It is in sharp contrast to his master that William Jacomb, the chief assistant to Brunel's SS Great Eastern, is so scarcely recorded. He was a man of a great many projects in his lifetime, many of which were enormous in scale.
Despite having overseen the construction of the world's largest ship, superintending the Metropolitan Railway's construction and becoming the Resident Engineer of the South Western Railway, William Jacomb has never firmly been identified in photographs, and has very little documentation to his name.
Starting as a young man, even by the era's often brutal labour standards, Jacomb was an articled pupil of Brunel from the age of only 19 years old - and was heavily involved in the construction of the GWR's Paddington Terminus as an assistant to the Superintendent.
Brunel's thoughts on Jacomb aren't known, but he must have been impressed. The young man supervised the entirety of construction on the SS Great Eastern only a few years later, and travelled with Brunel extensively as he sought funding, a shipyard and materials.
The poor young man had the immense success punched down by the ship's troubles, but had the honour of being present every step of the way. As a result, he was present at launch events. Photographs show an unusually young and somewhat timid looking man in a very tall top hat alongside Brunel - in a nervous, leaning stance with drawings in one hand.
A captioned photograph at the time labelled this man as being Henry Wakefield - another assistant of Brunel's. The photograph, taken by Robert Howlett, was not originally labelled by him - at least, not to my knowledge.
I'm personally confident in this being a case of misidentity. Let us examine the facts...
Henry Wakefield was a highly prized engineer in Brunel's drawing offices - but was not involved in the Great Eastern's construction in any great capacity. Instead, rather, he was hard at work on the Saltash Girder Bridge, a similarly monumental task that included structural testing, brick and mortar construction and floating work. Progress on this had begun in 1854, with the bridge not completed until May the 2nd, 1859. As a superintendent, he was required on site for the majority of the project, and likely would have been boarded there for convenience.
This would leave him some 250 miles from the SS Great Easterns' launch ramp - no small journey in Victorian England (and even now being quite a trek) He would have been quite occupied, along with Robert Pearson Brereton, at the River Tamar, and would have trouble justifying a romp to Millwall.
Next; should it be Henry Wakefield - who, I reiterate, has no recorded involvement in the ship's construction - why would he be clutching suspiciously blueprint sized papers? It's only a natural assumption that this young man is directly involved in the ship and had a direct working concern with the ship's launch. I simply cannot believe Henry Wakefield has strolled up to watch the launch at his leisure, off from another major infrastructure project which required just as much attention, with paperwork in hand.
This pensive looking gentlemen, I propose, is not Henry Wakefield. It is William Jacomb - the 'author' of The Great London Conspiracy. In any sense, The National Portrait Gallery seems to agree...
Is this authoriative proof? No. But the side of logic goes against the photograph's caption. Like many things in Brunel's life, and much of the mid Victorian-era's history, poor communication by mass media sources has caused a lot of confusion, misconception... and a great deal of stress for the author.
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