Friday, 23 October 2020

Brunel and his family - by Sue Purkiss

I've mentioned before that I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, which sits in the dry dock where it was originally built on Bristol Harbourside. (I've also written a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage.) I was there the other day, and spent part of the afternoon in one of my favourite places there, in the new museum called Being Brunel, which is about the man himself and all the other projects he worked on apart from the beautiful ship.

Part of the Duke Street Office

I was in the replica of Brunel's office in Duke Street, London - he lived in London, though he had a close association with Bristol since he came to recuperate there after a serious accident in the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he and his father Marc were constructing beneath the Thames. Never one to be idle, he became aware of a competition to design a suspension bridge to cross the Avon Gorge - and then later, decided to tender for the new railway line to be built from London to Bristol. Then after that, he decided, with typical panache, that the next step was a passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, so that people could travel from London all the way through to New York. So he built first the Great Western, a paddle steamer - and then the immensely innovative Great Britain, noted for being built of iron, for running on steam as well as sail, for being driven by a propellor rather than a paddle wheel - and of course for its size.

The Duke Street office is a large and pleasant room. The window looks out on St James's Park. It is lined with wooden panelling, and there are, from memory, two large desks. On one of them Brunel's cigar sits ready for him to pick it up - he was an inveterate smoker, getting through more than forty a day. Letters and other papers are scattered over the desk. In one corner is a comfortable armchair, with a glass of sherry on the table beside it. On a shelf is a model of a machine which his father, another engineer, had designed to facilitate the production of the wooden blocks required to operate sails. Family was very important to Brunel, and his father was a great influence.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

It feels as if he has just gone out of the room, and might wander back in at any minute. He feels very close. Mind you, if he did appear, it could well be very disconcerting (apart from for the obvious reasons). He was an impatient man who could be irascible: one of my favourite quotes is something he wrote to an associate whose work he deemed to be inadequate: "You have wasted more of my time than your whole life is worth!" He drove himself mercilessly, and he expected similar dedication from others. Probably he sensed, towards the end of his life, that his time was unusually limited: he died when he was only fifty three.

I'm very interested in the extent to which history is affected by charismatic individuals. That was partly why I was drawn to King Alfred, about whom I also wrote a book, Warrior King. Certainly, if Brunel had not had the character he did, the Great Britain would not have been built in the way that it was. The fact that it was successfully constructed from steel meant, counterintuitively, that ships could be bigger: there is a line that directly connects the vessels which carry goods around the world today with Brunel's ship. It meant that that they could carry sufficient coal to power steam engines, which would carry them further and faster. (Though at this point in time, as we slowly begin to realise what we are doing to the environment, we may wonder about whether this was or was not 'a good thing'...)

Marc Brunel

But as I chatted to visitors about Sir Marc's machine, and about how different in character the two of them - both brilliant engineers - were, I realised that my interest in the Brunels is not just down to their engineering achievements. I'm interested in the family, and I'd like to know more about it. In his portraits, Sir Marc looks like a much more genial character than his son was; there's a glint of humour in his eyes. He was French, but was on the wrong side of the Revolution and so had to leave his country, spending some time in America before eventually arriving in Britain, where he was reunited with an English girl, Sophia, whom he had met in France during those turbulent years. Their marriage was evidently a long and very happy one.

Colleagues at the ship, who know far more about engineering than I do (not difficult), think that Marc was actually the more innovative, creative engineer of the two. But he seems to have lacked the drive of his restless son; he had brilliant ideas, but he didn't have a sure hand when it came to making money - and was indeed in a debtors' prison at one stage, where his loyal Sophia joined him.

Sophia Hawes

He was a devoted father. There are letters and diary entries that show this. There's one from his daughter Sophia, where she fondly remembers how her father would take the children for walks and teach them to observe nature, and then go back home and draw it: there's a lovely drawing of a horse which Isambard did at at the age of six. Sophia says wistfully something to the effect that of course Isambard, being a boy, was able to pursue his studies seriously: she, a girl, could only do so up to a point.

Also in Being Brunel there is a replica of Brunel's dining room, where there are three talking portraits. One is of Sophia. She speaks fondly of her brother, to whom she was evidently very close - he spent a great deal of time at the home she shared with her husband, Sir Benjamin Hawes.

I'm intrigued by Sophia, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of information available about her. There's even less about the middle child, Emma: and very little about Brunel's wife, Mary. Hm... I wonder...


Susan Price said...

Thanks for this. Brunel may well have helped to destroy the ecosphere, but he was still talented and fascinating. And the museum is one of the best I've ever seen.

It's always hard to grasp that the Great Britain was the largest ship of its time, though. When I first walked through the doors onto its dry dock I was gobsmacked by how tiny it was!

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Definitely another museum for my 'To visit' list! It sounds fascinating and the replica of Brunel's office looks wonderful. As you say, one can almost imagine him walking in to resume work at his desk, or perhaps sip his sherry.

Like you, I am always fascinated by an individual's family and the various dynamics within it. It sounds as if you may have identified your next area of research!

Thank you for a great post, Sue. I really enjoyed reading it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Sue and Caroline. It's a wonderful museum - you should definitely visit!