Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Family & final years
Brunel was a supremely energetic man but sheer workload was not enough to satisfy him. Once he had done a thing once, it seems, it ceased to interest him. If his diary entries are to be believed, when he repeated work it was only from financial necessity or a sense of personal obligation
As well as ships, docks, railways and associated works, he was involved in diverse architectural projects throughout his career. Some, such as Paddington
, Swindon and Bristol Temple Meads
stations, were related to his railways. But in 1855, at the request of his best friend and brother-in-law, Benjamin Hawes, he produced meticulous designs for an entirely innovative prefabricated hospital. From the date of the commission, it was less than three months until the flat-packed building was erected in Renkoi, Turkey, to house wounded from the Crimean War.
On another scale entirely, his brilliance in design once saved him from a questionable fate. In 1843, in the course of performing an magic trick for his children, he inhaled a sovereign which eventually jammed in his right lung. A tracheotomy failed to reach it. Unable to breathe without difficulty, Brunel sketched out a contraption, resembling a hinged table, to which he could be strapped and spun head over heals. By harnessing centrifugal force in this way, he dislodged the troublesome sovereign.
At the age of 21, Brunel mused in his journal as to whether he would make a good husband was he not, in fact, wedded to his profession? Nonetheless, he did marry, in 1836, to Mary Horsley, whom he had met through his sister, Sophia Hawes, and her husband.
Mary was the oldest of the three daughters of an organist, music teacher and composer, William Horsley. Theirs was a musical household and if Mary was the coldest and least musical of the girls, she was the most beautiful. Brunel was introduced to the family in 1831 or 32 but waited until his fortunes improved before proposing. They were married on 5 July 1836 and honeymooned for two weeks in Wales and the West Country. The temptation to do a bit of surveying must have been great but there is no record to say whether Brunel succumbed.
He and Mary set up house at 18 Duke Street, London, expanding into the house next door in 1848. They had three children Isambard, Henry Marc and Florence Mary, the first of whom was born with a slightly deformed leg. If Mary did not see her husband much, she did at least live in style and dress in the latest fashions.
Brunel, meanwhile, was working himself to death. His health began to fail seriously in 1858, in the middle of his struggles with the Great Eastern
steam ship and the construction of the Royal Albert Bridge
. In May, he travelled with his family to Vichy and the Alps, a forced rest which must have been most unwelcome to the engineer.
He returned to England in September, his health having shown no improvement. There, he was diagnosed as having Bright's Disease, now known as nephritis, and ordered to winter overseas to avoid the cold. Brunel, his wife, his younger son and an obsequious young doctor left together for Egypt on 15 December. On Christmas Day, 1858, he dined in Cairo with his great friend and rival, Robert Stephenson
, who had also fled Britain in a vain attempt to regain his health.
He finally arrived home on 6 May 1859, four days after the Royal Albert Bridge opened to traffic. On 10 May, he made a ceremonial crossing on a couch on a railway waggon, too ill to sit up. He showed little improvement over the next five months, although he continued to visit the Great Eastern as often as he could. He was photographed on the deck of his "Great Ship" on 5 September and collapsed immediately after. Back home, he put his affairs in order and, from his bed, awaited news of the ship's progress.
News came on 9 September, and it was bad: the previous evening, an explosion in the Great Eastern's boiler room had crippled the ship and killed several men. Brunel died less than a week later, on the evening of 15 September. He was buried on 20 September at Kensal Green Cemetary and his funeral attended by thousands of colleagues and railway workers.
In tribute to the great engineer, the directors of the Cornwall Railway erected a plaque in his name on the Royal Albert Bridge and his fellow engineers arranged for the Clifton Suspension Bridge
to be completed at last.