The tale I have to tell this day is of a hero bold

I didn’t mean to write a mummer’s play. They say you should write about what you know, and I didn’t know very much about mumming, not at first.

I’ve been a morris dancer for many years. Almost ten years ago, for a creative writing challenge, I started by writing a three act play about the rivalry between fictional morris dance sides.  The play would include various types of events that morris dance sides are often involved with. The middle act would be based around a mummer’s play that one of the morris sides would perform. As the story was set in Bristol, I decided that the mummers play would be about a local hero and my first choice was the civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

By the time I’d finished writing the middle act, it was obvious that this was the part of the story that I’d expended all my energy on and the rest was quickly forgotten. The mummers play would take on a life of its own, not least because I was a long standing member of Rag Morris, a non-fictional morris dance side who would prove to be interested in performing that mummers play in its entirety.

When I first started,  the only mummers play script I had a copy of was the last original mummers play that Rag Morris had staged in public. This was the story of Vincent and Goram, two legendary giants who were said to have carved out the Avon Gorge, a spectacular river valley next to the City of Bristol. That play was composed by local artist, author and former Rag Morris dancer Marc Vyvyan-Jones, with help from Roland and Linda Clare. Because that play was fairly loosely based on mumming play conventions, I figured that I would write my play to tell its own story with characters based on mumming archetypes and some of the structure from a mummers play, but to use the characters as storytellers to relate a series of incidents from Brunel’s biography, with bad puns, rhyming couplets and dramatic reconstructions.

The Vincent and Goram play begins with an introduction by Old Father Thyme; so I started my play by converting this speech into an introduction by Old Father Thames, a traditional folkloric representation of the English river in human form.


In comes I, Old Father Thames,
Welcome or Welcome Not
I hope Old Father Thames
Will never be forgot.

I rise in the west and flow to the east
Towards the rising sun
I began my journey before you were born
I’ll be going when you are long gone

The tale I have to tell this day
Is of a hero bold
A Great Briton they have called him
Though his story’s not that old

So come with me a century
Or two into the past
For now it’s time to step aside
And introduce the cast


In 2002 the BBC ran a poll, encouraging people to vote for the person they considered to be the Greatest Briton; and Isambard Kingdom Brunel came second, after Sir Winston Churchill.

The extraordinary life of I.K.Brunel lent itself admirably to a reinterpretation in the form of a mummers play. I started writing the play a couple of years after the celebration of Brunel’s 200th birthday in 2006; an anniversary that was marked with a series of events in Bristol. An exhibition entitled “The Nine Lives of I.K.Brunel” hosted in Bristol next to his great ship, the SS Great Britain, provided both the title and structure of the play. I began to read biographies, diaries and articles about the engineer to find out as much as I could about the story and and the subjects I wanted to portray.

All the incidents described in the play are based on historical fact; with a story as rich as this, full of ambition and success, comedy, tragedy and some frankly ridiculous accidents, there was no need to make any of it up. The award-winning Horrible Histories TV series, based on a series of books, uses the same process of sticking as closely as possible to the historical truth to draw out the humour of the situations. The first series was broadcast in 2009, the same year that the Brunel Play made its debut. I don’t believe that Horrible Histories have done a full episode on Brunel yet but I’d be open to offers if they want to use any of my rhymes.

Our hero introduces himself with a straightforward couple of verses


In comes I, I’m Isambard –
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
An Engineer I am by trade
With many a tale to tell

I’ll build the biggest ships
and I’ll design the fastest trains
But mostly I’ll be famous for
Smoking by giant chains.

A famous photograph of Brunel, by Robert Howlett, shows him standing next to the drums which held the chains used for launching his monumental ship, the SS Great Eastern; hands in pockets, puffing on a cigar. It’s the most iconic photographic portrait of the Victorian era, and so I was keen to get in a reference to that image early on in the play.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, photograph by Robert Howlett.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Standing Before the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, photograph by Robert Howlett.

The other characters introduce themselves. Doctor Foster, down from Gloucester, is a traditional mummers play character who will help revive our hero after his numerous accidents, representing the many physicians who did so in real life.

For one example, in his later years, Brunel’s  doctor was his brother-in-law and friend Seth Thompson. He was the doctor who first helped Brunel when a half-sovereign accidentally dropped into one of his lungs while performing a magic trick. He also accompanied Brunel and his family on a recuperative trip to Egypt during the last year of his life, and was an executor and beneficiary of Brunel’s will.

The Vincent and Goram play features a character called Brunel-zebub as the traditional diabolical panhandler at the end of the play. St Vincent’s rocks on the Avon Gorge was eventually the site of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, Brunel’s first great undertaking, eventually completed as a memorial to him to become an icon for the City of Bristol. In my play Brunelzebub is the villain of the piece, whose ambition is to thwart Brunel’s plans and remind him of the rising death toll that accompanied his ambitious projects. He forms a double act along with Bold Slasher to represent Brunel’s inner demons or ‘Blue Devils’ that he described in his diary during his periods of self-doubt.

Then in comes Little Johnny Jack, with his family on his back. In our play, this character, along with Old Father Thames, provide the exposition, helping to set the scene for each of the nine episodes.


With these characters in place I then began to translate each of the stories into verse and rhyme, each of the episodes lasting couple of minutes at most. I was constrained by the facts that I wanted to fit in to each segment; I wrote at the top of the script, “Abridged by Gavin Skinner”, as it felt like I was creating a rhyming summary of an existing story; and in Bristol, Brunel himself was well known building a bridge.

At the time I was writing the play, my eldest was three years of age, so I was reading a lot of children’s story books. Writers who specialise in this field such as Dr Seuss, Julia Donaldson and Lynley Dodd have probably written more poetry that is actually read out loud than anyone else, and I’m sure my familiarity with their work at that time made it easier to pick and choose rhymes and rhythms.

Here are a few examples of some of my favourite lines from the play, with an explanation of some of the source material and ideas which went into the composition.

I was keen to write a bridging verse between each of the stories and was looking for a connection between the elegant Queen Square, where Brunel fought as a special constable as it was ruined during Bristol’s riots in 1831, and the story of his Great Western Railway. I found my answer in a magazine article that referred to a little-known fact from Brunel’s diary; at one time he considered siting his railway terminus in the square.


This riotous conflagration’s left Queen Square in devastation
Making it a prime location for the station Bristol needs
But should the City’s Corporation recommend its restoration
I’ll build my station by the Avon in a field called Temple Meads

After an episode in which Brunel fails to listen to expert advice during the delivery of a railway locomotive, it’s up to Little Johnny Jack to link to the next topic.


The Great Western Railway became a success
But what to do next made Brunel rather frantic
He wanted the journey to go further west
By Great Western Steamship across the Atlantic


The problem is this – there are those who insist
That an Atlantic steamship just cannot exist
That a big enough hull would require so much coal
You would always run out before reaching your goal

But I’ve done some sums that just prove that they’re wrong
And that nautically I’m engineer number one
My ship will go fast and will be built to last
And have room for the passengers too – that’s first class

Johnny Jack links neatly from one story to the next. Brunel’s speech, with a slightly different rhyming structure, is meant to reflect the rhythm of the steam engines that drive the ship. An earlier version of the speech included a rhyme with “boat” and “float”, but I was told unequivocally  by a representative of the SS Great Britain that Brunel built ships not boats.

The verses allude to the long-running dispute between Brunel and Victorian author and science communicator Professor Dionysius Lardner, who insisted that as a ship’s size increased, so would its requirement to store coal; meaning that no ship could be big enough to travel by steam over the Atlantic. Brunel proved that the fuel carrying capacity of a ship is related to the cube of its size whereas the drag of the hull, which dictated the power required to drive the ship, is in proportion to the square of its size; which meant it was perfectly possible for his large steamship to cross from Bristol to New York with coal to spare.

The story of the Battle of Mickleton Tunnel is one of the most astonishing and yet little-known episodes in Brunel’s industrious career. The contractors hired to dig a railway tunnel in Gloucestershire believed they were owed money by the railway company and downed tools and prevented the railway company from accessing the tunnel. In an utter breakdown of employment relations, Brunel raised an army of three thousand navvies from other projects in order to take back control, by force.


The fighting began, several heads and limbs broken,
Some shoulders popped out and one skull cleft in two
with a shovel; but no-one killed outright, so that’s alright,
and victory to the company in the morning dew!

The contractors found that resistance was futile
And the contract redrawn over cups of hot tea
Brunel’s private army the last to have fought
A pitched battle on the soil of our fair country

The description of the fight was almost word for word from one of the accounts of the battle.

The last of the Nine Lives, and the final character to appear, concerns Old Leviathan, the nickname for the Great Eastern, the largest ship ever built when she was launched in 1858; a record that would be held until she was broken up just over 30 years later.


In comes I, old Leviathan
Brunel’s greatest project
And his last
They said that I killed him
I almost quite ruined him
The world’s finest ship
I’ve come back from the past

So why did he build such a monstrous Leviathan?
To travel non-stop to Australia by steam!
No ship will surpass me for half a man’s lifetime
There’s no power on Earth that can compare with me

The last line was inspired by the cover image from Thomas Hobbes’ book, “Leviathan”, that I spotted in a newspaper while writing the play. This includes the inscription, “Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comperatur ei”, itself a biblical quote from Job chapter 41: “There is no power on earth to be compared to him”

But the stress of building the monstrous ship was too much, even for Brunel; he visited his marvellous ship for the last time shortly before her maiden voyage, when he suffered a stroke.

In our play, this represents the final victory for the blue devil Brunelzebub, who in a final act of indignity, recounts Brunel’s last days in the form of a limerick; albeit one with a deliberate break in the rhythm or scansion in the second line.


As Brunel he went home and was lying on
His deathbed…
…his steamship was flying on
Then some pipes overloaded,
A boiler exploded
And six stokers were dying on Leviath-on

Brunel built his great reputation
On the work of the men of this nation
Only some paid the price
Of their own sacrifice
What they need is a standing ovation

This character represents the engineer’s inner demon, and it seemed appropriate to give voice to his own regrets and self doubt at this point. Brunel’s son Isambard wrote of his father in his biography, “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer”,

In times of difficulty, such as the trial of the Atmospheric System and the launch of the ‘Great Eastern’, his chief thoughts were for those who would suffer through the failure of his plans.

Each of the characters then stands to give their own tribute to Brunel, or in the case of Bold Slasher, something based on a less than flattering obituary:

Not one of the great schemes which he set on foot can fairly be called profitable, and yet they are cited, not only with pride, but with satisfaction, by the great body of a nation supposed to be pre-eminently fond of profit; and the man himself was, above all other projectors, a favourite with those very shareholders whose pockets he so unceasingly continued to empty.

There is always something not displeasing to the British temperament in a magnificent disappointment.

Obituary in the Morning Chronicle 1859

This translated into rhyme like this:


This ambitious, reckless engineer
Financially so cavalier
His work cost his investors dear
As profits tumbled year on year
Which they accepted with good cheer
Good grace and no resentment

His shareholders would never fear
For he would always “pioneer”
With bold abandon persevere
It only boosted his career
The British temperament finds good cheer
In a magnificent disappointment

Finally, in a change from the traditional mummers play role, Doctor Foster has to admit defeat, and he can’t bring this hero back to life.


Here I stand, Old Doctor Foster
And I know what I can, and what I cannot do
This man has done more in his short life than I ever could
But even I know when a man’s life is through

Here lies a man who learned how to move mountains
And we must remember his story to tell
For his legacy’s still all around us – no doubting
The greatness of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

I imagined the first line of the last verse as a bookend to the line from Dr Seuss’s final book; Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

“Kid, you’ll move mountains!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So get on your way!”

And we finish with a reminder that we are all just storytellers, telling the tale of a hero, bold, as Old Father Thames said in his introduction. The Doctor’s last line is only the second time that Brunel’s full name is used in the whole play, after the title character introduces himself at the start.

But in the end, in our play, Brunel Lives! He leaps to his feet without any Tip-Tap or Hocum Pocum and leads a final heroic Morris Dance as the crew of the SS Great Eastern finally set sail for South Australia.


And so the play arrived through a series of serendipitous coincidences, of story and history, time and place, form and structure, rhyme and rhythm.  In its own way it became a success, from the original performances of Nine Lives in 2009, nine years ago today; three days later to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Brunel, and through several revivals. There are a number of relevant performance locations linked to the stories we tell and we have taken our play to all the most resonant sites in Bristol. There are also an ongoing sequence of significant anniversaries of events in IKB’s life and career. This summer we performed the play during Bristol Harbour Festival on stage in Brunel Square, next to the SS Great Britain, two days after the 175th anniversary of the launching of this great ship.

The writing of it only deepened my respect and enthusiasm for the great man. But it has left me with something of a problem.  I had hoped that I would develop a series of mummers play biographies, but the truth is that there isn’t anyone else quite like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the nine years since I still haven’t found any other life story more worthy of re-imagining as a mummers play.

After writing this play, I started more properly investigating the form and structure of traditional mummers plays on websites such as Master Mummers, an excellent research resource which include a wealth of information and links to hundreds of traditional scripts. The other plays we’ve done have tended to be more closely aligned with the source material, respecting it to a greater or lesser extent as required.

Going forward, it must be time to start thinking of writing another play, on a completely different topic, perhaps one that has fewer ties to the mumming play format and yet allows more freedom to create original rhymes and characters and stories. Perhaps I’ll write it, or perhaps you will. I look forward to reading it or seeing it or being in it. Mummers plays are a living tradition. Just give us room to rhyme!

En Avant!


With thanks to Greg Brownderville, Director of Creative Writing and Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, who kindly asked me to speak with his students this evening over the interweb about the writing of mummers plays. Good luck to his students, and anyone else, who might be inspired to write one! 

I read most of the above post by way of an introduction. 


Photograph of Brunel By Robert Howlett (British, 1831–1858) (Metropolitan Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photographs of the 2018 cast taken by Patrick Slade.

All extracts of the script copyright © Gavin Skinner. 







The Clifton Zip Wire

Imagine a zip wire running through the Avon Gorge, under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, depositing a flock of happy flying punters on the Bedminster side of the river.

You may not have to imagine for much longer, for such a plan has already been proposed and supported by Bristol’s tourist authorities.

When this idea was first mooted in the Bristol Post recently, one of the questions posed was, “What would Brunel think?”

To contemplate his potential response, I’d recommend considering Brunel’s involvement in the 19th Century equivalent; his daring crossing of the gorge in a basket suspended beneath an iron bar that had been hauled the 900 yards across the gorge in the days before the laying of the foundation stone of the bridge in 1837. It’s an event that we marked in our Rag Morris Mummers Play, “The Nine Lives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel”, first performed in on Bristol Doors Open Day, September 12th 2009 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of the great engineer.

Excerpt #10 - The Clifton Bridge

To expand on our 90 seconds worth of exposition about the bridge from our half hour play, and to mark 5 years since that play first saw the light of day, 150 years since the Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened, and 155 years to the day since the death of Brunel, I thought it was time to write a bit more about how the bridge came to be built; about Brunel’s crossing on the Iron Bar and while I’m here, suggest a few things that the Clifton Zipsters might wish to look out for on their way back up to St Vincent’s Rock. I’ll admit that the page title is a bit misleading; but imagine, before the bridge was built, that the idea of crossing from one side of the gorge to the other by any means must have seemed as spectacular and as thrilling as today’s plans to install a zip wire.

The challenge is this! There’s a new competition…

Brunel’s design for the bridge was a response to a competition launched to find a solution to a problem – building a bridge across the Avon downstream from Bristol Bridge that would be high enough for tall ships to pass underneath, in a time before swing bridges and lift bridges were commonplace. The cliff faces of the Avon Gorge between Clifton and Leigh woods provided a natural foundation for the bridge. This was the site that an Alderman of Bristol, William Vick, had specified in 1753 when he left a legacy in his will that was intended to be used to build a Clifton Crossing, once the sum had accumulated to £10,000. By 1829 the Bridge Committee felt that sufficient funds were available and news of the competition caught the eye of one Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 20 year old son of Sophia Kingdom and French Engineer Marc Isambard Brunel.

At that stage, the young IKB had been working as a resident engineer on his father’s Great Project – building a tunnel beneath the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping; the first underwater passenger tunnel ever attempted. However this dangerous work had resulted in a terrible flood on 12 January 1828, which left six men dead, Isambard severely injured, and work on the flooded tunnel suspended. It took six months for him to recuperate, time he spent in London, Plymouth and Bristol. While he was in the West Country he began to make the connections which would lead to him working in the Bristol Docks and submitting four proposals in response to the competition for designs for a Clifton Suspension Bridge. Each design crossed the Avon Gorge at a slightly different point, with spans of between 720 and 916 feet; two of which suspended the chains from the rock faces rather than from masonry towers.

Brunel's Plan No.3

Brunel’s Clifton Bridge – Drawing No.3 (University of Bristol / Brunel 200)

The Bridge Committee appointed Thomas Telford, then the first President of the Institute of Civil Engineers, to judge the competition, bringing IKB into direct contact with one of the pillars of the engineering establishment. While Brunel’s proposals were imaginative and well received, when it came to actually building the bridge, Telford rejected all twenty two of the proposals submitted to the competition, including Brunel’s. Telford declared that the intended spans, dictated by the topology of the landscape, would be too wide for any suspension bridge proposed, due to the problem of lateral resistance to wind pressure. Telford’s own estimate of 600 feet as being the upper limit of the cast iron technology of the time, was remarkably similar to the span of his own Menai Suspension Bridge, completed in 1826. Instead Telford was asked to submit his own design, which reduced the span by the required distance by building a pair of massive stone pillars from the base of the Avon Gorge.

Telford Clifton Suspension Bridge plan full

Telford Clifton Suspension Bridge plan – (Wikimedia)

Brunel’s response was cutting:

As the distance between the opposite rocks was considerably less than that which had always been considered as within the limits to which Suspension Bridges might be carried, the idea of going to the bottom of such a valley for the purpose of raising at great expense two intermediate supporters hardly occurred to me.

Such a response was in fact slightly disingenuous, as Marc Brunel had previously suggested to young Isambard that the gorge “could not be crossed in one” and had sent a sketch showing a single intermediate supporter raised from the bottom of the valley – which appears to divert the course of the navigable river Avon to one side to accommodate it.

But why was Marc Brunel attempting to influence his young prodigy in the first place? In fact, it’s well documented that Marc Brunel was far more involved with the Clifton Bridge design than he is often given credit for. His sketch of a bridge with a support going to the bottom of the Avon Gorge was remarkably similar to one of a pair of suspension bridges at in the French island of Réunion, now known as Saint Denis, east of Madagascar, that had been designed and built by Marc Brunel in 1823; six years before the Clifton Bridge competition opened. The bridge over the Riviere du Mat also has an intermediate supporter in the centre of the bridge; compare for instance the arc of the additional suspension chains below the deck of the bridge, which were intended to give the bridge additional stability, and were a novel part of Marc’s design. Isambard, who supervised the assembly and testing of these bridges in England before they were shipped out to the Indian Ocean in kit form, also incorporated such inverted chains beneath the structures of all four of his original proposals.

Suspension Bridge on the Isle of Bourbon (Collection of David Denenberg)

Suspension Bridge on the Isle of Bourbon (Collection of David Denenberg)

Once Telford’s expensive solution was also rejected, in October 1830 the Clifton Bridge trustees reopened the competition for the bridge design, and Brunel, who had been continuously modifying and improving his own designs, was in a position to resubmit an application and was invited to do so, along with twelve other engineers. Following further consideration, Brunel and Telford were on the short-list of five; although Telford’s design still included the two “intermediate supporters” and was subsequently rejected.

Surprisingly, perhaps; one of Brunel’s four entries to the second competition also made use of a pair of massive pillars reaching down to the level of the river. Given Brunel’s earlier disparaging remarks, one wonders whether this was out of sheer pragmatism. If the judges might eventually decide that this was to be the principal that they wanted the design to follow, then Brunel was going to make sure that his proposal was the best of the bunch.

Brunel, he did enter – and won!

The four remaining engineers were allowed to continue working on their designs and Marc Brunel’s diary for early 1831 includes several months of work on the Clifton Bridge. When the final proposals were submitted, Isambard’s design was placed second; but he arranged an audience with the judges at Blaise Castle and through his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion, was able to resubmit his designs to address the engineering deficiencies that the judges had considered; an opportunity not afforded to the three other engineers. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed as engineer to the Clifton Suspension Bridge on the 19th of March 1831, less than a month before his 25th birthday.

Even then, until the end of June, Marc Brunel was still busy working on the designs for Isambard’s bridge; and yet he was happy for the work to be credited to his son; perhaps for reasons of paternal altruism. Isambard’s appointment was made with the full knowledge that his more experienced father was known to be working on the designs; there was a safe pair of hands behind the inexperienced, yet talented, young engineer.

It could be said that Isambard Kingdom Brunel was Marc Brunel’s greatest engineering legacy; and that 150 years later, perhaps Isambard Kingdom Brunel as an individual or “brand” is greater than the sum of his engineering achievements. There are certainly other engineers whose works were more profitable, more numerous and more successful from an engineering point of view but the legacy of Isambard the Great Engineer, innovator, self publicist and showman has given his diminutive stature a longer shadow that many of his contemporaries.

To prove it would work, he traversed the route early

Before the foundation stone was laid amid pomp and ceremony on Saturday 27 August 1836 it was decided that the best way of transferring building materials from one side of the gorge to the other would be to install an iron bar across the gorge with a system for winching stuff across in a basket. The bar was 1000 feet long and 1½ inches wide and was welded together on the Leigh Woods side. Once it was assembled, on 23 August a ship’s mooring rope or hawser was passed across the gorge and the bar was carefully pulled across by winding this rope up with a capstan. However, just as it was about to be fixed to the rocks on the Clifton side, the hawser broke and the bar fell into the Avon Gorge. When the bar was hauled back up again the bar it somewhat the worse for wear.

This incident is beautifully described in “The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c” 1836 edition. The British Association held their Sixth meeting in Bristol in August 1836 and it is no coincidence that Brunel chose to organise the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone when some of the greatest natural philosophers of the day happened to be in town. In consequence, some of the events surrounding the ceremony have been recorded in this fascinating document.

In the course of the forenoon the iron rod, stretched across the Avon for the ceremony of Saturday morning, when the first stone of the suspension bridge is to be laid, was precipitated from its airy height in consequence of the breaking of a rope on the Clifton shore. One man only was slightly hurt, but the iron was embedded above five feet deep in the bed of the river. Its appearance, when fished up again, was very curious, being not only crusted with mud, but bent into all the forms of the channel into which it had been precipitated. Its curves and contortions, when once more elevated to its position, which was ably accomplished by the engineer (Brunel junior) before Thursday morning made it a more picturesque object than it was before; and thousands visited the spot which had become additionally interesting from the accident.

The breaking of the iron rod over the Avon created a strong sensation; and Mr Brunel approved himself worthy of his parentage, by the skill and exertion with which he fished it up and replaced it in time for the ceremony of Saturday morning.

The 27th August saw the grand ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone which was followed by a breakfast at the Gloucester Hotel, at which “The reception of the elder Brunel who arrived during the repast must have been particularly grateful to his feelings”. This was followed by a somewhat more notorious incident:

On the evening of this day, Messrs Laxton and Tait, two young engineers, we believe employed on the bridge, got into a basket-car and were drawn across the rod. Some obstacle occurred about midway, and the rope by which they were being pulled across, was obliged be loosened; and this at a time when the Benledi steamer was passing below. Her mast caught the line and had it not been cut with great presence of mind, in all probability a fatal catastrophe would have attended this adventurous attempt. As it was the oscillation of the rod with the suspended car was appalling, and the terror of the spectators was scarcely appeased when they saw the parties drawn back in safety to the shore.

It is curious that any suggestion of Brunel himself having a similar accident is not reported in this journal. The Bristol Mirror newspaper, however, reported the above story with some slightly different details; the basket contained one man, and named the Killarney as being the steamer involved. It then went on to say that that Brunel had a similar incident later in the same day where the basket stuck fast on the “kink” of the bar; whereupon

Mr Brunel endeavoured by swinging it to and fro to release the car but being unable to do so, this intrepid gentleman mounted the car, climbed the ropes and released the car when swinging over this tremendous chasm.

A. Vaughan in his excellent biography of Brunel, “Engineering Knight Errant” suggests that the above story may well be hearsay and somewhat unreliable. Perhaps the Bristol Mirror’s story pertaining to Brunel was a fabrication based on the event related above. In any case, it may well have been the start of the separation of the fact and the fiction in the history of Brunel; adding a dash of heroic mythology to the story of the Great Engineer.

It is better documented that the bar was replaced during September and on the 27th of that month Brunel travelled in the basket across the gorge “with the greatest of ease”, three times; on each occasion with a different companion. Many years later in 1854, according to L.T. C. Rolt’s biography of Brunel, when work on the Bridge had ceased due to funding problems, the trustees collected £125 from people wishing to cross the gorge in a basket themselves. Rolt also suggests that the anchorage points for the bar are still visible near the bases of the abutments on both sides of the gorge. In fact, on the Leigh Woods side, the anchorage point is a square pillar that can be seen on the south side of the bridge approach. On the Clifton Side, the anchorage point is no longer visible but is marked by a pair of trees.

On 26 December 1835, the 29 year old Brunel wrote in his diary an end-of-year summary of his ongoing works, mostly railway-related, but including the famous quote:

Clifton Bridge – my first child, my darling, is actually going on – recommenced last Monday – Glorious!

And also a remark about his other suspension Bridge.

Suspension Bridge across the Thames (Hungerford foot-bridge) I have condescended to be engineer of this but I shan’t give myself too much trouble about it. If done it will add to my stock of irons.

However, his optimism was short-lived. The Hungerford bridge at Charing Cross would turn out the be the only suspension bridge to his design that he would live to see completed.

Incomplete in his lifetime

As with many of Brunel’s projects, the Clifton Bridge was not immune to financial considerations. The budget set aside for the bridge was never enough to complete it and despite efforts at additional fundraising the project stalled soon after 1840.The abutments, piers and towers on both sides of the bridge were mostly completed but bridge itself remained unbuilt and the suspension chains, although delivered by the Copperhouse foundry of Hayle, were surplus to requirements. The abutments became a popular venue for picnics and other, perhaps less wholesome, activities, and there was some discussion about whether to remove the unfinished construction work to return the gorge to its natural state.

With the bridge works on the back burner, over the course of his career Brunel was busy with a hundred other projects; including the Great Western Railway and various branch lines as well as railways in Ireland, Italy and India; his three Great Steamships; supervising the design and construction of the Great Exhibition and designing a portable field hospital used during the Crimean War.

In one of these projects he returned to the Avon Gorge with a proposal to build a railway down the western bank. The Portbury Pier and Railway company obtained parliamentary permission to build a railway line in 1846 to lead to a floating pier at Portbury; an early attempt to encourage shipping away from Bristol docks, which had the disadvantage of being situated some miles up the winding, tidal river Avon. As engineer to this company, Brunel proposed that the railway should use the Atmospheric Principal. At this point Brunel’s atmospheric railway in South Devon was under construction but not quite operational. If the Portbury line had been completed as planned, it may well have been a useful, less high profile, testing ground for this innovative system – which in South Devon generated the fastest speeds of any railway yet built. In the end, however, the atmospheric railway failed due to various technical and financial challenges, including problems with frost and rats; and Brunel’s Portbury line was shelved when the fundraising failed. A new company was formed some years later to build a railway to Portbury and Portishead, which received parliamentary approval in June 1863 and opened less than four years later in April 1867. Note that the current plan to rebuild the railway to Portishead always involves a perpetual five year wait.

Brunel’s final great bridge – the Royal Albert Bridge that carries the Great Western Railway across the Tamar from Plymouth to Saltash, was an extravagant yet elegant and uncharacteristically economically viable engineering solution to the problem of crossing the waterway. The design of the bridge includes two vast spans formed of lenticular, or lens-shaped trusses; the tops of the trusses being formed from heavy iron tube, the bottom of the trusses formed from a pair of chains. For these, Brunel bought the unused chains from the Clifton Bridge Trustees and had some more links made up at the Copperhouse foundry.

At the time that the bridge was opened in April 1859 by Prince Albert, Brunel was returning from a trip to Egypt where he had hoped the atmosphere would be beneficial to his health. The following month he was taken to see the Tamar bridge but by this time his health was so poor that he had to lie down on a couch while a locomotive pulled his carriage slowly across. Years of smoking, working long hours and suffering from accidents of various kinds were taking their toll.

A few months later, as his leviathan steamship, the SS Great Eastern, designed by Brunel and built by John Scott Russell, was being prepared for her maiden voyage, Brunel suffered from a heart attack on board and was taken back to his London residence to recuperate. He never recovered and died of a stroke on 15th September 1859.

Finished by friends, as a fitting tribute

Following his death, there was a posthumous proposal to complete Brunel’s vision for a Clifton Suspension Bridge as a memorial to the engineer. Foremost among those in favour of this scheme was John Hawkshaw; a leading light in the Institute of Civil Engineers, and distinguished engineer William Henry Barlow, who who were to become engineers to a new Clifton Suspension Bridge Company, with many other leading engineers acting as trustees. Hawkshaw was at that time planning the construction of a new London station at Charing Cross to be reached by a railway bridge across the Thames. This work would involve the dismantling of the Hungerford Bridge that Brunel himself had designed; and Hawkshaw realised that the new Clifton Bridge Company could be sold the suspension chains from that bridge while maximising the scrap value for the London Bridge and Charing Cross Railway.

The bridge company quickly found that financial support was forthcoming to find approximately £35,000 for the completion of the bridge. There was some concern among former bridge trustees and some Bristolians that the project was being managed and funded by Londoners, but a compromise was reached. A parliamentary “Act for erecting a Suspension Bridge from Clifton in the City and County of Bristol to the Parish of Long Ashton in the County of Somerset” became law on the 28th June 1861. Hawkshaw and Barlow re-engineered the design for the bridge to bring it up-to-date with current engineering principles, and also reduce costs by removing some of Brunel’s embellishments. The height of the piers was increased from 230 feet to 245 feet above the level of the river; the bridge deck was reduced from 32 feet to 30 feet in width. In many ways it is a bridge that is sited at Brunel’s original site and has a similar outline to the bridge that the Brunels – both Marc and Isambard – designed but on closer inspection holds few of the details that I.K.B himself may have planned to include.

The bridge was opened to foot passengers on 9th December 1864 with all the pomp and ceremony that Brunel himself would have appreciated; and there were beer and sandwiches at the Victoria Rooms for the workers. Conspicuous by their absence from any of these celebrations were I. K. Brunel’s sons; Isambard and Henry, who felt that not enough had been done to recognise the part their father had played in the project. They considered that Hawkshaw and Barlow had taken all the credit; despite the whole enterprise being a memorial to their esteemed father.

In future years both John Hawkshaw and Henry Marc Brunel would leave their legacy on the River Thames in ambitious projects that both Isambard and Marc Brunel would have been proud of. Hawkshaw was engineer to the East London Railway Company, which in 1865 took over Marc Brunel’s Rotherhithe to Wapping foot passenger tunnel, eventually using it to carry a railway line from New Cross to Shoreditch; now part of the London Overground network. If you’re in the area, do visit the splendid Brunel Museum at Rotherhithe. And Henry Marc Brunel, who learned engineering skills as a pupil of Hawkshaw became structural engineer to another Hawkshaw pupil, John Wolfe Barry, when he was chief engineer of Tower Bridge in London; which, like the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was an elegant 19th Century solution to the problem of designing the furthest downstream bridge on a major waterway that would allow tall ships to pass underneath.

The Clifton Zip Wire

The idea of a zip wire from the Clifton Bridge to Bedminster creates a bit of a problem – where would the wire end up? I would expect to be given the same constraints that Brunel was under, to allow safe passage for a tall ship to travel under the wire – with clearance of around 30 metres at the exit from the Cumberland basin, around 600 metres away from the bridge.  Starting at the Clifton Observatory at around 90 metres above the high water mark, the zip wire would need to be at least 900 metres long, by my rough reckoning. To avoid the “Brunel Way” flyover, the wire would have to end up in Greville Smyth Park, or possibly on some corner of the Bedminster Cricket club. And I’m not sure if they’ve been asked yet.

So, what would the little blue daredevils have to look at on their long walk back to Clifton? I present three quite interesting structures of architectural and engineering merit that could be investigated.

1) The Ashton Avenue Bridge

The Ashton Avenue Bridge

The Ashton Avenue Bridge (Photo: Gavin Skinner)

This was once a swing bridge at the entrance to the New Cut, which carried the Bristol harbour railway on the lower deck and road traffic on the upper deck. Long since replaced by the Brunel Way flyover, the upper deck has been removed and the lower deck is a footpath and cycleway now used as part of the national cycle network.

Plans are afoot to incorporate the bridge in the controversial Bristol MetroBus system. According to TravelWest, the plan is to “restore the Victorian Bridge and return it to its original role as a public transport corridor.”

I for one would love to see it restored to its Victorian double decker heyday with a separate roadway for the buses and cycleway underneath; it would be particularly impressive to see it in operation as a swing bridge again; although I don’t suppose this is what the MetroBus People have in mind.

2) Brunel’s Other Bridge

Brunel's Other Bridge

Brunel’s Other Bridge (Photo: Gavin Skinner)

This structure, currently hidden away beneath the larger Plimsoll Bridge at the end of Cumberland basin (which leads on to Brunel Way) was a large wrought iron swivel bridge, which was designed by I.K.Brunel’s engineering practice and first became operational in 1849. Its iron tubular structure can be seen to foreshadow Brunel’s later railway bridge over the River Wye at Chepstow and the Prince Albert Bridge over the Tamar. Before the Clifton Bridge was completed, Brunel finally achieved his ambition of constructing the first bridge over the Avon upstream of the Severn estuary.

There’s a campaign by various local enthusiasts to restore and preserve this bridge for future generations, and they are doing a fantastic job.

3) The Clifton Rocks Railway

The Clifton Rocks Railway - Lower Station

The Clifton Rocks Railway – Lower Station (Photo : Gavin Skinner)

This uneconomical funicular railway was built in a tunnel through the cliffs from the Avon Gorge Hotel, to Hotwells, first opened in 1893. The intention at the time was to offer connections from Clifton Village to the tramways into the city centre, the railway to Severn beach and steam ships from the Hotwells landing stage. After the widening of the Portway in 1922 – now the main A4 route between Bristol and Avonmouth – the Clifton Rocks Railway fell into decline and closed in 1934; although it was used by the BBC as a radio broadcasting studio during the second world war.

I would propose that the most exciting route back for out intrepid Clifton Zipsters would be up through the Clifton Rocks Railway tunnel. I know that it’s never going to be reopened as a railway but perhaps some kind of pulley system could be reintroduced?

In conclusion

I hope this has been a useful potted history of the Clifton Bridge; and the interconnected roles played by Marc and Isambard Brunel, John Hawkshaw and William Barlow; and how it fits into the surrounding natural and historical landscape. I look forward to taking my place in the queue for the the Clifton Zip Wire, whenever it gets built; or if not, alternatively I can hope that one day I shall have an opportunity of crossing the gorge in a small basket, suspended beneath a thin iron bar.


Bristol Post (2014) 70mph zip wire planned for Avon Gorge in Bristol
Rolt, L. T. C. (1957) Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Vaughan, A (1991) Isambard Kingdom Brunel : Engineering Knight Errant
Clements, P (1970) Marc Isambard Brunel
Portman, D (2000) The Clifton Suspension Bridge : A Business Enterprise
Various (1836) Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres (Volume 20) pp 553, 567, 568
Bristol 24-7 (2010) Brunel rejected father’s pagoda plan for Clifton Suspension Bridge
Brunel 200

Wikipedia Portishead Railway
Bridgemeister 1826 Réunion Suspension Bridge
TravelWest The Ashton Avenue Bridge
The Clifton Rocks Railway
Brunel’s Other Bridge
The Clifton Suspension Bridge

Nine lives, five years on

Five years ago, in September 2009, Rag Morris Mummers first performed a mummers play about the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Two years later we took the play to the first Bath Mummers Unconvention, and I presented a talk about the play at the Mummers Symposium; the text from the talk is available in the Symposium Proceedings on the Folk Play research web site. Now that it’s five years since we started rehearsing our play,  I thought it was time to add a version of that talk on my preinclusion blog, and at the same time include some video excerpts of our first performances.

Brunel Play Wordle
You may have been lucky enough to see the play in Bristol in 2009, or at the 2011 Bristol Folk Festival where it was performed on stage at the Colston Hall. The play was performed at the 2011 Bath Mummers Unconvention, firstly at the UnPlugged concert on the opening night and then on the following Saturday when we took it out on to the streets of Bath.

I’m going to be looking into some of the questions I’ve been asking myself about the play since the inception of the project; and how the answers to those questions informed the development of the play, looking at aspects of the philosophy of the performance and the production.


Bristol’s Rag Morris used to have more of a tradition of performing self-penned plays, though the last major production had been 1993, a year before I started dancing regularly with Rag. This play about the legendary Bristolian giants, Vincent and Goram, had been penned by Marc Vyvan-Jones with help from Roland & Linda Clare.

These two giants had a test of strength to win the hand of the fair Princess Sabrina, and to prove his worth; Vincent carved out the Avon Gorge with a pickaxe. The script for this play included the character of Brunel-zebub, as the devil with the frying pan who was raising funds to build a bridge to span St Vincent’s Rocks.

So while I was thinking about writing a mummers’ play, and who should be in it; using the script of the Vincent and Goram play as a template for creating a local story about a Bristolian hero; I started thinking about Brunel-zebub and the man who had inspired the name of this character, and whether Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself could star in his own mummers’ play and return for a showdown with his inner demon.

Excerpt #1 - In comes I

But would Brunel make a suitable candidate for inclusion in a mummers’ play, which would attract an audience in Bristol? As I started thinking about the characteristics needed for our mummers’ play hero, and reading a few books about Brunel for research, he seemed to tick a lot of the boxes.

1) Was he a hero in the tradition of St George or Robin Hood?

Yes he was; he came from a class of men who have been referred to as “heroic engineers”, such as Thomas Telford or George and Robert Stephenson who personified the fight against the greatest technical challenges of the day. A contemporary editor of the Railway Times described him as an “Engineering Knight Errant”, and went on to say he was; “always on the lookout for magic caves to be penetrated and enchanted rivers to be crossed, never so happy as when engaged ‘regardless of cost’ in conquering some, to ordinary mortals, impossibility.” This was when Brunel was developing his atmospheric railway, so the writer wasn’t being entirely complimentary. But such a character seemed ideal for a mummers’ play.

2) A defining moment of any mummers’ play is a fight. Did our hero get into fights?

Yes he did. He was in Bristol during the Queen Square riots of 1831, he was sworn in as a special constable and arrested a looter. Twenty years later he instigated his own riot at Mickleton Tunnel, commanding an army of 3000 navvies in a dispute with a company of contractors who had failed to complete their work on time and on budget. He was also a risk-taker and rather accident-prone, and these accidents provided an opportunity for our Doctor character to revive him with his pills and potions.

Excerpt #8 - The Battle of Mickleton Tunnel

3) Was he a local hero?

Brunel had a strong association with the City of Bristol, although he never had a permanent address there. Many of his major projects were connected with the city; his designs for the Clifton Suspension Bridge were first submitted at the age of 23; the original terminus for the Great Western Railway was in Bristol and two of his great steamships were built and launched into the Bristol Harbour.

4) Was he a popular and interesting character?

Brunel a fascinating and complex individual whose story encapsulates both the successes and failures of the Victorian age. In 2002 he was voted number 2 in the BBC’s poll of Greatest Britons, second only to Winston Churchill. And his name pops up all the time in the most unlikely places. In the summer of 2011, Bristol Zoo organised an Art Trail of model gorillas around the city, which were then auctioned off for charity. The gorilla that raised the most money was called Gorisambard; the final bid being more than twice as much as the nearest rival, a whopping £23,000. I’d suggest it was the most sought-after gorilla simply because of its connection with the city’s favourite local hero.


So, Brunel ticked all four of these boxes, and having chosen the star of the show, I started to think about how to write the script. There were two clear choices; write a simple hero-combat play with Brunel as a character in name alone, with a few jokes about cigars and railways; or to build the play around one or two historical events from Isambard’s life.

Before this project began, I wasn’t quite as obsessed about Brunel as perhaps I am now. But as I read more and more, it became clearer to me that to do the story justice and to honour the man’s memory it would be better to stick to the historical fact than the hysterical fiction. Because with Brunel, the truth was often stranger than fiction; and because his story was so full of incident and intrigue, I wouldn’t structure the play around just one historical event; it would be based around nine.

In 2006, a series of cultural events and exhibitions to celebrate the bicentenary of Isambard’s birth was organised by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership under the banner of Brunel 200. As part of this, the ss Great Britain hosted an exhibition at the nearby Maritime Centre entitled, “The 9 lives of I.K.Brunel”.

Excerpt #3 - The challenge is this!

This exhibition looked at Brunel’s life and career by highlighting nine occasions when he was in mortal danger, from a flood in the Thames Tunnel he was helping his father, engineer Marc Brunel, to build; to a fall into the engine room of his first great steamship, the Great Western, following a fire. Incidents such as these occurred throughout his life; if you read any stories or books that mention Brunel even in passing, you’ll often find one of more of these events gets mentioned, almost as a defining moment, the disasters complementing the triumphs. Brunel’s life story has created a kind of historical mythology of its own; and it’s that mythology which we tried to capture in this play, by concentrating simply on these triumphs and disasters.

Excerpt #4 - The trouble is this!

The nine lives structure lent itself perfectly to that of a mummers’ play, or rather nine short mummers’ plays, and that’s how the script developed; each with a brief introduction to set the scene, a challenge, incident or accident to provide the dramatic peak or turning point, represented by some visual gag or dramatic reconstruction, which would then be quickly resolved; where necessary with a little something from the Doctor’s bag to get the man back on his feet, all ready for the next disaster.

The character of Brunel was surrounded by a cast of six other characters, all loosely based on mummers’ play archetypes, who would be called upon to represent some aspect of his personality or an influence on the story. These included Brunelzebub, Bold Slasher, Little Johnny Jack, and Old Father Thames, who represents the rivers associated with Brunel’s projects, which he spent so much time bridging, tunnelling underneath or launching ships into; and Doctor Foster, down from Gloucester, who stands in for all the physicians who treated Brunel after his accidents and through his ill-heath; one of whom was actually called Doctor Morris.

Brunel_ConceptsWhat I wanted to do was to create a kind of performance that drew from the mummers’ play tradition, and was also a play about Brunel. So to visualise the relationship between these sets of ideas, I drew this venn diagram. What we ended up with was a hybrid of two plays – a mummers play biography – and finding out where and how these two parts intersected was the challenge of writing the script.

Brunel_audienceTurning this around, it was also apparent that this play could potentially attract two audiences; an audience of Brunel fans, and audience of Mummers’ Play fans.

To be honest, if I wanted to write and perform in a stand-alone piece of Brunel-themed street theatre which wasn’t within the mummers’ play tradition I probably would have found it a rather more complicated process. It was a useful way to introduce and establish the project in just a few words, both to Rag Morris and to the venues and other organisations that were to help with the staging of the production.

This mummers’ play, in common with many other such plays, was designed to be performed at a specific moment in space and time. So let’s look into where and when the play was first performed.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel lived from 1806 to 1859. He died at the age of 53 after a stroke brought on by health problems, which would have been exacerbated by stress and his habit of smoking copious numbers of fine cigars every day.

Now my script was developed a couple of years after the Brunel 200 celebrations, so it was too late for that, but there was an opportunity to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Brunel’s death, which would fall on the 15th of September 2009.

The date also offered an opportunity to collaborate with another event for the historically inclined; Bristol’s Doors Open Day, which fell on the 12th of September that year. We wanted to take the play out to the locations most closely associated with Brunel’s story in Bristol, and many of these were either open especially for Doors Open Day or were close to other such venues. So with the kind cooperation of the organisers, we were heavily promoted in the Doors Open Day programme for that year.


I made a map for our programme leaflet to show some Brunel-related sites in Bristol. The venues we took the play to included the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Underfall Yard, the ss Great Britain, Queen Square and the Temple Meads passenger shed – Brunel’s old railway terminus.

Brunel Tour Map

One further performance was scheduled for the evening of the 15th of September next to the Explore-At-Bristol science centre where I was working, which was followed by a free Science Café discussion entitled, “When Engineers were Heroes”. This took place on the actual 150th Anniversary of Brunel’s death; and was, as far as I know, the only significant cultural event to mark this occasion.

We’ve now performed the play at various venues in Bristol, including the M-Shed, near the site of the dockyard where the Great Western Steamship was built, where we performed in April 2011 before heading to the Colston Hall.

Excerpt #7 - Engine's burning!

What to wear?

As part of the development of the performance, we had to decide what the characters had to wear.

I’ve heard people say that Brunel’s top hat and tailcoat costume was unusual; that he wore a taller hat than everyone else because he was worried about his diminutive stature.

But the evidence clearly shows that this was not the case; your well-dressed man about town would often wear something of this kind. In contemporary photographs taken when Brunel attended the disastrous launch of his Leviathan steamship, he’s surrounded by men all wearing long coats and tall hats. So the characters on our play all wear the same basic outfit to replicate this look. This is similar to what the Doctor wears in many mummers’ plays, which makes a lot of sense, as the tradition of performing mummers’ plays was being established around this period and this is what many professional men would have worn at the time.

As Brunel ended his career while photography was still in its infancy, there are only around a half dozen photographs of him, and they are all fascinating and brilliant.

So that was how we appeared on our first public performance, at 10am on Saturday 12 September 2009, at the Clifton Suspension Bridge Lookout point. And I think we approximated the look of those old photos rather well. We all wear essentially the same costume, with just a few props – a taller hat, a cloak, painted faces – to distinguish between the different characters.

But why have the two bad guys got blue faces? There was, of course, a good reason for this. Brunel kept diaries and wrote letters throughout his life, many of which are now in the safekeeping of the Brunel Institute, run jointly by the ss Great Britain and the University of Bristol Library’s special collections archive.

One of these documents is Brunel’s secret diary, On one page, written in 1828, when he was just 22 years of age, a few months after the Thames Tunnel accident which caused the tunnel to be closed up, he uses various unusual phrases. When write about his hopes and dreams, he’d describe “castles in the air”; if things weren’t going so well for him, he’d sometimes say he was feeling “blue devilish”. At one point he says,

It makes me rather blue devilish to think of it and since I am very prone to build airy castles I will now build a few blue ones which I am afraid are likely to prove less airy and more real.

Excerpt #6 - I'm here today to spoil this show

Now in those days these blue devils were a kind of common slang for depression and unhappiness; in later years the word “devils” would be dropped and people would simply say they had “the blues”. And Brunel suffered a lot from the blues and from self-doubt. Although his indefatigable spirit would enable him to put that to one side and dream up a new project that was even more groundbreaking than the last, even if it flew in the face of conventional wisdom, or even of common sense. As his colleague and friend Daniel Gooch said of him after his death; “great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.”

So perhaps Doctor Foster represents that indefatigable spirit; or at least, perhaps he had some of that spirit in his bag of medicine, mixed in with the laudanum. And he needed that because death hangs around the story of Brunel like a cloud, represented by Brunelzebub and his little black account book, recording the collateral damage which resulted from Brunel’s great construction projects, as many of the accounts of his life do, as if these engineering works were an equivalent to a military campaign.

Excerpt #5 - Brunel lives!

I like to think that during his later life that when Brunel designed the mobile field hospitals used during the Crimean war, it was almost as an attempt to add some figures to the opposite side of the balance sheet, by saving a few lives to compensate for those which had been lost. And they certainly did save lives; the death rate in the Brunel-designed hospital, in Renkioi,  was 3%, compared to 42% in one of the hospitals it replaced, at Scutari.

But of course we didn’t need that counterbalance in our mummers’ play, because, as in countless other mummers’ plays, the Doctor is there to bring the dead man back to life again, to stick nine fingers up in the air at death and to say, today, in our world, on this stage, our hero does not die. And that is the story we attempted to tell; a story of challenges faced and met and conquered, a story of depression and death; of disaster and triumph; the story of that indefatigable spirit and of a remarkable man.

Excerpt #9 - Old Leviathan

And at the end of the play, after the character of Old Leviathan arrives like an angel of doom to relate the tragic story of the Great Eastern steamship, Brunel lies on his deathbed, his life flashing before him, as if this performer and great engineer were imagining his own life story being acted out in the form of a mummers’ play; and so the play concludes, but Brunel Lives! And the seven characters become six dancers and one musician and together they perform a morris dance, and the spirit of his Great Leviathan can finally take the Ghost of Brunel on a voyage that never took place; a voyage to South Australia.

Excerpt #2 - We're bound for South Australia

The beginning is nigh!

The Big Bang happened not just once, but twice, in the heart of the Mendips at Priddy Folk Festival on Sunday 13 July. The latest Rag Morris Mummers play took an unsuspecting audience right back to the dawn of time, when Old Father Time was still quite young and Old Mother Nature first wrote down all her laws.

A fiery ball of energy begat Mister Matter and Auntie Antimatter, who were just itching for a fight; requiring Professor Paul Dirac, Bristol’s first Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, to explain his ground-breaking research, Doctor Barry O’Genesis to help solve one of the fundamental mysteries of the wonders of the universe, and Doctor Dark Matter, with his dark, dark medicine, to take Auntie Antimatter on a journey to the Dark Side. Constant Billy, however, just thought it was all far, far too silly.

The play was performed in the morning at the Eastwater Marquee and in the afternoon at the market field, to the delight and confusion of folk play enthusiasts and passers-by. One of them commented, “That was a bit like a mummers’ play”; and he wasn’t wrong.

The Big Bang can be thought to bookend Rag Morris’ sequence of historical, mythical and allegorical mummers’ plays; which now take in a potted history of nearly everything. We’ve paraded dozens of characters – including Vincent and Goram, Saint George, Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart,  Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – in a flexible and adaptable format that almost always features a fight to the death and a Doctor with a little drop of tip-tap. Nevertheless there remain vast untapped tracts of tempting historical fact and fiction that remain unmummered, so watch this space for any hints of the the first inkling of what the next effort might concern.

If you could suggest any likely venues, festivals, physics conferences or quantum theory seminars where a performance of our Big Bang mummers play might be appreciated, please contact me or email

No universes were created or destroyed during the production of our play.

The Big Bang

We are now rehearsing the next Rag Morris Mummers’ play, what I have wrote, entitled “The Big Bang”, which we are due to première at the Priddy Folk Festival on Sunday July 13th. We’re continuing our tradition of featuring local heroes from Bristol, following earlier mummers’ plays featuring both Vincent and Goram, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Our band of mummers are members of Rag Morris, a Morris Dance side that is also a University of Bristol Student’s Union Society. We include current and former University of Bristol students and postgraduates in the cast of this brand new play, which has in fact been inspired by one of the University’s greatest alumni. So watch out for Little Paul Dirac delivering a lecture about particle physics, a fight between Mister Matter and Auntie Anti-Matter, and Doctor Barry O’Genesis who arrives to save the day. In our view there is very little in life that cannot be improved by the addition of a morris dance; we hope to astound, educate and entertain in equal measure.

In Comes I, Little Paul Dirac, with all my formulae on my back

Paul Dirac was born in Bristol in 1902, and graduated from Bristol University twice, with a BSc in Electrical Engineering and a BA in Mathematics. He won a scholarship to study for a PhD in Cambridge where he carried out the work that earned him his reputation as a theoretical physicist of the highest order – describing an electron in a mathematically elegant equation that was compatible with both quantum physics and special relativity. The solution to this equation predicted the existence of a then-unknown atomic particle that was named the anti-electron, or positron, which was discovered experimentally a few years later and earned Dirac a Nobel Prize “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”. He was Britain’s answer to Einstein, but it has to be said, that he’s considerably less well known; a balance we are attempting to redress in our own small way with our little mummers’ play.

The tale before you shall be told of how the universe begun

Mummers’ plays are often justifiably accused of making little or no sense; a good vantage point, perhaps from which to survey a realm of quantum theory that few people can claim to understand. By using a format that is itself an invented pastiche of medieval mystery plays we attempt to shed a little light on a new creation mythology inspired by the unravelling of the sequence of events that took place in the first few seconds after the Universe was created. With limited success.

Come and have a go, if you think you’re hadron enough

At the heart of any traditional mummers’ play there is a conflict between two characters, one of whom falls and then rises again with the assistance of a mysterious doctor. In our new play the protagonists represent the symmetrical and opposite fundamental particles of matter and anti-matter. An equal amount of both was created in the seconds following the big bang and, all things continuing to be equal, all of this should have vanished; the matter and anti-matter cancelling each other out in a metaphorical puff of smoke, or a more literal burst of high energy gamma radiation photons. The fact that enough matter remained to form our present universe is a mystery that has stumped clever physicists for decades. This mystery may finally be solved if you are lucky enough to catch a performance of the latest Rag Morris Mummers’ play, “The Big Bang”.

Hatter and anti-hatter

Hatter and anti-hatter


In comes I…

Welcome, or welcome not. Time and circumstances move on. There’s going to be another Rag Morris Mummers play appearing later in the summer, featuring another Bristolian hero, of which more later. But in the meantime I’m going to be starting to use this blog as a window into some of the other stuff I’ve been doing in the rest of my time; to be honest, the majority, when I haven’t been writing mummers plays.

I’ve been living and working as an interactive software designer in Bristol for 20 years and worked for At-Bristol for 16 years – starting two years before the visitor attraction first opened in 2000. During that time I worked for the IT and Exhibitions teams for both the current Science Centre and the former Wildscreen-At-Bristol interactive wildlife exhibition that closed in 2007. I helped to develop the IT infrastructure for the exhibition and created over 100 interactive exhibits and experiences, hosted in the exhibition itself, in touring exhibitions and online.

Museum selfie taken using the At-Bristol Weather Forecast exhibit

Museum selfie taken using the At-Bristol Weather Forecast exhibit

My work for At-Bristol has recently included developing 20 interactive exhibits for the “All About Us” human biology exhibition, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and 8 exhibits for the “Our World” exhibition, funded by the SITA Trust. These exhibits were written using Flash, Director and Visual Basic and feature integration with diverse hardware elements including video cameras,  webcams, high speed cameras, a thermal imaging camera, heart rate monitor, CO2 level monitor and various serial devices including Arduinos. Many of these exhibits also integrate with the At-Bristol “Explore More” website, allowing visitors with a barcoded wristband to upload videos and other elements from their visit to the web so they can see them again when they get home.

Previous work includes development of a number of interactive websites for At-Bristol using ASP, PHP, Flash and Shockwave, including Puzzlemania and Alcohol and you; work on touring exhibitions LoveSport, Inside DNA and Great Apes which have visited over a dozen museums and science centres across the United Kingdom; developing the interactive video delivery platform for the Wildwalk-At-Bristol exhibition; and supplying exhibits to other science centres including the London Science Museum and Experimentarium in Denmark. More recent work includes developing new exhibits in C++ and experimenting with Windows Kinect.

Due to restructuring of the exhibitions team At-Bristol are no longer developing exhibit software in-house and I’m now contemplating starting up my own business using my software development skills to tell innovative stories and create novel interactive experiences. So this is the start of the next part of my story. I’m not quite sure which characters might appear in this one yet. However, at least for the moment, I hope to be able to exercise some kind of control over the content of the script.

A short history of mummers’ plays

In December 2011 Rag Morris Mummers performed a mummers’ play at an event in Henleaze, after which I gave a short talk about the history of mummers’ plays. The time has come for that talk to escape from obscurity in a dusty corner of a hard drive, and for it to get another airing.

Rag Morris Mummers had just performed an interpretation of a traditional mummers play. The script for this play had been recorded in the village of Alveston, which lies to the North-east of Bristol and to the South-west of Thornbury, where it had last been performed around 100 years ago; at least, that was, until the previous Saturday afternoon when we gave it our best shot in the Cross Hands Pub.

And around 100 years ago the mummers of Alveston would not have been alone. Similar groups of men would have been found performing their plays around Bristol, in places like Shirehampton and Kingswood; all around Gloucestershire and Somerset, and in fact in almost every county of England except East Anglia. You’ll have found Galoshins plays in Scotland, plays in Ireland where St Patrick was the hero and St George the villain, and plays like this were found in far flung corners of the world; mummers were renowned troublemakers in parts of Newfoundland, and in  Caribbean islands such as St Kitts & Nevis, mummers plays have mixed in with African traditions to produce some quite spectacular hybrid performances.

So the question remains, what were they all doing?

The performances of plays like these were an annual tradition, which formed part of the cycle of the years activities in many villages and towns, which might include events and rituals such as wassailing, May day celebrations, harvest festivals and Hallowe’en, as well as the religious festivals and holidays which they sometimes coincided with.

Folk plays were often performed by groups of men who called themselves mummers, though in different parts of the country you might find groups of soul cakers, Christmas Boys, plough jags or tipteerers; and the plays tended to be performed in the winter, normally in the weeks before Christmas, or between Boxing Day and twelfth night; although some traditions had their seasonal variations; the soul cakers of Cheshire perform around hallowe’en; in Lancashire the Pace Egg plays will appear around Eastertime.

The performers were often working class labourers who wanted to supplement their income over Christmastime to spend on a few treats for the family – shoes for the children, that kind of thing – or just to spend on a few drinks, and the chance of a morsel of roast beef, plum pudding or mince pie.  This financial aspect was often high on the agenda; in some cases it was a kind of ritualised begging or busking; it bears comparison with collecting a penny for the Guy on Bonfire night; singing of Christmas Carols door to door, or a tradition of singing around the houses for Hallowe’en, known in some parts of the country as guising or souling. This tradition has crossed the Atlantic and returned to us as Trick or Treating, which doesn’t involve any kind of a performance, which I always think of as a missed opportunity. It may have been that the performance of a Mummers’ play developed as an alternative to the singing of traditional songs, by similar groups of wandering performers.

In common with these traditions, Mumming was often performed inside people’s houses, the bigger the better; sometimes invited, and sometimes not. Perhaps the first thing that the master of the house or the Lord of the Manor would know about it would be a loud knock at the door, then in would come Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not; in costume, and often unrecognisable with a painted face, false beard, a hat covered in ribbons or paper tatters, sometimes completely obscuring his face, asking for “a room, a room to brave gallants all, pray give me room to rhyme!
I am come to show activity this merry Christmas time!” He’d then welcome in the rest of the cast, which could include St George or King George, Bold Slasher or the Turkish Knight, The Doctor, Beelzebub, Little Johnny Jack and so forth.

The performance could be between around 5 and 20 minutes long – the advantage of the shorter performance is that you could fit more houses or pubs in to the day or evening, and make more money; the mummers of Kingswood were known to run between venues; some mummers would spend all day on foot and travel 20 or 30 miles before they’d finish.

So where did this obscure idea originate? Nobody really knows, but it’s probably no more than around 300 years old, there isn’t any evidence for anything of a pre-historic or pagan origin. Influences in the form of the play can be traced in a variety of 18th Century performance styles; from Commedia del’ Arte to Pantomime; which in those days tended to draw on classical stories and Greek myths, featuring characters such as Harlequin and Doctor Faustus, Perseus and Andromeda; as well as travelling shows, including Medicine Shows with Quack Doctors trying to sell their wares, and street performers who often performed from the back of horse-drawn carts and in fairground booths.

An actor called John Edwin recorded in his memoir a variegated street performance which he claimed to have seen in Bristol in 1770; following a dialogue-free re-enactment of the Seige of Troy, depicted as a boxing match between Hector and Achilles which finished with Hector being knocked to the ground by a straight-forward blow there appear the following six lines of dialogue:


A doctor, a doctor, ten pound for a doctor!

{Enter Physician}


Here am I!


What can you cure?


The cramp, the gout, the pain within and the pain without!


O boderation to your nonsense – can you bring a dead man to life again?


Oh marry, that I can – take a little of my tip-tap, put it on your nip-nap, now rise up slasher and fight again.

These lines of dialogue represent one of the earliest occurrences in print of what would become the standard introduction for the doctor in a mummers play; the vast majority of mummers’ plays include a fight between two of the characters, and a doctor arriving to revive a dead or wounded man with some kind of pill or potion.

In fact these plays are often categorised as hero-combat-doctor plays.  The characters in the play would vary from place to place, region to region and sometimes year to year; if you look at the archive of original scripts you can find over 700 character names. The figure of King George is quite prominent in some of the early plays, which as they were being performed in the Georgian era would suggest that they were attempting to be topical, many of the lines associated with King George would be given to Saint George in other scripts. Some plays would feature Robin Hood; Rag Morris Mummers performed a script earlier in 2011 based on Robin Hood scripts recorded in villages in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; these scripts were obviously based on a ballad first recorded in 1663 featuring Robin Hood and the Bold Tanner, so it’s good to know that the writers of the original scripts were happy to do a bit of copying and pasting. And once the plays were starting to get established the scripts would be printed and reproduced, in chapbooks and pamphlets, as well as in novels and other books; the scripts would get read, performed, forgotten, misremembered, adapted and regurgitated across villages and towns so that eventually each group of mummers would have a script which they considered to be their own.

So the heyday of mummers plays performances in their original form was really the middle of the 19th century; by the early part of the 20th century it was starting to die out, and the final blow came with the first world war, when many of the men who took part in the plays were sent off to the front, and those who did return may not have had the inclination to resuscitate the play without the participation of their fallen comrades, and the whole tradition may not have fitted in to the brave new post-war world they suddenly found themselves in, where everything had changed.

In England today there are only a half dozen groups who can claim a continuous history going back before the Second World War; including the Paper Boys from Marshfield in Gloucestershire.

So what we have today can be thought of as a modern interpretation of a kind of performance that is both a historic tradition and a living tradition; but in most cases is performed by people from an utterly different background from those who would have performed such plays a hundred and fifty years ago; which now might include folk revivalists, morris dancers, street performers, schools and local drama groups as well as people who happen to live in places where a historical Mumming tradition is being nurtured and allowed to thrive; and those different kinds of performers might have all sorts of different reasons for wanting to put on a mummers play.

To generalise, you might find two contrasting views; with some degree of overlap; those who might wish to recreate the same kind of performance that you might have found a couple of hundred years ago, keeping to the same script, sometimes with the same people playing the same characters in the same locations on the same day year after year and even handing the character down from father to son; and those who might want to be a bit more flexible – ad-libbing, adding extra lines of dialogue to make it topical, gradually modifying the script, or even writing new plays which fit within the generic Mumming style. There is room for all these options within the living tradition, and I think that practitioners and aficionados of all kinds of plays have a lot of respect for the variety and quality which can be found in the way different groups across the country perform plays in their own unique style.

Rag Morris have been based at the University of Bristol since the group was founded in 1981 and have been performing traditional and non-traditional mummers’ plays sporadically throughout the last 30 years,

In 1993 there was a large scale production held at Blaise Castle, with a script by Marc Vyvyan-Jones help from Roland & Linda Clare, which told the story of the giants, Vincent and Goram who were responsible for carving out various geographical features around Bristol including the Avon Gorge. One of the characters in the play was called Brunel-zebub and he inspired me to write a new play entitled The Nine Lives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which we first performed in 2009 at various Brunel-related sites around Bristol.

At Christmas 2010 we performed at Bristol Zoo with a script I’d written entitled Prince Albert and the Lionheart, which, like the Robin Hood play, kept its source material fairly close to the surface. And in November 2011 we took our Brunel play to Bath, where we performed at the first International Mummers Unconvention, an event which saw a gathering of folk play performers, enthusiasts and researchers meet for a weekend of performances around the city, and a chance to chat about the past, present and future of the mummers play. And I’m sure you’ll agree, the past, present and future is looking decidedly up-beat.