MonthMay 2016

L.T.C Rolt’s ‘High Horse Riderless’


Rolt wrote this book during 1942 – 1944. It was published by George Allen & Unwin in 1947. The purpose of the book is to condemn the capitalist ethic of the industrial society into which he was born, to trace the course of events that led to the situation in which society in 1944 found itself and to put forward his remedy for the ills from which he believed his society suffered.

I do not have, here on holiday in Canada, the exact date of his birth but I guess his year of birth to be 1910. He was probably five years younger than my father – who would have agreed with everything Rolt writes except where he criticizes the Roman Catholic church. Rolt’s ‘Acknowledgements’ includes George Sturt’s ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’ a treasured book of my father’s and indeed myself.   H.J Massingham was his close friend: my father treasured two of Massingham’s books –A Shepherd’s Life’ is one I recall by name. I had read that more than once before I was 12. A book of recollections of life for a shepherd in the late 19th century on eastern Salisbury Plain. Rolt also mentions approvingly in the book, both on my father’s bookshelf, Alfred Williams and G.K Chesterton. Both of whom I have read. Chesterton was a Catholic apologist and came close to being a fascist. Williams was a   poet, he had served in the army in he Great War. After that war he worked as a ‘hammer-man’ on a one-man steam hammer in the Great Western Railway locomotive factory at Swindon. He hated his work and the people he worked with and loved the old rural ways and rural people, wrote ‘Villages of the White Horse’, ‘Folk songs of the Upper Thames’ and ‘Life in a Railway Factory’. A man of great sensitivity and self education – he taught himself latin and greek – the book describes the life he loathed, but he never left it because it paid better wages than those he would have got if he had worked with one of the Downland shepherds he so much admired.

Rolt was an admirer of the medieval. I was brought up by exactly that kind of person. My mother and father were readers of a magazine which was published in between the wars and perhaps during the Second World War. It had a perfectly Roltian title: ‘The Cross and The Plough’ . There was another, with the anonymous title ‘The Weekly Review’. This was the publication of anti-capitalist, ‘back to the land’, Roman Catholics like my parents, Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler – the Ditchling Community. When I read ‘High Horse Riderless’ I was at once reminded of all this old thought.

I too would criticise the way society is organized. But the critical difference is that I would not fabricate history and ignore inconvenient parts of history. Rolt believes that the society of his time was suffering from a ‘malady’. The Second World War is a sympton of this malady. He believes that the ‘philosophy of early Christianity’ created a world which was as near perfect as fallible humans are ever likely to achieve. He then labels the thoughts, ideas, sciences, which developed from ‘the Renaissance’ as ‘evil’, and urges that the cure for the ‘malady’ of Society of 1944 is to return to the style of life of the pre-Renaissance European, Christianity. He entirely ignores at the slaughtering wars, all great injustices of fuedalism in that time.

Most curiously – writing in 1944 he condemns outright the Industrial Revolution and ten years later he is writing a semi-mythology in support of one of its most notable figures – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – and in his biography of I.K Brunel he is as selective, as ‘glossing-over’, in his history as he was of pre-Renaisance Europe.

Rolt imagines a ‘Merrie England’ of happy labourers, not living in damp cottages on starvation wages. He makes no mention of the agricultural trade union movements of the 19th century but if he did he would have said they were ‘marring the otherwise perfect harmony of men with nature’. Rolt says that the Anglican religion he was taught at the ‘Public’ (i.e. private) school he was sent to disillusioned him about religion so he   turned instead to the religion of the pre-Anglican period. I thought at this early point in the book he had become, a Roman Catholic. Reading on I think he did not do so. Nevertheless he has a very strong faith in the Christian religion before 1400, and ‘The Cross and The Plough’ seems to me to be a good way of summing up his ideas.

He was apprenticed to mechanical engineering at a large agricultural machinery factory in the Vale of Evesham. After that he ‘embarked on a three years term with a firm of locomotive engineers in the industrial Midlands’ (p.14) This experience was a rude and unpleasant shock to him – an Alfred Williams experience – and formed him as a writer. He had become disgusted with what was to him the robotic nature of the work, the lack of individual skill – as he thought – and, perhaps more to the point, the submersion of his personality into the highly organized works. So a large machine works was not the place for him – as it was not the place for Alfred Williams, who should therefore have resigned.

Rolt felt he was anonymous, un-noticed – untalked of – these are fears which, unknown to Rolt at that time – young Isambard Brunel had written in his diary. Because of his locomotive works experience, Rolt developed the desire to withdraw from reality and adopt a fantasy of what he thought was the pre-renaissance world – and never come beyond it. In this he was at one with the pre-Renaissance Roman Catholic Church which did its best to hold back the tide of thought.

But at least Rolt was more honest than Williams. Rolt did withdraw from the relatively high industrial wages he received and found happiness with less money and more personal development. He does not say he tried to grow all the food he needed throughout the year – to be self sufficient as he peasants of England had to be his the period he loved but as he lived on a canal barge, growing food was not possible apart perhaps from some tomatoes. From his barge – which he built with his own hands – he did a great deal of good for Society in pioneering the canal and steam railway preservation movement and thus the whole nation has much to thank him for. But the money for all the preservation work which he initiated did not come from peasants, struggling to grow enough food to feed themselves through long winters – but from industrial capitalism.

What he cannot be thanked for is the thoroughly false histories he wrote and the ridiculous ‘solutions’ he proposed to the problems of his time – and indeed, our time.

This is my objection to Tom Rolt. I object to his writing false history.

The Evidence:

A selection of quotes from the book and objections thereto.

Pages 16/17

What he had regarded as progress he now saw as ‘a malady’ and he wonders ‘How could mechanism and science be reconciled with the harmony of the natural world’

Is that expression merely sentimental? Define harmonious. Is there no harmony is the perfect operation of a fine machine? Where is the harmony when one galaxy’s gravity is tearing away the matter of another galaxy to add to its own mass. Is there harmony in one animal’s pitiless pursuit of a weaker one for food. Even to the underground honey fungus which destroys fine trees. That is nature and therefore is, according to Rolt, harmonious. So why is his ‘greedy capitalist’ not acting with the harmony of nature?

Page 18.

Rolt tells us that he when he began to form his philosophical view –that view was ‘recognizably Christian by implication’ (What relevance the last two words have escapes me) His notion of Christian philosophy was that of the 4th to the 12th century and was not that of any later period. On that basis – of arrested development – Rolt has something in common with the Taliban. He then tells us that he began to wonder what was the reason for the failure of that philosophy to retain its beneficent influence over the mind of western man from the Renaissance onwards.

Christian philosophy had not prevented terrible slaughter through the admired centuries.   What beneficent influence did the Catholic philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas exert? The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1157 was actually blessed by the Pope because the Irish were calculating the date of Easter by a method the Pope did not approve of. The list of blessed slaughters is lengthy.

Page 18 bottom line. Into 19

‘Christian philosophy is founded upon the reflection of certain eternal and absolute truths and it failure was due not to any inherent flaw but to the lack of an eloquent re-statement in the light of new knowledge. in consequence n ever increasing number of persons began to evaluate knowledge not in relation to Christian principles but for its own sake as a potential source of power………….men were beginning to shape their lives by Reason rather than by intuitive faith, the eternal verities became a dead dogma. The age of Reason required a Doctrine and because no re-valuation of the Christian Philosophy was forthcoming, it embraced Materialism.

There are several nonsenses which could be pointed out in that but suffice it to look at the final line:

if Christian philosophy – which was based on faith in the supernatural -was to re-evaluate itself in the Age of Reason – any reasonable person would forsake faith –- and embrace Reason which is the provable, material, world. My definition of faith, from having been brought up strictly as a Roman Catholic, is: ‘faith is a gift from God which enables one to believe without doubting that which cannot possibly be true’

Rolt, the trained engineer, preferred faith to reason.

Page 20.

‘In the past 200 years traditional wisdom has been discarded in the arrogance of newly won knowledge.’ Is that, perhaps, what the Neolithic axe head maker said when the first iron axe heads came onto the market?

Page 32.

‘Humility and poverty gave way to arrogance and wealth.

‘ Assertion took the place of Instruction.’

Is he bewailing the passing of poverty here?

Faith – which he is so keen on – is nothing but ‘assertion’. Faith has no reasonable foundation It must always be an assertion.

But my parents talked exactly in this way.

Page 33.

He criticizes a Pope’s ‘rigid orthodoxy’ but how could the Pope adopt any other position since he was defending the ‘eternal and absolute truths’ that Rot praised to highly. (see p.18)

He then criticizes ‘the first secular figure to question the priesthood – Emperor Frederick 11. This man took the sixth crusade to ‘The Holy Land’ but instead of fighting the Muslims over Jerusalem, ‘concluded a bloodless “gentleman’s agreement” with the Sultan of Egypt’. As a result of this peaceful solution he lost the friendship of   the Pope and Rolt makes it clear that he would have preferred Frederick to do some slaughtering rather than achieve peacefully the aim of allowing Christians to visit Jerusalem.

Rolt describes the Emperor Frederick as ‘a liberal-minded sceptic evincing a humanistic outlook readily understandable today because it was (he was) the precursor of modern times. His bland indifference to the excommunications and thunderous interdicts of successive Popes, coupled with his telling denunciation of the pride and corruption of the higher priesthood could not fail to exercise a profound influence over the minds of his powerful secular contemporaries and successors.’

Pages 34 – 35.

Rolt on the Roman Catholic ‘Canon Law’.

He expounds at great length – and without stopping the draw breath – upon matters on which, I feel sure, he does not have the knowledge. He goes raging on for another 100 pages – and on page 138 – at the middle, a new paragraph he writes: In this age of violence and disruption the Feudal system was evolved…………. The ‘Feudal’ system did not ‘evolve’ in England, it was imposed – fully developed on the English by their conquerors – the Normans. The conquered were dispossessed and enslaved. Rolt goes on to praise this system of binding people irrevocably to an owner. In the next paragraph, still on page 34, he begins: Assisted by the ideals and the unifying force of Christianity…….. On page 18 he has asserted that Christianity exerted a ‘beneficent influence’ on society during the Middle Ages and on page 34 he refers to ‘the age of violence and disruption’ in that same period, from which hellishness, he writes, the Feudal system was a refuge.

I think Mr. Rolt, as an objective historian can be dismissed as a charlatan. His lack of objectivity is his style of writing. He does not write for the sake of history but for Mr.Rolt’s sake. He harbours a detestation of industrial capitalism and, dismissing any system for improving the errors of that system, he recommends a return to the 14th century and would desire us all to stay, bound as the Feudal serf was bound, to his Lord.

I.K Brunel did not design the Clifton suspesion bridge

Marc and Sophia Brunel returned to London after Christmas 1828 and in January 1829 Isambard then set off for a holiday in Normandy and Paris. On the return journey a month later, freezing, jolting, wearisome from Paris to Calais, tossed about across the Channel and by jolted by stage coach to London, Isambard’s high spirits and super-abundant energy never flagged for a moment. He kept up the laughter and high spirits of his two travelling companions all the way.*

*Marc Isambard Brunel. Page 184-5. Paul Clements.

Isambard’s father, Marc, now introduced him to the prospect of designing a bridge   across the Clifton gorge in Bristol. A competition for a design had been advertised with a deadline for entries of 19 November 1829. Isambard, and surely Marc also, went down to Clifton to examine the site. The result was four superbly artistic paintings, Isambard was a very talented water colour artist, showing different styles and sites for a suspension bridge across the gorge. These designs were rejected on the advice of the famous road engineer, Thomas Telford, – he objected to the length of the span – who had just erected a much shorter suspension bridge across the river Conway. Telford then produced a design for Clifton – which Isambard quite rightly exposed as ludicrous. In October 1830 the Bridge Committee announced a fresh competition to be judged the following January.

Isambard was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1829 a year after the Institution was founded and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 10 June 1830 in recognition of his work in the Thames Tunnel, his determination to make the Gaz engine work (against all the laws of nature) and his designs for the Clifton Bridge. The latter existed only as very beautiful water colours.

From 7th to 14th January 1831, from 17th to 22nd and from 26th to 31st Isambard was in Manchester and when he was not there he was in Bristol or Tollesbury Essex. During all that time, Marc Brunel worked on the design of the Clifton Bridge: this information I took from Marc Brunel’s diary at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Marc Brunels’ design, signed by his son, for the Clifton bridge, was placed second out of four by the judging Committee but after Isambard explained the design carefully it was accepted.

Marc had always urged his son on to be an Engineer and seems to have doted on him. Marc wrote jubilantly in his diary on 19th March:

Isambard is appointed engineer to the Clifton bridge. The more gratifying that Mr.Telford, Captain Brown and Mr.Tierney Clark were his competitors and that for my own part I have not influenced any of the Bristol people on his behalf.

On 16 March 1831 I.K Brunel was appointed engineer for the Clifton bridge. The ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the Clifton bridge took place on 21 June 1831. Isambard walked alone, at the head of the procession.   Work on the bridge went forward very slowly, the huge brick abutment on the west side of the gorge and the twin suspension towers. Then over the week-end of 29-31 October came the Bristol riots – practically an insurrection. The centre of Bristol was set on fire by a mob, the Bishop’s palace burned and the jail opened. Bristol was stunned, and money for the Clifton bridge project slowly ceased to be forthcoming. The project was dead by 1843 with only the Leigh Woods abutment and the towers built.

After the death of I.K Brunel, in September 1859, the civil engineering community – and indeed, the employees of the Great Western Railway and the general public – felt strongly that a memorial was needed for him. The plans of the Clifton bridge were obtained from Brunel’s Duke Street office and examined. It was immediately obvious that the design was hopelessly antiquated. Such advances had been made in technology over the intervening 30 years that would be never have done to have erected a design so old. In particular it had been designed without the benefit of the knowledge developed by Reguis Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics, William Rankine.(1820-1872) Rankine, was one of the greatest engineering and mathematical brains produced in Britain in the 19th century. He had devoted his life to the study of physics and engineering and in 1858 published his seminal book ‘Applied Mechanics’ giving the world the benefit of his investigations into – among other things – proper use of wrought iron plate and angle irons to make girders and more especially, on the best way to use lattice work girders to stiffen the intrinsically floppy nature of suspension bridges.

In 1860 a Committee of Brunel’s friends and admirers was formed to raise subscriptions to construct a suspension bridge at Clifton. The excellent idea of building a suspension bridge across the gorge at Clifton, at the site recommended by I.K Brunel, as a memorial to him, was, co-incidentally, also an excellent opportunity to try out Professor Rankine’s suspension bridge principles.

A beautiful cast-iron plaque on the existing Clifton bridge states that it was ‘designed in 1830 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.’ That is wrong on three counts: the original bridge designs were by Marc Brunel – in 1831 – and those designs were never carried out.

The fault with I.K Brunel’s Clifton design was that it was too flexible. Even in Brunel’s own time, his designs for stiffening the structure of suspension bridges was criticised as unsound and therefore dangerous. On the 16 January 1839 the great naval architect, John Scott-Russell stated ‘Mr. Brunel has proposed a method of preventing oscillation which is expensive and heavy but has not had the desired effect . . . for the whole will perform isochronous oscillation.’ z.

The design devised by Marc Brunel had two tiers of suspension chains. At the pin-joint between each link of the chains, a vertical rod or ‘hanger’ went down to the roadway. The railings on each side of the bridge were merely railings and added no stiffness, vertically or horizontally to the bridge. The under-road stiffening system was a framework of timber tied with wrought iron rods.

The present day Clifton suspension bridge was designed by William Henry Barlow M.I.C.E., C.E., FRS (1812-1902) and Sir John Hawkshaw M.I.C.E., C.E., F.R.S (1811 – 1891) influenced by the most modern research of Professor Rankine’s studies as well as their own great experience. Baker and Hawkshaw added third tier of chains, a 33% increase in strength which then allowed a 33% increase in the number of ‘hangers’ from the chains to the roadway. Immediately the bridge was one third stronger than the Brunels’ design Below the roadway Baker and Hawkshaw used a wrought iron, riveted, latticework, girder to ensure maximum stiffness to the road. and to further stiffen the bridge the hand rail and fence was made an integral part of the structure carrying out the function of a   girder above the roadway and riveted to the under-girder. The existing bridge was built to an entirely different design. Looking at thois in a simple, broad, sense: Would any suspension bridge, the most difficult of bridge designs, have been built to a plan 30 years out of date?


  1. Quoted by Professor Roland A Paxton MBE PhD DEng CEng FICE FRSE in his 2008 lecture to the Construction History Society on ‘John Scott Russell’s anti-vibration proposal for suspension bridge decks’.


The Clifton bridge design is the result of Barlow and Hawkshaw’s brains, influenced of course by the then latest engineering thinking of Professor Rankine’s and owes nothing at all to Marc or I.K Brunel – except that it stands where the Brunels suggested and the brick abutment, which Marc or Isambard designed, was used.

Professor Angus Buchanan’s 2002 book on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, page relates how the Brunel family refused to attend the opening of the Clifton Bridge because they felt their father/husband was not sufficiently recognised – but as it was not his design – he could not have had any recognition.

This family touchiness is reflected in the very delicate wording of the Paper given in 1864 by Barlow with Fowler in the Chair where Barlow (I think these are his exact  words)  refers to ‘varying and re-arranging’  the Brunel’s design. He didn’t want to offend the Brunel family.

The Brunel myth created by L.T.C Rolt

L.T.C Rolt: Myth-maker

L.T.C Rolt in his book ‘High Horse Riderless’ published in 1947, extols the pre-Renaissance world and condemns industrialisation. In 1957 his biography of I.K Brunel was published. He presents Brunel as a heroic genius of the Industrial Revolution. On page 112 of his biography of Brunel that ‘To be dubbed eccentric by critics who have little or no grasp of technical considerations is almost invariably the fate of the original genius.   I.K Brunel was not a genius. Michael Faraday was a genius. Brunel was an Civil Engineer who  had lightning flashes of brilliance interspersed with the inevitable thunderclaps of nonsense.

Rolt’s biography is colourful prose, scattered with false statements, omissions of facts, and attempts to destroy the reputation of Britain’s leading naval architect John Scott Russell in order to create the myth of an injured genius.

Brunel learned to shave on the chins of the shareholders.

On p.42 of his book ‘Victorian Engineering’. Rolt answers the criticism that Brunel ‘ignored the shareholders’ by criticising Brunel’s great contemporary – Joseph Locke – for showing ‘too great a concern for them’ in that Locke chose routes which, while cheaper in first cost, ‘saddled the shareholders with a heavy burden of additional operating costs’. Rolt uses Shap and Beattock inclines to demolish Locke as an Engineer. Brunel built routes with gradients as steep and more serpentine than anything Locke produced. Brunel wasted money in a deluded locomotive specification, in a deluded track design, in a track gauge based on a fallacy, in self-glorifying decoration, in the abuse of first class contractors, in the adoption an useless propulsion system and finally in the fiasco of the SS. Great Eastern.


Referring now to Rolt’s biography of I.K Brunel.

On page 16 Rolt states that Brunel had ‘mastered Euclid at the age of 6’ – that is, by 1812. In September 1817, when Isambard was 11 ½, he was sent to an unidentified nephew of Marc’s to whom Marc sent this note.’ I entrust my little boy to you as he needs a mentor. I don’t believe I could make a better choice than in imploring you to moderate the impetuosity of his youth. He is a good little boy but he does not care for his books except mathematics for which he has a liking. He has started Euclid. Use it as much as you can.’ (DM 1282/2).


Page 138.

‘No strikes or labour disputes marred the building the Great Western Railway’. This statement is part of a highly coloured piece which goes on to allege that the navies were ‘inspired with a determination to see the job through under the most appalling weather conditions’.

It was this statement that started me off on my quest for the truth about Brunel. I did not believe there were no strikes and I objected to Rolt’s belief that a strike would ‘marr’ the work.

There were two strikes in the first four months of 1838. On 27 April navvies struck work in protest at the employment of Irishmen at Ealing. On 26 May there was a week long strike in Sonning cutting. The navies were striking for their wages. The contractor – William Ranger – could not pay his men because Brunel was refusing to pay him because not enough work had been completed. The reason why the work had not proceeded as fast as Brunel wanted was because the navies could not work in the appalling weather conditions which had turned Sonning cutting into a quagmire.

If anyone was marring the work it was Brunel.


Further down page 138 Rolt states that ‘over 100 navvies died digging Box tunnel’ and then dismisses their deaths with Brunellian banality – ‘such prodigious feats are never accomplished without sacrifice’. Brunel expressed the same idea to the 1846 Parliamentary Inquiry into the working conditions of navies.


On page 110 Rolt tells us of ‘Brunel’s astonishing mastery of all the infinite detail’ involved in railway construction. Brunel had not mastered all the detail – had he done so he would not have produced the track he did.

Brunel was not aware of the ‘ball race’ patented by Philip Vaughan in 1794. Otherwise he would surely have used it on his carriage axles and thus avoided using a non-standard gauge of railway.

Brunel wanted to reduce friction in the carriage axle bearings and believed that slower rotation of the axle in the bearing reduced friction. (Report to the Directors.15.9.35.) This is the opposite of the truth. Believing this he intended to make his carriage wheels of large diameter. He told his Directors that these wheels would be so large as to come up the outside of the carriages. To strengthen this argument he said that it was ‘inconvenient’ on any railway to place the body over the wheels.

Because the carriage body was to be between the wheels, the rails had to be exceptionally wide apart to give some floor space within the carriage. Hence the 7ft. gauge arose out of nonsense. This was not the a genius at work but a young man trying too hard to show how clever he was.



The original carriages were soon replaced with others having their bodies placed inconveniently over the wheels. The wheels revolved inside the carriage, under the seats. Brunel could have had his large wheels on standard gauge. Rolt excuses the error with the self-defeating excuse: ‘once Brunel had decided on a scheme his enthusiasm brushed aside all difficulties’.


Page 111.

Referring to Brunel’s use of the inverted ‘U’ shaped rail Rolt writes – without research – ‘probably he had in mind the manufacturing problems of the time’. Bridge rails were exceptionally difficult to manufacture.



The bridge rails were laid on a ‘longitudinal’ sleeper. At 15ft. intervals the sleepers were held to gauge by a cross piece call a ‘transom’. Each transom was bolted to the head of a ‘pile’ – a 10” diameter pole driven with huge manual labour 20 feet into the ground. Brunel wrote to the Directors that with piles holding down the track, he would achieve a perfect rail road. He wrote that his track would not be depressed by the weight of an engine. In practise the weight of the engine over the unsupported part of the longitudinal crushed the timber down while at the transoms the piles held the track up, creating a 15ft. roller coaster. That is not the thinking of a genius. A double row of piles was driven every 15ft for 34 miles before he abandoned the idea.



Simultaneously with the construction of 22 miles of the GWR, Locke was building 30 miles of the London & Southampton Railway. To Locke is the honour of adopting transverse sleepers, cast iron chairs and bullhead rails packed around with ballast. Locke did not make stupid specifications for locomotives. He did not go to Liverpool or Newcastle for his locomotives. He had them designed and made in London by the great engineer George Rennie. Locke opened his line from Nine Elms to Woking a week early so as to capture Derby Day traffic at Epsom. His track was perfect, his engines ran fast and performed faultlessly. Brunel tacitly admitted that Locke’s railway was better than his. When the GWR Directors became dissatisfied with Brunel’s track and locos, he did not tell them to sample Locke’s line – but Robert Stephenson’s London to Bletchley line – rails laid on primitive stone blocks. No-one has ever called Locke a genius and he is the least known of the early railway engineers.

Page 114.

Rolt omits a sentence in a letter Brunel wrote to Charles Saunders. This ommision was: ‘I am doing my best to lead the Company through the temporary difficulties I have got them into’.

Brunel was apologizing – a rare event. It did not suit Rolt.


Page 117.

I am very relieved to be able to say that Rolt found Brunel’s specifications to the locomotive builders   ‘impossible to fathom’. Brunel himself defeated the normally indefatigable hero worshipper.


Rolt makes no mention of Brunel’s astonishing fixed blade facing points used wherever there was mixed gauge.

The Atmospheric traction embarrassment

Brunel fell head over heels for a system of propulsion that used the pressure of the atmosphere to drive the train along. Two carriages could run at 68 mph but four would only travel at 34. There could be no increase of power to cope with a heavier load. Brunel knew it would be expensive and designed this extension of a main line railway as a single track. Rolt skates over this episode as best he can. He does not tell us that Brunel grossly underestimated the cost of the line from Exeter to Plymouth at £190,000. (Charles Hadfield ‘Atmospheric Railways’ p.144) Brunel based this estimate on a mileage of 41 ½ when the line would be 52 miles. (McDermott.vol.2 p.107) Getting the line open 15 miles to Teignmouth cost £154,000.


Rolt admits that it was not a sensible way to run a railway but he still tries to excuse Brunel. On page 166 he states : Only the Stephenson’s remained skeptical’. Daniel Gooch tried to save Brunel from himself over this. Joseph Locke opposed it. Charles Saunders was opposed and the GWR Board sent a letter to the SDR condemning the idea. On page 168 Rolt states that the consequence of the atmospheric railway was, ‘formidable inclines which have severely taxed Great Western motive power to this day.’ He forgot this on p.42 of his ‘Victorian Engineering’.




Rolt refers to Brunel’s ‘high courage and unfaltering decision’ in abandoning the Atmospheric. He had not been courageous or decisive. He had been putting off for months the day when he would have to admit he had made a mistake. When the project was abandoned it had wasted £353,000 of his shareholders’ money. (‘Atmospheric Railways’ p.172, Charles Hadfield) Rolt does not give that figure.


The SS. Great Eastern

Brunel was asked in December 1851 by the Australian Royal Mail Co. to recommend a ship which could steam to Australia fuelling only at the Cape. Brunel asked John Scott-Russell to tender for the job of building such a ship. Russell’s design was produced as two iron, propeller driven steam ships the Adelaide and Victoria. Both were only slightly smaller than Brunel’s SS. Great Britain. These were almost the largest ships in the world. They were built and launched, complete with engines, in 6 months under Russell’s management. (John Scott Russell p.61. Professor George S. Emmerson. Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Western Ontario)




Page 237.

Rolt states that they were ‘built under Brunel’s direction’ but in a footnote he says Brunel ‘had nothing to do with their design’. That is not quite true. Rolt’s footnote states that the ships ‘lacked the great longitudinal strength of Brunel’s ships’. The ships were stronger than the SS Great Britain. They had internal longitudinal bulkheads on each side and the space between the hull side and the internal bulkhead was riveted to the deck above There was also box girder keel. Both ships had ‘wave line’ hulls, Great Britain did not.

The Adelaide set out for Australia on 12 December 1852. In heavy seas the patent ‘balanced rudder’ became unsafe and the ship had to return to London. The rudder was Brunel’s design. (Emmerson.p.63)

Rolt makes no mention of the rudder trouble.



The Eastern Steam Navigation (ESN) was formed in July 1852 and Brunel was appointed engineer. He made some sketches of a ship large enough to carry fuel for the round trip to Australia and back. Russell and Brunel conferred on the general plan. Russell tendered to build the ship. Brunel recommended his plans and his price to the Directors of the ESN.

(Emmerson. 65)


Page 240.

Rolt criticises Russell for a ‘gross underestimate of the costs’. Brunel did not. Russell’s price was higher than Brunel’s estimate. Brunel approved Russell’s figure and Russell’s estimate for the ship was based on Brunel’s general specification (Emmerson.p.69)



Page 241.

Russell’s contract stipulated that ‘The ship to be built in a dock’. Rolt says Russell’s estimate of £10,000 was ‘wildly optimistic.’ (p.247) Emmerson quotes Russell’s price as £20,000. (Emmerson p.74)

Rolt states that ‘almost before the ink was dry this plan was abandoned’. This was Brunel’s decision: the ground was not suitable. (Rolt.247) Brunel’s father had tunnelled it. Russell only wanted to make a rectangular bay.



Rolt writes the complex story of the SS. Great Eastern with the intention of making Brunel the naïve victim of the criminally dishonest John Scott Russell. He uses innuendo: fires ‘mysteriously’ break out in Russell’s yard (page 259); he states that Russell’s assistants Dixon and Hepworth were ‘muttering’ that they would not take orders from Brunel (p.261) something Rolt could not have known; Russell ‘miraculously recoups his fortunes’ (page 263.); Russell’s good health at the time of the launch is compared with Brunel’s sickness as if this is additional proof of Russell’s dishonesty (page 270).



This letter from the ESN Secretary, Mr. Yates to Brunel is not to be found in Rolt.

I feel strongly that from your having failed in your attempt at a quarrel with Mr. Russell you appear determined to seek one with me.

   I will not be provoked neither will I swerve from my the faithful discharge of my duties to the Directors to whom alone I hold myself amenable. I have always – and frequently at very great personal inconvenience, endeavoured to meet your views and wishes. You have repeatedly put me down when I venture to advise the Directors as something beneath their notice, a mere secretary. My right to advise the Directors is perfectly equal to your own and whenever it has been my duty to do so I have done so in a respectful manner without assuming the form of Dictation which has too frequently been the case with yourself . I have no desire to quarrel with you but I will not be constantly subject to your misrepresentation or to be trampled on by you. (Emmerson p.120



Page 264. Rolt reports that Robert Stephenson visited Russell’s ship yard and met the Chief engine designer, John Dixon. Stephenson wrote to Brunel: ‘I dislike Dixon’s face immensely. I felt that it was an imperative duty to treat his suggestions irreverently.’ Stephenson’s remark was unworthy of a great engineer. Dixon, was an succesful marine engine designer, Rolt describes him as ‘Russell’s henchman’ – a term reserved for criminal partnerships.




Page 248.

Russell asked Brunel if he could build a travelling gantry crane astride the hull of the SS Great Eastern. Rolt reports Brunel refusing this excellent suggestion as ‘very frightening’. Rolt does not say how iron was lifted up the sides of the hull. If there were any cranes used in lifting iron plates into position they are not in evidence in contemporary illustrations.




Rolt states that Russell ‘had nothing further to do with the ship from 26th May 1856’ because of his bankruptcy and that Brunel took over the entire operation up to and including the launch. Russell did not leave until   Brunel forced his dismissal on 19 September. Russell went abroad and rebuilt his fortune. Brunel in sole charge begins to complain of all the difficulties – which Russell had dealt with uncomplainingly. (Emmerson 117ff.)




The Launch


Rolt writes that Brunel saw the launch as ‘the greatest technical challenge of his career and to no other problem did he devote so much time, thought and painstaking experiment.’ He had no need of experiment. Russell and a ship builder of Buffalo, New York State, gave Brunel identical advice. The cradles on which the ship rested should have a large, greased wood, bearing surface resting on a smooth greased wooden runway. This was standard practise. The load was distributed over such a wide area that the pressure between top and bottom surfaces would have been 30lbs psi. (Ship Construction. D.J Eyres. Heinemann 1972) Brunel – the Civil Engineer – intended to launch the vast ship – which had so far cost £450,000 – using his own system. Just as he had ignored the perfection of Locke’s track, so he could not accept the perfect, well established, pratice of the ship builders.

Rolt entirely ignores the fatal defects of Brunel’s design.



Brunel commissioned his friend, the mathematician and scientist William Froude to conduct experiments with iron sliding on iron down a gradient. Froude discovered that friction declines as velocity increases – Did Brunel remember his reason for the Broad Gauge and blush?




Brunel’s launchway consisted of 1ft. square timbers set 3ft. apart. The cradles were fitted with iron strips to slide over GWR bridge rails bolted at 90 degrees to the cradles. The bridge rail shape is not best suited to withstand bending. On the runways each rail was carrying one and a quarter tons per square inch – supported only for 1ft. out of three – over a distance of 240 ft. At mid-point between timbers some bending of the rail would take place. The number of points of small, high pressure, contacts was 9,6000. It was not possible that they would all be in contact.

Keith Hickman in Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeolgy. 2005. pp37-43


The launch was scheduled 3 November 1857. As soon as the ship moved, rails bent. Friction, heat and the shearing action of two metal strips at 90 degrees disposed of the grease. Iron bit into iron and the ship jammed. It floated on the high tide of 31 January 1858. The cost of the launch was £120,000. A dry dock would have cost £20,000. The cost of the hull was nearly £750,000.(Emmerson p.128)


John Scott-Russell wrote: ‘The area of each runway was nearly 10,000 sq.ft. and had that been boarded over, and the cradles als,o the ship would have gently slipped down into the water. But the Great Eastern was the victim of experiments which had nothing to do with her original design or her ultimate purpose.’

(Emmerson quoting Russell. P.129)


2825 words



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