The world, we live in, is spectacular in many ways. Its evolution to a modern civilization, gradually and steadily, has seen legendary professionals achieving the unexpected! Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, a French-born engineer is one such name. The construction of the Thames Tunnel was his greatest achievement!
Johnny D explores the life of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel in the Legendary Series.

Jean Charles, Marc’s father, was a prosperous farmer in Hacqueville, Normandy. Marc was born on the 25th of April 1769 on the family farm. He was the second son of Jean Charles Brunel and Marie Victoire Lefebvre. During the 18th Century, it was customary for the first son to inherit the farm and the second son to enter the priesthood. Marc was put to classical education. Destiny had something else stored for him. Young Marc showed proficiency in Drawing and Mathematics, instead of liking Greek or Latin for priesthood. At the age of 11, he was sent to a Seminary in Rouen. The Superior of the Seminary allowed him to learn carpentry. Destined, he achieved the standards of a cabinetmaker. His inclination towards drawing took him to local harbour, where he used to sketch ships.
Marc was very musical from an early age. He showed no desire to become a priest. Jean Charles sent his son to stay with relatives in Rouen. It was here, Marc learned about naval matters from a family friend, who tutored him. In 1786, Marc became a naval cadet on a French frigate. During his service, he visited the West Indies several times. He made an octant for himself of brass and ivory and used it during his service. The French Revolution began in 1789, during Brunel’s service abroad. Three years later, in January 1792, Brunel’s frigate paid off its crew. He returned once again to live with his relatives in Rouen.

Like other inhabitants of Normandy, Marc was a Royalist sympathizer. Whilst visiting Paris in January 1793, during the trial of Louis XVI, Brunel unwisely publicly predicted the demise of Robespierre, one of the leaders of the Revolution. He was lucky to get out of Paris with his life and returned to Rouen. It was evident for Brunel to leave France. Brunel met Sophia Kingdom, a young Englishwoman, who was an orphan and was working as a governess in Rouen. He was forced to leave Sophia behind, when he fled to Le Havre to board the American ship Liberty, bound for New York.

On the 6th of September 1793, Brunel arrived in New York. He travelled to Philadelphia and Albany. It is in America, where his creativity was acknowledged. He got involved in a scheme to link the Hudson River by canal with Lake Champlain. He also submitted a design for the new Capitol building to be built in Washington. Even though his design was not selected, the judges were very impressed with the design. In 1796, Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the city of New York after taking American citizenship. He went onto designed various houses, docks, commercial buildings, an arsenal, and a cannon factory. No official records exist of the projects that he carried out in New York. In all likely, the documents related to his projects were destroyed in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.

During a dinner conversation in 1798, Brunel learnt the Royal Navy was facing difficulties in obtaining the 100,000 pulley blocks, it required each year to fit out its ships. Each of these was being made by hand then. Brunel quickly produced an outline design of a machine, which would automate the production of pulley blocks. He decided to sail to England and put his invention before the Admiralty. On the 7th of February 1799, he sailed for England with a letter of introduction to the Navy Minister. His ship Halifax landed at Falmouth on the 7th of March.

Sophia Kingdom had remained in Rouen. During the Reign of Terror, she was arrested as an English spy. She was daily expected to be executed. However, the fall of Robespierre in June 1794 saved her life and was freed. In April 1795, Sophia finally was able to leave France and travel to London. All the while, Brunel was in the United States during her suffering period. Brunel travelled to London and made contact with Sophia. They were married on the 1st of November 1799 at St Andrew, Holborn. In 1802, Sophia gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Sophie. In 1804, their second daughter Emma was born. In 1806, their son Isambard Kingdom became a great engineer. Isambard Kingdom grew up in Lindsey House.

During the summer of 1799, Brunel was introduced to the talented engineer Henry Maudslay, who had worked for Joseph Bramah. He had just started his own business. Maudslay made working models of the machines for making pulley blocks. Brunel approached Samuel Bentham, the Inspector General of Naval Works. In April 1802, Bentham recommended the installation of Brunel’s block-making machinery at Portsmouth Block Mills. At ten times the previous rate of production, Brunel’s machine could be operated by unskilled workers. Altogether 45 machines were installed at Portsmouth. By 1808, the plant was producing 130,000 blocks per year. Brunel had spent more than £2,000 of his own money on the project. Unfortunately for Brunel, the Admiralty vacillated over payment. In August 1808, they agreed to pay £1,000 on account, and two years later they consented to a payment of just over £17,000.

Brunel was a talented mechanical engineer. He did a lot to develop sawmill machinery. Building on his experience at the Portsmouth Block Mills, he undertook contracts for the British Government at Chatham and Woolwich dockyards. He built sawmill at Battersea, London (burnt down in 1814 and rebuilt by 1816), which was designed to produce veneers. He also designed sawmills for entrepreneurs. He even developed machinery for mass-producing soldiers’ boots, but before this could reach full production, demand ceased due to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, Brunel was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1828, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1834, Brunel was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1845, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

By the beginning of 1821, Brunel was in heavy debts. Many a times, he was involved in unprofitable projects. In May 1821, he was tried and committed to the King’s Bench Prison, a debtors’ prison in Southwark. Sophia accompanied him. Prisoners in a debtors’ prison were allowed to have their family with them. Brunel spent 88 days incarcerated. As time passed with no prospect of gaining release, Brunel began to correspond with Alexander I of Russia about the possibility of moving with his family to St Petersburg, to work for the Tsar. As soon as it was learnt that Britain was likely to lose such an eminent engineer as Brunel, influential figures, such as the Duke of Wellington, began to press for government intervention. The government granted £5,000 to clear Brunel’s debts on condition to abandon any plans to go to Russia. Brunel was finally released from prison in August 1821.

Brunel had already drawn up plans for a tunnel under the River Neva in Russia, but this scheme never came to fruition. In 1805, the Thames Archway Company was formed, with the intention of driving a tunnel beneath the Thames, between Rotherhithe and Limehouse. Richard Trevithick was engaged by the company to construct the tunnel. He used Cornish miners to work on the tunnel. In 1807, the tunnel encountered quicksand and conditions became difficult and dangerous. Eventually, the tunnel was abandoned after more than 1,000 feet had been completed. Led by William Jessop, expert opinion was that such a tunnel was impracticable.

Work began in February 1825, by sinking a 50 feet (15 m) diameter vertical shaft on the Rotherhithe bank. This was done by constructing a 50 feet (15 m) diameter metal ring, upon which a circular brick tower was built. As the tower rose in height, its weight forced the ring into the ground, and at the same time workmen excavated the earth in the centre of the ring. This vertical shaft was completed in November 1825, and the tunnelling shield, which had been manufactured at Lambeth by Henry Maudslay’s company, was then assembled at the bottom. Maudslay also supplied the steam powered pumps for the project. The shield was rectangular in cross section, and consisted of twelve frames, side by side, each of which could be moved forward independently of the others. Each frame contained three compartments, one above the other, each big enough for one man to excavate the tunnel face, and the whole frame accommodated 36 miners. When enough material had been removed from the tunnel face, the frame was moved forward by large jacks. As the shield moved forward, bricklayers followed, lining the walls. The tunnel required over 7,500,000 bricks.

Brunel was assisted in his work by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, now 18 years old. Brunel had planned the tunnel to pass no more than 14 feet below the riverbed, at its lowest point. This caused problems later. Another problem that hindered Brunel was that William Smith, the Chairman of the Company. Smith thought, the tunnelling shield was an unnecessary luxury. The tunnel could be made more cheaply by traditional methods. He wanted Brunel replaced as Chief Engineer and constantly tried to undermine his position. Fortunately the shield quickly proved its worth. During the tunnelling, both Brunel and his assistant engineer, suffered ill health and for a while Isambard had to bear the whole burden of the work.

There were several instances of flooding at the tunnel face, due to its nearness to the riverbed. In May 1827, it became necessary to plug an enormous hole, which had appeared on the riverbed. Finally, the resources of the Thames Tunnel Company were consumed. Despite the efforts to raise more money, the tunnel was sealed up in August 1828. Frustrated by the continued opposition from the Chairman, Brunel resigned from his position. He undertook various civil engineering projects, including helping his son, Isambard, with his design of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
In March 1832, William Smith was deposed as the Chairman of the Thames Tunnel Company. He had been a thorn in Brunel’s side throughout the project. In 1834, the government agreed a loan of £246,000 to the Thames Tunnel Company. The old 80-ton tunnelling shield was removed and replaced by a new improved 140-ton shield, consisting of 9,000 parts, which had to be fitted together underground. Tunnelling was resumed, but there were instances of flooding in which the pumps were overwhelmed. Miners were affected by the constant influx of polluted water, and many fell ill. As the tunnel approached the Wapping shore, work began on sinking a vertical shaft similar to the Rotherhithe one. This began in 1840 and took 13 months
to complete.

On 24 March 1841, Brunel was knighted by the young Queen Victoria. This was at the suggestion of Prince Albert, who had shown keen interest in the progress of the tunnel. The tunnel opened on the Wapping side of the river on the 1st of August 1842. On 7th of November 1842, Brunel suffered a stroke, which paralysed his right side for a time. The Thames Tunnel was finally officially opened on the 25th of March 1843. In spite of his ill health, Brunel took part in the opening ceremony. Within 15 weeks of opening, 1,000,000 people visited the tunnel. On 26th of July 1843, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the tunnel. Although intended for horse-drawn traffic, the tunnel remained pedestrian only.

In 1865, the East London Railway Company purchased the Thames Tunnel for £200,000 and four years later, the first trains passed through it. Subsequently, the tunnel became part of the London Underground System. It remains in use today, as part of the East London Line of London Overground. The engine house in Rotherhithe was taken over by a charitable trust in 1975. It was transformed into the Brunel Museum in 2006.

Brunel was in poor health after the completion of the Thames Tunnel, his greatest achievement. He never again accepted major commissions, although he did help his son, Isambard, on various projects. He was proud of his son’s achievements, and was present at the launch of the SS Great Britain in Bristol on the 19th of July 1843. In 1845, Brunel suffered another severe stroke and was almost totally paralysed on his right side. On 12th of December 1849, Brunel died at the age of 80. His remains were interred in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. His wife, Sophia, was subsequently interred in the same plot, followed by their son, Isambard, just 10 years later.

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, FRS FRSE (25th April 1769 – 12th December 1849) was a French-born engineer, who settled in England. He married to Sophia Kingdom in 1799. In 1806 their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born. Marc Isambard himself preferred the name Isambard, but is generally known to history as Marc to avoid confusion with his more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His most famous achievement was the construction of the Thames Tunnel.


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