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Brunel Sawmill

Marc Isambard BrunelMarc Isambard Brunel

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (25 April 1769 – 12 December 1849) was a French born engineer who settled in England. He preferred the name Isambard, but is generally known to history as Marc to avoid confusion with his more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

During the late 18th Century, France was undergoing a period of deep political and social upheaval culminating in the French Revolution. Marc Brunel was a Royalist and was forced to flee the country in order to save his life. Marc Brunel eventually arrived in England as a refugee, where he claimed political asylum. As a result, England gained a man of considerable genius, who would one day become the Architect of the Brunel Sawmill.

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A History of the Brunel Sawmill

In 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, work commenced on a ‘state of the art’ Steam Powered Sawmill at Chatham Dockyard. This was to revolutionise the cutting and processing of timber, at a time when many ships were needed by the Admiralty to fight the French. That building was The Brunel Sawmill.

Before 1812, timber was cut by hand. Over 2,000 oak trees were needed to produce a single wooden sailing ship; a great deal of timber to be cut by men with what was effectively at the time a very big hand saw.

Brunel Ship BuildingOver 300 men were employed in the Dockyard to cut the great logs of timber; with one man above the log and the other below in a pit. In later years, when HMS Victory sailed into Chatham for repair and refurbishment, the timbers used at that time would almost certainly have been cut in the Brunel Sawmill. It is said that when the saws were running, the high pitched note could be heard in the town at Chatham. Charles Dickens was to observe the saws in action when his father worked in the Dockyard pay office.

The Industrial Revolution that heralded the construction of the Brunel Sawmill would also bring to an end the era of the great wooden sailing ships. Ironically, it was men like Marc Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who ended the reliance of shipbuilding on wood with the design of the first screw propelled steamship, the SS Great Britain. This was constructed with wrought iron.

In 1983, North Kent Joinery Ltd was the first private company in the history of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham to commence business in one of the historic buildings; firstly in the Wheelwrights Shop and then the much larger Brunel Sawmill five years later. The Great Sawing Hall designed by Brunel once again echoed with the sound of ‘Circular Saws and Saws of Eccentric Action’ and the sound of men cutting and processing timber.

Today the Brunel Sawmill is the most intact sawmill in the world that dates back to the Golden Age of Sail.