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Brunel's Bristol

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November 2016

Being the November gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society, there was A.G.M business to be attended to. This was, like Anne Boleyn, promptly executed, and then we all settled down to an entertaining talk by Tony Hall on Brunel’s Bristol, followed by a reward of wine and cheese.

Although Tony is a thoroughbred cockney he has lived more than half his life in Bristol and is continually fascinated by the history and heritage of his adopted city. Perhaps some of the locals don’t appreciate the city quite as much, but one man who certainly did was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The great engineer came to Clifton in 1828 to convalesce from an illness, and so began a long and fruitful association with Bristol.

Brunel would have been aware of the competition to build a bridge over the Avon at Clifton that was apparently ‘engineered’ by Thomas Telford in his own favour (the competition not the bridge). Brunel subsequently entered and won the re-run competition in 1831. Although work was abandoned in 1843, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed after Brunel’s death when admiring engineers lobbied for work to resume. During his life Brunel always thought of this bridge as ‘my first child, my darling’, even though he never saw it as we do now. Looking as strong and eternal as a Norman castle, it may come as a surprise to learn that the supporting bastions are in fact hollow.

In 1832 Brunel began an association with Bristol docks and started on their modernisation the following year, when he was also appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. One of the least known Brunel monuments in Bristol is part of the docks improvement. The wrought iron tubular swivel bridge which swung across the lock entrance on hydraulic powered rollers was built at the Great Western Steamship works, where the S.S Great Britain was built. Although no longer in use, the swivel bridge can still be seen next to the Plimsoll Bridge in Cumberland Basin.

Not content with leading the huge project of the London to Bristol railway, in 1835 Brunel proposed building a steamship for the Bristol to New York passenger service, and ship construction began the next year. In 1841 Temple Meads station was completed and the railway opened. The original station clock had 3 hands, showing both Bristol time and London time (10 minutes and 23 seconds ahead). The S.S Great Britain was launched in 1843, when she was the largest passenger ship afloat, the first ocean going iron ship, and the first to use screw propellers.

Perhaps less noticed is the Royal Western Hotel, designed by Brunel for passengers on route to New York on his steamship. Now called ‘Brunel House’ and used as council offices, its rows of beautiful fluted ionic columns show that Brunel could put on the style when he wanted. Bristol is fortunate indeed to have so many wonderful reminders of Brunel’s engineering genius, and we thank Tony for helping us to remember them.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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