Sophia Kingdom (1775 – 1854) was the youngest of sixteen children of a Plymouth naval contractor. Her father dead, she was entrusted to the tender care of a brother who thought revolutionary France would be a proper place for his young sister to go to school. Abandoned and penniless in the maelstrom that was the Reign of Terror, she managed to find work as a governess. Surrounded by suspicion and danger, she also found love.
Marc Isambard Brunel, a naval cadet from Normandy, shared her love of mathematics and drawing, as well as an active dislike for Robespierre, le dictateur sanguinaire. He had been keeping a low profile when he fell in love with Sophia, but government agents still caught up to him. He fled France, forced to leave his beloved behind. Soon after, she was imprisoned for allegedly spying for England. Daily expecting execution, Miss Kingdom managed to flee to England where she awaited the return of her lover.
Six years later she was still waiting for him when he landed at Falmouth. Within the year they were married and living in London. For a time they had an apartment in Lindsey House, a Grade II mansion, thought to be the oldest in Chelsea. It was built by the Earl of Lindsey on the site of Thomas More’s garden.
They also lived for a time in King’s Bench Prison, being deeply in debt from various failed engineering projects Brunel was involved in. It seems only appropriate their big break came about when Brunell engineered the Thames Tunnel between London’s Rotherhithe and Wapping in 1825.
“It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.” — Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love
Their son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is remembered among England’s most celebrated and revered English engineers. He was played by Kenneth Branaugh during the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.