Meeting Isambard Kingdom Brunel

On a damp day in October 2018 we made our second visit to SS Great Britain in Bristol but this time as well as the ship there was the added interest of the brand new ‘Being Brunel’ Museum.

Brunel was 32 when he launched his first ship in 1838 – SS Great Western, the first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic; in 1845 when he was 39 years old he launched SS Great Britain, the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which it did in 14 days; at the age of 52 he launched SS Great Eastern, dying shortly after the launch. In between times he built a railway, bridges and countless other projects.

On our arrival we were taken straight to the ship where a sandwich and soup lunch was laid on for us. Once this was enjoyed we were free to explore the ship and museum at our leisure.

The museum’s aim is to introduce us to the man Brunel and his many interests and skills. Among other things he was a keen follower of the arts and loved Shakspeare (not a typo).

One striking feature of the museum is an enormous reproduction of his head – which can be entered via his ear for a visual presentation of some of the events during the building of the railways as seen through his own eyes, including smoke, smells and loud noises.

There’s a lot to see inside his head

On exiting the ‘head’ we entered his ‘London Office’ and joined in a visual presentation of a debate on whether it was cost effective to build the SS Great Britain.

Brunel’s London Office
Working Hard

By spring 1858 Brunel was seriously ill. He may have been suffering from kidney disease. He had a stroke in 1859 while on board the Great Eastern. Dying he was carried home to London but held on for reports of the Great Eastern on her trial voyage off the south coast of England. He must have been hoping for good news. Instead he heard how one of her boiler feedwater tanks had exploded off Weymouth, damaging the ship and killing three men.

On board SS Great Britain we were able to sit with the great man himself, visit the kitchens and check out the other services available.

Sitting with Brunel

Around the dockyard the everyday activities were going on as usual.

Another very interesting day and well worth our return visit which can be thoroughly recommended.