Sussex Life September 2015 Poetry + solution

PUBLISHED: 15:21 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:21 01 September 2015

Solution for the “En Avant” piece by Tony Ward in the Sussex Life September issue

August solution

July solution


Who is it? “En Avant”

Schooled at his Chelsea home,

drawing, observing. Euclid.

Father, the engineer passing on

his language, his skills.


Schooled on the Sussex coast,

surveying, a wager won. Virgil.

Schooled in his father’s land,

Lycee, Universite. Breguet.


Returned. The engineer –

Steamships, bridges, tracks,

Largest, longest, fastest.

Bold plans, but right – Firsts,

the wonders of his world.


Under rivers, over rivers,

boring through hills, nothing deterred.

Timber, brick and iron.

A little man but

a giant shadow.


But not all steamships, bridges, tracks.

Scutari, Swindon,

unlikely midwives.

Scutari, a prayer answered,

an engineer’s solution,

“those magnificent huts” – a model.


Swindon, railway village, hospital,

clinics, duty of care – a model.

One hundred years, one birth,

available to all,

free at the point of use.


And the engineer? A death too soon but a lasting legacy,

one of our greatest.

En Avant.


Solution – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS (1806-1859) – Engineer

Explanation of embedded clues

The poem title ‘En Avant’ (Forward) was Brunel’s personal motto, inscribed on his signet ring. Brunel liked to translate his French motto as ‘Get Going’. His father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, was a French civil engineer, a refugee from the French Revolution, who married an English girl, Sophia Kingdom. They had first met in France where the teenage Sophia had been sent to learn the language, but they soon had to go separate ways. They met up again in England in 1799 and were married. By then Marc was thirty and Sophia about five years younger. They settled in Portsmouth, near Marc’s work and already had two daughters by the time their only son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was born on 9th April 1806. Two years later the family moved to the ‘village’ of Chelsea on the River Thames.

Brunel’s early schooling was in this family home in Chelsea. From the age of four his father taught him drawing and observational techniques before moving on to Euclidian Geometry and the basic principles of engineering. He was of course also bilingual, a fluent French speaker.

At some point between the ages of eight and fourteen (accounts vary) he attended Dr. Morell’s Academy, a boarding school in Hove in a terrace south-east of Hove Street, facing the seafront. It was demolished in the 1930’s when Kingsway was widened. He liked the Classics – “I like Horace very much, but not as much as Virgil” (letter home to his mother in 1820). In his spare time he made model boats and also drew up a “pretty exact plan” of Hove as it then was. To improve on its accuracy he even asked to borrow his father’s “long eighty foot tape... I will take care of it.”

One aspect of the observational techniques his father had taught him was to identify any faults in the structure of a building. This proved to be profitable. One evening he had noticed the bad workmanship on some houses being built opposite the school and with the stormy weather worsening during the night, predicted that their walls would have blown down by the morning! The other boys readily accepted his bet. As was to be the case for most of his life, he was right, and claimed the wagers next morning.

He left Dr Morell’s in 1820 at the age of 14 to continue his education in France, his father’s wish. His main schooling was at the College Henri Quatre in Paris (also known as Lycee Henri-IV). Following this, his father’s wish was for him to attend the famous university-level engineering school Ecole Polytechnique, but being of foreign birth he was ineligible. Brunel was therefore apprenticed to one of the most famous master clockmakers and horologists of all time, Abraham-Louis Breguet, whom he greatly impressed. The Breguet Company is now the luxury watch division of the Swiss Swatch Group.

Upon the completion of his apprenticeship, Brunel returned to London and worked as an assistant to his father on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. This was the first tunnel under a river anywhere in the world. It was deemed ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ and was a major tourist attraction. Started in 1825, it opened for pedestrians in 1843 but not for trains until 1869. It then became part of the London Underground system (the East London Line) and is now part of the London Overground. During construction though there had been severe flooding and several deaths. In one of these floods Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself was nearly killed, having to be dragged unconscious from the floodwater. He was off work for six months and did not return to the project.

He then secured a position as Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR). It was Brunel’s vision that passengers would be able to buy one ticket at Paddington for travel from London to New York. This would require building a railway from London via Bristol, requiring some 100 bridges, viaducts and tunnels, to a projected steamship terminal in Neyland, West Wales. It would also require the design and construction of commercially viable transatlantic steamships. This was of course regarded as an impossible pipe (or cigar) dream.

His first radical decision was to abandon George Stephenson’s original “standard gauge” track width (4ft 8¼”) in favour of his new “broad gauge” (7ft ¼”). This would enable higher speeds, a smoother ride and greater passenger and freight capacity. This was a battle that he lost though, and following the ‘Regulating the Gauge of Railways Act 1846’ the GWR network was forced to change to Standard gauge. The Didcot Railway Centre however has reconstructed a segment of Broad Gauge complete with a compatible working steam locomotive – what might have been?

And then there were his bridges. “No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.” (Chapter 23 of Magna Carta). But Brunel revelled in the challenge. His two most famous bridges are probably the beautiful, Clifton Suspension Bridge (started 1831 but not completed until 1864) at Bristol, and the bowstring-girder Royal Albert Bridge (opened 1859, the year of Brunel’s death) across the river Tamar at Saltash, near Plymouth. The span of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, symbol of the City of Bristol, was the longest at the time.

This bridge was based on the 24 year-old Brunel’s original designs but with later significant changes by two other engineers (William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawshaw). Chains from Brunel’s earlier (replaced) Hungerford Bridge over the Thames were re-used for the Clifton Bridge. The feature that even Brunel’s father did not think possible, a single span without a centre support, was however realised. Right again! This wide unobstructed span 76 metres above high-water level was of course a challenge to dare-devil pilots. Until the 1930’s there were several biplane flights under the bridge. As aircraft speeds increased such escapades were banned. However, in spite of this in 1957 an RAF Vampire Jet was flown at 450mph underneath the bridge. The pilot crashed into the cliffs and was killed instantly.

As mentioned in Verse four, however, Brunel did not only build in wrought iron (cheap steel was not available until several decades after his death). He also built in brick. The Maidenhead Railway Bridge, at the time the flattest, widest arch bridge in the world is still carrying trains to the west. He built to last. Today’s trains are about ten times heavier than in his time. He also made extensive use of timber, particularly for viaducts.

Another “impossible” project was Box Tunnel, through Box Hill in Wiltshire. It was, naturally, the longest railway tunnel in the world at the time. As the poem says – “Bold plans, but right – Firsts, the wonders of his world.”

And so we reach the west coast. Now what of the steamships, the extension of the GWR across the Atlantic to New York?

Before the GWR had even opened, the Great Western Steamship Company was formed. The Company entrusted Brunel with designing its first ship, SS Great Western. Using mathematics based on experimental evidence, Brunel convinced his doubters that a large ship would take proportionately less fuel than a smaller ship. To carry enough fuel to cross the Atlantic required a very large ship. The SS Great Western (1838) again set new records – the longest ship in the world, the first ship to hold the Blue Riband with an average crossing time of just under 13 days, and the first to be commercially successful. Brunel was asked to design a sister ship.

Always an innovator, this time he eschewed a mainly wooden construction, paddle wheels and supplementary masts for sails, for an iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship. This was the SS Great Britain (1843), the first ‘modern’ ship, now fully preserved and open to the public in Bristol.

Brunel’s final ship, SS Great Eastern (maiden voyage 1860), was perhaps a step too far. Even larger than her predecessors, she was designed to carry over 4,000 passengers in luxury, non-stop from London to Sydney. She remained the largest ship ever built until the start of the 20th Century. Technologically she was a success, years ahead of her time, however commercially she was a disaster. Although never viable for her intended purpose, she notched up another first as an oceanic cable-laying ship – laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable. A famous photo shows Brunel dwarfed by the launching chains of the Great Eastern. The only surviving piece of the ship is the flagpole which stands at the entrance to Anfield (Liverpool Football Club’s ground).

Brunel was not all about “steamships, bridges, tracks” however. Following a plea from Florence Nightingale, the Government commissioned him to design and have built a temporary hospital of pre-fabricated huts incorporating Florence Nightingale’s hygiene requirements. When finished, this was shipped to the Crimea. Renkioi Hospital, as it was known, was erected near Scutari Hospital, Nightingale’s base, which it replaced. It cut the death-toll to around one-tenth of its predecessor. Nightingale referred to it as “those magnificent huts.”

Swindon’s 19th Century ‘Railway Village’ built for Brunel’s GWR railway workers incorporated a “hospital, clinics (and) duty of care”. Membership of its Medical Fund Society, founded in 1841 by Sir Daniel Gooch, first locomotive superintendent of the GWR at Swindon (and later GWR chairman), was a condition of employment for the railway workers. Another world first.

Both Renkioi Hospital and the Swindon ‘Local Health Service’ were models for the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) by Aneurin Bevan one hundred years later. The founding principle of the NHS was “ Available to all, free at the point of use”.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel died at the age of 53, 10 years after the death of his father. Both men died from strokes. Brunel was often seen in photographs with a large cigar in hand or mouth, a heavy smoker. He is buried in the family grave with his father and other family members in Kensal Green Cemetery, West London.

“A little man but a giant shadow”. He was just over five foot tall, hence the distinctive eight inch high ‘stove-pipe’ hat. “I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony”. His “giant shadow”, his legacy, is commemorated by statues, street names, schools, pubs, a shopping centre, a University (Brunel), museums, named locomotives, and films and documentaries.

Recently, and most memorably, he was portrayed by Kenneth Branagh at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in a segment showing the Industrial Revolution. The ceremony also highlighted the NHS.

Returning to the Hove connection, in being nominated one of the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ (TV poll of 2002), Brunel was second only to another Great Briton who attended school in the town when a small boy – Sir Winston Churchill.

To end with, some quotes:

Brunel was always single-mindedly focussed on the task in hand and today we might call him a control-freak, a fault that he admitted. Despite his happy marriage he wrote in his diary:

“ profession is after all my only fit wife...”

Finally, this persisting image of the committed engineer is also neatly illustrated by a conversation reported by Herbert Hoover (1874-1964, 31st President of the United States 1929-1933). By training (Stanford University) Hoover was a mining engineer who, as President, spearheaded the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Hoover Dam.

On making the acquaintance of a lady on a steamship:

“Tell me, Mr. Hoover, what are your interests?

Madam, I am an Engineer

Really? I took you for a gentleman.”

(It was though apparently meant as a compliment!).


Acknowledgement of sources

‘The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer’, Isambard Brunel B.C.L., London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1870 (This is an extensive biography of IKB by his son. It has been made “free to share” as an eBook (299 pages) by Project Gutenberg-tm at

‘Brunel:The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’, R. Angus Buchanan, A&C Black, 2006 (Dr. Morrell’s Academy) (by Judy Middleton, a local history author, who has written many books on Sussex history) (Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company Ltd. maintain this website, providing brief biographies of all the people whose names appear on their buses. Click on ‘Fleet History’ then ‘Current Fleet’) (A translation of the full text of the original 1215 edition of Magna Carta from the Latin into modern-day English (British Library))

Relevant websites found by searches for’Isambard Kingdom Brunel’, ‘Dr. Morell’s Boarding School, Hove’, ‘origin of the name Isambard’, ‘Breguet clocks and watches’, ‘Clifton Suspension Bridge’, ‘NHS foundation by Aneurin Bevan’, ‘Swindon railway village birthplace of the NHS’, ‘Box Tunnel Brunel’, ‘Thames Tunnel Brunel’, ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel quotes’, ‘Herbert Hoover’.

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