Brunel the practical joker

23 March 2017


23 March 2017


Did you know Brunel was a prankster? Read all about three of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's practical jokes here.

Something most people don’t know about Isambard Kingdom Brunel is that he was a keen practical joker. We’ve looked at three of his best (and worst) pranks:

Credit: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Tunnel Engineering. A Museum Treatment, by Robert M. Vogel

This story from St George Burke Q.C. is from his memoir of Brunel. After all, who doesn’t love a noisy neighbour?

[we] occupied chambers facing each other in Parliament Street… To facilitate our intercourse it occurred to [him] to carry a string across Parliament Street, from his chambers to mine, to be there connected with a bell, by which he could either call me to the window to receive his telegraphic signals, or, more frequently, to wake me up in the morning when we had occasion to go into the country together, and great was the astonishment of the neighbours at this device, the object of which they were unable to comprehend… He was a very constant smoker, and would take his nap in an armchair, very frequently with a cigar in his mouth; and if we were to start out of town at five or six o’clock in the morning, it was his frequent practice to rouse me out of bed about three, by means of the bell, when I would invariably find him up and dressed, and in great glee at the fun of having curtailed my slumbers by two or three hours more than necessary.

The Great Western Railway wasn’t always a popular idea and several groups took issue at its construction. Brunel was less than sympathetic and his assistant, George T. Clark offers this anecdote from 1835.

On the old Bath road, on a Wiltshire chalk hill-side, is cut a large horse, the pride of the district…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, someone 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, 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. Of course this joke was never intended to be carried out but Brunel often alluded to it, and laughed over the sensation it would have created.

This extract was written by Sir Roderick Murchison, one a team of men sent into the Thames Tunnel after it flooded in 1827. The Tunnel filled up with mud and water so that the men had to take a small boat and push their way along the ceiling of the Tunnel. The experience must have been dark, cramped, smelly (the Bazalgette sewer system was finished in 1870) and the last place to be joking around.

As we were proceeding [Brunel] called out, ‘Now, gentlemen, if by accident there should be a rush of water, I shall turn the punt over and prevent you being jammed against the roof, and we shall then be carried out and up the shaft!’ On this C. Bonaparte remarks, ‘But I cannot swim!’ and, just as he had said the words, Brunel, swinging carelessly from right to left, fell overboard, and out went the candles with which he was lighting up the place.

We won’t ever know if his fall was intentional or cruel irony, but either way C. Bonaparte was unimpressed.

Author: Luke Holmes, Interpretation Officer

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