingdom hence her maiden name was co-opted into Isambard's name. This often happened especially when money was brought into the family by the wife. I. K. Brunel was educated at Chelsea, Hove, Normandy, Paris by an horologist and in London by a toolmaker. All this proved a great asset as he matured into the man we all know of today. Brian showed us a photograph of a wonderful drawing of a horse, done by Isambard when he was only 6 years old. As he grew up his motto was not always to be the cheapest when tendering for a construction. “Build it big and make it look good” was his style. He constructed a tunnel under the Thames connecting the Docks to the south with the Markets on the north of the river, completed in 1843. He was reputed to have held a banquet in the tunnel as a publicity stunt to prove its safety. It was meant for horse drawn wagons but was eventually used for pedestrians. In 1831 he began to build The Clifton Suspension Bridge - unfortunately he died before its completion in 1864. This was a great tribute to I. K. B. In c1833 he tendered and won the contract to build the Bristol to London railway - 118 miles of ‘broad-gauge track - 7ft and one quarter inch wide. The section from London to Swindon was level and he built a depot there. Swindon became famous as a result. The section from Swindon to Bristol was more exacting. He constructed the Bath Box Tunnel and a terminal at Bristol Temple Meads with sheds for passengers and equipment by 1841. Another venture at Starcross, he constructed an ‘atmospheric railway’ but this did not really work to any great satisfaction. The building is there today. To ‘bridge’ valleys he built viaducts, and to reduce expense he built one near Ivybridge with timber trestles. This was to reduce expense when repairs were needed. The pillars are still there today close by the replacement bridge of 1893.  One of the most famous achievements and well known to all living here in The South West is the Royal Albert Bridge - Plymouth to Saltash. This remarkable construction began in 1853 built with most of Plymouth looking on. A revolution in design and was completed in 1859. This is still in use today with a speed limit of 15 mph carrying greater weights now than he originally intended.  His railway terminals were built like palaces, Paddington with its 700 feet long glass roof is an example. Then there were his ship building enterprises. ss Great Western built to take passengers from Bristol to New York, launched 19th July 1837. This ship was a paddle steamer built with a wooden hull.  This ship was superseded by the ss Great Britain, launched 19th July 1843. This was much larger ship with an iron hull and a screw propeller.  It had many uses, liner, troopship, windjammer, coal conveyor and ultimately beached at Sparrow Cove, in the Falklands in 1937. His final ship ss Great Eastern was even bigger, 692 feet in length. It had an iron hull, a screw propeller and paddle wheels. Built on the Thames and floated out into the river sideways on as it was too large to launch in the conventional way. SS Great Eastern was intended to take passengers to Australia but when the Suez canal opened she could not compete with the shorter travelling time as she was far too large. She was broken up in 1889/90 after being used for the first cable laying across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland. One of its masts was erected outside Anfield Football Ground and it is still there today. In the Crimean war I. K. B. was asked by his brother-in-law, Sir Benjamin Hawes who was Permanent Under Secretary at the War Office, to get a quickly constructed hospital sent there for the injured troops, he completed this in 6 months. This was the beginning of the actions taken today in emergencies like shelterbox and red cross etc. SS Great Britain is now back in Bristol. Brought back to Britain from the Falklands and docked there on 19th July 1970. Note the date. 127 years to the day of her launching. WHG members have visited the ship now still undergoing repairs and maintenance - a tribute to a great man.
A final photograph to emphasise the skill of British Engineering, showed that wonderful aeroplane ‘Concorde’ passing over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  Victorian engineering skill and modern technology captured in one emotive picture. 


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