He’s No Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but…

I know, I’m late to the party, but lately I’ve been reading Sydney Padua’s the webcomic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (coming soon as a book, apparently?), and, well:


Everyone loves Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and for good reason: though he was more like the Tony Stark of his age–“accomplished” barely touches how important an engineer he was during his short but influential career in early Victorian London–the Wolverine-like look he gets in Padua’s comic (and, well, in the photos, really) is, er…

I’ll put it this way: as Padua has noted, he’s an extremely popular character. He even got his own T-shirt.

The image above is Sydney Padua’s, not mine, and you should totally click on it (because it’s a link) and go to Padua’s site and read all the wonderful comics there. Okay?

As Padua notes, it’s not so much of a stretch to make a comic-book hero out of Brunel, though.

I mean, look at his credentials:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS ([…]9 April 1806 – 15 September 1859), was an English mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionised public transport and modern engineering.

Though Brunel’s projects were not always successful, they often contained innovative solutions to long-standing engineering problems. During his short career, Brunel achieved many engineering “firsts”, including assisting in the building of the first tunnel under a navigable river and development of SS Great Britain, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship, which was at the time (1843) also the largest ship ever built.

Brunel set the standard for a very well built railway, using careful surveys to minimise grades and curves. This necessitated expensive construction techniques and new bridges and viaducts, and the two-mile-long Box Tunnel. One controversial feature was the wide gauge, a “broad gauge” of 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm), instead of what was later to be known as ‘standard gauge’ of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm). The wider gauge added to passenger comfort but made construction much more expensive and caused difficulties when eventually it had to interconnect with other railways using the narrower gauge. As a result of the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act 1846, the gauge was changed to standard gauge throughout the GWR network.

Brunel astonished Britain by proposing to extend the Great Western Railway westward to North America by building steam-powered iron-hulled ships. He designed and built three ships that revolutionised naval engineering.

In 2002, Brunel was placed second in a BBC public poll to determine the “100 Greatest Britons”. In 2006, the bicentenary of his birth, a major programme of events celebrated his life and work under the name Brunel 200.

He’s practically a comic-book hero in real life, really–modern England is littered with traces of his achievements!–and descriptions of him in Victorian letters and memoirs give that appearance too.

And, sadly, it’s been hard to find a figure who is even remotely as engaging in the milieu in which my own project–concerning brewers, distillers,and alchemists of the 1730s–takes place. Of course there’s Hogarth and Defoe and Fielding, but they’re sort of obvious and ubiquitous. And in another sense, the Georgians of London, well, even visually… the breeches, the periwigs, the ridiculous outfits: it’s a bit harder to translate into the iconographic terms of modern heroics: there’s something a bit ridiculously gaudy about them, though the historical period itself is fascinating, especially in the area of distilling and brewing.

But just as so much of that old Victorian engineering that we take for granted now was just exploding into the world thanks to Brunel and people like him, the creation of modern commerce, of modern legal systems, and so much else we take for granted now was happening right there during the Gin Craze in London.  (And because of the particularities of the industry, brewing was easier to scale up industrially, so the trade led the way in terms of industrialization; in fact, one could say the industrial revolution first arrived in the world of brewing, and also that development fueled the industrial revolution proper.)

Anyway, Padua’s treatment of Brunel made me stop and reflect: in terms of “types,” what kinds of characters are the figures who make up my book? 

Since I’m writing fiction, the visual iconography isn’t so immediately important, but the character types are, so I’ve been thinking about it in terms of character personality, more than looks. 

I won’t get into all the characters I’m dealing with, since that would spoil the story for y’all, but Brunel is such a fascinating sort that I’ve been casting about for someone I could treat in the same way: who is the baddest of the London brewing world’s badasses in 1736?

Were the story set in the 1760s, or the 1780s, or later, there would be a lot of brewers to choose from, of course. (Several of them have been discussed over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, indeed: several are mentioned by name in this post alone.) But in the 1730s? That’s a lot tougher, at least given my limited access to resources on the period. Ralph Thrale doesn’t really attract me, and it’s been hard to dig up many other names…

But I think I’ve found him:


This is the Right Honorable Alderman Humphrey Parsons, who served as Mayor of London in 1730 (and again from 1740-41, until his death), and owned the Red Lion Brewery, an important producer of porter–so important it was the only porter drank at the French court for a while. (More about that below.)

Now, I know, the wig and costume look a little goofy by our standards–though he also dressed up in hunting clothes on occasion, but that drawing I haven’t managed to track down. But even in these pictures, depicting him as Mayor of London, just check out that bling.

NPG D3814; Humphrey Parsons sold by William Banks

He was actually one of the more popular mayors of the day, seen as a very open and honest type and a decent man. (Was he? Beats me, but people thought so.) Here is is with some of his fellow itinerant adventurers some other famous London politicians:

Parsons with his buddies. Okay, actually, it’s a gallery of former aldermen and mayors, but I can’t tell which one is supposed to be Parsons.

Parsons was a wealthy brewer by all accounts I’ve seen, and there’s good reason for it: I mentioned Parsons’ exclusive contract with the French court. But would you believe, he swung it by chatting with the French king during a hunting trip? That’s how the journals of the day told it, anyway:

On one occasion, during his mayoralty, he [Parsons] went out riding with a hunting party which included Louis XV and his suite. He was exceedingly well mounted, and, contrary to the etiquette observed in the French Court, outstripped the rest of the company, and was first in at the death. The king, observing this, inquired the name of the stranger, and was indignantly informed that he was ‘un chevalier de malte.’ On receiving this information the king entered into conversation with Mr. Parsons and asked the price of his horse. Bowing in the most courtly style, the ‘chevalier’ replied that his horse was beyond any price other than His Majesty’s acceptance. In due time the horse was accepted by the king, and from thenceforward Chevalier Parsons had the exclusive honour and privilege of supplying the French Court with his far-famed porter.

Not only that: “the king, who showed him every mark of favour, presented him, on 16 Feb. 1731, with his portrait set in diamonds.”

Talk about bling!

This is the Red Lion Brewery, though I feel certain that this image was done up in the 19th century, long after the brewery had changed hands and come to be owned by a certain banking family. But even in Parsons’ day, the brewery was notable, especially for the innovation Parsons pursued there (as discussed by Peter Mathias in The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830).

For example, he had massive vats–at the time, the largest ever used for brewing, at least in England–installed “at his brewery at St. Katharine’s” in 1736. (Presumably during the summer months when brewing ceased due to the weather.) The vats apparently had a capacity of 1500 barrels each, and cost a considerable sum: £562 per vat. (For comparison, a whole school built in Parsons’ name in 1724 cost ~£700 to construct.) How many vats there were, I do not know, but this fella was loaded

(That said, those same vats were still being used in the 1770s, after only one set of major repairs in the 1760s, so even at that price they were a steal compared the less durable fermentation vessels everyone else was using in the 1730s.)

Not the Red Lion Brewery (see the comments below), but I’m leaving this till I can find a picture of the Red Lion.

(There’s no information on whether Parsons staged anything like the publicity stunts later brewers did: according to Peter Mathias, one brewery actually held a banquet for hundreds inside a newly installed vat, to show off its scale and size, prior to the commencement of production. The new vats introduced in the Georgian era led to new problems, such as how to clean them safely: when brewery workers forgot to lower a candle into the vat, they sometimes died from exposure to “carbonic gas,” and in the early 1800s one Canadian brewer went so far as to buy diving equipment to protect his workers tasked with cleaning his vats, according to Mathias. And then there was the London Beer Flood of 1814… another disaster brought on by the escalating size of the vats being used in breweries. But all that is long after the time in which my current project is set.)

Oh, and he was a Jacobite, naturally–surely of the sort who were less ideological, and more just anti-Hanoverian, which was the dominant trend among English Jacobites at the time. It was a sentiment very popular at the time among brewers, of course, given that the gin trade (their biggest direct competition at the time) was a Hanoverian innovation in London.

In any case, the Red Lion Brewery, and Parsons, will certainly be making appearances in my book, but I had to think for a while and digest all this to decide how I’d spin Parsons himself. He is interesting, but not in any way that reminds me of Tony Stark or a Wolverine; he feels to me much more like a kind of Don Draper figure: well-connected, dapper for the time, dignified in his way, with a visionary streak–but with that visionary quality proceeding almost directly from a set of carefully-concealed flaws to which he himself has grown somewhat blind over the years.

There’s lots of room for fun in all that, I think.  Not all of that is supported by what little I can find on his life, but neither does it exactly contradict what is known–at least, what I’ve been able to dig up on what is known.

Oh, and one more thing! There’s his daughter, Anne:



Parsons actually had two daughters, as is mentioned in several of the biographical sketches linked above, but I’ve only managed to find a painting of one of them (and none of his wife at all). It’s very unlikely that Anne Parsons spent much (okay, any) time at the Red Lion Brewery, but that’s no fun! And then there’s the reality that, since this portrait dates to 1763 (if I read that inscription right), so at best, she’d have been a child (or maybe even a baby?) at the time of my story. Sure, maybe the portrait was designed to be flattering: Parsons did marry his wife in 1719, after all, and assuming she were eighteen or twenty, it seems unlikely any children would have been born after about 1736 (just going by the fact that Mrs. Parsons survived a lto longer than her husband).

But actually, going by Parsons’ will (which was updated in 1740, though how extensive that codicil was I don’t know), his daughters and son do seem unsurprisingly to have been legally underage when he died in 1741:

He married, on 18 April 1719, Sarah, the daughter of Sir Ambrose Crowley or Crawley, by whom he had a son John and two daughters—Sarah, who married James Dunn of Dublin; and Anne, who married Sir John Hinde Cotton, bart. His wife died on 28 Jan. 1759. Parsons’s will, dated 29 April 1725, with a codicil of 25 March 1740, was proved in the prerogative court of Canterbury on 24 March 1741 (Spurway, 97). All his property was devised to his wife and three children, the portions of the latter during their minority being held by his wife as trustee on their behalf. After his death his family seem to have lived much in Paris. At the lord mayor’s ball in October 1741, Horace Walpole noted the presence of ‘the Parsons family from Paris, who are admired too;’ and adds in a note that they were the son and daughter of Alderman Parsons, ‘a Jacobite brewer.’

But I might go ahead and pretend I didn’t notice that inscription. Some details have to be fudged a bit in the interests of a good story. Plus the presence of two daughters in the family, and their move to Paris after Mr. Parsons’ death, suggests fascinating intrigues in terms of stuff already in place in my own story…

2 thoughts on “He’s No Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but…

    1. Mr. Cornell! Wow! I feel like Batman just dropped by my crimefighting headquarters while I was in my 3rd-rate homemade costume! (In a good way.)

      Thanks for the correction—I’ve noted it in the post above. I haven’t managed to find a picture of the Lion Brewery, though I should have realized it: it wasn’t that near a waterway, was it? (London geography’s still arcane for me, beyond the bits I’ve researched in Rocque’s map, for my novel.)

      And by the way, thanks so much for the wonderful resource that is your blog (and books). I’ve been using them while working on my own novel, in which certain Georgian London breweries (and one distillery) figure prominently. In the end, I decided not to use Parson or Thrale, but instead to stick with fictional, smaller-scale brewers for the most part—though some of the bigger names get mentioned, the way we might mention celebrities but never meet them—but the invention of those fictional brewers and breweries still depended heavily on research made possible by the historical documentation provided by several people, including you!

      Count me as a fan, and as very flattered that you commented here!

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