In search of Brunel's secrets
David Clensy talks to the maritime historian who has been tasked with collating the widest ever review of Brunel-related artifacts, to create a better picture of the great engineer’s life
You might be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Short bloke, big hat, workaholic innovator who redrew the blueprint for Victorian engineering.
But as maritime business historian Dr Helen Doe tells me, the history books have some notable holes in their understanding of the great man.
“Everyone thinks we know all there is to know about Brunel,” she says. “But compared to other great characters of the Victorian era, we have surprisingly little primary source material about his life.”
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The “vast majority” of the relics of Brunel’s short life that do exist are now based at the Brunel Institute – the extensive archive housed beside the ss Great Britain in Bristol’s Harbourside.
Helen, a former Bristol University lecturer and trustee of the ss Great Britain, who currently teaches at the University of Exeter, has been commissioned by the Brunel Institute and the Arts Council of England and Wales to conduct a wide-ranging review of the surviving artifacts, documents and paintings relating to Brunel’s life and work.
“We know that the Brunel Institute houses the vast majority of the items relating to Brunel’s life here in Bristol,” she says. “But for historians, when it comes to understanding the great man’s work fully, even the smallest pieces can be added to the larger jigsaw to complete important parts of the puzzle.
“A few years ago a similar project put out a call for items relating to the life of Nelson, and the academics behind it were bowled over by the wealth of material that came out of the woodwork – numerous letters and artifacts that few people knew existed. I’m hoping to do something similar for Brunel.
“He was a prolific writer of letters, a great diarist, and the sheer quantity of engineering projects he undertook mean he left behind an enormous paper trail of plans and designs.
“It’s quite possible that there are letters or other artifacts out there buried in people’s attics. If that is the case, we’d love to hear about them, to add to the knowledge we have about him.”
There are particular “holy grails” that are known to be missing from the Brunel archives.
“He kept a strict diary, but there are some books missing from his original diaries – whole months in Brunel’s life that we could find out more about if they turned up,” Helen says.
“There is also a missing portrait of Brunel’s wife Mary, which we know was painted during Brunel’s life, but which has never turned up. It would be lovely to get to see that.”
Helen would also like to find documents that could shed more light on the relationships he had with those he worked with.
“It would be fascinating to have a greater impression of what it was like working alongside Brunel – it probably wasn’t particularly easy,” Helen says.
Helen hopes to collate her findings in a report written for the Arts Council at the end of March, and intends to create an online database of all the items in existence that relate to Brunel’s life – both the Brunel Institute’s current collection, and also any new items that are discovered by the appeal.
“Even the smallest items could be revolutionary for historians who specialise in this field,” she says.
Helen first became interested in the life and work of Brunel after visiting the Clifton Suspension Bridge as a teenager.
“My parents took me up to see the bridge, and I was immediately enthralled by the bridge and by the man who created it.
“I remember visiting the ss Great Britain for the first time in the 1970s, shortly after it was brought back to Bristol. It was a great crumbling hulk in those days, and so now when I see what the trust has managed to achieve with the ship’s restoration, I feel incredibly proud.
“It really has been the most remarkable achievement, and Bristolians are very lucky to have such an incredible ship in their city. But they are also very lucky to have the Brunel Institute here too – because it really is the most extensive archive about Brunel’s life, it’s so packed with fascinating items, and everything is freely available for anyone to study.
“Hopefully this project will just extend that wealth of knowledge even further.”
If you have any primary source artifacts that may relate to Brunel’s life, contact the Brunel Institute on 0117 926 0680 or email Helen at email@example.com.