Brunel Collection: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) papers

Reference: GB 0003 DM 162
Title: Brunel Collection: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) papers
Dates of creation: 1824-1953
Held at: University of Bristol Information Services - Special Collections
Extent: 70 archive boxes, 22 rolled plans plus 4 plan chest drawers.
Name of Creator: Isambard Kingdom Brunel and others
Level of Description: fonds
Language of Material: eng fre


Administrative/Biographical History

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born to Marc and Sophia Brunel on 9 April 1806 in Portsmouth. He was educated at the College de Henri Quatre in Paris, famous for the quality of its mathematical teaching. At the age of fourteen he surveyed and drew an accurate plan of Hove, near Brighton, where he was living at the time. In 1823, aged 17, he commenced working for his father and took part in his operations at the Thames Tunnel. He was soon appointed Resident Engineer for the Tunnel, and dealt with the disasters which plagued its construction. In 1829, he designed a bridge to cross the Avon at Clifton, though his plan was rejected by Thomas Telford, who did not favour the length of span Brunel required. Brunel's second design was deemed the most mathematically exact, better than Telford's, much to the embarrassment of the committee. The bridge was begun but abandoned due to cost until after Brunel's death, when it was completed as a memorial to him in 1864. In 1830 Brunel was appointed chief engineer at Bristol Docks, which he improved as well as he was able within the budget granted to him. In 1831 he designed the Monkwearmouth Docks, and this was later to stand him in good stead when he worked on the docks at Plymouth, Briton Ferry, Milford Haven, and Brentford. In 1833, Brunel was appointed Engineer for the Great Western Railway Company, where he carried into effect his plans for a broad gauge railway system. Despite the controversy of his decision, his work brought him great renown, and he was asked to design railways in Italy and to advise upon the construction of the Victorian Lines in Australia and the Eastern Bengal Railway. He worked on the system of atmospheric propulsion and attempted to use it on the South Devon railway in 1844, though it did not work in practice.

In 1836, Brunel began construction of the Great Western, a steamship of 2,300 tons - one far larger than any in existence at that time. Her first voyage, in 1838, was considered a great success, and she was then employed in regular service between Britain and America, completing the journey in fifteen days. He then considered the merits of screw propulsion, making a series of observations on the Ship "Archimedes" and projecting its application on larger steam vessels. In 1841, he was commissioned by the Admiralty to study this further, and his work in this field led to the adoption of the screw propeller by the Royal Navy in 1845. He used the screw propeller in the construction of the Great Britain, a large iron ship first designed for paddle wheel propulsion. The Great Britain made her first voyage in 1845 from Liverpool to New York. She was stranded on Dundrum Bay, Ireland, for the winter of 1846, and demonstrated the excellence of her hull by sustaining no damage for the whole period of her grounding. In 1851 Brunel was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Australian Steam Navigation Company and recommended that they construct vessels of 5,000 tons burden, vessels capable of crossing to Australia with only one stop for coal. The Company did not take Brunel's advice at that time, considering expense in the short term as their priority - a problem which frequently dogged Brunel's grand designs. In 1852, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company commissioned Brunel to design a vessel for them. This vessel would be the Great Eastern, the largest steamship built by far, and would remain so until the construction of the Lusitania in 1907. Construction began in 1853, and after a troublesome three-month launching, the Great Eastern entered the water in January 1858. Financially, the Great Eastern was deemed a failure, and she was given work laying the transatlantic telegraph cable. While working on the Great Eastern Brunel busied himself with a number of other designs, including a floating gun carriage and prefabricated military hospital, both designed for use in the Crimean War. In 1858 he journeyed to Egypt to rest and recover; the Great Eastern and his work on various architectural projects including the Saltash or Royal Albert Bridge having taken a great toll on his health. He was present at the testing of the engines of the Great Eastern on 5 September, 1859, though he collapsed on the deck of the ship and died on 15 September, 1859. He was buried at Kensal Green, and a statue was erected in his memory. His family dedicated a window in Westminster Abbey to him, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed to his designs as modified by Sir John Hawkshaw, as a lasting tribute to his ability as an engineer.

Brunel was an influential and enthusiastic member of the scientific and engineering communities, and was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers from 1829 onwards, holding the office of Vice-President from 1845 until his death in 1859. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830, as well as being a prominent member of most British and European scientific societies. He had three children: Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903), Isambard Brunel Junior (1837-1902), and Florence Mary Brunel (c.1847-1876). Florence Mary married into the James family, and was the only one of Brunel's children to produce offspring.

Scope and Content

The University of Bristol Information Services Special Collections holds a diverse array of materials pertaining to both the career and private life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. These concern a wide variety of his projects, as well as his personal interests and life outside of Engineering. Within the collection we have the following:

Diaries, 1824-1859
Private and personal diaries include Brunel's personal thoughts whereas office diaries cover appointments.
Private Diaries, 1824-1826, 2 volumes: DM 1306/II.2.i-ii.
Thames Tunnel Journals, 1826-1829, 3 volumes: DM 1306/3.
Personal Diary, 1827-1829, 1 volume: DM 1306/II.i.
Private Diaries, 1830-1840, 2 volumes: DM 1306/II.3.i-ii.
Office Diaries, 1833-1859, 25 volumes: DM 1758.

Sketchbooks, 1830-1857
We hold 57 of Brunel's original sketchbooks which contain preliminary sketches for many of Brunel's projects. The majority of the sketchbook contents are in random order, with a few relating to specific projects.
Small Sketchbooks, c. 1837-1856, 17 volumes: DM 162/8, DM 1758.
Large Sketchbooks, 1830-1857, 17 volumes: DM 162/8.
Great Western Railway Sketchbooks, 1836-1842, 18 volumes: DM 162/8.
Other Sketchbooks, 1835-c.1836, 5 volumes: DM 162/8.

Notebooks, 1827-1859

We hold a large number of Brunel's personal notebooks, many of which contain notes and data on different projects undertaken by Brunel. There are also notebooks which focus on distinct projects.

General notebooks, 1827-1850, 4 volumes: DM 1306.
Facts - miscellaneous notes and data, 1829-1844, 1 volume: DM 162/10.
Clifton Suspension Bridge notes, sketches and calculations, 1829-1850, 4 volumes: DM 162.
General notebooks, 1830-1859, 20 volumes: DM 1758.
General Calculation books, 1834-1841 and 1850-1858, 3 volumes: DM 162/25.
Notebooks on data from experiments with the Polyphemus and Rattler steamships, 1841-1844, 2 volumes: DM 162/13-14.
Notebooks, calculations and sketches on the Great Eastern, Saltash Bridge, South London Railway, 1856-1857, 8 volumes: DM 1758.
Duke Street Inventories, 2 volumes: DM 1285.

Letterbooks, 1832-1866
These letterbooks contain copies of Brunel's outgoing correspondence as well as the outgoing correspondence of his office.
Letterbooks, 1832-1866, 15 volumes: DM 162/10.

Letters, 1830-1859
These letters can be divided up into three categories - Letters from Brunel, Letters to Brunel and Brunel Family Correspondence, covering several generations.

Letters (1830-1858) from Brunel to various correspondents including Charles Babbage (1791-1871), Jerome-Adolphe Blanqui (1798-1854), Christopher Claxton (b.1790), Sir Daniel Gooch (1816-1889), Thomas Guppy (c.1797-1882), Sir Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), Sir Joseph Paxton (1801-1865), Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Fourth Marquis of Lansdowne (1816-1866) and Joseph D'Aguilar Samuda (1813-1885). Many of these correspondents also wrote to Brunel. These letters concern such subjects as the Great Western Railway, Oxford and Worcester Railway, Bristol Docks and Clifton Suspension Bridge: DM 326, 1154, 1238, 1277, 1281, 1306, 1546.

Letters (1831-1859) to Brunel from various correspondents including Sir William Armstrong (1810-1900), Michael Faraday (1791-1867), William Froude (1810-1879), Sir James Robert George Graham (1792-1861), Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859), Sir Bradford Leslie (1831-1926), Charles Alexander Saunders (fl. 1830s-1850s) and Robert Stephenson (1819-1905). These cover such subjects as the Great Eastern and Great Britain steamships, as well as the Great Western Railway, Victoria Railway and Chepstow Bridge: DM 162, 326, 1174, 1240, 1306, 1758.

Brunel family Correspondence (1836-1858), including letters to and from Sir Benjamin Hawes (1797-1862), John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903) and his family, including Mary Horsley, Brunel's sister, as well as William Horsley (1774-1858): DM 1281, 1285.

Bank Books, 1835-1856
Bank books of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1835-1856), 13 volumes: DM 1758.

Large Scale Plans, 1829-1939
These plans are limited in number and do not necessarily represent the finished project, but are more often representative of an earlier stage in the development of the design.
Bristol Harbour Railway (1869): DM 1229.
Channel Tunnel Railway, project of Henry Marc Brunel (19th Century): DM 1452.
Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway (1830s): DM 1230.
Clifton Suspension Bridge plans, including 1829 Competition Drawings by Brunel (1829-1939): DM 484, 797, 1761, 1929.
Great Western Railway, including surveys, working drawings and station designs including Bristol Station (1836-1889): DM 1171, 1233, 1234, and 1306.
South Wales Railway (1857-1879): DM 1235.
Album of Tool drawings (1837-1840): DM 1463.
Wiltshire, Somerset and Weymouth Railway (1840s): DM 1232.

Drawing tools of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel, 1 wooden chest: DM 162.

As well as these, we have a large collection of papers relating to the construction, launch, and operation of the SS Great Eastern. There is also a substantial amount of material relating to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company: DM 162, 1306.

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The original Brunel Collection was given to the University of Bristol Library by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's granddaughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950. This makes up the bulk of the collection, and includes letter books, sketchbooks, calculation books, documents and drawing instruments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as well as papers of Isambard Brunel Junior, Sir Marc Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel. Additional material was purchased from the family in 1990 with the aid of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the J. Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust, the Wolfson Foundation, the Pilgrim Trust and the Dulverton trust. A further series was purchased in 1996 with the assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust.

Access Conditions

Accessible to all bona fide readers.

Copyright/Reproduction

Permission to copy documents must be obtained from Special Collections staff.

Existence/Location of Originals

See the following link for our online description of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's works and a summary of our archival holdings: http://www.bris.ac.uk/is/services/specialcollections/brunel.htm

Further Information

Finding Aids

Typescript catalogues and subject indices are available in University of Bristol Information Services - Special Collections.

Related Units of Description

Special Collections houses 4 archive boxes of secondary material as well as biographies and engineering studies of Brunel's works.


Reference: GB 0003 DM 484

Brunel Collection: Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust (1830-present) papers

Dates of creation: 1829-1971
Extent: 8 archive boxes plus 2 rolls of plans.
Name of Creator: Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust


Administrative/Biographical History

The Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust was founded by the Society of Merchant Venturers following the bequest of Willam Vick, a wine merchant who left a legacy for the construction of a bridge across the Avon Gorge. In 1829, the Merchant Venturers announced a competition with a prize of 100 guineas for the most viable bridge. All of the designs were rejected by Thomas Telford, the Trustees' appointed judge, but they were later forced to abandon Telford's extravagent design with great embarassment. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's design was reconsidered and adopted by the Trustees, though it ran over budget and was abandoned in 1832. For thirty years, only two posts stood as the bridge across the Gorge, with a basket that could move along an iron pole strung between them. Following Brunel's death, work on the bridge was recommenced as a tribute to the great engineer. In 1864, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened. The Trustees continue to maintain and own the Suspension Bridge to the present day, and they employ a Bridge Master and staff to this end.

Scope and Content

The papers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust on deposit with the University of Bristol Special Collections include letter books of the Committee (1830-1857), minute books of the Board of Directors and Committee of Trustees (1830-1900, 1919-1955), cash books (1830-1867), Registers of Shareholders (1862-1952) and Annual Reports (1861-1951). The majority of the material relates to the administration of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust, but there are a certain number of working drawings, surveys and plans (1857-1939). There is also memorabilia relating to the 1864 opening ceremony.

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The documents were placed on permanent loan by the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust in 1972. Further deposits were made in 2002 (DM 1929).

Access Conditions

Accessible to all bona fide readers.

Copyright/Reproduction

Permission to photocopy documents must be obtained from University of Bristol Information Services Special Collections.

Existence/Location of Originals

The University of Bristol Information Services Special Collections holds further materials relating to the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge; such as the original competition designs and notebooks. They also hold writings of materials still held by the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust. Office record books covering 1831-1862 are also available at Bristol City Record Office.

Further Information

Finding Aids

Typescript catalogues are available in the University of Bristol Information Services Special Collections.


Reference: GB 0003 DM 1306

Brunel Collection: Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) papers

Dates of creation: 1823-1837
Extent: 5 archive boxes
Name of Creator: Marc Isambard Brunel


Administrative/Biographical History

Born at Haqueville near Gisors, Normandy, France. His parents decided he should go into the Church and he was sent, at the age of eight, to the College at Gisors to begin Classical Studies. He showed no inclination towards the Church or his studies in the Classics. At the age of eleven, he attended the Seminary of St. Nicaise in Rouen and determined to qualify himself for the Navy. After studying hydrography and drawing he served on the 'Marechal de Castries' for six years in the West Indies. The ship was paid off in 1792, after which Marc returned to Paris. He soon had to leave, however, after openly expressing loyalist tendencies during the Terror. He then obtained passage to America, arriving in New York in September, 1793. He became a civil engineer and architect, and his first commission was surveying a large tract of land in the vicinity of Lake Ontario, then the surveying of the line for a canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. Brunel demonstrated such capability that command of these projects was assigned to him by the American government. His design for the House of Assembly in Washington, while initially favoured, was set aside for reasons of economy. He also constructed the Bowery Theatre, New York, which was burned down in 1821. He was appointed Chief Engineer of New York, commissioned to erect an arsenal and cannon foundry, and submitted plans for the defence of the channel between Long Island and Staten Island.

After conceiving an idea for machinery to manufacture ships' blocks on a large scale, Brunel visited England in 1799 with the notion of proposing it to the British Government. Brunel patented his invention in 1801, and the machinery was eventually erected in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1806 after a long debate with the Admiralty. It was estimated to save Britain £24,000 in its first year of operation alone, and Brunel was given £17,000 for his invention. Between 1805 and 1812, he worked on devices for cutting, sawing and bending timber, as well as a device for cutting staves. He was employed by the government to erect sawmills of his own design at Woolwich in 1811, and was commissioned to improve Chatham Dockyard. From 1812, he began to conduct experiments in steam navigation on the Thames, and proposed to the Admiralty the construction of steam tugs for the purpose of dragging warships out to the open sea. After six months' deliberation, during which Brunel had conducted a number of experiments and studies on feasibility and constructed engines, the Navy Board revoked their acceptance and their indemnity for expenses Brunel had already incurred, claiming that the proposal could not be seriously entertained. He then designed machinery for the manufacture of shoes, which was taken up by the Army, though the defeat of Napoleon and the peace of 1815 lost him a substantial amount on his War Office contracts.

In 1816, Brunel invented a knitting machine, and developed two methods for the preparation of tinfoil by 1818. In 1820, he entered into an agreement with The Times to assist them in adopting his idea for the improvement in stereotype printing plates, though nothing came of it. Later that year, he designed bridges to span the Seine at Rouen and the Neva at St. Petersburg, though neither design was used. His planned bridges on the island of Bourbon, however, designed to withstand hurricanes, were constructed by the French government. After the near-destruction of his sawmills by fire in 1814, Brunel entered into a long period of financial mismanagement, which came to a head in 1821 when he was thrown in prison for debt. After a few months at King's Bench he obtained a grant, through the influence of his friends, to relieve his debts and was released. Until 1825, Brunel worked on the design of sawmills for the islands of Trinidad and Berbice, as well as improving maritime steam-engines and the paddle-wheel propulsion system, and introducing swing-bridges and floating land piers at Liverpool. From that point, his energies were devoted almost exclusively to the Thames Tunnel, designed to run beneath the river from Rotherhithe to Wapping. The project was similar to one he submitted to the Russian government in order to carry communications across the Neva at St. Petersburg, independent of the floating ice. In 1824 a company was formed under the auspices of the Duke of Wellington to carry out Brunel's scheme. Operations begun at Rotherhithe in 1825, though due to difficulties faced the tunnel was not completed until 1842. Irruptions took place in 1827 and 1828, the latter injuring his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and stopping work on the tunnel for seven years. After construction restarted, three more irruptions occurred between 1837 and 1838. The tunnel emerged in Wapping and was finally opened to the public in 1843, though it was never more than a foot-tunnel, being unable to accommodate carriages as Brunel would have wished. With the exception of a plan submitted to the Admiralty for stacking timber in the dockyard, Brunel undertook no further professional work, as the Tunnel had strained his health too greatly. He suffered a stroke in 1845 and died in 1849. He was a member of the Royal Society (and Vice-President in 1832), as well as the French Institute. In 1829 he received the Legion d'Honneur, and in 1841 he was Knighted by Queen Victoria. He was a member of the Academy of Sciences of Stockholm, as well as a number of scientific bodies throughout Europe and the World. He married Sophia Kingdom in March 1799, after meeting her while fleeing France.

Scope and Content

Much of the material pertaining to Sir Marc concerns the construction of the Thames Tunnel, either from the point of view of his designs or his son Isambard's supervision of the construction process and its attendant disasters. As well as this business material, there is also a quantity of personal and family correspondence, and diaries of Sir Marc.

System of Arrangement

Boxes 1 to 4 contain bound volumes of material relating to the Thames Tunnel, including reports, sketchbooks, transactions and diaries. The material in these boxes is classified as part of DM 1306. Box 5 contains a diverse selection of material pertaining to both the business and the personal life of Sir Marc Brunel, including correspondence, memorabilia, a bronze cast portrait in a wooden frame, and a volume of general remarks, from 1824 to 1842.

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The original Brunel Collection was given to the University of Bristol Library by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's granddaughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950. This makes up the bulk of the collection, and includes letter books, sketchbooks, calculation books, documents and drawing instruments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as well as papers of Isambard Brunel Junior, Sir Marc Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel. Additional material was purchased from the family in 1990 with the aid of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the J. Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust, the Wolfson Foundation, the Pilgrim Trust and the Dulverton trust. A further series was purchased in 1996 with the assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust.

Access Conditions

Accessible to all bona fide readers.

Further Information

Finding Aids

Typescript catalogues available in University of Bristol Information Services - Special Collections.


Reference: GB 0003 DM 1307

Brunel Collection: Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903)

Dates of creation: 1861-1903
Extent: 20 archive boxes. Letterbook volumes are fragile and will not be issued. Brief transcripts are available for consultation.
Name of Creator: Henry Marc Brunel


Administrative/Biographical History

Born 27 June 1842, in London, Henry Marc was the second son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He claimed to have been drawing on section paper from the age of seven, and showed an early aptitude for engineering. He was taught at Harrow School and attended the launches of the Great Eastern before being taught by M. Franzoni of Geneva for two months prior to Brunel's visit to Egypt in 1859. From 1859-1861 he was educated at King's College, London, while visiting engineers and factories. He also visited the Great Eastern at Liverpool and voyaged to America on her. In September of 1861 he became an apprentice with Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co., where he remained for two years, leaving the company to become apprenticed to Sir John Hawkshaw, whom he was the pupil of for a further three years. He drew plans and assisted with various Indian railways and the Charing Cross and Metropolitan lines, and attended trial firings of the 600 pound Armstrong Naval Gun against an ironclad target ship. Throughout 1865, he worked on marsh drainage, the Eastern Bengal Railway, and helping his brother Isambard Brunel write a biography of their father (Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, published by Longmans, Green & Co., 1870), providing technical expertise and insight. He also took up amateur acting, and remained a keen enthusiast for the rest of his life. In 1866 he became involved with the planning and preliminary stages of construction for the Channel Tunnel, and took soundings in the English Channel as well as borings on private land. To help with his work he took up the study of geology and studied the workings of tunneling machines cutting chalk and coal. He also worked on various projects, including the Great Eastern, the Amsterdam to North Sea Ship Canal and the West and East India Docks. In 1869 he worked on an experimental new atmospheric railway system for use on the Oxford Street Railway line. He then worked on various civil projects, including sewers in Brighton, the Albert Dock at Hull and Dover Harbour. By 1870 his work on writing the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel had begun to eat away at his other commitments, forcing him to resign from Hawkshaw's employ and prohibiting him from leaving England. In 1871 he set up his own practice as a Civil Engineer at Duke Street, London. He began work on rail and civic drainage contracts for Torquay, drawing up parliamentary plans for the Torquay Railway and levelling land for the Birmingham city sewers. Work continued on the prospective Channel Tunnel, as well as rail work and drainage throughout England. In 1876 he was elected to membership of the Athenaeum Club, and in 1878 he went into partnership with John Wolfe Barry. From 1880 he was a member of a company designed to promote Tower's Spherical Engine, and continued work on the Torquay reservoir. In 1882 he began work on an experimental rowing boat designed to be rowed while facing forward. Throughout 1886 he was involved with Beauchamp Tower in working on Tower Bridge, London, as well as continuing in his experiments in "ru mming" (rowing forwards). He worked on many projects including an electric hearing aid, ship's log, gyroscope for naval instruments and military rangefinder in addition to his projects in civil engineering and naval architecture.

He was a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and an associate member of the Institute of Naval Architects, as well as Scientific and Amateur Dramatic Societies.

Scope and Content

The main items within the collection cover the following dates:

Diaries, including journal of visit to Egypt (1858-1874)
Engineering Notebook (1869-1882)
Letterbooks (1860-1888, 1901-1903)
Sketch Books (1856-1862, 1865-1867)

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The original Brunel Collection was given to the University of Bristol Library by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's granddaughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950. This makes up the bulk of the collection, and includes letter books, sketchbooks, calculation books, documents and drawing instruments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as well as papers of Isambard Brunel Junior, Sir Marc Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel. Additional material was purchased from the family in 1990 with the aid of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the J. Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust, the Wolfson Foundation, the Pilgrim Trust and the Dulverton trust. A further series was purchased in 1996 with the assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust.

Access Conditions

Accessible to all bona fide readers.

Copyright/Reproduction

Permission to copy documents must be obtained from staff.

Further Information

Finding Aids

Typescript catalogue and subject indices available in University of Bristol Special Collections.