Primary History - Famous People

Isambard Kingdom Brunel  

  • Why is Brunel famous?

    What Brunel did
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a famous engineer. He built bridges, tunnels, railways, docks and ships.

    When did he live?
    Brunel was born in 1806. He lived at the time of Britain's Industrial Revolution. Victoria became Britain's queen in 1837. Brunel died in 1859.

    Brunel's legacy
    Brunel built bridges, railways and the world's biggest ship. Brunel showed the world what engineers could do.

    Brunel's work meant that people could travel and trade in a new way.

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  • Growing up

    Brunel's family
    Brunel's father was Marc Isambard Brunel, a French engineer. To escape the French Revolution, Marc went to America in 1793.

    Brunel's mother was Sophie Kingdom. She met Marc while working in France as a governess. England and France were at war, and Sophie was accused of being a spy! She escaped to England in 1795.

    In 1799, Marc Brunel came to England. He and Sophie were married. Their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9 April 1806. He had two older sisters, Sophia and Emma.

    Brunel as a child
    In 1807, the Brunels moved to London. They lived close to the River Thames. Brunel liked swimming and playing with toy boats.

    Brunel's first school was in England. Later he went to study in France. He was an apprentice to a watchmaker.

    Brunel was lucky. While he was at school, many poor children had to work in mines and factories.

    Brunel was good at maths. His father taught him to draw. He liked dressing up and acting plays.

    The family business
    Marc Brunel had a factory. It made wooden parts for Navy ships. Marc invented machines to do the work faster.

    Things did not always go well. The Brunels' sawmill burned down. They had money problems. In 1821 Mr and Mrs Brunel were sent to prison for 88 days, because they owed money.

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  • The Thames Tunnel

    Brunel's first job
    In 1822, Brunel went to work for his father. They had a big job: to dig a tunnel under the River Thames.

    Marc planned to use his new tunnelling-shield. They needed lots of strong, brave workers too.

    Dangerous work
    Digging the Thames Tunnel was very dangerous. Sometimes the tunnel collapsed. Water rushed in, and everyone ran for their lives!

    Once, Brunel slid down a pole to rescue a man. Once he nearly drowned, but was pulled out by a friend. On 12 January 1828 he wrote in his diary: 'I shan't forget that day in a hurry'.

    The Tunnel is still there
    There were so many accidents that work stopped on the tunnel for 8 years. The Thames Tunnel was opened in 1843.

    The Tunnel is still there. It is used by trains. There is a Brunel Museum there too.

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  • Bridges and tunnels

    The Clifton Bridge
    In 1831 Brunel was chosen to build the Clifton Bridge over the River Avon at Bristol. It was a suspension bridge, and very high so ships could sail under it.

    At first, workers crossed the river in a basket! The basket ran along beneath an iron bar 307m (1000 feet) long. One day it got stuck. Brunel climbed up to free the rollers!

    The bridge was not finished until 1864. 500 tons of stones were put onto the bridge to test it. It sagged just 7 inches (18cm) in the middle.

    The railway age
    By 1830, steam railways were being built all over Britain In 1833 Brunel was made chief engineer for the new Great Western Railway.

    This railway linked London to Bristol, about 200km across country. Brunel built all the stations, tunnels and bridges too.

    Brunel always did things his way. He made his rails 7 ft (2.14 m) apart, when other railways used narrow track 1.43 m wide. The smaller 'narrow-gauge' won in the end.

    Stations, bridges and tunnels
    Brunel built Paddington Station (1854) in London. Trains still use it.

    He built Maidenhead Bridge, across the River Thames, the Wye Bridge at Chepstow, and the Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar.

    The Box Tunnel in Wiltshire is 2 miles long. It took six years to dig, and 100 men were killed.

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  • Brunel's ships

    Brunel believed steamships were the future, not sailing ships. Steamships had engines that burned coal.

    In 1837 Brunel built a wooden paddle-steamer Great Western. It steamed to America in 12 1/2 days. This was faster than a sailing ship.

    In 1843 Brunel built the Great Britain. It was the first iron ship with screw propellers. It's now in Bristol.

    In 1846 Great Britain got stuck on a sandbank. Brunel was cross. He said it looked 'like a useless saucepan on Brighton beach'.

    The giant ship
    Brunel wanted to build the world's biggest ship, to go from Britain to Australia. People laughed. They said no ship could carry enough coal.

    Brunel's giant ship was the Great Eastern. It was 211 metres long and 19,000 tons. It was so big, it had to be pushed sideways into the River Thames.

    Great Eastern had room for 4000 passengers (or 10,000 soldiers).

    What happened to Great Eastern?
    The Great Eastern went to sea in 1859. But it never sailed to Australia. It was damaged in an explosion. It was too expensive, and too big for most harbours.

    In 1866 it laid a cable across the Atlantic, for sending telegraph messages between Britain and America.

    In 1890 it was broken up for scrap.

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  • Life and times

    Family life
    In 1836 Brunel married Mary Horsley. They had three children: Isambard, Henry and Florence. Henry became an engineer, like his father.

    Brunel enjoyed visits to the pantomime at Christmas. He also liked painting, and dreamed of designing a landscape garden.

    Working too hard
    Brunel tried to do every job himself. He worked very hard. Some nights he slept in a chair. Often he got up at 3 to catch a stagecoach to drive to work.

    In his notebooks, Brunel jotted down ideas, did sums, and made notes about plants by the railway or how long iron rails lasted.

    Brunel's Death
    Brunel made himself ill with work and worry. In September 1859, he watched Great Eastern go to sea.

    He had his photo taken. Then he collapsed. He died a week later. He was 53.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel Game

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Take part in Who Wants to be an Engineer?

Fun Facts
  • Brunel's railway had trains pulled by steam engines.

  • There are no photos of Brunel as a baby. He was in his 30s when photography was invented.

  • Most ships at this time were made of wood. It took 2,000 trees to build a big ship!

  • In 1827 the Brunels and their workers had dinner in the Tunnel.

  • When the Tunnel was open in 1843, it cost 2 pennies (2d) to walk under the river. It cost 6 pennies to take 20 sheep across!

  • One story says Clifton Bridge workers used a kite to fly the first rope across the river.

  • People paid for rides in the Clifton Bridge basket!

  • The Box Tunnel is so straight some people say the sun shines all the way through!

  • On its first sea trip in 1838 Great Western caught fire. Brunel fell down a burned ladder and was in bed for weeks!

  • For Great Britain's propeller Brunel tried 8 different shapes.

  • Great Eastern had 6 masts with sails, in case it ran out of coal.

  • Brunel lived above his London office. His friend Robert Stephenson, the railway engineer, lived next door.

  • Brunel built docks at Bristol, Cardiff and Milford Haven.

  • The first suspension bridges were built in China about 1,500 years ago.

  • The Brunels got the idea for the tunnelling-shield from the teredo worm. This worm burrowed into the wood of sailing ships.

  • Tunnel workers got sick, because dirty river water had so many germs in it.

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A to D

Someone who learns a new trade or skill by working with people who do the job.
Battle of Waterloo
A battle in 1815 when British and German soldiers beat Napoleon's French army.
A long rope-like bundle of wires for carrying electric current or messages.

E to G

Engineers design and build things.
When something blows up with a bang.
A building where things are made using machines.
French Revolution
Uprising of 1789 which removed the king of France and set up a republic.
A woman who looks after children, often from rich families.

H to L

Industrial Revolution
Changes in work and science that started in the 1700s.

M to O

P to S

A ship driven by paddle-wheels turned by an engine.
Lots of sand collected on the bottom of a river or the sea.
A factory that saws wooden planks.
screw propeller
Pushes a ship along, with blades that spin in the water.
Vehicle pulled by horses, before there were cars.
Ship with a steam engine burning coals.
suspension bridge
A bridge whose weight is supported by cables.

T to Z

Sending messages through an electric cable, invented in 1837.
The metal rails of a railway for trains to run along.
Buying something and selling something else in return.
tunnelling shield
Machine for digging tunnels underground safely, by holding up the roof as it goes.
A person who makes watches.