A Brief Biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

By Tim Lambert

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsea, Portsmouth on 9 April 1806. His father Isambard Marc Brunel was also an engineer. He was born in France in 1769 but he fled abroad in 1793 during the French Revolution. In 1799 he married Sophia Kingdom and they had 3 children, Sophia, Isambard, and Emma.

Isambard was sent to a boarding school in Hove then in 1820 he was sent to France to finish his education. He returned to England in 1822 and worked with his father as an engineer. In 1824 Marc Isambard Brunel was appointed Engineer to the Thames Tunnel Company. (The company was formed in 1824 to dig a tunnel under the Thames). Work on the project began in 1825 and Isambard Kingdom Brunel assisted his father. In January 1827 he was formally appointed Resident Engineer, in charge of day-to-day work.

However, all did not go well. In January 1829 water rushed into the tunnel and swept away Isambard and all the men working there. Isambard was rescued but 6 men died. Afterward, the tunnel was bricked up. Work on it did not begin again till 1836 and it was not completed till 1843.

Meanwhile, Isambard was left without a job so he went to Bristol where he learned of a plan to build a bridge across the Avon Gorge. Brunel’s design for a bridge was adopted and he was appointed Engineer of the Clifton Bridge. Work on the bridge began in 1831. However, there were riots in Bristol in 1831, and as a result work on the bridge stopped for 5 years. It began again in 1836 but the builders ran out of money and all work stopped in 1843. It began again in 1862. Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally opened in 1864, 5 years after Brunel’s death.

Brunel’s next project was the Great Western Railway. Plans for a railway from London to Bristol were made in 1833. An Act of Parliament allowing the building of the new railway was passed in 1835 and work began the same year. The first section of the Great Western Railway opened from London to Maidenhead in 1837. The last section of the railway opened in 1841.

Meanwhile, in July 1836 Brunel married Mary Horsley. They had a son named Isambard in May 1837. Another son, Henry was born in 1842. The couple also had a daughter called Florence.

Meanwhile, Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked on two great steamships. The Great Western Steamship Company was formed in 1836 and the Great Western was launched on 19 July 1837. After fitting out she left Bristol on her maiden voyage on 8 April 1838. A second ship, this one made with an iron hull, was launched on 19 July 1843. Great Britain made its maiden voyage in June 1845.

Among Brunel’s other projects were a railway from Bristol to Exeter, which was completed in 1844, and a railway from Swindon to Gloucester, which opened in 1845.

In 1844 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed engineer of the South Wales Railway, which opened to Swansea in 1850. It opened to Milford Haven in 1856.

Brunel designed the Chepstow railway bridge which opened in 1852. Brunel also designed a bridge from Saltash to Plymouth, which opened in 1859.

Brunel also designed a third great steamship the Great Eastern, which was launched in 1858.

However, in 1858 Brunel was diagnosed with a kidney disease called Bright’s disease so in November he went abroad to relax. Brunel and his family spent Christmas in Egypt then they spent some time in Italy before returning to England in May 1859. On 5 September 1859 Brunel suffered a stroke. Isambard Kingdom Brunel died on 15 September 1859.

A Monument to Brunel in Portsmouth