The south-west city of Bristol recently made news headlines with the controversy around its past links to slavery. But the story highlighted how the port’s trading past is inextricably linked with its growth and development, and in particular with the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 50 years ago this month, his famous ship, the SS Great Britain, returned to its home city of Bristol to undergo renovation. Soul City Wanderer briefs on Bristol & Brunel.
In the early 19th century, Bristol was engaged in a struggle to help it keep up with a rival: the north-west industrial port of Liverpool. The man the city fathers turned to in their bid to reclaim supremacy was the up-and-coming engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel already had connections to the city. In the early 1830s, he had begun the construction of the famous Clifton suspension bridge over the river Avon.
As a young man, Brunel had a vision to create a fast ‘modern’ passage to the New World. This ‘Great Western’ route would link the two great metropolises of London and New York, using the latest technology in travel: steam trains and steamships. Bristol, of course sat right on the path as the obvious gateway. Its prestigious position would help the port regain an advantage over its northern rival. Bristol and Brunel were made for each other.
Brunel’s real genius was in tying his vision together in one vast engineering project. Thus, we have the Great Western Railway steaming in from London. For the 118-mile route to Bristol, Brunel designed the railway, trains, tunnels, viaducts, bridges and stations, including Paddington at one terminus, and Bristol Temple Meads at the other.
He got help from high places. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, left out the gauging recommendation in his 1835 GWR Railway Bill allowing Brunel a free hand in deciding it for himself. Up to that point, most tracks were four foot eight inches apart. Brunel’s tracks were seven feet apart. He’d worked out larger wheels meant less friction.
The GWR was started at both ends, London and Bristol. The missing piece of the jigsaw was the Box Hill area of Wiltshire. Brunel had a tunnel built underneath the hill, two miles through bare faced rock, which when completed in 1841, was the longest rail tunnel in the world. (It was revealed recently was that a large government cold war bunker constructed in this tunnel in the mid-20th century. It’s still there, albeit now bricked up and inaccessible).
Brunel’s GWR also broke the world record for the longest railway viaduct (at Wharncliffe, Ealing: 900ft) and the world record for the longest brick-built bridge span (Maidenhead: 128ft x 24ft). Indeed, his track, locomotive and bridge at Maidenhead were famously captured on canvas in Turner’s Rain, Steam & Speed.
The average speed of the locomotives was 44mph. Previously, London to Bristol by mail coach took 17 hours, the best part of two days travel. By Brunel’s GWR, just four hours. He also had the telegraph follow the railway line from London to Bristol. It meant the first instant communications system between any two cities in the world. A quantum leap that would also mean the standardisation of time across the country. Brunel’s contribution to the communication industry was further enhanced when he had the first cable laid under the sea from the UK to America. In effect, he brought the United States ‘online’.
Brunel’s first ship design, the SS Great Western, was launched on her maiden voyage from Bristol in April 1837. Two weeks later she was in New York, having set the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing.
But his SS Great Britain was truly something else. Built in Bristol between 1839-43, it was the first modern iron ocean liner. At 450ft long, it was also the largest ship ever seen. In addition, it was the first ship powered by a screw propeller (his father Marc Brunel’s invention). This was located centrally under the stern and weighed four tons. It had six blades which were 15 feet tip-to-tip. In rough oceans the paddles could come out of the water. The pistons were seven feet in diameter and the spanners two feet wide. Modern versions of such a ship are only five per-cent more efficient.
Unfortunately, on its fifth voyage, the Great Britain ran aground. It was subsequently used as an Australian emigrant ship, and later sat for many years storing wool off the Falklands Islands. It then found a famous role in WWII: some of its iron was scavenged to repair HMS Exeter, one of the Royal Navy ships that was damaged when engaging with the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee at the battle of the River Plate in 1939. Despite doing its bit for the war effort, the Great Britain was a shadow of its former self, lying upside down as a scrap in the waters off the Falklands.
Then, in July 1970, it was rescued, and brought back home to be renovated. By the time it had returned to Bristol, it had sailed over one million miles. Today, Brunel’s masterpiece has been restored to its former glory and proudly sits in Bristol harbour as the city’s major tourist attraction.
Bristol gave Brunel the opportunity to forge his reputation as one of the world’s greatest engineers. In return, Brunel helped Bristol boost its trade and industry like never before. Bristol is a great city. Brunel a great engineer. Together they created a great legacy.
The SS Great Britain and the Being Brunel Museum in Bristol is now reopen for visitors. Entry by timed tickets pre-booked via the website.