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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Page updated 14th May 2011

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Born in Portsmouth in 1806 - died 1859. Although Brunel never lived in Exeter, he had a profound influence on the city when he engineered the Great Western Railway from Paddington. He built the line from Paddington to Bristol, Temple Meads with many innovative engineering features, including the Maidenhead Bridge and the Box Tunnel. He was then commissioned to build the line from Bristol down to Exeter and then Plymouth and beyond. However, a difference with the Bristol and Exeter Company, building the line, meant that he resigned as engineer when the line had reached Taunton, although he had surveyed the route.

However, he was the engineer for the innovative and brave failure, the atmospheric railway from Exeter to Plymouth. Built in 1846 as far as Newton Abbot, some fair paying trains were run as far as Teignmouth. Unfortunately, the vacuum in the tube could not be maintained because, the vacuum seal proved to be unreliable. In August 1848, the system was abandoned. One pumping station has survived, at Starcross, 7 miles from Exeter.

The legacy of broad gauge along the route, can be seen when looking at the distance between the platforms at St David's, and the generous tunnel and bridge dimensions to accommodate the 7ft gauge, along the line. Street names in Exeter with Brunel links include Isambard Terrace, Kingdom Mews, and Brunel Close.

Brunel moved to Maidencombe and installed an Exonia stove manufactured by Garton and King, then based in Waterbeer Street. The ledger entry for the sale is shown right.

I K's other Exeter connection?

Most people know Brunel as the son of Marc Brunel, who fled the French Revolution and reached England via America in 1799. Interestingly, Brunel's mother was Sophia Kingdom, the daughter of William Kingdom of Plymouth. Strangely, Sophia's eldest brother, in later years, called himself Kingdon and there is other evidence to suggest that Kingdom was adopted by the family from Kingdon. In addition, Sophia's sister was known as Elizabeth Kingdon.

The family name Kingdon (and Kingdom and Kyngdon) had its routes in Devon and Cornwall and therefore it is very likely that Samual Kingdon who operated the Garton and King Foundry and Kent Kingdon his great nephew, who lived in Taddiforde House were distant relatives of Brunel.

The most iconic of photos of Brunel Ledger entry for stove Brunel's purchase of an Exonia stove from March 1857 is shown in this extract, from the Garton and King ledger. Click to enlarge.

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