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Drawing of notebook and pen

4 November 2020: Brunel and his shipsBlack and white photograph of a man in Victorian dress standing in front of an enormous chain

This evening our local National Trust Supporter Group were joined by Richard Pusey, who spoke to us about Brunel’s three ships, the SS Great Western, the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Eastern.

He also told us something of Brunel’s family history. His father was a French engineer and Royalist who left France during the Revolution. He originally went to America but came to this country to marry an English girl, Sophia Kingdom. Isambard was sent to France to complete his education and study engineering but, because he was not a French citizen, was not allowed to qualify as an engineer there.

On return to Great Britain, Brunel worked with his father as Assistant Engineer on the Thames Tunnel, which was being built to an innovative design by Brunel Senior. This tunnel was originally intended to take horse-drawn traffic under the Thames but was instead used as a railway tunnel. It is now part of the London Underground, coming out at Wapping. One of the two shafts now houses the Brunel Museum.

While work was being done on the tunnel water started coming in. The resulting flood killed some of the workmen and Isambard Kingdom Brunel only narrowly escaped.

Having been appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway and completed the line between London and Bristol, it was suggested to Brunel that he should extend the line across the Atlantic. His first ship, the SS Great Eastern, was the means of accomplishing this. The first transatlantic crossing by a steam ship had been in 1819 by the American ship The Savannah, which had both paddles and sails. The Great Western too had both steam-powered paddles and sails. It made its first transatlantic crossing in 18389, carrying just seven passengers. However, it did later prove a commercial success and made a total of 64 voyages across the Atlantic. When built it was the longest ship in the world and was used as a troop carrier during the Crimean War.

Paddle steamers are fine on rivers and lakes but less successful on the high seas because of problems with the waves lifting the paddles out of the water from time to time and the need to adjust the height of the paddle as the ship got lighter as it consumed coal. Furthermore, a “tug of war” between two Royal Navy ships, one with paddles and the other with a propellor, proved that propellors were much more efficient. Brunel’s next ship, the SS Great Britain, was therefore propellor-driven. It was also longer than the SS Great Western and built of metal whereas the Great Western had been built largely of wood.

Unfortunately the SS Great Britain ran aground off the coast of Ireland on her maiden voyage to New York in 1845. She was salvaged and then used for voyages taking emigrants to Australia. Later in her life she would be used as a cargo carrier. She has now been completely restored and is now a visitor attraction in Bristol docks.

Brunel’s last ship was the SS Great Eastern, which was designed to carry enough coal to sail to Australia and back, owing to the mistaken belief at the time that there was no coal in Australia. It had both paddles and a propellor and was a massive ship for the time, much larger than either of its predecessors. It was built by a London shipyard and had to be launched into the Thames sideways because it was too long to fit across the river. The remains of one of the two slipways can still be seen.

One of the best-known photographs of Brunel shows him standing by the ship’s chain immediately after its launch in 1859. Sadly, he had a stroke half an hour after the photograph was taken and died ten days later. Before he died he may have heard the news that the Great Eastern’s boiler had exploded on its maiden voyage.

The SS Great Eastern was repaired but was never a success as a passenger ship. It mainly saw use laying the telegraph cable between Britain and the United States. It was eventually broken up.

Brunel’s son, Marc, also became an engineer and was instrumental in the construction of Tower Bridge.