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Stephenson and Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson were great rivals during their lifetime, often competing with each other for the same jobs. Today we might call them ‘frenemies’ as they shared so much in common. The pair met for the final time on Christmas Day 1858. Below Peter Darley of the Camden Railway Heritage Trust reflects on the relationship between the two men


Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were appointed as Engineer in Chief to the two largest projects of their day before reaching their 30s: respectively the London & Birmingham Railway (L&BR), which opened in 1837 and the Great Western Railway (GWR), which opened a year later. They had each achieved a high level of professional competence, helped by their close working relationship with their famous fathers.

The original intention of the two companies behind these projects was to share a London terminus, initially at Camden Station and later at Euston Station. The extension from Camden to Euston was therefore designed for two pairs of tracks and the western part of Euston reserved for the GWR.

However, as a result of Brunel insisting on a 7ft (2.1m) gauge, among other disagreements between the companies, the western tracks were never used by the GWR, which subsequently selected Paddington as its terminus. Had the two companies agreed on sharing the approach to London, it is likely that the GWR would have built its goods depot on the opposite side of the mainline, also part of Lord Southampton’s estate, and the residential area we now know as Primrose Hill would have looked very different.

Over the years that followed, the two engineers were rivals competing for commissions in the rapidly expanding railway network and for influence over its technical evolution. Yet despite their public rivalry, they refused to make political capital from each other’s mistakes. They shared a strong professional respect for each other and, despite great differences in their character and upbringing, this warmed to support and friendship.

Among many examples of such support, here we see Brunel (right) and other eminent engineers in 1849 discussing Stephenson’s bold flotation of tubes for Britannia Bridge (ICE).

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was another endeavour that brought the two engineers together. Both were involved in organising the exhibition, and their projects were prominently displayed in the British Pavilion, enshrining their places in the pantheon of Victorian engineering. A GWR broad gauge steam engine dominated the heavy machinery area, while the main avenue featured a large model of Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge.

The launch of the Great Eastern in 1857 proved a most testing time not only for Brunel but also for his friend, whom he wanted at his side. Stephenson, although unwell, went to great lengths to provide support, writing to say:

I shall always be at hand happen what may to aid and do everything in my power without shirking any responsibility if need be.

They met for the last time on Christmas Day 1858 for dinner in Cairo, Stephenson having sailed to Egypt on his yacht Titania, while Brunel was recovering from the stresses of the Great Eastern, on holiday with his family. Each was attempting to restore his health after a lifetime of overwork, but a year later, within a month of each other, both were dead.

A few years later a committee was formed to honour Stephenson, Brunel and Joseph Locke, another eminent engineer. Baron Carlo Marochetti (1805-1867), an Italian-born French sculptor, was commissioned to create statues of all three, which were to be placed in Parliament Square, but Parliament reserved the site for political figures. Brunel’s statue is on the Embankment, Stephenson’s at Euston Station (temporarily in storage) and Locke’s in Locke Park, Barnsley.


Discover Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first ever project, and his relationship with his father Marc Brunel in a visit to the Brunel Museum. We reopen Friday 6 January. 

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