The Wellington Papers held by the Special Collections, Hartley Library, contain extensive correspondence with Marc Brunel, born in France in 1769 and the father of the more celebrated Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Marc was also a gifted and innovative engineer whose most famous project was the Thames Tunnel, the first successful tunnel ever to be built under a body of water, and for which achievement he was knighted by Queen Victoria. This year is the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Marc’s first major contact with the Duke of Wellington was after the financial failure of his project to construct boot-making machinery for the army, although he had previously corresponded with him on other projects including a plan for a new bridge at Rochester in 1819-20. The demand for boots collapsed after Waterloo, which resulted in Marc’s incarceration for 88 days in 1821 in a debtor’s prison, along with his wife Sophia. He felt that he had been treated very unfairly by the Government, and appealed for help to the Duke, who managed to secure a grant of £5000 to obtain his release. Wellington wrote to Charles Arbuthnot in July 1821 “..Mr Brunel has rendered most important services to the public in all departments of the state whose business is to superintend the provision of the equipments for carrying on war” [MS 61 WP1/673/3].
Marc Brunel’s many other inventions included a stocking knitting machine, improvements in printing and Liverpool’s first floating landing stage. Another major achievement was his improved block-making machinery for the Admiralty, pulley blocks being essential parts of rigging on sailing vessels, and the reason he first came to England in 1799. In September 1821 he sent drawings of two chain bridges to the Duke of Wellington with a letter explaining his reservations about the design of the first, and why he believed his own design was superior.
The Special Collections holds a number of letters, including drawings, from Marc Brunel concerning the Thames Tunnel. The Tunnel was planned to link Rotherhithe and Wapping and Marc designed an ingenious tunnelling shield to achieve this. This idea is the basis of modern tunnelling shields, including that used in the Crossrail project under London. Brunel’s original patented design was circular, but unfortunately, partly due to lack of funds, a rectangular shield was adopted for the Thames, allowing disastrous inundations.
“I may, I presume, take the liberty of saying a word from our Region (1of morning). All is going on well here; but it is through an expedient applicable to the emergency. Emergencies I may say. Pelted as we have been by the River with all kind of missiles besides water, I have resorted to protection which I frequently illustrate by the Blinds of your Grace’s windows. . . . Every one of the boards may be unhinged easily without affecting the stability of the rest.”
Work began on the tunnelling project in 1825, but suffered many setbacks and was not completed until 1843. The ground under the river did not consist of the solid clay that had been hoped for, but included water-bearing sand and gravel. This caused a number of very dangerous inundations, one of which carried away the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was assisting his father with the project, and causing him serious injuries. Working conditions were made even worse by the state of the river at that period, which was little more than an open sewer, causing much sickness among the workmen. Throughout the project, Marc Brunel kept the Duke of Wellington informed of its progress, as on 1 September 1837 when work had just resumed after another inundation.: “It is from the lowest regions of the Thames that I have the honor of addressing you. … [I] found the Shield undisturbed and not one brick missing to the structure”. [MS61 WP2/47/65]
The last letter that we hold from Marc Brunel is dated March 1844 [MS61 WP2/118/15], when the tunnel was complete except for the carriageways to the entrances. Brunel requests a pension from the government, and outlines his long career:
“I came to this country five and forty years ago. In 1802 I erected . . . the Block Machinery at Portsmouth, which remains to this hour successfully at work . . . I was subsequently employed in erecting Saw Mills on a new principle in both Woolwich and Chatham Dock Yards. . . .Several other mechanical inventions, the Great Circular Saw, now so extensively used, the Cotton-winding machine, which led to the general use of cotton thread, are also instances if improvements of which I am the Author.”
Wellington has written a draft reply across the letter:: “[The Duke of Wellington] is the Commander in Chief of the Army … not the President of the Board of Trade. He has no control over the Public Purse.” The Duke received a great many requests of this nature, and had there are many other examples of such replies.Marc Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames is still in use today as part of London’s railway network. Trains began running here in 1869, although the tunnel was originally intended for horse-drawn traffic and pedestrians. Brunel was unable to construct the carriageways down to the tunnel as the money had run out, but pedestrians were able to access it by a spiral staircase.
Some of the Brunel items feature in the new Special Collections exhibition The Leonardo link: image-making from anatomy to code which will open on Monday 18 February.