Emma Joan Brunel was three years and three days older than her illustrious brother, but whether by accident or design it is on the anniversary of her birthday, 6 April, rather than his, 9 April, that the rising sun penetrates right through Isambard’s wonderful Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway. The publicity attaching to this circumstance, following a recent article in the national press – based itself on an article I wrote for Genealogists’ Magazine in 2016 – led me to speculate on the possibility that Emma Joan might have direct descendants still living.
Emma Joan Brunel married George Harrison, a widowed curate, and in 1844 when George was the incumbent of the parish of New Brentford (coincidentally, where I went to school…), she gave birth to her only child, John Harrison. John enjoyed a privileged upbringing, initially having a nurse and then a private tutor. He attended Magdalen Hall College, Oxford, but there is no evidence that he took his degree. There is also no evidence that he ever worked for his living; every census record that I have found records that he was living on ‘private means…’
Nevertheless, he did get married; in June 1868 he wed the 17-year-old Lucy Maria Elizabeth Tucker. Their children were:
Rosa Lucretia Brunel Harrison, born 1870
Mary Emma Lucy Brunel Harrison, born around 1884
Isambard Joseph Francis Brunel Harrison, born 7 Sep 1885
Josephine Brunel Hensleigh (or Hemsleigh) Harrison, born around 1889
The 14 year gap between the first and second children is odd, but Harrison's declaration in the 1911 census states that they had only four children and none that had died.
Of those children, Mary and Josephine died spinsters. Isambard was in America in 1918, although he did return to the UK and died in Wales in 1939. He was a bit of a mystery; in 1911 he is listed as a solicitor’s articled clerk in Brighton, but in 1918, he was working for a farmer in Minnesota. Did he go to America to avoid being called up? There is no indication that he ever married; his sister Josephine was awarded probate on his death. Rosa is the real mystery. There is no obvious record of a marriage or death, and she seems not to have been included on the civil registration lists for births. Possibly she emigrated; after 1891 she just disappears.
And that is as far as I have got. If there are any intrepid Harrison genealogists out there who can throw any light on the mysterious Rosa, I would be delighted to hear from them. Ditto anyone in the USA who has ever come across Isambard Harrison. If Rosa had children, then there is the possibility that Emma Joan Brunel’s descendants might be alive today.
Post amended 24 April 2020, on receipt of Emma Joan Brunel's will, and the discovery that her eldest grand-daughter's name was Rosa Lucretia Brunel Harrison.
Those nice people at The Guardian newspaper have published a review of my theory that Brunel aligned the Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway such that the rising sun shone through it on the birthday of his sister Emma. You can read The Guardian article here, and my original piece here.
Added later: The story has now made it in an expanded version into the Daily Mail online here ...
These are scary times, and it is easy to allow anxiety to take over. Human beings are social animals; even during the darkest days of the Blitz when terror and death rained from the sky, the pubs and theatres stayed open.
But this is not the end of the world. It is temporary, and normal life will return soon as long as we all take the simple precautions advised by the government.
But we’re alive! And anyone reading this is certainly in sufficient possession of their faculties to recognize that fact. All crises bring out the best and the worst in people, but from what I have seen in the current situation, the former outweighs the latter by many times.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of people I pass during my walks outside – at least two metres distant – not only nod or say hello, but now ask ‘How are you?’, and seem disposed to pass the time of day. Is it possible that the silver lining in all of this will be the mending of the awful divisions in the country caused by you know what? I live in hope, and I am determined to be cheerful!
I have been trying to articulate my thoughts about Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt which I went to see yesterday. The action consists of scenes from the lives of two affluent and cultured Jewish families living in Vienna between 1899 and 1955 and their attempts to assimilate, some of them by marrying gentiles, some by converting to Christianity.
The one thing everyone knows about the period is what the Nazis did to the Jews, and the roll-call of those of the characters who ended their lives in Auschwitz formed the final scene of the play. An earlier scene, set in 1938, when the two families were evicted by the Nazis from the one unheated and unlighted apartment remaining to them, was really upsetting in its menace and vicious brutality. The more so because there was only verbal violence.
This is a play in which Stoppard attempts to come to terms with his Jewish background in Czechoslovakia before the war. Apparently he knew very little about it until he persuaded his mother, already in her sixties, to write down details of her family. It all has considerable resonances for me, because my own mother was born in Vienna – of Czech parents – and her adoptive mother was a secular Jew who had married a Catholic and fled to Britain in 1938 because of the rising persecution of Jews.
Ultimately though, the play was unsatisfying in spite of the usual Stoppard clever tricks. There were cultural references to Klimt, Mahler, Freud and Schoenberg, and one of the characters, a professor of mathematics played by Stoppard’s son, wandered around the stage worrying about the Riemann Hypothesis – an obscure problem in the distribution of prime numbers.
But for me, it wasn’t enough. Even the chilling conversation involving the central character who challenged a military officer to a duel for insulting his wife. The officer amusedly declines, because being a Jew his challenger is entirely without honour …
I am not, I hope, sufficiently naïve to expect answers as to why these appalling events took place. But when such things happen which defy all rational explanation and logic, we turn to our artists and writers to help us at least to understand the questions. This play had all the promise, and it was a beautiful production, but it failed to deliver.
I felt bereft leaving the theatre but not because of a cathartic experience. And it was with a sense bordering on despair that the first newspaper hoarding I saw while going home announced the murder of ten people in Germany by a Neo Nazi.
This is the slightly edited text of a communication sent to my MP, Vicky Ford, on the status of the BBC.
"I wish to express my extreme concern regarding the government’s apparent attitude to the BBC. News reports say: “Downing Street has told the BBC the licence fee will be scrapped.” I have no idea whether this is Conservative Party policy, I don’t think it is, but it is clear from the anti-BBC rhetoric in the right wing press – particularly the Daily Telegraph – that the BBC is in the firing line, and I wish to lobby you to represent my views on the subject.
I will say that the practice of sending people to prison who have defaulted on their licence payment should end forthwith. We abolished debtors’ prisons in this country in 1869, and it is a scandal that people are still being sent to gaol for debt – and this applies equally to defaulters on council tax. Also, I believe that the possession of a TV set should not be the determining factor in whether a licence is needed. Some sort of login system with a password ought to be perfectly possible to be implemented with the minimum of inconvenience - this could be easily automated as is the login to Netflix.
However to abolish the licence fee for the BBC and replace it with a subscription service would be an act of cultural vandalism.
The benefits that the BBC TV, radio, local radio, world service and website bring to the country – and the world – are incalculable; make it a subscription service, and the BBC’s revenue would nosedive, turning it into the sort of lowest-common-denominator broadcasting familiar to anyone who travels abroad. The BBC is the envy of the world and a lifeline too for many countries with totalitarian regimes. Most people – with the exception of some readers of the above mentioned daily newspaper – know that what is heard on BBC news and current affairs programmes is fair, balanced and unbiased, sometimes almost to a fault. The BBC speaks truth to power.
I suspect that there is a politically motivated move to punish the BBC for its probing, mildly anti-establishment stance during the debate on Europe, spearheaded by the Today programme. Anyone whose memory is capable of winding back 20 years, would know that it was equally probing and questioning towards the Labour Government of Blair before, during and after the Iraq invasion. That position cost the BBC their chairman and managing director.
We need a sensible and grownup public debate on the future of the BBC, not policy made on the hoof to garner instant approval from a minor section of the electorate."
No, this cannot be right; our Prime Minister assured us, promised us, that there would be absolutely no checks on the Irish border after B*****t.
But now, Gove and Javid tell us there definitely will be border checks, and industry will have to get used to it…
Did I miss something?
History gives those who study it the benefit of being able to weigh the significance of simultaneous, or near simultaneous, events. Thus in the early weeks of February 2020, historians will note, that the United Kingdom departed from the European Union, Sinn Féin polled the largest number of first preference votes in the general election in the Irish Republic … and Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, authorized civil servants to spend tax-payer’s money investigating the possibility of building a bridge across the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Contemporary observers will note that Sinn Féin is committed to Irish reunification, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted by substantial majorities to remain in the EU, and the ruling party in Scotland is determined to achieve independence from the United Kingdom.
One can conclude, therefore, that the prime architect of the UK’s departure from the EU, Boris Johnson, seems to be interested in spending upwards of £20 billions of UK money on a bridge between two countries which might very well not be part of the UK by the time that said bridge is built.
If bridge-building is needed, I would respectfully suggest that it needs to be conducted between the split and broken sections of the British electorate, not over 20 miles of stormy sea strewn with unexploded World War II munitions, where the demand for travel surely cannot ever justify such an expense.
History will judge, because it always does. And I’m not sure if it makes me happy or sad to contemplate the fact that I will not be around when the final verdict emerges on the wisdom of this country’s departure from the EU.
The people voted for it, and it was undeniably a good turnout at over 70%, but the difference between the votes cast for and against was less than 4% of the total, hardly an overwhelming majority for such a critically important decision.
Nevertheless, it was the decision of the people, and their decision is inviolate isn’t it? But I would guess that 95% or more of the population have not the slightest ability to judge whether the UK will be better off in or out of the EU – and that of course includes the 16 million or so who voted to remain. The majority wanted to leave for all sorts of reasons, and the minority wished to remain for a whole variety of different reasons. The vote was decided on ideological not practical lines.
We will be free of the Brussels bureaucracy, free of the £250 M weekly membership fee, free of the single market and the customs union, free of the rules and regulations and free to strike our own trade deals. But, pretty well all serious analyses say that the UK will be worse off, financially, afterwards.
Was it a fair vote? There were dirty tricks on one side and a lamentable failure to organize on the other. Undeniably the person who is our current prime minister has tremendous charisma, and quite possibly swung the balance. If the last election was in any sense a re-run of the referendum, by voting the Tories in with such a substantial majority, the people again, effectively, voted Leave … Or was it that the breathtakingly inept performance of the Labour leadership lost the election? After all, the majority of votes cast were for parties who supported remain …
Well, for better or worse, we leave today. There is much talk about ‘coming together’ and ‘healing the wounds’ but these wounds will take decades to heal. I for one am not reconciled to the situation and never will be. It was the wrong decision taken for the wrong reasons, and we will all be poorer as a result.
(With apologies to Clive James)
Last Christmas day the weather at Southwold was about as perfect as I have ever seen it. There were plenty of people on the beach and everyone was in a good mood, but the happiest individual by far was possessed of four legs and a tail. That dog was rushing up and down the sand, barking and wagging his/her tail so hard it seemed in danger of coming right off.
Likewise, some dogs let off the lead in the park where I walk regularly exhibit symptoms of such excitable joy that it is impossible not to feel good just watching them.
But dogs know nothing of the universe. Their world view is limited to where their next meal is coming from and who provides it and takes them for walks – and being grateful to that person. It is the secret of their happiness. They live for the moment, the next meal, the next walk and the joy of just being alive.
We, on the other hand – or some of us – agonize about the meaning of life. Are we, as modern science insists, simply the end result of evolution from primitive creatures which themselves evolved from the spontaneous generation of life leading back ultimately to the Big Bang? Or was Archbishop Ussher correct in his analysis of the Old Testament, where God created the universe and everything in it in six days in October 4004 BC? The latter has its own set of problems, but if the former appears to be correct, how can we believe that the wonders of the natural world together with the staggering human achievements in art and science are just the end result of natural selection? And, by the way, what caused the Big Bang?
The Abrahamic religions certainly have their problems, but at least Judaism and Islam are content with one god. Christianity demands that while on the one hand we suspend our disbelief in virgin births, resurrections from the dead and the Trinity, we also believe in the idea of an eternal non-consuming hellfire for unrepentant sinners, an idea so unimaginably appalling that it makes the Holocaust sound like a holiday camp.
Now, the latest book on the subject of Hell* says that after all, it cannot exist in a universe created by a loving god – we will all be saved. This loving god must exist, because the alternative – a chance event generating life out of basic elements with no reason to the universe – is unimaginable. I have not read the book – nor do I intend doing so – but I do wonder how the author manages to reconcile this all-loving god with the misery existing among mankind on earth, whether from human agency or the legion other natural causes – of which disease, hunger and mental or physical disability are just a few.
I find myself wondering whether belief in the existence of a ‘creator’ is not just the result of overweening human pride; the thought that we are so wonderful that there must be a purpose to it all. Some people, I fear, cannot face up to the fact that there might, after all, be no purpose at all; we just evolved from a random event.
Dogs at least do not have that problem. Perhaps it is a case of ignorance is bliss, but I think we can learn much from dogs; certainly the ability to enjoy the moment, and live life for the bliss of just being alive …
*That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart
The trial scene in A Man for All Seasons is a brilliant climax to the film. Thomas More has assiduously refrained from making any comment on the invalidity of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sir Richard Rich, an arriviste to whom More declined earlier to offer employment, is sent by Thomas Cromwell to talk to him in the Tower, and shamelessly perjures himself by telling Parliament that More did, during that conversation, effectively deny the validity of the divorce.
Knowing that he is doomed, More finally does make a public declaration of his beliefs. As Rich moves to leave, More asks him about a chain of office around his neck, and is told that he is Solicitor General for Wales.
More says: “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?!”
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs