Monthly Archives: May 2016

50 objects 21: a biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

A post by Becky Tabrar, Graduate Trainee.

As most students and members of staff are aware, Brunel University London is named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably the most famous mechanical and civil Engineer. Every graduation season countless students pose with the now infamous Brunel statue. However, how many of us know his full life story or can list all of his achievements? I for one certainly could not, and so went looking for information in the numerous biographies held on Brunel in our collections.


A selection of material on Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the Library



I.K. Brunel was born on 6th April 1806 in Portsmouth. His father was a French engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel, who invented a cast iron ‘shield’ for tunnelling purposes and used it to build the Thames Tunnel. Isambard worked as a chief assistant engineer on his father’s project, and so the Tunnel can be seen as one of his earliest achievements.

Intriguingly, the Brunel family looked upon Isambard as a ‘glorious failure’ in comparison to his father. However, with time this viewpoint changed, and Isambard was placed second, only after Sir Winston Churchill, in a 2002 BBC television programme which aimed to determine the ‘greatest ever Briton’. A look back on Isambard’s various achievements justifies this legacy.

In 1831, Brunel won a competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It was across one of Britain’s deepest gorges, the Avon Gorge, and upon completion was the longest bridge in the world. Two years later, Brunel became the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, and developed the broad gauge railway, which was used to link London to Bristol.

From 1835, he worked for the Great Western Steamship Company, and calculated that a ship twice the size of 100ft would need less coal to fuel it. His calculations led to the Great Western, which set sail for New York in 1838 as the longest ship in the world, and the new favoured ship for passengers travelling to New York. Brunel later designed the Great Britain and Great Eastern, and his techniques are the basis for shipbuilding today.


S.S. Great Eastern, from a photograph held in Special Collections.


Isambard was a great problem solver, and so many of his solutions still inform our lives today, from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which continues to link Bristol and Somerset, to the Great Western Mainline, which transports passengers everyday between London and the South West. Commemorations to Brunel exist in a variety of forms, including a Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, his portrayal by Kenneth Branagh in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, multiple film and TV portrayals, and of course Brunel University!

On that note, have you ever wondered why our university is named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel? Well, you need look no further than Dr James Topping’s book on The Beginnings of Brunel University, held in Special Collections. Dr Topping, the Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1966 until 1994, describes pleading with Middlesex County Council to name the new technical college after a famous engineer or scientist, instead of Middlesex College of Technology, which they had planned. Topping prevailed, and it was decided Brunel was a natural fit. His inventions brought the Great Western Railway to Acton in the 1830s, Brunel University’s original home, and his Wharncliffe Viaduct is located nearby.


The Library also has a collection of information on Brunel’s work, life, and character, which was set up as an education pack for schools; it includes postcards of his trains and ships, diagrams of some of his engineering work, and a page of illuminating anecdotes about the person behind the fame.

For primary sources concerning Isambard Kingdom Brunel, you should see the collections held at Bristol University Library.


50 objects 20: Neglected Voices

Neglected Voices is a project by Allan Sutherland, a leading figure in the Disability Arts movement, who was poet-in-residence at the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University during 2010-11. Sutherland interviewed disabled people about their experiences and life histories, then wrote poems based on his transcriptions of the interviews.

The project listens to, and shares, the voices of the individuals. Sutherland explains in his introduction how these are the stories that aren’t heard; how too often the voices of people with disabilities are ignored in favour of stereotypes or perceptions from outsiders.

The poem cycles are poignant and thought-provoking, tragic and funny, displaying a wide range of emotions and experiences and highlighting at once the speakers’ individuality and their common humanity. There are stories of abuse, of fierce independence, of miscarriage, of teaching and learning, of relationships, of hope, and of an essay that had to be handed in with squirrel footprints on it.

The poems can be read at Disability Arts Online. The interview transcripts can be read at Brunel, and the interviews can be listened to via the British Library.


50 objects 19: Bradshaw’s Railway Guide

George Bradshaw (1801-1853) was certainly not the first to publish railway timetables, but his name has become synonymous with them. Bradshaw’s Monthly Railway Guide ceased publication in 1961 but is familiar today via its mentions in fiction, by authors including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Philip Pullman.

Part of one of Bradshaw's maps from the 1830s

Part of one of Bradshaw’s maps from the 1830s

Bradshaw initially worked as a map engraver, and produced maps of canals and railways, before moving on to publish various railway timetables.

Bradshaw’s Guide began in 1841, following a number of other similar works, and containing comprehensive timetables for railway journeys. It is interesting to note that many of the monthly editions are given a month number, rather than name (First Month for January, Second for February, and so forth), following traditional Quaker usage: Bradshaw had become a Quaker as a young man.

An early edition of Bradshaw's Guide

An early edition of Bradshaw’s Guide

Bradshaw’s publications cover a period of great expansion and change on the railways. In 1840 standardised Railway Time was introduced, making train travel safer and planning easier. It wasn’t until 1880 that standard Greenwich Mean Time was officially confirmed by legislation. In 1923, over 100 railway companies came together to become what was known as “the Big Four” (London and North Eastern Railway; London, Midland, and Scottish Railway; Great Western Railway; and Southern Railway), and over time three of the Big Four transferred the production of their timetables to the same company that produced Bradshaw’s Guide.

Special Collections holds various reference works on Bradshaw and his works, as well as the works themselves.

Advertisements for Punch magazine on spines of Bradshaw's Guide

Advertisements for Punch magazine on spines of Bradshaw’s Guide

The timetables are still of use for reference today, in plotting how a journey could have been made at a particular time – essential for writing period crime novels, but for various other purposes too! However, they can give additional information to today’s student of social history: many volumes of the Guide have advertising on the spine, and the insides carry not only contemporary advertising, but also illustrations and descriptions of the towns served by the railways.



50 objects 18: Perceived effect of the Channel Tunnel on tourism

Amongst the opposition faced by supporters of the Channel Tunnel was the idea that the easier crossing would have a detrimental effect on tourism and related economies in Britain; that, for instance, families from the north of England would holiday in northern France rather than on the south coast of England and so the hotel trade would suffer.

In the late 1920s, a sub-committee of the Channel Tunnel Parliamentary Committee contacted businesses involved in UK tourism to ask for their views on the Tunnel, in particular whether it would help or hinder their business.

Letter showing summary of bodies in favour and against

Letter showing summary of bodies in favour and against

The Channel Tunnel archive holds three files of this correspondence, annotated in blue pencil by the committee, and divided into “in favour”, “against”, and “neutral”. While the majority of the letters are short and business-like, the collection as a whole reflects an intriguing range of attitudes to the Tunnel and to tourism.

The tone ranges from terse to discursive, from uninterested to fiercely invested, and some letters go beyond the tourism issue and investigate other aspects of the Tunnel.

One of the longest and most eloquent letters in the “against” section, pictured below, reasons that not only would the Tunnel be detrimental to the  hotel trade, but it would also lead to problems with foot and mouth disease, with a knock-on negative impact on farming; the shipping industry would also suffer, and “with our glorious traditions of the sea, it would not look well for Britons to enter the Continent by a rat-hole.”

Letter against the Channel Tunnel

Letter against the Channel Tunnel

Selections from letters on all sides of the question

Selections from letters on all sides of the question