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Supervision of Works—Mr. Brunel’s Engineering Staff

It was impossible for Mr. Brunel to look after all his works to the same extent as he had done in the case of the Great Western Railway; and he was compelled to spend a very considerable amount of time in attendance on Committees of the Houses of Parliament on behalf of the railways to which he was engineer. Mr. Brunel frequently regretted this, and considered it a great evil that engineers were prevented by their duties during the session from attending properly to the construction of their works. He endeavoured as far as possible to superintend the execution of his different undertakings. He availed himself of every opportunity of examining them, and was acquainted throughout with all the designs which were prepared. He would take advantage of two or three free days to go down to the distant works in South Wales or in Cornwall, looking after details, such as the pickling tanks for timber, and the masonry of the viaducts.

He was fortunate in the selection of the members of his staff, and in his organisation of it. He had a rare power of utilising the capabilities of his different assistants; and although he had to deal with a great variety of men, he managed that they should work in harmony with him. From the complete personal supervision Mr. Brunel sought to maintain over all his works, his assistants had not perhaps so many opportunities of independent action as they might otherwise have obtained, but they had, on the other hand, the advantage of constant personal communication with their chief.

After the time when Mr. Brunel’s works became so numerous, and his time so much occupied, that he could not exercise in person that general supervision which he conceived to be necessary, he was ably assisted by Mr. Robert Pearson Brereton, who, on the death of Mr. Hammond in 1847, became the chief of his engineering staff.

Mr. Brunel rarely made any changes in the personnel of his office. Mr. Brereton had become one of his assistants in 1836; and his secretary, the late Mr. Joseph Bennett, came to him in the same year.

The Great Western Railway retained its early place in his affections, and among his most valued friends were members of the Board of Directors, Mr. Saunders the Secretary, and other officers of the company. When in the last year of his life he was obliged to go to Egypt for his health, it was a matter of deep anxiety to him lest his absence from England should cause any alteration in his relations with the Company, and it was a source of great pleasure to him that no such consequences followed.

Mr. Brunel’s position as confidential adviser of so large a number of railway companies gave him frequent opportunities of acting as mediator between contending parties; and his decisions were always received with respect, for he was known to be scrupulously just.

Besides the more friendly task of reconciling opponents he had a large practice as a referee under Acts of Parliament and orders of the superior courts; and displayed in these matters great judicial abilities.

In all the causes and parliamentary contests affecting the various companies of which he was engineer, Mr. Brunel was a very important member of the preliminary consultations, and during the proceedings counsel relied with confidence on his suggestions.

One of the most arduous parts of his duty, as engineer of the Great Western Railway Company, was connected with the conduct of the great cases of Ranger and MacIntosh. To the former of these reference is made in the letter printed below, at p. 478. The MacIntosh case, which was commenced shortly after the opening of the line, was not concluded before Mr. Brunel’s death. He was compelled to devote a considerable portion of his time to it, even after his return home in the evening, during the launch of the ‘Great Eastern.’

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