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Brunel: An alternative vision of the future

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s impact as a visionary of Victorian industry belies his significance as one of the country’s earliest progressive social engineers, according to Brunel's Professor Peter Beresford.

Prof Beresford says that, although considered one of the greatest figures in engineering history, Brunel was also an innovator with a social conscience – and an eye on welfare.

He asks if, as Brunel University London celebrates marks its milestone 50th anniversary next year, it is time to reassess the public profile of Brunel, the inspiration behind its success.

Prof Beresford, Professor of Social Policy at the university, said: “We have become accustomed to seeing Brunel as the engineering catalyst of Victorian capitalism and empire. One of the greatest Britons - but strictly of the past.

“But there is another story to tell, with much more resonance for our own age, with all its socio-economic problems and uncertainties. Brunel’s relationship with the money men was always an uneasy and complicated one. They valued his innovation when it offered rapid returns; too often it was truly ground-breaking and expensive. Then they were much more suspicious.”

Part of his great vision was that Brunel, Prof Beresford adds, connected innovation to welfare, as seen in his creation of portable hospitals at the peak of the Crimean War, which were labelled ‘magnificent’ by Florence Nightingale.

The Great Western Railway, too, was not just an engineering masterpiece. Brunel created a new society in its Swindon base, complete with hospitals, housing estates, churches and social centres. According to some sources, this gave Aneurin Bevan the basis for the creation of the National Health Service.

Prof Beresford adds: “Brunel’s was a welfare society which transcended the traditional limitations of the market and money-making imperatives and was not tied to the state. At a time when both of these are the subject of more controversy than ever before in modern memory, Brunel offers us insights for an alternative future.”

Brunel University London will celebrate its 50th anniversary year with a series of events throughout 2016, marking its transition from a College of Advanced Technology in 1966 to a 12,000-student university today.

A launch lecture by Chancellor Sir Richard Sykes, looking at the university’s greatest achievements of the past 50 years, will be held on Wednesday 7 October.