Exceptionally rare signed letter on printed Great Western Railway stationery by Isambard Kingdom Brunel dated 1st August 1838. Handwritten and signed by Brunel to John Hammond the resident engineer on the London end of the Great Western Railway. The letter refers to a small quantity of correspondence relating to William Ranger, the contractor on the Reading part of the line. In the letter he refers to Ranger's acceptance of notice in a letter which was thought to have been lost. William Ranger's contract was terminated shortly after this date.
"My dear Sir
I am sorry I was out when your letter arrived I send you a small bundle of Ranger's letters 46,in number. I believe in themselves you will find an abstract xxx which may be xxx in his acceptance of notice of St L contract quite clear - a letter whcih we had thought lost.
Yours in haste
If you want me this evening or tomorrow I can come to you."
Brunel was the son of French civil engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and an English mother Sophia Kingdom, he was born on 9 April 1806 in Britain Street, Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire, where his father was working on block-making machinery. He had two older sisters, Sophia (oldest child, Sophia and Emma, and the whole family moved to London in 1808 for his father's work. Brunel had a happy childhood, despite the family's constant money worries, with his father acting as his teacher during his early years. His father taught him drawing and observational techniques from the age of four and Brunel had learned Euclidean geometry by eight. During this time he also learned fluent French and the basic principles of engineering. He was encouraged to draw interesting buildings and identify any faults in their structure.
When Brunel was eight he was sent to Dr Morrell's boarding school in Hove, where he learned the classics. His father, a Frenchman by birth, was determined that Brunel should have access to the high-quality education he had enjoyed in his youth in France; accordingly, at the age of 14, the younger Brunel was enrolled first at the University of Caen Normandy, then at Lycée Henri-IV in Paris.
When Brunel was 15, his father Marc, who had accumulated debts of over £5,000, was sent to a debtors' prison. After three months went by with no prospect of release, Marc let it be known that he was considering an offer from the Tsar of Russia. In August 1821, facing the prospect of losing a prominent engineer, the government relented and issued Marc £5,000 to clear his debts in exchange for his promise to remain in Britain.
When Brunel completed his studies at Henri-IV in 1822, his father had him presented as a candidate at the renowned engineering school École Polytechnique, but as a foreigner he was deemed ineligible for entry. Brunel subsequently studied under the prominent master clockmaker and horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, who praised Brunel's potential in letters to his father. In late 1822, having completed his apprenticeship, Brunel returned to England.
Brunel worked for several years as an assistant engineer on the project to create a tunnel under London's River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping, with tunnellers driving a horizontal shaft from one side of the river to the other under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. Brunel's father, Marc, was the chief engineer, and the project was funded by the Thames Tunnel Company.
The composition of the riverbed at Rotherhithe was often little more than waterlogged sediment and loose gravel. An ingenious tunnelling shield designed by Marc Brunel helped protect workers from cave-ins, but two incidents of severe flooding halted work for long periods, killing several workers and badly injuring the younger Brunel. The latter incident, in 1828, killed the two most senior miners, and Brunel himself narrowly escaped death. He was seriously injured, and spent six months recuperating. The event stopped work on the tunnel for several years.
Though the Thames Tunnel was eventually completed during Marc Brunel's lifetime, his son had no further involvement with the tunnel proper, only using the abandoned works at Rotherhithe to further his abortive Gaz experiments. This was based on an idea of his father's, and was intended to develop into an engine that ran on power generated from alternately heating and cooling carbon dioxide made from ammonium carbonate and sulphuric acid. Despite interest from several parties (the Admiralty included) the experiments were judged by Brunel to be a failure on the grounds of fuel economy alone, and were discontinued after 1834.
In 1865 the East London Railway Company purchased the Thames Tunnel for £200,000, and four years later the first trains passed through it. Subsequently, the tunnel became part of the London Underground system, and remains in use today, originally as part of the East London Line now incorporated into the London Overground.
In the early part of Brunel's life, the use of railways began to take off as a major means of transport for goods. This influenced Brunel's involvement in railway engineering, including railway bridge engineering.
In 1833, before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, one of the wonders of Victorian Britain, running from London to Bristol and later Exeter. The company was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. It was Brunel's vision that passengers would be able to purchase one ticket at London Paddington and travel from London to New York, changing from the Great Western Railway to the Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland, West Wales. He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself, with the help of many including his Solicitor Jeremiah Osborne of Bristol Law Firm Osborne Clarke who on one occasion rowed Brunel down the River Avon himself to survey the bank of the river for the route.
Brunel made two controversial decisions: to use a broad gauge of 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm) for the track, which he believed would offer superior running at high speeds; and to take a route that passed north of the Marlborough Downs—an area with no significant towns, though it offered potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester—and then to follow the Thames Valley into London. His decision to use broad gauge for the line was controversial in that almost all British railways to date had used standard gauge. Brunel said that this was nothing more than a carry-over from the mine railways that George Stephenson had worked on prior to making the world's first passenger railway. Brunel proved through both calculation and a series of trials that his broader gauge was the optimum size for providing both higher speeds and a stable and comfortable ride to passengers. In addition the wider gauge allowed for larger carriages and thus greater freight capacity.
Drawing on Brunel's experience with the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western contained a series of impressive achievements—soaring viaducts such as the one in Ivybridge, specially designed stations, and vast tunnels including the Box Tunnel, which was the longest railway tunnel in the world at that time. There is an anecdote that the Box Tunnel may have been deliberately aligned so that the rising sun shines all the way through it on Brunel's birthday.
The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory, apart from the North Star locomotive, and 20-year-old Daniel Gooch (later Sir Daniel) was appointed as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines. Brunel and Gooch chose to locate their locomotive works at the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon valley at Bath.
Brunel's achievements ignited the imagination of the technically minded Britons of the age, and he soon became quite notable in the country on the back of this interest.
After Brunel's death the decision was taken that standard gauge should be used for all railways in the country. At the original Welsh terminus of the Great Western railway at Neyland, sections of the broad gauge rails are used as handrails at the quayside, and a number of information boards there depict various aspects of Brunel's life. There is also a larger than life bronze statue of him holding a steamship in one hand and a locomotive in the other. The statue has been replaced after an earlier theft.
The present London Paddington station was designed by Brunel and opened in 1854. Examples of his designs for smaller stations on the Great Western and associated lines which survive in good condition include Mortimer, Charlbury and Bridgend (all Italianate) and Culham (Tudorbethan). Surviving examples of wooden train sheds in his style are at Frome and Kingswear.
The great achievement that was the Great Western Railway has been immortalised at Swindon Steam Railway Museum and the Didcot Railway Centre. The Didcot Railway Centre is notable for having a reconstructed segment of 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm) Brunel gauge track, as well as a very rare working steam locomotive in the same gauge.
Overall, there were negative views as to how society viewed the railways. Some landowners felt the railways were a threat to amenities or property values and others requested tunnels on their land so the railway could not be seen.
On 5 July 1836, Brunel married Mary Elizabeth Horsley (b. 1813), who came from an accomplished musical and artistic family, being the eldest daughter of composer and organist William Horsley. They established a home at Duke Street, Westminster, in London.
In 1843, while performing a conjuring trick for the amusement of his children, Brunel accidentally inhaled a half-sovereign coin, which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it, as did a machine devised by Brunel to shake it loose. At the suggestion of his father, Brunel was strapped to a board and turned upside-down, and the coin was jerked free. He recuperated at Teignmouth, and enjoyed the area so much that he purchased an estate at Watcombe in Torquay, Devon. Here he commissioned William Burn to design Brunel Manor and its gardens to be his country home. He never saw the house or gardens finished, as he died before it was completed.
Brunel, a heavy smoker, suffered a stroke in 1859, just before the Great Eastern made her first voyage to New York. He died ten days later at the age of 53 and was buried, like his father, in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. The grave is insignificant by the standards of the cemetery and easily missed. It lies south of the main central path, midway between the entrance and the central chapel, around 20m from the path and screened by trees.
He left behind his wife Mary and three children: Isambard Brunel Junior (1837–1902), Henry Marc Brunel (1842–1903) and Florence Mary Brunel (1847–1876). Henry Marc followed his father and grandfather in becoming a successful civil engineer.
Size: 20 x 12.5 cm approx