The  brilliant British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born at Portsmouth  in 1806, the son of a highly regarded French engineer.  Many thousands of Australians have a connection with Brunel as  their ancestors emigrated on his innovative steamship, the SS Great Britain.

At the tender age of twenty, Brunel assumed responsibility for the construction of the world’s first passenger tunnel below a navigable river.  It was bored beneath  the Thames at  Rotherhithe, south of London.  Appropriately,  the tunnel’s old pump house is now a museum dedicated to  his life and work.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

In 1833 Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer for  the  Great Western Railway,  including the design of  its stations, tunnels, viaducts and bridges.  Hanging in London’s National Gallery is  J.M.W. Turner’s  atmospheric 1844 painting titled  Rain, Steam and Speed on the GWR. It shows a train charging across Brunel’s famous railway bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead in Berkshire.  Turner painted a hare running for its life along the tracks, although despite inspecting the picture closely enough to raise the suspicion of gallery staff, my companion had to point it out to me.


The rail network provided country people with cheap and convenient access to England’s towns and  cities  It expanded their  horizons,  leading many to dream of making a new life on the other side of the world.

When Maidenhead bridge was completed in 1839 critics claimed its brick span of 39 metres (the world’s widest and flattest) would collapse under the weight of  heavy steam trains.  Initially, some of the scaffolding was left in place ‘just in case’. Brunel would be happy to know that 160 years later, dozens of  express trains cross it safely every day.  For visitors, an intriguing feature of the bridge is  its  ‘sounding arch’, where a  clap of the hands resounds like a volley of gunfire.  

As well as carrying the rail line across rivers, Brunel was forced to find a way through the hard limestone of Box Hill, between Bath and Swindon. He designed what was then the world’s longest tunnel,  at 2,947metres.  The project  took five years to complete, between 1836 and 1841.  Work was carried out by candlelight using only pick and shovel and crude explosives. 100 men lost their lives, mainly due to blasting accidents.  On a lighter note, the tunnel is said to be aligned in such a way that the sun shines straight through it on Brunel’s birthday, April 9th. 

The flamboyant Brunel’s career as a ship builder began in 1837 with the launch of the Great Western, and six years later he designed the SS Great Britain. Built in Bristol, she was the first screw propelled, iron hulled passenger vessel.  Between 1852 and 1875 this ship made 32 trips to Australia,  transporting 16,000 emigrants, including  one Richard Mayne  from Hertfordshire. Richard’s  great grand-daughter, Christine Smith, tells me  that  Richard and his family left Liverpool on February 17th 1861,  eventually settling in the prosperous Victorian gold mining town  of Ballarat.  His children dispersed to Western Australia and Tasmania, and I was delighted to hear that  a Mayne descendant later helped lay the tracks for the rail line at Burnie.  It was also in 1861 that the SS Great Britain carried the first English cricket team to  Australia (honesty forces me to admit that  they won significantly  more matches than  their colonial cousins).

Built by Brunel, SS Great Britain
Brunel’s SS Great Britain on display in dry-dock at Bristol.

In 1869, steerage passengers to Melbourne paid 15 guineas for a journey of approximately 60 days.  Their quarters were airless and  cramped and they were  required to provide their own mess utensils and bedding. However,  the voyage was far quicker and more comfortable than that endured by our earlier, ‘forced emigrants’;  the convicts.

The SS Great Britain later became a freight carrier, ending up as a moored storage hulk in the Falkland Islands.  In 1937 she was scuppered off Port Stanley but  in 1970 the decision was made to refloat her and tow her back to her birthplace; the dry-dock at Bristol.   Over the next  thirty five years she was completely restored; a truly mammoth project.

Thanks to the  detailed  and imaginative re-creation of cabins, public rooms and service areas (kitchen, bakery, barber’s shop, surgery, etc) it is now possible to experience life aboard ship exactly as those  Victorian era passengers did. It should be remembered that for a privileged few, the voyage to Australia was essentially a luxurious and lengthy cruise.   First  class passengers paid between 60 and 70 guineas for well appointed cabins, exclusive use of the promenade deck and top quality meals served in  a sumptuously decorated  dining room.

Brunel, along with Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, is one of my great heroes. Visiting the Great Eastern I was actually able to ‘meet him’ 😎 Mind you, I don’t think he was overly impressed.

A chance to 'meet' Brunel

An adjacent  museum  helps bring the past alive through diaries and letters written aboard ship and the personal belongings of passengers and  crew.  However, the most poignant object on display is a funnel from the ship’s ill-fated sister ship, the Great Eastern, also designed by Brunel for the Australian run  in 1858.   Built in London, she was  207 metres long; six times larger than any vessel afloat and  capable of carrying  4,000 passengers.  During the dangerous  work of rivetting,  children were employed to  crawl into confined areas behind the ship’s iron shell.

The Great Eastern  was intended as the first modern ocean liner but bad omens surrounded her from the outset. There were delays in construction due to financial disputes  and on Brunel’s  final visit to the yard on September 5th 1859 he suffered a stroke.  Ten days later, as the ship made her way down the English Channel, one of her huge boilers burst, destroying the funnel and killing six men.  A devastated Brunel died shortly after hearing the news. Subsequently there were stories that the ship was haunted, as strange tapping noises were heard coming from her bilge. Due to a loss of public confidence  the Great Eastern  never did take emigrants  to  Australia.  Her greatest claim to fame was in  laying the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865.

Many people  believed the ship’s  ‘tapping’ mystery was solved in 1888, when she was finally broken up on a beach near Liverpool. Workmen found two skeletons in the  bilge with  a riveter’s hammer lying beside them.  Tragically, one of the skeletons was that of a child.    

After visiting  SS Great Britain, it is worth taking  time out to admire another of  Brunel’s great achievements in Bristol; the elegant Clifton suspension bridge. In  1830  the  then twenty four year old won a competition to design a bridge over the Avon River.  Construction commenced in 1836 but ground to a halt due to lack of funds. It was finally completed in 1864, as a memorial to Brunel.

It is often said that Australians are born with wanderlust and certainly the Aussie accent can be heard in the most remote regions of the world. Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to Isambard Brunel, who not only transported our ancestors via rail and sea but   pioneered  recreational travel. It is  a tribute to his genius that the Great Western Railway still carries Australian tourists to Bath and beyond via two of his engineering icons;  Maidenhead Bridge and the Box Tunnel.


For Rail buffs, the Museum of the Great Western Railway is located at Kemble Drive,  Swindon, in Wiltshire.

Information on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain  and other attractions  around Bristol is available at

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