(Not) Brunel's Bristol


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Historic maps via Know Your Place Bristol

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If, like me, you live in Bristol, are interested in history, and are interested in infrastructure and engineering, then one name is completely inescapable. This guy. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Officially the second greatest Great British Briton of all time, we are told; the towering individual genius who built Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, Temple Meads station, sorted out the docks, and built the biggest and best ships in the world, ever. The man who not only single-handedly built modern Bristol, but the entire modern world.

Which is, of course, a nauseating load of nonsense. Now, to be clear, this video isn’t intended to demean the guy per se. He was undoubtedly a brilliant engineer with many big achievements to his name. Just… building this wasn’t one of them. Nor was building this. Let alone the breathless hyperbole of the entire modern world.

His presentation in popular culture and popular history seems to have taken on a kind of life of its own, so exaggerated, oversimplified and hagiographical that it has more in common with modern celebrity worship than anything resembling actual history. In this video I’m going to take a nitpicking look at some of his major contributions in this city, and shine a light on some of his colleagues and collaborators who I feel are sometimes unfairly overlooked in the rush to build the brand of Brunel’s Bristol.

Let’s start with the docks. Partly because they were Brunel’s first work in Bristol, and partly because it was seeing a popular history youtuber describe Brunel as “the driving force” behind Bristol’s docks which finally tipped me into making this video. It’s a slightly problematic claim inasmuch as the floating harbour opened on 1st May 1809; having been born in April 1806, young Isambard had just turned three. Even he wasn’t quite precocious enough to have masterminded a major civil engineering work as a toddler.

In fact, the engineer behind the Floating Harbour was one William Jessop. He was reportedly an extremely modest man, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why he hasn’t been deified in popular culture in the same way as Brunel, or even Telford or Stephenson. But his CV is extremely impressive. He’d previously built a whole stack of canals, London’s West India Docks, and the Surrey Iron Railway, which is one of several railways with a highly arguable claim to ‘world’s first’, depending on semantics and definitions.

If part of the point of this video is to spread a bit of credit to relatively unsung heroes, then I should also mention the Reverend William Milton, vicar of Temple Church, who in the 1790s was the first to suggest the creation of the New Cut. Various other professional engineers such as John Smeaton had already proposed damming the Avon to create a floating harbour, but none of them had a credible plan for dealing with the extremes of tide or river-borne flood waters until Milton’s innovation of a tidal bypass channel.

Jessop’s proposal was essentially a refinement of Milton’s, and likewise, Brunel’s work on the docks can best be seen as a refinement of Jessop’s, not as any kind of great transformation or reinvention.

Brunel was first hired to improve the docks in 1832, and the first problem he dealt with was mud. Since opening, the docks had silted up significantly, with big mud banks forming. Designed to have berths 21 feet deep, the deepest berth was now only 16.5, and many were only 12 or 13 feet deep.

Some of the excessively hagiographic histories of Brunel seem to have used this as evidence that Jessop was somehow incompetent by comparison; that his designs had failed to anticipate these problems, but thank goodness for the next-level genius of Isambard stepping in to save the day.

This is in stark contrast to how Brunel himself saw matters. He declared “The most that I can recommend is to extend and carry more fully into effect the general system upon which the Docks were originally designed.” He noted that the problems were “not consequences of any fault in the original plans”, but stemmed “partly perhaps from the original designs not having been carried fully into effect [...] from motives of economy”. This was a diplomatic Victorian way of saying that the port authorities had been cheapskates with their maintenance.

For example, Jessop recommended regular dredging, and specced out a dredger which the port corporation duly purchased in 1809. It removed up to 120 tons of mud per day, yet after four years they apparently stopped using it. The harbour was initially drained completely on a somewhat regular basis for even more extensive scouring, but this inconvenienced everybody, so had also stopped happening.

The port authorities had also inadvertently got themselves into a vicious circle. When the accumulation of mud made the docks shallower than before, they had responded by raising the water level in the harbour. But this reduced the difference between the water level in the harbour and the water level above Netham weir, which reduced the current flowing through the harbour - and this current was crucial for Jessop’s scheme. Silt will settle to the bottom of slow, stagnant water, but be carried through when sufficient flow is maintained. Raising the water level reduced the flow, which increased the silt, which pushed authorities to raise the water level still further, and so on.

It is hardly surprising that after 20 years of this mismanagement, the harbour needed an intervention. Brunel demanded that dredging be resumed, designed a new dredger for the job, and variously suggested either raising the dam at Netham or lowering the water in the harbour, which amounted to the same thing in terms of increasing the current. But perhaps his most critical input was the conversion of Jessop’s Overfall dam into an Underfall dam, which gives its name today to Underfall Yard.

At least, that’s what the information panels at the docks tell us. However, this once again gives too much credit to Brunel and not enough credit to Jessop.

The brilliance of the underfall system is that silt sinks, so any water overflowing a dam will tend to be clearer, while water escaping via culverts at the bottom of a harbour will be siltier. It can’t be denied that Jessop did build an Overfall dam, not least because we have pictures of it, but he was fully aware of the silt sinks principle, and did also build it with underfall culverts in the first place. It’s just that those had become fairly clogged and useless owing to the above factors - the cessation of regular dredging, the reduced current, and so on.

Brunel didn’t invent the underfall system or even create any new underfall outlets here, but he built some underwater structures which created a channel funnelling water into the existing ones at greater speed, and blocked off the overfall, making the existing underfall outlets more effective.

Probably Brunel’s biggest single intervention to the floating harbour was the creation of the southern lock at Cumberland Basin. Here, I make no argument that he receives undue credit. But if one is looking for a “Bristol’s favourite son” type of narrative, this lock is definitely not the project to cite. Begun in 1844, it was not finished til 1849, and its stressful construction, and late and over-budget completion served to sour the relationship between the Bristol port authorities and Brunel permanently. He did no further work for them.

Today, it is permanently sealed up - effectively abandoned and very thoroughly silted up. And there’s actually a deeper irony here. The whole reason Brunel was building a new and bigger lock in the 1840s was because ships had grown too big for the existing ones. And who was responsible for innovating such enormous ships? Well, Brunel.

His own SS Great Britain had been floated from its shipyard in 1843, and then spent a full year stuck in Bristol Harbour as Brunel negotiated with the authorities to increase the size of the locks enough so that it could pass through. Even after the authorities' modifications were completed, the first attempt to exit failed, and they had to come back on a higher tide, and remove a course of masonry from the locks to squeeze the giant ship through.

So you might expect him to build the new south lock to such an enormous size that it could cope with his vision for the huge transatlantic ships of the future. In fact, he seemed to have given up on the port of Bristol for this; in 1844 his proposal for the lock stated “I have recommended these dimensions because I believe they would be sufficient to accommodate all ordinary Steam Boats built for the Irish Trade - and this I now think is sufficient for the Port of Bristol”. Assessed in historical context, I can’t help thinking this remark is actually a rather savage put-down. Brunel, it seemed, had concluded that modern shipping had simply outgrown Bristol - quite besides the hassle of going through these locks, just getting to them via the Avon gorge was increasingly impractical. Brunel favoured the construction of supersized docks out at Avonmouth or Portishead, and in this I think it’s fair to say history proved him conclusively correct.

His SS Great Britain served to prove the point - having exited Bristol Harbour with such difficulty, she never returned until she was towed back in 1970 as a derelict relic, instead using Bristol’s deadly rival, Liverpool, as her home port for her transatlantic trips. Even the prior, smaller SS Great Western had alternated between Avonmouth, rather than Bristol proper, and Liverpool, before abandoning even Avonmouth in 1843. For his subsequent ship, the SS Great Eastern, Brunel gave up on Bristol altogether and built it in London.

Arguably, then, with his record-breaking ships, Brunel has a better claim to being the ‘driving force’ behind the obsolescence and closure of the Floating Harbour than being the creator or saviour of it.

But before we move on, it wouldn’t be much in the spirit of this video to glibly attribute these ships to Brunel alone, as I just did myself, for the narrative convenience. They were built by the Great Western Steamship Company, which was very much a joint venture between Brunel and others. In fact, he was listed as a consulting engineer, while the Directing Engineer was one Thomas Guppy. 19th century sources talk about the SS Great Britain being completed “under the masterly superintendence of Mr. Guppy”; he held various patents regarding the construction of hulls, including the “cellular system” of dividing a hull into multiple separate water-tight compartments; and at least one modern historian has concluded that Brunel probably deserves prime credit for the ship’s screw-based propulsion system, but Guppy probably deserves most of the credit for its hull.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’d be inclined to consider the hull a relatively important part of a ship. In fact, I might go as far as to call it the most important part, because if I’m on a ship and given the choice of an engine failure or hull failure, it’s really not much of a contest, is it?

Yet while Brunel has endless biographies, documentaries, statues, and general hero worship associated, Guppy doesn’t even have a bloody wikipedia page! Really? This does not seem fair. Maybe I’ll make one.

And it’s not like we could stop at Guppy, when dishing out credit for these record breaking ships. Christopher Claxton, an ex-Royal Navy Commander serving as the harbour-master of Bristol, was another vital member of the partnership, and the Great Western and Great Britain were actually constructed by the established shipbuilding firm William Patterson & Son. Call me crazy, but I’m thinking men who’d spent their entire careers building ships may have had some valuable input on the matter of building a ship.

OK, from a marketing perspective, you can understand why this place is emblazoned with “Brunel’s SS Great Britain” - Brunel, Guppy, Claxton and Patterson’s Great Britain doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But I can’t help thinking it’s a bit telling that even today, we are awfully keen to give all the credit for the achievement to the gentleman in the big top hat, and little to none of it to the working-classes who actually made his ideas reality.

At this point in my script-writing, I thought I’d better go round the museum and check that I’m not being massively unfair to them. Perhaps, I thought, the whole Brunel personality cult was just to get tourists through the door, but once inside the museums’ll do a good job of consistently emphasising what a collaborative venture this was in reality.

Mmmm.. how can I put this? No. If you want to walk around under the gaze of a giant 20ft Brunel head, or fawn over some teaspoons he once owned, this place has got you covered. But if you want to learn about the guys who actually designed the hull and oversaw the construction of the ship, well, you’ll be making do with these couple of sentences.

Now, I don’t want to seem unduly scathing about the museum in general. The staff were all lovely, there’s loads of interesting stuff, the story of the ship’s operational service is really thorough, and even when it comes to Brunel they do clearly attempt a degree of even-handedness inasmuch as they explicitly covers Brunel’s career failures and mistakes and character flaws as well as his achievements. But that even-handedness is rather undermined, in my opinion, by the constant proclamations like this, which are frankly absurd. I don’t think any credible historian would be interested in proclaiming a single person as ‘the greatest mind of the Victorian era’ in the first place, but if they were, and even assuming they confined themselves to British men in STEM fields, they’d probably realise that James Clerk Maxwell, y’know, existed.

We wouldn’t accept a science museum putting up utterly un-scientific statements like “potassium is the prettiest molecule”, so why do we accept absurdly un-historical statements from history museums? Perhaps we should move on before I get too irate.

The Great Western Steamship Company was, of course, an offshoot of the Great Western Railway, formed after Brunel made the offhand suggestion in a GWR directors’ meeting - why stop at Bristol? Why not offer tickets to New York, via steam ships?

We’ve seen how this vision of transatlantic steam liners ended up as an inadvertent death-knell for Bristol’s docks, and since I didn’t want this video to turn into a complete hit piece, I’ll kind of skip over the part where the SS Great Britain also turned out to be a death-knell for the Great Western Steamship Company itself, which went bankrupt after Cunard ate their transatlantic lunch by building a fleet of less innovative but cheaper and more reliable ships, instead of sinking everything into one experimental giant. But what of the Great Western Railway itself - surely this is a classic Brunel-in-Bristol success story… right?

You’d certainly think so reading the story of his statue being unveiled here in 2021. Temple Meads was “one his finest accomplishments”, gushes the chap from Network Rail. An “enduring symbol of Bristol’s rich railway heritage and the connectivity, creativity and innovation of the city”, asserts the director of the Brunel Institute.

If by this he meant an enduring symbol of Bristol’s somewhat bad railway connectivity, then perhaps I’d agree, but I rather suspect he didn’t. I mean, come on, it’s 2022 and we still don’t have a single electrified train; perhaps we could catch up to the 1970s before boasting of innovation. The Portishead branch reopening has been going nowhere for decades, the council recently tore up an operational railway to build a bus lane. Compare this to, well, pretty much anywhere, and Bristol’s contemporary railway offering is, honestly, pathetic.

But before I get too carried away with this rant, back to Brunel. Temple Meads was his grand terminus for his Great Western Railway, opened in 1840. But the Temple Meads you pass through today is not Brunel’s station. This part dates from the 1870s and is usually attributed to Matthew Digby Wyatt, an architect and art historian who had assisted Brunel with Paddington station, the GWR’s London terminus. However one source claims that actually, the only name on the drawings was Francis Fox, then serving as the in-house engineer for the Bristol & Exeter Railway, and whose later credits include working on the Victoria Falls bridge, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Liverpool Overhead Railway.

Brunel’s station is this bit, and like the south lock it’s found itself surplus to requirements. His engine shed is ignomously used as a car park.

Architecturally speaking, these offices he built across the end of the tracks make for a building that looks still rather fine today. But in engineering and infrastructural terms, this was a rather odd and regrettable choice, because it completely ruled out the prospect of converting his Temple Meads from a terminus to a through station.

This apparent lack of foresight complicated any scheme aiming to give Bristol a more centrally located railway station, because trains coming to or from such an extension would have to either bypass Temple Meads, or reverse, neither being particularly great options. As such this contributed to the failure of several such proposals in the 1860s, and even today the rather non-central location of the station leaves the city somewhat the worse off. It also ultimately sealed its own demise. The Bristol & Exeter’s southbound tracks came in at right angles to Brunel’s Great Western Terminus, and the only way to connect the two to enable through-running was to abandon Brunel’s platforms and build the new 1870s “Joint Station” on a sweeping curve.

It wasn’t just the station that ended up needing a rebuild. With the GWR, Brunel famously insisted on a broad track gauge incompatible with the majority of other British railways, so once the gauge wars had shaken out with standard gauge triumphing, all the track on the GWR, and other local railways, like the Bristol & Exeter or Bristol & Gloucester, needed to be completely rebuilt as well.

Now, to be fair to the man, railways were in their infancy, so expecting him to deliver a solution that accurately predicted the next half century of railway technology’s rapid progression, is a bit of a high bar. Thirty years before a rebuild isn’t exactly shabby in itself - I mean, what the hell have I ever done that was still useful 30 years later!? - and Bristol’s sub-par railway situation today certainly can’t be blamed on him directly.

So, I’m not claiming his Temple Meads was some sort of embarrassing disaster or laughable failure. But in a world where some of his bridges and tunnels are still in use and fully fit for purpose today, claiming his Temple Meads, which was unfit for purpose within a few decades, as one of his quote-unquote finest achievements, strikes me as a rather unjustifiable claim. One seemingly borne from a cultural peer pressure to attach ever more superlatives to everything he did, than from any measured evaluation of him as a mortal being capable of both hits and relative misses.

Let’s conclude with a look at the Clifton Suspension Bridge. In my mind this is definitely a hit from an aesthetic and engineering point of view. It’s a beautiful bridge in a spectacular location, and a span of this size is still viscerally impressive today, never mind 150 years ago.

The question here is whether it’s really fair to say that Brunel designed it, as this plaque does quite unambiguously. And given what video you’re watching, you’ll be unsurprised if my argument is no, not really.

On the one hand, you only have to look at the Wikipedia page, and it says quite clearly it was “built to a design by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw”, and even the plaque admits to modifications by others, albeit without actually naming them. So I can hardly resort to clickbait language about the SECRET or FORGOTTEN masterminds of the Clifton bridge. But on the other hand, that plaque is hardly the only place to credit Brunel and omit any mention of Barlow and Hawkshaw. I bet a significant number of people watching this always assumed the design was entirely Brunel’s, and I can’t blame them.

You could argue this is fair enough because the fundamental visual essence of the design IS still Brunel’s, the concept was Brunel’s, the steadfast insistence that a suspension bridge here was even possible, when many others were sceptical, was Brunel’s. And those things are all true enough. Comparing today’s bridge to Brunel’s initial designs, they certainly look like “the same design” at a layman’s glance. Albeit, minus the sphinxes. However, Brunel is revered as an engineer, not as a sketch artist, and the very thing that distinguishes engineering from [other forms of] design is the practical nitty-gritty of exactly how things are constructed and how the forces are distributed so on on, which a layman’s glance at these sketches does not necessarily comprehend.

Judged by those standards it seems fair to ascribe this bridge to Hawkshaw and Barlow. The deck was made wider and sturdier, stiffened by a completely different method. Brunel had intended wooden struts but instead a lattice of riveted wrought iron girders was used. The handrails were also engaged to structural effect whereas Brunel had designed them to be non-structural.

The added weight of the bigger, stronger deck required triple chains instead of the double chain Brunel’s design employed, along with more hangars. Hawkshaw and Barlow also attached the hangers via a different mechanism, believing that Brunel’s plans would not have dealt adequately with twisting forces.

All these changes resulted in a bridge that is capable of carrying modern traffic, albeit at a fairly modest scale, which Brunel’s original design would likely not have been capable of.

Hawkshaw was president of the Institute of Civil Engineers in the early 1860s when the bridge was under construction, having already had a diverse career building canals, railways, docks and harbours. He would later go on to complete the Severn Tunnel.

Barlow was the chief engineer of the Midland railway company, who would go on to build St Pancras station and work on both the inquiry into the disastrous collapse of the Tay Bridge, and the design of its replacement. He also served as President of the ICE.

I understand that both men aimed to complete the Clifton bridge as a monument to Brunel, and as such would no doubt feel happy rather than cheated that it’s his name is associated with it, but I think it’s perhaps a shame that it isn’t also more widely appreciated as a highlight of their own CVs as well.

While we are listing under-appreciated engineers, a brief mention to Sarah Guppy, a Bristol woman who filed her first patent in 1841 for an improved method for constructing the piling for suspension bridges. If you’re thinking the name Guppy sounds familiar, yes, indeed: she was the mother of Thomas Guppy, Brunel’s collaborator in the Great Western Steamship Company who we met earlier. As such she knew Brunel well, and she was known to have discussed her ideas for suspension bridge engineering with him.

Some have put two and two together here and suggested she deserves credit for the Clifton bridge, but as far as I can determine, her patent wasn’t actually applicable here. It seems, however, that it was extremely applicable in the case of Telford’s Menai suspension bridge. We know that Telford was aware of her patent and persuaded her to waive the fees for her technique when building his bridge, but it seems she never got any public credit at the time in return for this generosity.

As for Brunel, I hope now that you’re at the end of this video, it’s clear how this was not meant as an attack on him, per se, as much as on the prevailing historiography surrounding him and his relationship to Bristol, which is oversimplified to a point which I find regularly perverse and occasionally down-right irritating. This is a city which Brunel practically dismissed as obsolete in the post-industrial world of shipping, and proceeded to help fulfil that prophecy by designing ships too big to dock here. This is a city which cheerfully abandoned his lock to the mud, abandoned his bridges to rust and rot, and abandoned his train station to car parking, whilst incessantly talking up how ‘proud’ it is of his engineering legacy here. This is a city where his projects were often over-budget, unreliable, flawed, and/or rapidly superseded by later engineers, and where his biggest successes were clearly building on the work of earlier engineers, and/or delivered in conjunction with other contemporary engineers. But all this nuance of conflict and collaboration is, in my opinion, all too often cheerfully jettisoned in favour of a frankly unlikeable cocktail of modern-day marketing and brand-building, and old-fashioned drooling hero worship.

As for Bristol, instead of slapping Brunel’s name on a bunch of stuff that has basically nothing to do with him, if it seriously wanted to honour the legacy of a great civil engineer in a more appropriate fashion, then perhaps it could, y’know, do some half-decent civil engineering occasionally? Build trams or a metro instead of bus lanes, electrify the railways we already have, have roads that don’t look like collages, bridges that aren’t closed for months on end, cycle paths that haven’t fallen in the river? But what do I know.

Anyway that’s all for this video. If you enjoyed it, why not give it a like and subscribe, in case I make any more. Thanks as always to everyone whose work I have built on in making this video, and thanks to you for watching. Cheers.