Written by Sam Harris for a University West of England placement, this article was inspired by several visits to the Brunel Institute and Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre, handling Brunel’s personal artefacts and taking a deep dive into the personal history surrounding the famous engineer.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Royal Albert and Maidenhead bridges, the Thames Tunnel project, and the Great Western Railway. We think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) as a powerhouse of engineering, as a figure to be remembered throughout ages for his contributions to engineering across the UK and beyond, and rightly so. When we picture the man himself, we might see his famous stovepipe hat or his satchel of cigars, or maybe just a rather serious disposition, but what was Brunel really like?
With the help of Brunel’s most private, ‘locked’ diary, and those who transcribed it (Brunel’s handwriting in his later life was almost indistinguishable compared to his younger years, and equally as indecipherable) along with a plethora of old letters, diaries and notes kept in Bristol’s Brunel Institute at ss Great Britain, we can begin to piece together an idea of Brunel’s character. Brunel began his diary in 1827, when he was just 21 years old. We know from countless records that he was a notorious workaholic, often putting in twenty-hour days and six or seven day weeks, and he often detailed in his diary how much of his time was taken up by work. This is partly evident in the fact that most remaining artefacts belonging to Brunel are centred around his work life, but he also notes, for example, on October 12th 1827: “At present thinking of nothing but the [Thames] tunnel” (Buchanan, 11). The engineer was almost always entrenched in some sort of work relating to his many overlapping projects and thus had little time to himself except usually in the late evenings, where he would settle down with a cigar (or a pipe in his younger years), and his diary.
The life of a not-so-young Batchelor
For every way in which Brunel sought public approval in order to distinguish himself, he was met with a counterforce that kept him seeking the freedom to simply be by himself, and it is partly true that Brunel preferred the life of a bachelor, having remained unmarried until age 30 (1836), suggesting that he changed his mind somewhere later in life.
Brunel wrote that “it’s a great luxury […] being alone and comfortable” (Buchanan, 11). The idea that Brunel enjoyed his own company and took great steps to ensure he had time to himself begins here, and only grows as the diary goes on. In November 1827, later that same year, Brunel pondered on the delights of “selfish comfort” and concluded that a bachelor’s life is “luxurious” (Buchanan, 17). He also recorded that he was “afraid to settle so early” and wondered about his independence in marriage, and how it might have affected “future prospects” (Buchanan, 32), so he may either have enjoyed the life of a bachelor or was simply afraid of marriage and its ensuing connotations.
In terms of Brunel’s love life, our knowledge is less clear. In the June of 1828 Brunel mentions both an A.B and an Ellen. It is clear how he felt for the latter, having written “Ellen is still it seems my real love.” (Buchanan, 31). At this point Brunel has missed an opportunity, probably of marriage to A.B, writing “it appears I really might have had A.B […] a fine girl of accomplishments and £25,000 no joke” (Buchanan, 31). This immediate mention of money, and a large sum at that, gives the impression that this potential marriage may have been arranged for status and social standing – rather than any personal affections he may have had. We could assume at this point that, like many others at the time, Brunel saw marriage as something practical. In the same entry Brunel considers whether to continue his courtship with Ellen and is perhaps worried that she may not want to marry – the entry is left on a sour note as Brunel writes: “After all I shall most likely remain a bachelor […] My profession is after all my only fit wife.” (Buchanan, 31). Was Brunel truly content living as a bachelor, working at a continuously strenuous level, or is this passage a sadder reflection? It seems that even after the engineer married Mary Horsley, the eldest daughter of accomplished composer William Horsley in 1836, his work remained the highest priority in his life.
The Brunel Family
Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, had thoroughly educated his son on the subject of engineering, as was his passion, and passed it onto his son. We know they were close from the lifelong correspondence they held, and it’s fairly safe to assume Isambard took on board many of his father’s traits. Humour, for example, was a particular strong point of Marc’s, regularly detailing his letters to Isambard with whimsical sketches and clever jokes. Whilst this sense of joy and humour is seldom found in the locked diary, we know that Isambard would play with his children, often doing magic tricks. One magic trick, however, led to a half sovereign penny being trapped in his windpipe for over six weeks in 1849. The father and son relationship was so good that, if it was not for his father’s words of affirmation, Brunel would never have continued to compete for the Clifton Suspension Bridge contract after its initial rejection.
Aside from his extended family and a small roster of close colleagues, Brunel didn’t maintain many friendships outside of work, and likely had very little time for hobbies. On the topic of hobbies, there’s very little evidence to suggest Brunel had any. Considering his social status and extensive education, it’s safe to assume he would be well versed in literature, music, and art, but whether he enjoyed these activities is unknown to us. His wife, Mary, was a proficient socialite and organised a plethora of events, so perhaps we could assume that he engaged in these events with his wife.
Historians and scholars have indicated that Brunel enjoyed nature, having been keen on his constructions becoming a part of the natural landscapes they found themselves in. There’s very little written evidence to come to a conclusive answer to be clear, but it’s widely agreed upon that Brunel did in fact find some joy in art, having commissioned a series of paintings inspired by Shakespeare for his dining room at Duke Street, London.
Isambard as an Individual
On October 13th, 1827, Brunel pondered on his insecurities, writing, “My self-conceit and love of glory […] shall govern me. The latter is so strong that even on a dark night riding home when I pass some unknown person who perhaps does not even look at me. I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony […] I often do the most silly useless things to appear to advantage before or attract the attention of those I shall never again see or whom I care nothing about.” (Buchanan, 12). The engineering giant was a diminutive 5 feet tall and used his famous 8-inch stovepipe hat to cover his insecurities and appear taller than he really was. Despite an underlying sense of self-doubt, Brunel always maintained a confident and successful image in public.
If you were to have dinner with the Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then, based on his diary, I firmly believe you’d have a pleasant evening if not a little bland – if you could not find common ground in his work then he might not have wanted to engage with you at all, however you could break the ice with several conversation starters, perhaps the Shakespeare paintings or simple topical events, but nothing too specific. Although, if you were to dine with him and his family it could be a different story, where you might witness magic tricks, chatter and laughter, and the lighter disposition of a happy, successful family man.
Buchanan, R. Angus and I.K Brunel, Brunel’s Locked Diary, BIAS Histories, 2012
Parks, Pamela. Isambard Kingdom Brunel: The Engineering Giant with ‘Short Man Syndrome’. BBC News, 2018
Faberman, Hilarie and Philip McEvansoneya, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘Shakespeare Room’ The Burlington Magazine, vol. 137, no. 1103, 1995
Kelly, Melanie and Andrew Kelly, Brunel: In Love with the Impossible. Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, 2006