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)


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