Four men in history who help celebrate Brunel's birth 200 years ago







The year 2006 sees the celebration of the birth of one of the greatest engineers that was ever born in Britain. In fact, in a recent BBC series to vote for the Greatest person in history to be considered British, this man won the title. We are, of course, talking about Isambard Brunel, who was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806.

It is worth taking a few moments to consider that he was one of four men, all to become famous in completely different ways, who were contemporaries of each other. Their names are not all as well known as others but, in their own way, they have all formed a perspective of London 150 years ago. They are listed in order of being born. It is not intended to tell their life stories in this article. Any encyclopaedia will give those details. What we shall concentrate on is what they achieved and the similarities of their lives. To help up do that, we shall focus onto the year 1856 - exactly 150 years ago and see what kind of a place London was in those days.

The four names selected are:

Isambard Brunel ((1806-59)

Charles Dickens (1812-70)

John Snow (1813-58)

Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91)

Births and Deaths

Brunel was born at Portsmouth on 9 April 1806. He died on 15 September 1859, aged only 53, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery five days later. His father, Marc Isambard, had been born in France. He came to England and married a lady called ‘Miss Kingdom‘. Their son therefore ended up with a name from his father and a name from his mother - Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Dickens was also born at Portsmouth, six years after Brunel, on 7 February 1812, his father John was a clerk in the Navy pay office in Portsea. He died at Gad's Hill, just outside Rochester, on 8 June 1870, aged only 58. Against his wishes, the State had him buried in Westminster Abbey.

Snow was born at York on 15 March 1813. He worked in Soho as a doctor. He died in London on 16 June 1858, aged only 45 and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Bazalgette (whose name is pronounced 'Bazal - jet') was born at Enfield on 28 March 1819. His father was of French extraction and a commander in the British Navy. He died on 15 March 1891, aged 71, at Wimbledon and was buried in the churchyard of Wimbledon parish church.

Apart from Bazalgette, who at least reached his 'three score years and ten', the other men died at relatively early ages. Brunel chain smoked cigars and died of a liver complaint, as well as over-work. Dickens died of a stroke. Snow, who had been unwell for most of his life, also died of a stroke. It is worth pointing out that Brunel has an impressive statue to him, on the Victoria Embankment, along with Bazalgette, who has a bust on the wall of the same embankment and who, of course, was responsible for having it constructed.

Achievements Related to London

When it comes to talking about London in the 1850's many people often refer to 'Dickensian times'. If a history lecturer is talking about particularly squalid conditions, in a part of London, it is not long before the same term 'Dickensian' is being used. Dickens knew all about poverty. His father had been sent to the Debtor's Prison in Southwark because the meagre wages he earned were not sufficient to meet all his financial commitments. During those times, Charles Dickens was sent to work in the blacking factory, near the site of today's Charing Cross Station, to bring in a little money to help with the family's need. Dickens's father was in the Marshalsea Prison 1822-24. Strangely enough, Marc, the father of Isambard Brunel was committed to the King's Bench Prison, only a few doors away from the Marshalsea in 1821, also for debt. In his case, he could not pay his debts because he was owed money by the British Government and they only paid up due to the intervention of the Duke of Wellington.

By 1856, Dickens had written 'Old Curiosity Shop' (1841),, 'Christmas Carol' (1843)), 'David Copperfield' (1849-50), 'Bleak House' (1852-53) and he was about to write 'Little Dorrit' (1856-57), which is all about life in the Marshalsea Prison. The titles mentioned here are only the more famous ones. Dickens was very familiar with poverty and constantly walked around London, exploring in particular the poorer streets and homes. He spent much of his later life acting as honorary secretary to many charities providing for the poor and homeless.

Many people do not realise that Dickens wrote his books, trying to point out to the wealthy who read them about the abject poverty all around them. He always hoped that those with money would give some of it towards charities that could clean up the capital. Sadly, those who read the books thought that Dickens was making the descriptions up and very little money was ever given to help the plight of the poor.

Snow is our next name. It may be that his name is not so familiar, even unrecognised. He was born in York and came to London in 1836, ages 23, to study medicine. Over the next few years his study gave him qualifications including Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS), Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA), and finally Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) of London. The LRCP contained the most elite of the medical profession.

Snow then took up General Practice, living in a house at No 54 Frith Street. A Blue Plaque marks the site but, sadly, the house in which he lived no longer exists. It was demolished and is today a relatively recent restaurant. His great claim to fame came in 1854. Cholera was no stranger to London, with outbreaks every few years. In the 1854, another London epidemic broke out, mainly in Southwark and Lambeth. Soho suffered a terrible attack in late August when, on the night of the 31st, what Dr Snow later called "the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in the kingdom" broke out.

Snow was living at a time when even the medical profession knew nothing about bacteria. The common medical theory about diseases like cholera was that they were spread by bad smalls in the air - called 'miasma'. Snow had a theory that there were particles in water which were responsible for such diseases. When cholera broke out right 'under his nose' in Soho, he took a very novel approach for those days to prove his theory. He could not 'see' what we now call bacteria but he was certain that they existed. He obtained a large scale map of the Soho area, large enough to show every street, house and well. As people died, he put a mark against the relevant house on his map. By 10 September, the number of fatal attacks had reached 500. Snow had as many marks on his map and the greatest concentration was centred on a pump in Broadwick Street. Its location is outside the 'John Snow' pub, on the corner of Lexington Street. He was certain that people who drank the well-water were dying due to something in the water. To prove his point he requested that the handle be removed to prevent anyone else drawing the water and being infected. His request was reluctantly complied with and the disease abated. His theory was right but, sadly, he died in 1858 and even then the medical profession had not accepted his theory - something that is well known to us all today. He is credited with being the first epidemiologist - studying the effects of a disease purely by statistical methods. He was also one of the first doctors to study the effects of anaesthesia.

In 1852 Snow moved from No 54 Frith Street to the more prestigious location of No 18 Sackville Street. Within a year of this move, Snow was asked by Queen Victoria to administer chloroform at the birth of Prince Leopold, adding further to his fame and financial well-being. He died at the Sackville address on 16 June 1858, aged only 45.

While the outbreak of cholera was savaging Soho, another young man was about to be appointed to an important position in London. His name was Joseph Bazalgette. On 25 January 1856, aged 36, he was elected Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, a post he was to hold until the dissolution of the Board in 1889. His offices were in the large house, which is still there to this day, now called the House of St Barnabas. It is in the SE corner of Soho Square, only round the corner from where Dr John Snow used to live.

Bazalgette was a friend of Isambard Brunel and these two men were arguably the most important engineers of Victorian London. It was Brunel who had provided a flattering testimonial to support Bazalgette's application to the Board of Works in 1856. The 1853-54 cholera epidemic had killed 10,738 inhabitants of London. Four years later came the year of the 'Great Stink' when, during the hot summer of 1858, the smell overwhelmed all those who ventured near, or lived by, the Thames. Conveniently, this included the occupants of Parliament who were driven into action.

Legislation was drawn up enabling the Metropolitan Board to begin work on sewers and street improvements in London. It led to the building of the Victoria Embankment, as part of the vast sewer system across London. By 1866 most of London was connected to a sewer network devised by Bazalgette. He is generally recognised as having saved more lives than any other single Victorian public official. The East End was not included in the programme, and this area alone was ravaged by cholera in 1866. Afterwards people's attitudes to the causes of cholera changed, and there was a greater acceptance of the idea that the disease was indeed water-borne. One year after his death, Hamburg was ravaged by cholera, while London escaped.

Brunel brings up the rear of this group. Dickens knew that things needed to be improved. Snow worked out where the disease was coming from, even though nobody believed him. Bazalgette built the sewers which delivered London from the endless cycle of epidemics from water-born disease. So where does Brunel fit into the picture ?

Related to our story so far, Brunel is the odd one out but that is not to say that he does not relate to 1856. Moving away from the grim story of poverty and disease, times were changing and London was at the forefront of that change in the same way as it led the world in building the first metropolitan sewers.

Brunel was a man who thought well ahead of his time. We will start with a project that took place in London, to illustrate the point - the building of the Thames Tunnel. In 1856 the 'last bridge before the sea', as the saying used to be, was London Bridge. Tower Bridge was not opened until 1894. Crossing the Thames was a tedious business if you lived further down-river. There were several ferries including, of course, the Woolwich Ferry. Money was put up, on the suggestion of Marc Brunel and a tunnel was built, linking Rotherhithe with Limehouse. It was started in 1825 and surveying began to establish where the tunnel should go. Everyone said that the tunnel under the Thames was ridiculous and that the water would flood into the structure. In fact, the survey proved to be faulty and the work on the tunnel ended in disaster when the water did rush in due to its alignment being only six feet below the bed of the Thames. The young Isambard Brunel was down there at the time and almost lost his life. It took many years to persuade people to put up more money and it was not completed until 1843. When it opened, it was the first sub-aqueous tunnel anywhere in the world. The method of construction had been revolutionary. Brunel had devised a 'cutting ring' which was lowered into position and was moved forward by men digging out the spoil. As the ring moved forward, the tunnel was lined with steel rings to support it. This method of working, now fully automated, is exactly how London underground tunnels are constructed and, indeed, how the Channel Tunnel was engineered. By 1856 that tunnel had been in use for over 10 years. It is, today, still in use for underground trains on the East London underground line.

The world was rapidly shrinking when Isambard Brunel was a young man. Brunel, born in 1806, was just 19 years old when the world’s first passenger train ran at Darlington, in 1825. By 1836, now aged exactly 30, the London and Greenwich Railway had opened. It was London's first passenger railway. Most people are familiar with the Great Western Railway, whose initials 'GWR' led to the phrase 'God's Wonderful Railway'. That ran on a gauge of railway line almost twice as wide as those of the present day. Had tha gauge been adopted, carriages could be twice as wide and passenger comfort on busy commuter lines greatly improved. It was Brunel who surveyed and built the line from Bristol into West London. The great roof of the terminus at Paddington Station was also designed by Brunel.

Not only was Brunel a pioneer of the railways but he was also a pioneer of the high seas. In 1854 he began work on the world's largest passenger liners - the 'Great Eastern'. At Portsmouth ? No ! At Plymouth ? No ! The shipyard was in London, on the Isle of Dogs to be precise. Part of the slipway still remains, towards the SW, at Napier Wharf. The nearest street is called Napier Avenue. Nearly all the metalwork and fittings for the great ship, including the vast boilers, were all made on the Isle of Dogs. After an initial failure to launch in 1857, the hull was pushed off the slipway by hydraulic rams on 31 January 1858.

Due to the stress of this giant project, Brunel died just two weeks after being photographed on the decks of the vessel when afloat. Although the ship was not a financial success, it was well ahead of its time. It was another 50 years before a ship of such a great size was to be built again. Its name - the 'Queen Mary'.


Our date of 1856 is 150 years ago. We are on the brink of connecting London with its first custom-built international railway. Later this year, St Pancras will be linked up with the new high-speed railway line through Stratford and Ebbsfleet to Ashford International and the Channel Tunnel. Cholera, thanks to improvements in sanitary hygiene, is no longer a problem. However, we are still worried by epidemics - even pan-demics. Our latest fear is the so-called ‘Bird Flu’. Our fears and hopes are not far removed from those of 1856 ! New men of  vision will have to 'step forward' onto the giant stage of history to leave their mark, like those before them.