Tag Archives: Brunel University London

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.


Stories from the Special Collections

Earlier this year, postgraduate students from Brunel University London’s Creative Writing and Creative Writing: The Novel masters courses did some work in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library. This was part of a module called ‘Writers at Work’ (EN5540) which explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving students the skills needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, as well as exploring the opportunities that exist for writers in educational and other contexts, such as archival research and residencies. The module is taught by Tony White, author of novels including Foxy-T (Faber and Faber) and visiting lecturer at Brunel. White has also been writer in residence at the Science Museum and Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on the top floor of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by undergraduate and postgraduate students and to support teaching. They cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy and South Asian literature, art, theatre and music. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.
For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains,

over 230 autobiographies. […] The criteria for inclusion were: the writers were working class for at least part of their lives; they wrote in English; and they lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.

The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the autobiographies that it contains are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, expressive language and dialects, and the gritty realities of poverty and working class lives in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. Here you might find a tale of running away to join the circus, or a grim account of institutional life and injustice that might have made Dickens blanch. The Burnett Archive provides unique source material for Brunel researchers like Claire Lynch from the Department of Arts and Humanities who has written about the lives revealed in these manuscripts. For Lynch, “the Burnett Archive is one of Brunel’s treasures, I’m impressed each year by the innovative approaches our students take to the letters, diaries and memoirs held here.” Sociologists and historians from across the UK and beyond have also drawn on the archive. One excellent example of this is the Writing Lives project by students at Liverpool John Moores University. For Tony White, the opportunity to introduce creative writing postgraduates to the Burnett Archive is also a reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture.
By using creative writing as their research method for the ‘Writers at Work’ module, Brunel postgraduates have been able to respond to the literary qualities of these historical texts, but also to use them as the inspiration for new pieces of creative writing, which in turn might offer opportunities to create new kinds of insights and focus, as well as finding new ways to relate the historical accounts to contemporary life. In the selection of stories offered here, Samreen Shah’s powerful ‘Madam Button Queen’ connects experiences of the 19th century textile industries to garment factory workers in contemporary Bangladesh, while in ‘Home for Friendless Girls’ and ‘Market Night’, Lucy Jane Gonzalez and Suzanne Bavington-Drew respectively offer dark tales of orphanage life, and of domestic violence in the shadows of the old Smithfield Market. Laura Brown uses the epistolary form—letters—to allow a young female character called Maggie to tell her own story of the harsh consequences of a brief love affair. Reflecting on the process, Laura writes:

Working with the archives was really interesting. Throughout my degree we’ve read fictional pieces and responded to them in creative ways, but this is the first time we’d had the chance to engage with real people’s stories, and it meant that the work we created somehow felt more personal and more meaningful. It was a great experience and I’d like to try it again in the future.

Students’ engagements with the Burnett Archive can also be irreverent and playful, as in this excerpt of a longer prose poem by Chukwunonso Ibe, a ‘joy full roasting’ inspired by Edward Baker’s untitled account of his life in the 1920s (Vol. No. 2:865):

Edward baker,
The man,
The legend.
He is here with us now
With me now,
In spirit and kind
Words that chose to grow on me.
Words I have to grow on me.
Words I want to grow on me.
Words I kinda need to grow on me.
Ed-word, I wish I could tell you this in person,
But you are dead
And all I have,
All we have, the public, are your words,
Parts of your memories you chose to share.
My thoughts of you I chose to bare,
My silent contempt disguised as care,
But not really.
I think you are a cool dead guy
and I would probably have bought you a glass of beer.
© Chukwunonso Ibe, 2015

You can read a selection of the Creative Writing postgraduate students’ stories here (all works are copyright the authors, and all rights reserved):

Lucy Jane Gonzalez, ‘Home for Friendless Girls’
The ones I love aren’t here anymore. I’d like to say they passed at the end of long, fulfilled lives, but that is not so. They were taken unjustly. As for me… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]

Laura Brown, ‘Letters from Maggie’
Joe, I miss the mornings we used to spend together. Mother says you left for a job in the city and I’m so very happy that you found employment, even if it is… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]

Samreen Shah, ‘Madam Button Queen’
My name is Nabila and I am 10 years old. I used to live in Khulna, my village, but four years ago we came to Dhaka. We came to make money. My baba says that one day… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]

Suzanne Bavington-Drew, ‘Market Night’
It was Sunday night. Johnny wouldn’t sleep. He never did, not with the racket going on outside. It was so loud he couldn’t even hear the… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]