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Brunel and Gooch: The Odd Couple (Pt 1)

The Vulcan, Brunel designed steam engine

 

When Isambard Kingdom Brunel died on 15th September 1859, Daniel Gooch, Locomotive Superintendent and latterly Chairman of the Great Western Railway wrote in his diary that he had lost his ‘oldest and best friend’, concluding he would ‘ever feel a deep sense of gratitude to Mr Brunel for all his kindness and support, from the first day I saw him in 1837’.


On the face of it, they seem an odd couple! Brunel the flamboyant and bullish dreamer, a seemingly never-ending source of new ideas and schemes, and Gooch the pragmatic, hardworking practical engineer. Gooch’s diaries, published three years after his death in 1889, reveal a lot about the relationship between the two men, one which had lasted more than twenty years. This blog looks at the early years of their working lives together.

By the time Gooch was appointed by Brunel as GWR locomotive superintendent in August 1837, he already had a wealth of engineering experience having begun work at the age of 15 the Tredegar Iron works and had also worked for Robert Stephenson both at the Vulcan Foundry in Manchester and at his Newcastle works and as a draftsman in a Dundee Ironworks. 

Brunel, ten years older had already survived a near-fatal accident in the Thames Tunnel and experienced frustration and disappointment as various schemes and plans came to nothing. By 1837 however, he was engaged in building the Great Western Railway, consulting engineer for the SS Great Western steamship and if all that was not enough, was also managing the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Daniel Gooch

Amazingly, Gooch was still some weeks away from his 21st birthday when Brunel appointed him to prepare his new railway for opening and sort out the weird and wonderful locomotives he’d specified. For someone so young, Gooch was supremely confident, writing that he hoped to ‘get on’ by ‘attention and perseverance’. 

When he arrived at the railway on 18th August 1837, he might have had some second thoughts though: ‘I was not much pleased with the design of the engines ordered’ Gooch records, adding ‘I felt very uneasy about the working of those machines, feeling they would have enough to do to drive themselves along the road’.

Working all night to repair Brunel’s freakish engines, Gooch noted ‘I began to think railway life was a very hard and anxious one’. Matters came to a head when GWR directors, appalled at teething problems and delays being suffered by the railway, asked him to prepare a report on the engines without Brunel’s knowledge. This placed him in a difficult situation but diplomatic as ever, his report concentrated on engineering not design flaws, lessening criticism of Brunel. 

Even so, Brunel sent him ‘a rather angry letter’ which regrettably does not seem to have survived in the Brunel Institute collection or elsewhere! Gooch did reflect that his boss only showed displeasure in the letter itself and was ‘personally most kind and considerate to me’. His good sense ‘told him what I said was correct, and his kind heart did me justice’ he concluded. 

Brunel was of course being pragmatic, as Gooch had probably saved his job and career at this point – they allowed him to carry on with his grand railway project!

Author: Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute