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The second greatest Briton who was actually half French.


IF MARY HORSLEY didn't know what she was letting herself in for when she married Isambard Kingdom Brunel, their honeymoon at Capel Curig in North Wales revealed the awful truth.

For a start, this sojourn lasted just three days and her workaholic new husband also crammed in a visit to the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in October, 1830.

The 200th anniversary of Brunel's birth was on Saturday and, during this year, there will be a variety of celebrations and commemorations about the man rated in the BBC's national poll as the second greatest Briton (after Winston Churchill). Incidentally, Brunel, although in born in Portsmouth, was technically only half British, as his engineer father, Sir Marc Brunel, was French.

That in itself is surely an invitation to assemble some sort of event here, with Liverpool's European Capital of Culture looming for 2008. Also, with the recent spectacular sinking of Liverpool landing stage, it is appropriate to remember that the first of the three successive Pier Head landing stages was designed by Marc Brunel.

So does IK Brunel, not merely chief engineer of the Great Western Railway but the greatest engineer of his age, impinge upon us up here in the North West? His permanent monuments largely lie in southern England, but the impetus for the Great Western Railway was Bristol's anxiety about Liverpool's seemingly unstoppable rise.

Bristol's merchants believed that a direct rail link with London would bolster their fortunes and Brunel's 110 mile-long "billiard table route" (ie straight and flat) was opened in 1841.

A cigar-chomping ball of energy and versatility, IK Brunel was a blunt, hard, task-master, driving his team mercilessly, with 20-hour days, six days a week as the norm for himself.

He was at the heart of a small group of fellow elite engineers and industrialists who irrevocably changed Britain from a rural island economy into an industrial world power.

IK Brunel is most closely linked with Liverpool through his two great ships.

His revolutionary iron ship, Great Britain, of 1843, the first major ship powered by a screw propeller sailed from Liverpool to the US and carried a total of 15,000 emigrants to Australia.

Liverpool's famous china shop, Stonier's, supplied all the ship's crockery.

His final ship, Great Eastern, of 1858, was a behemoth unsurpassed in size for 40 years and a commercial disaster.

Her many teething problems culminated in an explosion, which coincided with Brunel's death from nervous and physical exhaustion, on September 15, 1859, aged 56.

However, Great Eastern was an unexpected success in laying the first complete transatlantic telegraph cable supervised by Lord Kelvin.

Bizarrely, she ended her days as an entertainment complex, run by Liverpool's department store magnate David Lewis, anchored off Rock Ferry. She was broken up in the Mersey and some of her fittings and crockery are at Mariner's Park, Wallasey, and one of her masts is at Liverpool FC's Anfield ground.

As part of the Brunel bicentenary, photographer David White has created an exhibition of 20 photographs of the engineer's work. This is with the same camera and lens combination used nearly 150 years ago by his predecessor, Robert Howlett, for the classic shot of Brunel standing in front of the chains of his steamship, the SS Great Eastern.

Will the exhibition come to Merseyside?

From what I can tell, there are no North West bicentenary events marking this phenomenal man.

Andrew Kelly, director of the Brunel 200 celebrations, hopes these events will inspire "the young Brunels of tomorrow". No reason why our budding IKBs should be left out here.

Cigar chomping ball of energy and versatility
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 10, 2006
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