You'll all know that a certain Victorian engineer just missed out on "greatest Briton". But did you know he was one of the worst employers Britain has ever had?
So, this celebrated engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is in the news again. Born in 1806, died in 1859 and one hell of an engineer. He is in the news because of what began as a rather tacky television programme coaxing viewers to vote on who, out of 100 candidates, should be Britain's "greatest Briton". Actually, the BBC production turned out rather well. Ten candidates reached the finals, which has led to a very good series of documentaries about such folk as Darwin, Diana and Lennon.

Lo and behold: Brunel came second – only narrowly missing out on the top prize to Churchill. His case was put rather well, I must admit, by that wag Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson is the motoring correspondent for The Sunday Times and is, how shall we say, sometimes uncompromising, sometimes difficult, sometimes even cruel about your choice of motor car. Jeremy's photograph does not hang in the boardroom of General Motors.

Clarkson sold Brunel. He put him ahead of Churchill, Shakespeare and even John Lennon. The snag is that the viewers only heard the case for the claimant. Every arbitrator, adjudicator, judge and mere certifier must, yes must, hear the case against as well.

Let me tell you this. If IK Brunel was identified in the tender documents for a railway or bridge or tunnel or an extension to a public convenience in Biggleswade, I would urge my contractor client to refuse to bid. Or bid at double the price, or bid on condition that all the money for all the job was paid in a lump sum on day one. And then I would advise my client to take out litigation insurance. And then I would tell him to book a counselling service for all his staff, as well as one or two rooms in the Priory for himself. The tender, by the way, would be in the name of a company created solely for the purposes of doing this job. Why? Because Brunel was a tyke.

He was the best and worst of engineers. Best because his tunnels, ships, bridges and railways were brilliant engineering feats. The worst because … well let's go and look at the viaduct at Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box tunnel and Bristol Temple Meads. Then let's have a word with William Ranger. He was a contractor and he took on four contracts near Bristol. Ranger will tell you that Brunel had a policy of undercertifying the amounts of money due.

The atmosphere around Brunel was one of continuous dispute. He had no management skills. His tactic was to starve all contractors of funds

He will also tell you that he was a bully: uncompromising, difficult and cruel.

The atmosphere around him was one of continuous dispute. He had no management skills. His tactic was to starve all contractors of funds to keep them subservient. Ranger ran out of money. Brunel offered to let him keep the Sonning Cutting work and relinquish the rest. Ranger was deeply dug-in and refused. All his contracts were terminated. Litigation began. The case still figures in today's industry law books: Ranger vs Great Western Railway [1854] House of Lords. The propositions of law arising from it are still cited today. Ranger and Brunel fought that case for 16 years. Ranger was partly successful.

Meanwhile, Brunel's railway came in three times over budget. That's not all. Ranger was replaced as contractor by a reputable Scottish firm called Hugh McKintosh and Sons. Picture this pair meeting up with Brunel, will you? I guess neither smiled. I guess each Scotsman stuck out his bony chin. I guess Brunel didn't even notice. He criticised their approach and method, then their quality of finish. Then instructions were given to redo, replace, make better, and then the certificate would not include these instructions. Many of these, said the Scotsmen, were sham complaints. Now the litigation got under way on this contract. Guess how long that lasted? It was 28 years! I don't think Brunel gave a damn. The Scottish contractor eventually won £100,000. They could have gone on for more, but by now were exhausted and very nearly ruined.

Perhaps Brunel was a man of his time, unconcerned with how he got his brilliant result. And if I said "we don't want engineers like IK Brunel anymore", you'd come down on me like a ton of bricks. Brunel would say "I don't care what you think" and neither do I.