One hundred and fifty years ago today, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the greatest engineers in history, died at the age of just 53. His funeral in Kensal Green cemetery was attended by several hundred people, including Joseph Locke who, with Brunel, had opened up Britain to the railway. He was buried a year later, also in Kensal Green.
There was another mourner, that day, however: Robert Stephenson, a household name who had risen from humble origins in the Northumberland coalfield to the highest echelons of London society. Although of a similar age to Brunel, Stephenson was already very frail. His death, a few weeks later, prompted a national outpouring of grief: his body was committed to Westminster Abbey, with the cortège watched by thousands of people as it made its way through Hyde Park by express permission of Queen Victoria. Stephenson’s hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, meanwhile, was plunged into mourning at the loss of its heroic son.
The passing of these three extraordinary men, so close together, robbed the country of an astonishing source of talent, energy and influence. The trio, who had done so much to accelerate the Industrial Revolution, were often portrayed by the press as rivals clambering to pursue their own agendas, but were in fact close colleagues and friends. Moreover, they were much more than engineers: they were consulted by (or sat in) Parliament and boardrooms, and advised foreign and colonial governments on railways, water supply and sanitation, dock and harbour improvements, land reclamation schemes and much more. They were titans of the Victorian age.