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April's anniversaries.

Birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

April 9th, 1806

THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT VICTORIAN engineers, and their most outstanding personality, was born at five minutes before one o'clock in the morning in a small house in the district of Portsea in Portsmouth. He was the son of a French emigre, Marc Isambard Brunel, a prolific inventor and engineer, and his English wife Sophia Kingdom. They already had two daughters, Sophia and Emma. The new baby was their last child and only son.

Marc Isambard Brunel had first met Sophia Kingdom in Rouen in 1792. The youngest of sixteen children of a naval contractor in Plymouth, she had been sent to France in her teens to learn the language. They fell in love, but Brunel was a known royalist and the following year he had to flee France from the Terror: He took ship for the United States and was eventually appointed chief engineer of New York City. Sophia meanwhile had managed to get back to England after being imprisoned in a convent. In 1799 he sailed to England to interest the British government in the machines he had invented for manufacturing ships' rigging-blocks. A 74-gun warship needed 1,400 of these blocks, so a method of producing them quickly and cheaply was welcome and he was commissioned to instal his machines in Portsmouth dockyard. Meanwhile in November 1799 Marc Isambard and Sophia were married. He was thirty and she was five years or so younger. In 1802 they settled in Portsea to be near his work.

In 1808 the family moved to the village of Chelsea, on the Thames outside London. Young Isambard showed early signs of talent, guided by his father, who started him on drawing at the age of four and encouraged him to make accurate drawings of buildings, which developed his powers of observation and assessment. The boy began Euclid at eight and was presently sent to a boarding school in Hove. Lively and outgoing, he loved charades, swimming in the river and trips to London by boat. The family suffered financial ups and downs, and the elder Isambard would spend time in a debtors' prison, but by then young Isambard had been sent to school in France, before being apprenticed to Louis Breguet, France's most celebrated maker of watches, chronometers and scientific instruments. He had been given an effective preparation for the engineering profession, which then had no recognized training programme or formal qualifications.

Returning to England at the age of sixteen in 1822, young Isambard began work in his father's cramped little office in the City. The older Brunel, who had designed machines for making army boots and, significantly, a tunnelling shield which made underwater tunnelling possible, was involved in projects ranging from suspension bridges and dock installations to a projected canal in Panama. Three years later he began his greatest undertaking, the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames, from Rotherhithe to Wapping. His son hurled himself into it with the superhuman energy and resourcefulness that would mark his whole adult life. He was lucky to survive the desperate moment in 1828 when the river broke into the tunnel and a massive wave swept along it. Six of the workforce were killed and young Isambard was badly hurt and took months to recover.

He went on to start a brilliantly successful separate career of his own and to create the Great Western Railway and the first transatlantic steamships. His father, knighted in 1841, died in 1849 at the age of eighty. The even more famous son lived on for only another ten years, to the at fifty-three in 1859.

The San Francisco Earthquake

April 18th, 1906

SAN FRANCISCO IN 1906 Was the premier city of the American West, the principal port on the Pacific coast of the United States and a major financial centre. It had known earthquakes and fires before, but nothing approaching what happened in 1906.

On the night of April 17th, Enrico Caruso sang in Carmen at the Opera and stayed at the Palace I Hotel. San Francisco high society turned out in force and the audience included the actor John Barrymore. Restaurants, clubs and brothels did their usual roaring trade and by about 2 am the city had mostly settled down for the night.

Around 5am, as the sky began to get light, the gas street lighting switched off, the cable cars began to move and so did a few early risers. At or soon after 5.10, as Simon Winchester put it, 'the earth very briefly shrugged'. There was a terrifying rumbling sound, which one observer described as like the noise of an enormous train, and the surface of the ground seemed to rise up and move in a succession of waves into the city from the Pacific. A policeman on duty in the produce market saw it coming up Washington Street. 'The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me, billowing as they came.' Buildings lurched to and fro, roofs and chimneys caved in, people were thrown out of their beds, windows smashed, the cablecar tracks twisted and cracks opened in the pavements. The Palace Hotel seemed to be dancing a jig. Journalists in the office of the Examiner newspaper were sent staggering about until they fell flat on their faces, where they seemed to be glued to the floor. The City Hall shook so violently that those inside had to hold on to doors to stay I upright, while the furniture jumped about and plaster fell off the ceilings.

Within a few seconds fires began raging, driven on by the wind from the Pacific and reducing hundreds of damaged buildings to ashes. The business and industrial districts were virtually wiped out and the fashionable Nob Hill area was threatened by the flames. Around 5.30 James Hopper, a reporter for the San Francisco Call, went out into the city. 'The streets were full of people, half-clad, dishevelled, but silent, absolutely silent, as if suddenly they had become speechless idiots.'

Thousands of people took to living in the city parks and thousands more fled in ferries and on trains, while the authorities took an admirably effective grip on the situation, led by Brigadier-General Frederick Funston of the US Army and the city's mayor, Eugene Schmitz. A committee of fifty citizens appointed to assist them had to hold its first meeting in the open air because the buildings were unsafe. Funston's troops had orders to shoot looters dead on sight. All sale of liquor was banned and all bars and saloons closed. Gas and electricity services were suspended, the city was left in darkness at night and a curfew was imposed. Firefighting was desperately difficult because the water mains had all been destroyed, but the army's dynamite was used extensively and the fires burned out alter three days, at which point it started to rain. The number of lives lost has been estimated at 3,000, and 225,000 people were left homeless. According to official records, a total of 28,188 buildings were destroyed in an area of about four square miles. The city soon recovered its spirit and a far more beautiful San Francisco rose to replace the old.

The First Union Jack

April 12th, 1606

WHEN JAMES VI OF SCOTS rode south to London in 1603 to be crowned as James I of England, he called himself King of Great Britain. He hoped for a union of his two realms and tried to sell the idea to both the English and the Scots, without success.

There were too many vested interests against him and the kingdoms remained separate as South Britain and North Britain. For a time their ships continued to fly their own 'jacks' to indicate their nationality: the jack being a small flag flown from the jack-staff at the vessel's bow. The English flew the cross of St George, their patron saint, and the Scots theirs of St Andrew.

Unable to achieve the union of the kingdoms, King James found some consolation in the creation of a union flag and issued a proclamation about it in 1606. Devised by the royal heralds, the new flag combined the crosses of St George and St Andrew, and was to be flown from the top of the mainmast of all British ships. English ships would additionally fly their St George's cross at the top of the foremast, and Scottish ships their St Andrew's cross in the same way.

In designing the new flag the heralds took the blue of the St Andrew's cross as the background colour with the white saltire on top of it. Superimposed on top of that was the red cross of St George, whose original white background almost disappeared. It was reduced to a narrow white border or 'fimbriation', to prevent the red colour of the cross touching the blue background, which would have broken one of the arcane rules of the heralds' mystery.

Some English seamen were not comfortable with the new flag, but it was used all through the reigns of James I and Charles I. The Commonwealth created a new ensign tot English warships, which dropped the cross of St Andrew altogether and added a yellow harp for Ireland. In 1658 Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector put out a Great Union flag, which combined the crosses of St George and St Andrew with the Irish harp. It was displayed at his funeral, but the restoration of Charles II also restored the Union Jack of James I, which continued in use until the formal union with Ireland in 1801 made it necessary to add the cross of St Patrick.
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Title Annotation:MONTHS PAST
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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