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Isambard Kingdom Brunel two incidents

Year 1827

Read by John Grandy – Chairman, Royal Humane Society

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Historical note: Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked for several years as an assistant engineer on the project to create a tunnel under London’s River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, with tunnellers driving a horizontal shaft from one side of the river to the other under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. The project was funded by the Thames Tunnel Company and Brunel’s father, Marc, was the chief engineer.

Extract from the letter from Mr R. D. Beamish, assistant engineer of the Thames Tunnel Company:

On 18th May 1827, by the influx of water into the tunnel, we had all been forced to the top of the shaft, and when I was about to leave the place, to convey the melancholy information to Mr Brunel, there arose a cry of “Help! A rope!” etc. The men were so crowded together and my movements being rendered somewhat slower, by having so recently extricated myself from the water, that it was with difficulty I could obtain a view of the place towards which their anxiety appeared to be directed.

In the meantime, Mr Brunel, jun. and Mr Gravatt, had run round to the edge of the shaft, and seeing a man swimming with difficulty among the loose timber, then floating and in agitation, Mr Brunel seized a rope, and fortunately finding another suspended, he slid down, swam to the man, and whilst making the rope fast around the poor struggler, he was joined by Mr Gravatt, who had slid down one of the iron rods of the shaft. The height (about 20 feet), and the quantity of loose timber floating upon the surface of the water, precluded any attempt at jumping in. By the prompt and effective assistance this rendered by my colleagues, was the poor man placed out of danger, at a time when it was evident that his strength was fast failing him.

On another occasion, when, by the upsetting of a boat, in which two Directors of the Thames Tunnel Company (R. H. Marten Esq. and R. P. Harris Esq.) were surveying the works, after the first irruption of the Thames, they were enabled by their promptitude and presence of mind, to render such speedy assistance as to save the lives of all but one of the party which were thus placed in jeopardy.

The man lost had entered the boat just as it was pushed of, unknown and contrary to the directions of Mr. Gravatt, who was one of the party. He, therefore, was not missed immediately; nor until Mr, Marten and Mr. Harris had been placed in safety by Mr. I. K. Brunel, jun. and Mr Gravatt, was the loss of the poor man known.

These two gentlemen, on hearing of it, stripped and returned to the spot, and the former dived several times after him. The body, however, was not found for twenty minutes, when he was taken to the house of Mr. Beamish, and placed upon his bed. Every means was resorted to which have been calculated to restore life. These applications were persevered in for four or five hours – but all in vain – the silver cord was broken and the spirit had returned to God who gave it.

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