Category Archives: Blount

50 objects 5: Gilbert Blount’s letter to Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Gilbert Blount was an English Catholic architect born in 1819 and active from about 1840-70. He received his earliest training as a civil engineer under Isambard Kingdom Brunel (c.1825-28) for whom he worked as a superintendent of the Thames Tunnel works. After a period in the office of Sydney Smirke, Blount was appointed as architect to Cardinal Wiseman, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.

Annotated flyleaves of Blount's diary.

Annotated flyleaves of Blount’s diary.

The Blount archive held in Special Collections covers Blount’s early career, including correspondence with the Brunel family. It was given by Michael May, his grandson, in 1976.

The collection includes diaries, notes on engineering subjects, and letters to, from, and about Blount. The diaries give an intriguing insight into daily social life in Blount’s time, but also show aspects of this thought processes and work; there are jottings of various kinds in margins and flyleaves, and drawings of mechanisms and architecture.

Draft letter from Blount to Brunel

Draft letter from Blount to Brunel

Item 17 in this collection is a draft of a letter from Blount to Brunel, resigning his work on the Thames Tunnel in order to take up what he describes as “employment which seemed likely to prove advantageous to me”. The frequent crossings-out and changes of phrase shed light on Blount’s thoughts as he wrote, as well as on business etiquette of the time. For comparison, here is his diary entry for the same day as the letter was written, 17 October 1842 (the bottom entry on the left-hand page). He notes, with characteristic lack of punctuation, “Rose 7 1/2 wrote a note to Sir I Brunel acquainting him with my intention to leave his office I went out shooting with the keeper went to bed 11 O’c.”

Blount's diary for mid October 1842

Blount’s diary for mid October 1842

Other archives concerning Blount are at Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives and the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania.


Going underground

Looking at the various resources we have about London Underground is a good way of demonstrating the different ways Special Collections can be approached.

DSC00417 - CopyMaybe you’re interested in secondary sources on the history of transport in London, or the Underground, or one particular part of it? For that The East London Line and the Thames Tunnel: a brief history could be the pamphlet for you. Don’t forget that we have related primary sources, such as a diorama of the Thames Tunnel (currently on display in the Eastern Gateway Building) and some personal letters from Gilbert Blount, who worked on the building of the Tunnel. Many of the maps of the London area in Special Collections feature the lines of the Underground too.



Or perhaps you’re looking for more information about construction and engineering techniques? DSC00418 - CopyCassell’s Railways of the World (1924) includes details on the invention of the Greathead Shield, which made construction of the deep level tunnels possible. It is still known as the Tube because of the circular nature of those tunnels. Our home railways has a feature on the history and use of electricity on the Metropolitan line (the oldest tube line and the first underground railway in the world). How the Underground works is a small book containing a lot of information about the basics of operation, including construction, track, signalling, power supply, staff and stations. As part of the Channel Tunnel Association Archive, we also have advertising from tunnelling and construction companies.

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If politics is more your thing, then the pamphlet Funding London Underground: financial myths and economic realities (2000) published by a campaign on behalf of the London Underground Unions, is worth looking at. Or primary sources, such as a Bill for purchase of land in Camden and Islington around King’s Cross station.

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These aren’t the only approaches you could explore. We haven’t discussed creative writing  here, as we already have several blog posts about creative writing using Special Collections.

More information about using Special Collections for your dissertation research is also available.

Gilbert Blount collection

A post by Tom Elliott-Aston, work experience student.

In Special Collections I took some time to look through our collection on Gilbert Blount, a man who spent a considerable amount of time working under Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this university’s namesake. Blount was an architect who worked extensively for Catholic churches. Due in no small part to his father’s networking he managed to find a way into a job with the Thames Tunnel Company. There is much evidence of the nepotism that Blount used to get his job with Brunel, in many of Blount’s father’s letters. Blount Sr. urged his contacts personally to employ him. As Blount Sr. writes to Benjamin Hawes:

“I feel confident that you will befriend the young man if possible. Mr Brunel, I am very certain, will not find any one to look after the Works who would follow his instructions more implicitly than my son.”

As he writes to his son:

“My belief is that both Mr Hawes and Mr Allen wish to serve you and that they are not at all inclined to be ruled by Mr Brunel”

This provides fascinating insight into the world of business in the 1840s, it indicates that the old Hollywood adage “It’s not what you know but WHO you know” was incredibly prevalent.

Blount archive

The Blount collection includes many letters from the time and a bevy of work related material pertaining to the civil engineers of the age. You can find out more about the collection on our website.