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His Reputation as a Witness—Reminiscences of Mr. Brunel, 1835-1838

Mr. Brunel had a very high reputation as a witness. Mr. St. George Burke, Q.C., has communicated a memorandum on this subject.

‘As a witness he could always be relied on as a perfect master of the case he had to support, and he had the rare quality of confining his answers to a simple reply to the questions put to him, without appearing as an advocate. He was, however, extremely particular as to the questions which should be put to him in his examination in chief, and was therefore never satisfied to entrust the preparation of his proof to the solicitor, without revising it himself.

‘In his cross-examinations he was generally a match for the most skilful counsel, and by the adroitness of his answers would often do as much to advance his case as by his examination in chief.

‘He was almost as much of a diplomatist as an engineer, and knew perfectly well how to handle a case in the witness-box so as to leave no loophole for his opponents to take advantage of. At the same time he was a perfectly honest witness, and while he avoided saying more than was necessary for the advancement of the cause in which he was engaged, he would have scorned to say or imply anything by his evidence inconsistent with strict truth.

‘Although he had attained to great celebrity as a witness, the committee room being crowded to hear him, he always declined to engage in the very lucrative work of a professional witness. He made a rule never to appear except on behalf of undertakings of which he was the engineer, or with which his own companies were interested. To help a friend, he occasionally but very rarely broke through this resolve; but, whether he appeared in support of his own plans or those of others, there were few, if any, professional men whose evidence carried more weight than his did before Parliamentary Committees.’

The following memorandum from Mr. George T. Clark, of Dowlais, formerly one of Mr. Brunel’s assistants, contains his recollections of Mr. Brunel during the construction of the Great Western Railway:—

‘I made your father’s acquaintance, rather characteristically, in an unfinished tunnel of the Coal-pit Heath Railway; and when the shaft in which we were suspended cracked and seemed about to give way, I well remember the coolness with which he insisted upon completing the observations he came to make. Shortly afterwards I became, at his request, his assistant; and during the parliamentary struggle of 1835, and the subsequent organisation of the staff, and commencement of the works of the Great Western, I saw him for many hours daily, both in his office and in the field, travelled much with him, and joined him in the very moderate recreation he allowed himself.

‘These two years, and the preceding year, 1834, were, I apprehend, the turning points of his life. His vigour, both of body and mind, were in their perfection. His powers were continually called forth by the obstacles he had to overcome; and the result of his examinations in the committee rooms placed him, in the opinion of the members of the legislature, and of his own profession, in the very first rank of that profession, both for talents and knowledge.

‘I wish I could convey to you even a tolerable idea of your father as he was in those years, during which I knew him intimately, and saw him often under circumstances of great difficulty.

‘He was then a young man, but in the school of the Thames Tunnel he had acquired a close acquaintance with all kinds of masons’ and carpenters’ work, the strength and cost of materials, bridge building, and constructions under water, and with the working of the steam engine as it then stood. It happened not unfrequently that it was desirable to accept the tender of some contractor for railway work whose prices upon certain items were too high, and then it became the engineer’s business to go into the details and convince the contractor of his error. On such occasions Brunel would go step by step through the stages of the work, and it was curious to see the surprise of the practical man as he found himself corrected in his own special business by the engineer. Thus, I remember his proving to an eminent brickmaker who had tendered for the Chippenham contract that the bricks could be made much cheaper than he supposed. He knew accurately how much coal would burn so many bricks, what it would cost, what number of bricks could be turned out, what would be the cost of housing the men, what the cartage, and how many men it would require to complete the work in the specified time. The contractor was astonished; asked if Mr. Brunel had ever been in the brick trade, and finally took and made money by the contract at the proposed figure.

‘In the case of the Maidenhead bridge, the contractor being alarmed at learning that the arch was the flattest known in brick, Brunel pointed out to him that the weight which he feared would crush the bricks, would be less than in a wall which he, the contractor, had recently built, and he convinced him by geometry, made easy by diagrams, that the bridge must stand. Knowledge of detail Brunel shared with the carpenter, builder, or contractor for earthwork, and he was their superior in the accuracy and rapidity with which he combined his knowledge, and arrived at correct conclusions as to the cost of the work and the time it would take to execute it.

‘In talking to landowners and others whose opposition it was important to overcome, I have often been struck by your father’s great powers of negotiation. The most absurd objections—and there were many such—were listened to with good humour, and he spared no pains in explaining the real facts, so that it sometimes happened that he converted opponents into supporters of the railway. In the course he took there was much skilful diplomacy, but there was no dishonesty, no humbug. He was very frank and perfectly sincere. His object was to impart his own convictions, and in that he often succeeded.

I never met his equal for sustained power of work. After a hard day spent in preparing and delivering evidence, and after a hasty dinner, he would attend consultations till a late hour; and then, secure against interruption, sit down to his papers, and draw specifications, write letters or reports, or make calculations all through the night. If at all pressed for time he slept in his armchair for two or three hours, and at early dawn he was ready for the work of the day. When he travelled he usually started about four or five in the morning, so as to reach his ground by daylight. His travelling carriage, in which he often slept, was built from his own design, and was a marvel of skill and comfort. This power of work was no doubt aided by the abstemiousness of his habits and by his light and joyous temperament. One luxury, tobacco, he indulged in to excess, and probably to his injury. At all times, even in bed, a cigar was in his mouth; and wherever he was engaged, there, near at hand, was the enormous leather cigar-case so well known to his friends, and out of which he was quite as ready to supply their wants as his own.

His light and joyous disposition was very attractive. At no time was he stern, but when travelling or off work he was like a boy set free. There was no fun for which he was not ready. On the old Bath road, on a Wiltshire chalk hill-side, is cut a large horse, the pride of the district, and only inferior in reputation to that of the famous Berkshire vale. The people of the district, afraid to lose their coach traffic, were violently opposed to the Great Western Railway Bill. Talking over this one evening, some one suggested turning the horse into a locomotive. Brunel was much amused at the idea, and at once sketched off the horse from memory, roughly calculated its area, and arranged a plan for converting it into an engine. Ten picked men were to go down in two chaises, and by moonlight to peg and line out the new figure, and then cut away the turf, and with it cover up as much of the horse as might be left. From the tube was to issue a towering column of steam, and below was to be inserted in bold characters the offensive letters G. W. R. It was, of course, not intended to carry this joke into execution, but Brunel often alluded to it, and laughed over the sensation it would have created.

‘He possessed a very fine temper, and was always ready to check differences between those about him, and to put a pleasant construction upon any apparent neglect or offence. His servants loved him, and he never forgot those who had stood by his father and himself in the old Tunnel days of trouble and anxiety.

‘No doubt the exertions of those three years, though they laid the foundation, or rather built the fabric, of his reputation, also undermined his constitution, and eventually shortened his life. Everything for which he was responsible he insisted upon doing for himself. I doubt whether he ever signed a professional report that was not entirely of his own composition; and every structure upon the Great Western, from the smallest culvert up to the Brent viaduct and Maidenhead bridge, was entirely, in all its details, from his own designs.’

In the press of work and the altered circumstances under which he superintended the construction of his later railways, many changes inevitably followed. The open britzska gave place to a close travelling carriage, which in its turn became useless; and no time was left for fun or practical jokes; but the same energy of mind and the same kindliness of heart remained uninfluenced by increasing occupations or advancing years.

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