For a long time Rotherhithe was London’s natural port, gaining its name from the Anglo-Saxon term for “landing-place for cattle.” There were shipyards in the area from Elizabethan times until the early twentieth century, and working docks until the 1970s.
One of its residents was Master Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower which conveyed the Puritans to America in 1620. His statue at St. Mary’s churchyard depicts St. Christopher, looking back towards the Old World, carrying a child looking forward to the New. Created by Jamie Sargeant, it was unveiled in July 1995. The ship is reputed to have departed from a spot close to the monument.
Some two centuries later a French-born engineer arrived in Rotherhithe from New York. In 1825, operations began for the execution of his ground-breaking design for a tunnel under the Thames River. A commemorative plaque at Rotherhithe Station, erected by the American Civil Engineers and the British Institution of Civil Engineers, celebrates Brunel’s tunnel as a trailblazing civil engineering site.
Brunel, a Royalist refugee from Normandy, was one of the few people at the time to hold both American and British citizenship. He could boast an illustrious career in London and New York.
The bloodshed of the French Revolution forced large numbers of individuals to emigrate and settle elsewhere in Europe. Escaping the Reign of Terror, many émigrés moved to America. The majority of emigrants were older Royalists and aristocrats, leaving behind their wealth (their assets had been seized) and status.
Faced with massive social change, these refugees had to find ways of sustaining themselves in an unfamiliar society that did not share their values. They took up pursuits in real estate and finance, but were desperately waiting for an opportune moment to go back to France. Many of them returned after the fall of Robespierre when regulations were eased and their names erased from the register of émigrés.
Engineer Marc-Isambard Brunel did not share a privileged background. Born on April 25th, 1769, in Hacqueville, Haute Normandie, he started his career in the French Navy and made his way up to the rank of lieutenant. When he arrived back in France in 1793, the country was in the midst of violence and revolution. As a Royalist, he felt forced to leave. He booked a passage aboard the American ship Liberty and sailed to New York, arriving on September 6th, 1793. He stayed in New York for five years and took American citizenship in 1796.
His technical abilities were recognized and Brunel made his mark as an engineer and architect. Having been appointed Chief Engineer of the city of New York, he designed a canon foundry and advised on the defenses of Long Island and Staten Island. He also surveyed the course of a projected canal to link the Hudson River with Lake Champlain.
Brunel submitted plans to a committee that was appointed in 1794 to select the winning design for a new Congress Building on Washington’s Capitol Hill, but his project was rejected as too expensive. He built a Manhattan theater instead.
Brunel on Stage
Drama came late to New York. The original Protestant settlers in New Amsterdam treated the theater with suspicion and disdain. In spite of a rich theatrical tradition at home, English colonists were not eager either to engage in the construction of playhouses.
In the late eighteenth century, New York’s only playhouse was the decaying John Street Theatre which had opened in 1767. Although President Washington is known to have attended a few performances there, its repertoire was mainly lowbrow, its facilities poor, and its attendees rough and rowdy.
Tired of attending such an “obnoxious” establishment, in 1795 a group of wealthy New Yorkers in cooperation with the actor-managers Hallam and Hodgkinson began planning the construction of a new playhouse at 21/5 Park Row, Manhattan. They commissioned Brunel to come up with a suitable design.
The latter collaborated with fellow émigré Joseph-François Mangin (noted for the design of New York City Hall and the Old St Patrick’s Cathedral) on a three-story stone structure that seated an audience of 2,000 (with private boxes and a saloon on the first level). It was originally called the New Theatre and then, because it faced the open area later named City Hall Park, the Park Theatre. The house opened its doors to the public on January 29th, 1798, with a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, even though the building was in an unfinished state.
In its early years, Brunel’s Park Theatre enjoyed little to no competition in New York. Having attained financial control over the theater, Stephen Price took over its management in 1808. The first American theater manager who was not also an actor or playwright, he brought an end to the tradition of hosting a resident company. Instead, he initiated a policy of promoting foreign (mainly British) stage celebrities. The first “star” to arrive was George Frederick Cooke who premiered as Richard III in New York on November 11th, 1810.
Under his reign lasting three decades, London and New York worked in parallel. Having spent the years 1826 to 1830 running London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Price secured himself a virtual monopoly on English stage actors for American tours at the Park and also for venues in other cities. Every theater in the country had to negotiate with him to book imported stars. Any success in London’s West End guaranteed a full house on Broadway.
The Park would host most famous European plays of the era and in spite of regular financial crises, the theater maintained an upscale image until it burned down in 1848. Price had died eight years earlier.
Brunel’s creation may have been erased from Manhattan’s landscape, but two decades later the family name was splashed all over the city’s newspapers once again.
In 1799, the English government invited Marc-Isambard to contribute to the modernization of the dockyards of Portsmouth, England, and he was then contracted to undertake similar projects at Chatham and Woolwich. Failure in other business projects brought financial disaster. In 1821, Brunel was imprisoned for indebtedness. With no prospect of release, Marc let it be known that he was considering an offer of employment from the Tsar of Russia.
Facing the prospect of losing a prominent engineer and fearing industrial espionage, the government cleared his debts in exchange for a guarantee to remain in Britain. After his release, Brunel concentrated his attention on the unresolved problem of underwater tunneling. In 1825, operations began for executing his design for a tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping.
Soon his son would be involved as well.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Kingdom was his mother’s maiden name) was educated at the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris and subsequently at the University of Caen. Aged just twenty, he was appointed chief assistant engineer to the Thames Tunnel project. Completed in 1843, the Victorians celebrated the tunnel as the eighth wonder of the world.
Working from premises at no. 18 Duke Street, Westminster, young Brunel would become Britain’s most celebrated engineer, famous for his design of the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, for his construction of a network of bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway, and for the construction of several famous ships engaged in transatlantic service.
The Victorians’ favorite word for machinery and engineering was ‘Promethean’ and the adjective suggests gigantic, eye-watering design. Brunel was the quintessential innovative engineer. His last project, the launch in 1858 of SS Great Eastern at Millwall Iron Works on the River Thames, would drastically change world travel and trade. An iron sailing steamship, she was at the time by far the largest vessel ever built with a capacity of carrying 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling.
When in 1860 the first modern ocean liner sailed toward her berth between West 11th and 12th Streets, people lined Manhattan fifty deep to witness her arrival. On June 29th the New York Times dedicated the entire front page and most of its back page to the event, giving a “complete account” of the ship’s famous journey.
In 2002 the BBC conducted a television poll to select the “Hundred Greatest Britons.” Inevitably, Winston Churchill was the winner. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the French-educated son of an immigrant, took second place.
Illustrations, from above: Christopher Jones statue at St Mary the Virgin Church, Rotherhithe by Jamie Sargeant (1995); Commemorative plaque at Rotherhithe Station, Brunel Road, erected by the American Civil Engineers and the British Institution of Civil Engineers; Marc-Isambard Brunel’s rejected design for the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC; Park Theatre, Park Row, Manhattan; New York, the interior of the Park Theatre, 1822 by John Searle (The New-York Historical Society); the Thames Tunnel connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping in East London; Brunel by the launching chains of SS Great Eastern, 1857 by Robert Howlett; Front page of the New York Times June 29, 1860, completely dedicated to the first arrival of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern in the city; and SS Great Eastern in New York Harbour, 1860, at a pier on the Hudson River between West 11th and 12th Streets, her usual New York berth.