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Brunel Biography
Home Brunel sketch for a hotel design (University of Bristol)

  Brunel sketch for a hotel design
  (University of Bristol)

ss Great Britain (Private collection)

  ss Great Britain (ss Great Britain Trust)

Details of page from letter home to Mary Horsley showing draughty doors and windows in Wooton Bassett hotel room (University of Bristol)

Details of page from letter home to Mary Horsley showing draughty doors and windows in Wooton Bassett hotel room (University of Bristol)

  Details of page from letter home to
  Mary Horsley showing draughty
  doors and windows in Wooton
  Bassett hotel room
  (University of Bristol)
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Brunel Biography
Childhood and Family Background The 1820s The 1830s The 1840s and the 1850s
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Brunel in Context

The 1830s

In 1832, Brunel began his association with the Bristol Docks Company where he was engaged with schemes for improving and modernising the facilities for the next 15 years.

He was engaged in other dock engineering projects over the years including Plymouth, Brentford and Milford Haven, and in the railway at Cardiff Docks. (Read more about the docks on the Bristol Docks page).

In March 1833, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the newly formed Great Western Railway and started surveying the route from London to Bristol. He had no previous experience in railway engineering but the directors were impressed by his enthusiasm and self-assurance. He had made his first journey by train on 5 December 1831 and wrote in his diary, alongside a series of wavering lines and circles:

I record this specimen of the shaking on Manchester railway. The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45 miles per hour – let me try.

The Second Great Western Railway Bill was passed in August 1835 and Brunel’s proposal to use a broad gauge system, which he felt would provide faster and smoother journeys, was accepted in October. That same year Brunel was appointed engineer for the Cheltenham & Great Western Union, Bristol & Exeter, Bristol & Gloucester, and Merthyr & Cardiff railways. He would hold many engineering appointments with various railway companies during his career, including projects in Italy and India. He was usually involved in every detail of their construction: not just the route, track and engines, but also the architecture of the stations, the colour of the livery and the decorative details. He would often be engaged in a number of major projects at any one time, adding to the pressures upon him but satisfying his love of work. The London-Bristol section of the Great Western route was opened on 30 June 1841. (Read more about the Great Western Railway on the Great Western Railway page).

Interior of Temple Meads (Private collection)

Interior of Temple Meads (National Trust)

Brunel plan and elevation for Paddington station (University of Bristol)

Brunel plan and elevation for Paddington station (University of Bristol)

In 1836, Brunel was appointed engineer of the Great Western
Steamship Company and work began in Bristol on his first ship design – ss Great Western, a paddle steamer. The ship formed part of a proposed integrated transport system that would bring people from London to Bristol by train, to the dockside by coach and to New York by steamship. The hull was launched on 19 July 1837 and work commenced that same year on building the Royal Western Hotel to accommodate passengers. Great Western’s maiden trans-Atlantic voyage in 1838 took 15 days. Construction began on a sister ship, the ss Great Britain, in 1839 at the Great Western Dockyard. Following a distinguished but occasionally ill-fated career, the ship returned to Bristol in 1970 and is now one of the icons of the city. (Read more about the ss Great Western and ss Great Britain on the ss Great Britain page).

ss Great Western (ss Great Britain Trust)

ss Great Western (Private collection)

On 5 July 1836, Brunel married Mary Horsley and the couple set up home at 18 Duke Street, Westminster. They had three children: Isambard, who became a lawyer and his father’s biographer; Florence Mary who married a teacher at Eton; and Henry Marc, who became an engineer. His friend and colleague William Dawes had introduced Brunel to the Horsley family in 1832, and he had often visited their home where he enjoyed amateur theatricals, charades, music and oratories in his rare moments of leisure. Brunel had had a number of romantic interludes but had always declared that he would only marry a woman with money and musical talent. As Mary had neither and, it has been said, had ‘nothing to be proud of but her face’ it can be assumed that Brunel married for love. Mary would become a popular hostess, entertaining the cream of fashionable London society at their home and providing what Adrian Vaughan has described as ‘an oasis of culture’ for Brunel to occasionally return to. Her brother, the artist John Horsley, was a close friend of Brunel and painted his portrait.

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