Hamilton’s connection to Brunel

30 April 2024

Blog

30 April 2024

Blog

Our historians have unveiled the surprising connection between historic founding father Hamilton and the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel...

This month Bristol see’s the award-winning musical Hamilton light up the stage at the Bristol Hippodrome but did you know, there is a deeper connection with this historic founding father and one Sir Marc Isambard Brunel?

Before Marc’s career as an engineer and as father to Isambard Kingdom Brunel he found himself fleeing his native France from the Terror of the French Revolution, in 1793, for the distant shores of a young United States of America. He travelled through Philadelphia and New York and built up enough of a reputation for his ingenuity that he was eventually appointed Chief Engineer of New York. His services to the city brought him in regular a frequent contact with members of the American Government.

One Alexander Hamilton became a particularly close friend of his, bonded by their mutual distrust of Republican France, who at the time were waging an undeclared naval war against the United States. As George Washington’s First Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton had warned his countrymen against French plans and although no longer holding office he remained one of Washington’s intimates.

Shaq Taylor as Alexander Hamilton. Photo by Danny Kaan.
Self portrait of Sir Marc Brunel. SS Great Britain Trust.

During an evening dinner at Hamilton’s home in the Winter of 1798, conversations across the dinner table provided Marc with his “first idea of the block making machinery”, which he would later go on to have great success within Britain. His great friend Hamilton not only supported his ambitions but used his personal and political connections with Robert Liston, British Minister to the United States to secure Marc an English Passport and furnished him with a letter of introduction to George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer.

In January 1799, Marc Brunel bid farewell to America and would go on to have a successful career with the continuing support of the Spencer Family and would be lucky enough to watch the glittering career of his son Isambard grow and flourish. Unfortunately, Alexander Hamilton would come to a sad an untimely end just 5 years after Marc set sail for Britain, during a duel of honour with Vice-President Andrew Burr. Marc Brunel’s years in America were full of exhilaration and promise, meeting minds with founding fathers and the very best of a new and young independent country.

You can discover more about Marc Brunel’s work for the city of New York via the SS Great Britain’s collection now accessible online or why not come down and visit the Being Brunel Museum to see some of his original designs for yourself!