Isambard was born on 9th April 1806 in Portsmouth England. His Father was a famous French Engineer. After a happy childhood in England, he studied Engineering at Lycée Henry-IV in Paris, following in his Father’s footsteps.
After qualifying, he started working with his Father, and started work as an engineer at the age of 26 on the Great Western Railway a new rail line from London to Bristol. At just over 5 foot tall he feared people wouldn’t take him seriously, so he wore an 8 inch Stoker style hat to give him height.
After the great success linking Bristol to London, it was decided to extend the rail line to Exeter.
Often known as the “Little Giant”, Isambard was establishing himself as the most ingenious and prolific mechanical and civil engineer in history with his very innovative solutions.
He built bridges and tunnels, and revolutionised engineering and public transport. Isambard has been responsible for designing and supervising the laying of over 1200 miles of rail track in England, Ireland, Italy and Bengal.
He was a man of action and determination and he would often encourage and motivate everybody by shouting out his personal French motto to all working on each project which was,
As soon as the Bristol to Exeter line was completed it was decided to ask Isambard to design a line from Exeter to Torquay. The line he designed would follow the River Exe past Dawlish Warren, Teignmouth, Newton Abbot and finally onto Torquay covering 13 miles of waters with 4 at open sea. It became known as The South Devon Line and is 19 miles long.
Whist working on The South Devon Line in April 1843, Isambard had a close brush with death. He was playing with his children during a well earned day off showing them a conjuring trick.
The trick involved Isambard putting a half gold sovereign in his mouth and pulling it out of his ear. Sadly, he accidentally swallowed it and the coin lodged in his windpipe making it bery difficult to breathe properly. Everything was attempted to remove the coin from coughing to standing upside down but nothing worked.
After 15 days a medical physcian tried to remove it with some specially designed forceps but they too failed. His worried Father designed an apparatus which basically involved strapping Isambard to a plank and rotating him from side to side upside down. A few coughs later the coin struck his teeth., but at last it was out to the relief of all.
The total episode lasted 6 weeks and left Isambard tired and exhausted so he took time off the South Devon Line and went to Teignmouth to recuperate. This is when he started to fall in love with this part of South Devon as he visited all the coast and country roads and decided to plan his retirement somewhere in this location.
The perfect spot was found and Isambard bought some farm land in Watcombe with magnificent sea views of Teignmouth and Torquay. The new house would be called Brunel Manor and soon construction work began so Isambard rented a Villa nearby in Watcombe.
Local people loved the fact that this engineering genius was living in Torquay and he soon became involved with local poilitics and affairs. A gas works had been planned to be constructed on Babbacombe Beach and Isambard took up the fight to stop the work from going ahead. He even ended up speaking in the House of Lords and won his case so thanks for that Mr Brunel. I’m sure we’ll all agree that Babbacombe Beach is no place for a gasworks.
Sadly Isambard died prematurely on 15th September 1859 age 53 in Westminster. All his retirement plans to Torquay were terminated. His cause of death was a stroke due to his heavy smoking and ongoing kidney problems.
Isambard was buried in Kensal Green Cemetry, Chelsea, London, by his wife Mary and 3 children Isambard Junior, Henry and Florence. Brunel Manor in Watcombe Torquay was left unfinished with only the cellars complete. The heartbroken family sold it on in 1864.
You can visit Brunel Manor today which has become a Christian Centre, The Woodlands House of Prayer Trust. It has a Coffee shop open 10am to 4pm Tuesday till Sunday and I believe they do light lunches there too.
God bless you Isambard. I always think of you when I go under your train Tunnels between Dawlish and Teignmouth.