Drawings shed new light on Brunel

Industrial heritage: Discovery in railway town is most important for years
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The Independent Online
DAVID KEYS

Archaeology Correspondent

Historians have rediscovered one of the industrial revolution's most important monuments - the largest complex of buildings designed by Victorian Britain's most famous civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

A group of 300 buildings in Swindon, Wiltshire, have just been identified by researchers as having been designed by Brunel and his office.

Industrial archaeologists and historians believe that the complex - the early Victorian core of the railway town of Swindon - is the largest example of Brunel's work in the world.

The research shows that all 300 early structures were designed under his direction, while dozens were designed personally by him in the 1840s. Until now only six had been attributed to him.

The revelation is the most important industrial archaeology discovery in recent years. The buildings now being attributed to Brunel include cottages, shops, pubs, locomotive and wagon servicing and repair sheds, foundries and part of Swindon railway station.

The discovery is likely to force a reassessment of aspects of Brunel's career - refocusing on the importance of residential and factory architecture.

Appreciation of Brunel's work has previously concentrated on achievements such as Paddington Station (built 1854), Box Tunnel near Bath (1841), Saltash Bridge, Plymouth (1859), the steamship Great Britain (1844), and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which he designed in the 1830s.

Two researchers from the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England - Keith Falconer, an industrial archaeologist, and John Cattell, an architectural historian - discovered Swindon's 300 Brunel buildings while examining unrecognised Brunel drawings at the former British Rail Western Region archives in Swindon.

Then they went on to Bristol University where they examined one of Brunel's sketch books and discovered that the images contained in it were of the Swindon complex.

Further unknown material was then found at Wiltshire's County Record Office, and at the Public Record Office in London, signed by Brunel.

Other papers have even revealed that Brunel was involved in setting the rents to be charged to the railway employee tenants of the cottages he designed. This enabled him to work out how much could be spent on constructing each building. Cottages, for instance, had to be built for pounds 100 each.

"We were amazed that such a large corpus of buildings had until now escaped proper attribution," Mr Cattell said.

A full account of the discoveries will be published later this month in Swindon: the Legacy of Railway Town (John Cattell and Keith Falconer; RCHME/ HMSO; pounds 19.95).

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