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Tunnels in Arcadia: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Portal Designs for the Great Western Railway

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 December 2020

Abstract

From the 1830s, the British landscape was transformed by the development of the steam-hauled railway system, which necessitated bridges, viaducts and tunnels. Of such structures, tunnel entrances feature little in serious studies of railway architecture. However, rich archival evidence exists relating to the designs of Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the tunnel portals on the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol, including numerous pencil and ink drawings in sketchbooks held by the Brunel Archive, University of Bristol, and watercolour elevations in the Network Rail Archive in York, as well as lithographs of the portals by John Cooke Bourne for his History and Description of the Great Western Railway (1846). Brunel's drawings, unique among nineteenth-century engineers, range from the classical style for Box and Middle Hill tunnels in Wiltshire, through the Gothic for Twerton in Somerset, to the Romanesque for Brislington on the edge of Bristol, his so-called ‘Tunnel No. 1’. In their variety and careful design, Brunel's portals represent an important part of Britain's railway and industrial architectural heritage.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 2020

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References

1 Bradshaw, George, Bradshaw's Descriptive Railway Hand-book of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1863), p. 19Google Scholar.

2 The earliest tunnels on passenger railways were arguably Tyler Hill on the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, opened in May 1830, and Crown Street on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in September 1830. However, these were for rope-hauled trains due to the inclines. The earliest tunnel purpose-built for passenger steam haulage was Marsh Lane, Leeds, on the Leeds and Selby Railway, opened in September 1834 and opened out in 1894. See the second chapter of MacTurk, G. G., A History of the Hull Railways (1879; repr. Knaresborough, 1970)Google Scholar. None of these tunnels had distinguished portals.

3 Twining, E. W., ‘The Original Tunnels of the Great Western Railway’, Railway Magazine, 25 (October 1909), pp. 297301Google Scholar. The principal relevant biographical works are Buchanan, Angus, Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (London, 2002)Google Scholar; Vaughan, Adrian, Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight Errant (London, 1991)Google Scholar; and Hudson, Angie, Kentley, Eric and Peto, James, ed., Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Recent Works (London, 2000)Google Scholar.

4 Celia Brunel Noble, The Brunels, Father and Son (London, 1938), p. 107.

5 The National Archives, Kew [hereafter TNA], RAIL 1149/49. House of Commons Parliamentary Enquiry [hereafter HC], 23 March 1835, pp. 36–37; House of Lords Parliamentary Enquiry [hereafter HL], minutes of evidence, 1835, vol. 4, GWR, p. 37.

6 See TNA, RAIL 634, South Eastern, Brighton, Lewis and Newhaven Railway, provisional committee meetings, 1836–37.

7 For a long and graphic account of conditions during the construction, see the Bath Chronicle, 18 July 1839. See also Gale, Thomas, A Brief Account of the Making and Working of the Great Box Tunnel (Cheltenham, 1884)Google Scholar.

8 TNA, RAIL 252/1, Box Tunnel contract no. 2, 12 June 1841 to 18 August 1842.

9 Friendly Companion, 1 December 1879, p. 276.

10 Brunel Archive, University of Bristol [hereafter DM], 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 11, f. 42.

11 DM 162/8/1/2, Small Sketchbook 27, f. 33; DM 162/8/1/2, GWR Small Sketchbook 11, f. 41. As with the sketches, only some of the 57 sketchbooks relating to the Great Western Railway (GWR) in the Brunel Archive are dated.

12 Network Rail Archives, York [hereafter NRCA], 110031.

13 The road from Bath to Corsham was diverted at this point, to allow for the opening out of the cutting between the west portal and the realigned road bridge. The drawings are in the same sketchbook, DM 162/8/1/4, Misc. Sketchbook 1, ff. 55–57. Annotation on the two dated drawings (ff. 55–56) suggests that Box Tunnel's west portal was in Gloucestershire, apparently a geographical slip on Brunel's part.

14 NRCA 110034 and NRCA 110032.

15 TNA, RAIL 1149/5, 20 March 1839.

16 DM 162/8/1/4, Misc. Sketchbook 1, f. 55.

17 DM 162/8/1/4, Misc. Sketchbook 1, f. 56.

18 DM 162/8/1/4, Misc. Sketchbook 1, f. 57.

19 This kind of flourish appears again in a drawing of a gate portal for features marked as ‘Bristol Depot’ (perhaps Temple Meads station) in a sketchbook of 1838: DM 162/8/1/4, GWR Sketchbook, f. 6.

20 Penny Satirist, 4 September 1841.

21 Punch, 31 August 1844.

22 TNA, RAIL 251/1, Box Tunnel contract no. 2, 12 June 1841 to 18 August 1842.

23 TNA, RAIL 252/1, Box tunnel contract no. 6, 3 April 1840 to 11 November 1841. See National Archive currency conversion tables.

24 TNA, RAIL 1014/30, 22 June 1841.

25 Gale, Brief Account, p. 13.

26 Buchanan, Brunel, p. 73.

27 Watercolour elevation of Middle Hill Tunnel: NRCA 161025.

28 TNA, RAIL 250/82, I. K. Brunel's reports 1835–42, report 44. In the Box tithe map of December 1838, five members of the Wiltshire family are listed as owning land in the vicinity of the proposed railway track. The family mansion of Shockerwick was, however, across the Box Brook in Somerset. Wiltshire County Archives, Tithe map of Parish of Box, December 1838. See also HL, PO/PB/5/1/1 (6 July 1835), p. 392.

29 TNA, RAIL 250/82, 20 November 1837, p. 94.

30 DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 5, 1838, ff. 34 and 35.

31 For the construction of Middle Hill Tunnel, see TNA, RAIL 250/107, GWR Subcommittee on Progress of Work 1840–42 (20 September and 18 October 1839; 12 February 1840); TNA, RAIL 250/114, GWR Subcommittee on Progress of Work 1840. Also E. T. MacDermott, History of the Great Western Railway, vol. 1, 1833–63 (London, 1927), p. 66.

32 Adrian Vaughan, ‘Brunel as Creator of Environment’, in Conserving the Railway Heritage, ed. P. Burman and M. Stratton (London, 1997), p. 83.

33 Brunel cited by Vaughan, Brunel, p. 31.

34 TNA, RAIL 1149/49, 50 and 67, House of Commons Select Committee on GWR, March 1835.

35 DM 162/8/1/4, Sketchbook, 1835, f. 10.

36 DM 162/8/1/4, Sketchbook, 1836, f. 18.

37 DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 5, 1838, f. 19.

38 TNA, RAIL 1149/49, 40, HC Select Committee, 23 March 1835. TNA, RAIL 1149/3, Brunel's letters, 18 December 1837. Railway Magazine (December 1838), p. 449.

39 NRCA 130016 and 130012.

40 DM 162/8/1/4, Sketchbook, 1836, ff. 59 and 60.

41 See the resulting dispute with the contractor David McIntosh in David Brooke, ‘The Equity Suit of McIntosh versus the Great Western Railway’, Journal of Transport History, 3rd ser. (September 1996), pp. 141–42.

42 Brooke, ‘Equity Suit’, p. 141.

43 DM 162/8/1/4, Sketchbook, 1836, ff. 5 (east portal) and 7.

44 It seems that, as with Twerton Long Tunnel, Brunel was unsure of the final dimensions; in September 1837, after construction had been under way for three months, he raised the height of both portals from 25 to 30 ft, then in 1838 ordered that the west portal be reduced to its original 25 ft: Brooke, ‘Equity Suit’, pp. 141–42.

45 TNA, RAIL 1149/2, Brunel's letters, 24 April 1837.

46 Railway Magazine (December 1838), p. 445.

47 DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook, f. 12, Wickwar Tunnel.

48 DM 162/8/1/3, Sketchbook 6, f. 20.

49 The evolution of the design of Tunnel No. 3 may be traced through the following sketches: DM 162/8/1/3, Sketchbook, 1835, f. 81; DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 7, f. 17; DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 8, ff. 33 and 34; DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 8, ff. 30 (18 December 1839) and 33 (20 December 1839).

50 DM 162/8/1/3, GWR Sketchbook 5 (19 September 1838), f. 8.

51 Brunel, Isambard, Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (London, 1870), p. 148Google Scholar.

52 Whishaw, Francis, The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1842), p. 148Google Scholar.

53 Churton, Edward, The Rail Road Book of England (London, 1851), p. 194Google Scholar.

54 NRCA 160461.

55 Whishaw, Railways of Great Britain, p. 148.

56 Railway Magazine (December 1838), p. 445.

57 DM 162/8/1/4, Sketchbook, f. 76.

58 DM 162/8/1/3, Sketchbook 7, f. 39.

59 TNA, RAIL 1149/5, Brunel's letters, 11 February 1840.

60 See Thomas, Robert, ‘Railway Engineering and the Picturesque’, in Studies in the History of Construction, ed. Campbell, James W. P. (Cambridge, 2015), p. 10Google Scholar; also R. Angus Buchanan, ‘Working for the Chief: The Design Team and Office Staff of I. K. Brunel’, in Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Recent Works, ed. Hudson, Kentley and Peto, pp. 15–25.

61 See Mattingley, Neil and Slater, Gordon, Bradford's Railways (Bradford-on-Avon, 2007)Google Scholar, and Mowl, Tim, A Trumpeter at a Distant Gate (London, 1998)Google Scholar.

62 See James, Leslie, A Chronology of the Construction of Britain's Railways, 1755–1855 (Shepperton, 1983)Google Scholar.

63 Brees, S. C., Railway Practice: A Collection of Working Plans and Practical Details of Construction in the Public Works of the Most Celebrated Engineers (London, 1838)Google Scholar, plate 75.

64 The route was divided under the direction of two committees, the east (or London) and west (Bristol). That expense was a particular concern for the Bristol committee is demonstrated by a letter of 13 May 1839 from director George Henry Gibbs, in which he emphasised the importance of keeping down costs. George Henry Gibbs, Correspondence, ed. Jack Simmons (Bath, 1971), p. 69.

65 Builder, 3 (August 1844), p. 388.

66 Notable examples of monumental portals in continental Europe include the Loreley and Kaiser Wilhelm tunnels in Germany (completed in c. 1861 and 1879 respectively), and Tauern Tunnel in Austria (1909).

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