Cromwell! Shakespeare! Admiral Nelson! Churchill! ...and Brunel??! Wha?

The BBC recently had a poll where they listed 100+ famous Brits and had 30,000 listeners pick the “top ten Greatest Britons of all time”.

The final selection was a pretty good set of choices. Oh sure…one of the votes was for a standard pop music type (John Lennon) and the inevitable vote for “recently dead, so they’re on our minds” person (Princess Di), but overall, the list was darned good. Elizabeth the First, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin…good choices and a nice range of selections, and I can understand why each was chosen. Except for one.

Ismabard Kingdom Brunel???


Why is his name being tossed in with the likes of Newton and Cromwell? He built a bridge.

He didn’t invent suspension bridges. He didn’t build a bridge across the Channel. As far as I can tell, it’s just a bridge: I mean, it’s pretty and all, but…so?

How does this guy outrank (remember the poll was for “greatest”) Henry VIII who started a whole religion? Or Richard the Lionhearted (or more accurately, his brother John who signed the Magna Carta)? Or any of dozens of others?

I’m was gonna post this in GQ because the specific question I’m asking DOES have a factual answer “Did this guy do something famous that I’m missing?”, but let’s face it: we’re gonna start arguing about the choices so why make more work for the GQ Mods? :stuck_out_tongue:


Ok, reading that page, th’ guy did some other engineering stuff, but still, he’s hardly a Newton.

The first link should work now.

He did alot of work on the GWR (Great Western railway), IIRC he invented alot of trains, he did event alot of railway infrastructure. So basically, he pioneered the railway revolution in the UK which led to the first example of mass-communication.

When I was small, I was taught that Brunel was the little man (he was less than five feet tall) who drove the Industrial Revolution and was, in turn, driven by it. It would be wrong to say he was the symbol of the common man during Victorian Era but I suppose he would be one of the most memorable non-literary, non-military men of the time.

Much of what created the empire and made it “Great” Britain at that time was advanced by Brunel, and agruably that period was the zenith of the country, so I can see Brunel having a place of honor and being remembered.


Brunel was an engineer of enormous importance; if anyone should be dropped from the list, my suggestion would be David Beckham (yes, he is on the list).

Yes, it’s ridiculous to dismiss Brunel as a guy who built a bridge. His contribution to internal and international communications is enormous for one person. The bridge at Clifton was just the cherry on the cake; his railway and ship design work are the real achievements.

On the top ten list? I didn’t see him. Are you sure? I’d drop Princess Di or Lennon first in any case.


No, Beckham made 33rd place

The top 10 (they are reading them out right now (in Alphabetic order - a further vote is to be conducted):


Queen Elizabeth 1

I see that you Brits have been infected by our(US) disease. Pop Kulture. Good Luck. You gonna need it.

There was no distinction between great - as in made a substantial contribution to history and/or culture of the British Isles - and celebrity - as in everybody’s heard of you. Hence Di & Lennon are ranked above Faraday, Jenner, James Clerk Maxwell, Wellington, Wilberforce and others too numerous to mention are not. The most egregious entry is Michael Crawford at 17, also above Faraday et al. Apparantly he was on a chat show the Saturday before voting began.

I saw the BBC program last night on the top 100. What was highly amusing was the reluctance to say anything complimentary about any right wing politician - e.g. Thatcher - or military hero - e.g. Wellington, Montgomery. For Sir Walter Raleigh, they showed clips from Blackadder in a pathetic attempt to ridicule the man and his 16th century values. Poor old Beeb, stuck with its PC attitude having to be nice to non-PC people.

Generally speaking, the proof reading/fact checking of the script was dire. For King Arthur (why was a fictional character in the list in the first place?), the Beeb claimed he invented knights and chivalry. They also said an H-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Oh, and Ann Robinson (of Weakest Link fame), who was presenting, has had her face lifted so much her eyebrows met her hairline and was botoxed so much only her eyelids and lower jaw could move. (The last comment is rather petty on my part but it had to be said. :D)

I only started watching during the countdown from seven (Mangetout’s post reminded me). It’s true that the 100 contains some very poor choices indeed, and some disgraceful omissions, but at least the top ten has eight that you’d expect would be on most people’s lists.

It’s hard to believe they could find anyone to give backing to the idea that Princess Diana could be described as the Greatest Briton of All Time (shame on you Rosie Boycott); John Lennon made a significant contribution to an insignificant aspect of our lives, and there are strong arguments against Cromwell too IMHO.

My own top three would be Newton, Darwin and Shakespeare, but I probably won’t bother to phone my vote in and you have to wonder whether the peculiarities in the list aren’t more a reflection of the sort of person who takes part in trivial polls and less a reflection on who we really believe has made a significant contribution to life?

But samclem, they have a big advantage. British schoolchildren actually know their historical figures. It’s cheating in a way . . . no doubt Madonna could have made some great railway bridges, if she’d had the chance.

Brunel, as Tuco has pointed out, is a huge name in British, and therefore world, engineering. A visionary. Even today his shipbuilding projects seem a little incredible.

One has to question the polling method, though. “Phone and Internet”? That would count out lots of people who aren’t on the Internet (specifically, older people), and people who have better sense than to encourage pollsters to telephone them. If they polled only Dopers, now . . . .

I’d have thought that Alexander Fleming (penicillin), or James Watt (steam power) ought to get a look in before Diana Spencer. Yep - I think there are some very odd people who take part in these polls.

Or James Young Simpson (Chloroform), or Joseph Lister (antispeptic surgery).


I was a bit put out that Michael Crawford made ther list and PG Wodehouse didn’t. Not right that.

Of the top 10 I suppose it has to be Winston.

I have seen Brunel’s grave, its in Kensal Green Cemetary and is veryu non-descript, surounded by these very elaborate victorian tombs.

I thought that was quite sad. He’s next to a famous clown.

Don’t we all seem to be these days?

Michael Crawford?!? Keee-rist.

As I mentioned in one of the other threads on this subject, Brunel is my first choice by a long way (followed by Shakespeare). It’s not just that he built stuff, it’s that he built stuff first, or bigger, or better than anyone else. Oftentimes this was stuff that people said couldn’t be done (like the Thames Tunnel) or that others tried and failed to do (like the Crystal Palace Towers), or that people hadn’t thought of.

Brunel has a statue on the Thames at the east end of the Victoria Embankment Gardens, if anyone cares. It is a pity that his grave is unremarkable, but then I’d guess that he hadn’t built it himself. :wink: The engine house at the Wapping end of the Thames Tunnel is also open to the public on occasion; the amount of design and beauty incorporated into what was essentially an industrial structure is amazing, and serves as a much better monument to him than a gravestone.

Some idiot on the BBC’s message board has been boasting of voting for Michael Crawford repeatedly as a joke. Others have been making the same claim about Princess Diana. Whether they’re telling the truth or not I think we should factor that into the way we look at the standings.

It certainly is a pity about Brunel’s grave, but you’re right about his being the best monuments to him. I don’t expect to vote for him, but he’s certainly a serious and deserving candidate.

Several famous people are buried in cemetaries such as the one at Bunhill Fields just off City Road. It’s remarkable and sad how humble many of them are.

I’m not sure that Brunel should be No. 1 (Churchill, Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare all have serious claims), but it is good to see him in the Top Ten. Indeed, one of the more surprising features of the results is how many engineers got into the Top 100. This does suggest that, despite some very obvious evidence to the contrary, some of the voters did think seriously about their choices. Of those engineers, Brunel had a head start, being a far more glamorous figure than his rivals, although it is only fair to point out that the glamour is a reflection of his very substantial achievements.

I also suspect that one reason why he is doing so well now is that the programme on him in the series was superb. Yes, I too sneered when I first heard that Jeremy Clarkson would be presenting it, but I was delighted to be proved wrong. It was really rather good.

My other theory is that Brunel is benefitting from nostalgia about a time when Britain’s railways really were the wonder of the world, although it is slightly inconvenient that he built them as a private entrepreneur