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The Brunel Connection (Nonesuch autumn 2014)

Clifton Suspension Bridge opening ceremony

Clifton Suspension Bridge opening ceremony Clifton Suspension Bridge archive

Clifton Suspension Bridge under construction

The bridge during construction Clifton Suspension Bridge archive

5 November 2014

To mark the 150th anniversary of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in November, Nonesuch pays tribute to the designer of one of Bristol’s most famous landmarks.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is as synonymous with Bristol as the Wills Memorial Building is with the University; it’s hard to think of one without the other. Little wonder, then, that the city has claimed Isambard Kingdom Brunel as one of its own.

Although the pioneering Victorian engineer and industrialist never lived in Bristol, he began his extraordinary career in the city and left a lasting physical mark on its landscape – not only with the bridge, but also with the ss Great Britain (the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic and, at the time, in 1843, the largest ship ever built), Temple Meads Station (Brunel was chief engineer on the Great Western Railway line between Bristol and London), and improvements to the docks.

The National Brunel Archive is housed in the Brunel Institute at the Great Western Dockyard, site of the ss Great Britain, and comprises the University’s Brunel Collection, along with maritime material owned by the ss Great Britain Trust and the papers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust. Widely consulted by scholars from around the world, it provides unparalleled insights into Britain’s engineering heritage.

The foundations of the Brunel Collection, a treasury of original diaries, letters, notebooks and sketches, was left to the University by Lady Celia Noble, the granddaughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 1950. It has been added to since with the support of donors, grant givers and other charitable trusts, and is catalogued by the University of Bristol Library Special Collections.
The archive catalogue can be found at

Family footsteps

Brunel’s engineering genius survives in his descendant Morwenna Wilson (MEng 2005), who has been charged with leading a team of architects and engineers renovating the area around King’s Cross Station. The task is to bring back to life the old Victorian structures around the station that were built by Brunel’s contemporaries, George Turnbull and Lewis Cubitt, in 1851-52.

In an interview with The Times, Wilson said of her ancestor: 'He was an inspiration. It definitely runs in the family. My grandfather was also an engineer.'

Since graduating from Bristol, Wilson’s career has gone from strength to strength. In 2008, while working at Arup, she won the H&V News Graduate of the Year Award organised by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers/ASHRAE Group, with her presentation on delivering and maintaining sustainable buildings. She now works for property developer Argent, a joint partner with London & Continental Railways in the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership.

Running the chains

The Clifton Suspension Bridge looms large in David Carr’s (MB ChB 1961) memories of his student days at Bristol. You wouldn’t get away with it now, but he and fellow student Brian Hobby (BDS 1961), who died in 1987, made a habit of racing each other over the chains from Burwalls, then a hall of residence on the western side of the bridge.

Starting at pavement level, one on the far side and one on the near side, they would run up the chain into the first tower, turn around and come out on the gorge section feet first, until the angle of the chain was shallow enough to stand up on. Then it was a case of ‘running like crazy’ down the length of chain, and repeating the exercise via the second tower, to emerge past the tollkeeper’s booth and so to the pub.

Dr Carr claims to have won the race on most occasions during the three years the pair lived in Burwalls (although we only have his word for it). 'We only ever ran the chains in the evening,' he adds, 'never on the way to lectures and never, ever on the way back from the pub. We’re not daft, you know.'

The bridge thus far

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was the 24-year-old Brunel’s first major commission, secured after he won a competition to design a new crossing over the River Avon. Construction began in 1831 but the project was dogged with political and financial difficulties and by 1843, with only the towers completed, the project was abandoned.

Brunel died aged only 53 years in 1859 but the bridge was completed as his memorial and finally opened in 1864. Designed for light horse-drawn traffic, it still meets the demands of 21st-century commuter traffic.

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