The destination for history

Brunel: The second greatest Brit of all time?


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth and lived in London for almost all his life. Yet it is Bristol, a city where he never had any permanent residence, which jealously regards him as its own. Brunel gave the city its trademark Clifton Suspension Bridge and built its peerless rail link to London. In Bristol’s harbour, his mighty iron steamship, SS Great Britain, arguably the forerunner of all modern ships, is one of England’s leading heritage attractions.

It was not always like this. Many of his Bristolian contemporaries took a rather dim view of him. To John Latimer, Bristol’s great Victorian journalist and historian, Brunel was ‘an inexperienced theorist, enamoured of novelty, prone to seek for difficulties rather than to evade them, and utterly indifferent as to the outlay which his recklessness entailed upon his employers’. Too often, said Latimer, Brunel was allowed to ‘indulge his passion for experiments and novelties’ when what was needed was hard-headed common sense. Brunel, he went on, had done nothing to prevent Bristol’s relative commercial decline as a port, and may even have hastened it. When a new railway station was built at Temple Meads, it was to replace Brunel's original building which was widely derided by Bristolians.

In 1930, a painting by Ernest Board entitled ‘Some Who Have Made Bristol Famous’ was presented to Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery. This is a fanciful group portrait of figures from different eras in the city’s past. It requires an expert knowledge of Bristol’s history to name even a few of the thirty-nine local worthies in this immense daub, and hardly any will be known to a visitor from elsewhere. Several members of the Wills tobacco dynasty merit inclusion (one of them probably commissioned the painting); but of Brunel there is no trace. By 1930 he had been written out of Bristol’s history and, by and large, out of the nation’s history too. You will find scant mention of him, for instance, in children’s books on significant figures in national or engineering history before the 1980s.

It is very different nowadays. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics featured Sir Kenneth Branagh as Brunel, choreographing and conducting the Industrial Revolution. Brunel, we were given to understand, was not just a key figure in British history, but one of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world.

Brunel’s rehabilitation took many years, but had been complete ten years or more before the Olympiad. In a series of programmes in 2002, the BBC asked the public to vote on who they thought were the greatest Britons of all time, with a succession of celebrities, historians and media pundits advocating their own favourites. The case for Brunel was made forcefully by Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson: ‘Brunel built modern Britain and Britain built the world, which means Brunel built the world’. In the national poll, by telephone and internet, Winston Churchill took first place with 410,000 votes and Brunel came second with 350,000.

By Eugene Byrne

Clifton Suspension Bridge centenary

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books