Brunel Collection: Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) papers

Scope and Content

Much of the material pertaining to Sir Marc concerns the construction of the Thames Tunnel, either from the point of view of his designs or his son Isambard's supervision of the construction process and its attendant disasters. As well as this business material, there is also a quantity of personal and family correspondence, and diaries of Sir Marc.

Administrative / Biographical History

Born at Haqueville near Gisors, Normandy, France. His parents decided he should go into the Church and he was sent, at the age of eight, to the College at Gisors to begin Classical Studies. He showed no inclination towards the Church or his studies in the Classics. At the age of eleven, he attended the Seminary of St. Nicaise in Rouen and determined to qualify himself for the Navy. After studying hydrography and drawing he served on the 'Marechal de Castries' for six years in the West Indies. The ship was paid off in 1792, after which Marc returned to Paris. He soon had to leave, however, after openly expressing loyalist tendencies during the Terror. He then obtained passage to America, arriving in New York in September, 1793. He became a civil engineer and architect, and his first commission was surveying a large tract of land in the vicinity of Lake Ontario, then the surveying of the line for a canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. Brunel demonstrated such capability that command of these projects was assigned to him by the American government. His design for the House of Assembly in Washington, while initially favoured, was set aside for reasons of economy. He also constructed the Bowery Theatre, New York, which was burned down in 1821. He was appointed Chief Engineer of New York, commissioned to erect an arsenal and cannon foundry, and submitted plans for the defence of the channel between Long Island and Staten Island.

After conceiving an idea for machinery to manufacture ships' blocks on a large scale, Brunel visited England in 1799 with the notion of proposing it to the British Government. Brunel patented his invention in 1801, and the machinery was eventually erected in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1806 after a long debate with the Admiralty. It was estimated to save Britain 24,000 in its first year of operation alone, and Brunel was given 17,000 for his invention. Between 1805 and 1812, he worked on devices for cutting, sawing and bending timber, as well as a device for cutting staves. He was employed by the government to erect sawmills of his own design at Woolwich in 1811, and was commissioned to improve Chatham Dockyard. From 1812, he began to conduct experiments in steam navigation on the Thames, and proposed to the Admiralty the construction of steam tugs for the purpose of dragging warships out to the open sea. After six months' deliberation, during which Brunel had conducted a number of experiments and studies on feasibility and constructed engines, the Navy Board revoked their acceptance and their indemnity for expenses Brunel had already incurred, claiming that the proposal could not be seriously entertained. He then designed machinery for the manufacture of shoes, which was taken up by the Army, though the defeat of Napoleon and the peace of 1815 lost him a substantial amount on his War Office contracts.

In 1816, Brunel invented a knitting machine, and developed two methods for the preparation of tinfoil by 1818. In 1820, he entered into an agreement with The Times to assist them in adopting his idea for the improvement in stereotype printing plates, though nothing came of it. Later that year, he designed bridges to span the Seine at Rouen and the Neva at St. Petersburg, though neither design was used. His planned bridges on the island of Bourbon, however, designed to withstand hurricanes, were constructed by the French government. After the near-destruction of his sawmills by fire in 1814, Brunel entered into a long period of financial mismanagement, which came to a head in 1821 when he was thrown in prison for debt. After a few months at King's Bench he obtained a grant, through the influence of his friends, to relieve his debts and was released. Until 1825, Brunel worked on the design of sawmills for the islands of Trinidad and Berbice, as well as improving maritime steam-engines and the paddle-wheel propulsion system, and introducing swing-bridges and floating land piers at Liverpool. From that point, his energies were devoted almost exclusively to the Thames Tunnel, designed to run beneath the river from Rotherhithe to Wapping. The project was similar to one he submitted to the Russian government in order to carry communications across the Neva at St. Petersburg, independent of the floating ice. In 1824 a company was formed under the auspices of the Duke of Wellington to carry out Brunel's scheme. Operations begun at Rotherhithe in 1825, though due to difficulties faced the tunnel was not completed until 1842. Irruptions took place in 1827 and 1828, the latter injuring his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and stopping work on the tunnel for seven years. After construction restarted, three more irruptions occurred between 1837 and 1838. The tunnel emerged in Wapping and was finally opened to the public in 1843, though it was never more than a foot-tunnel, being unable to accommodate carriages as Brunel would have wished. With the exception of a plan submitted to the Admiralty for stacking timber in the dockyard, Brunel undertook no further professional work, as the Tunnel had strained his health too greatly. He suffered a stroke in 1845 and died in 1849. He was a member of the Royal Society (and Vice-President in 1832), as well as the French Institute. In 1829 he received the Legion d'Honneur, and in 1841 he was Knighted by Queen Victoria. He was a member of the Academy of Sciences of Stockholm, as well as a number of scientific bodies throughout Europe and the World. He married Sophia Kingdom in March 1799, after meeting her while fleeing France.


Boxes 1 to 4 contain bound volumes of material relating to the Thames Tunnel, including reports, sketchbooks, transactions and diaries. The material in these boxes is classified as part of DM 1306. Box 5 contains a diverse selection of material pertaining to both the business and the personal life of Sir Marc Brunel, including correspondence, memorabilia, a bronze cast portrait in a wooden frame, and a volume of general remarks, from 1824 to 1842.

Access Information

Accessible to all bona fide readers.

Acquisition Information

The original Brunel Collection was given to the University of Bristol Library by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's granddaughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950. This makes up the bulk of the collection, and includes letter books, sketchbooks, calculation books, documents and drawing instruments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as well as papers of Isambard Brunel Junior, Sir Marc Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel. Additional material was purchased from the family in 1990 with the aid of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the J. Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust, the Wolfson Foundation, the Pilgrim Trust and the Dulverton trust. A further series was purchased in 1996 with the assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust.

Other Finding Aids

Typescript catalogues available in University of Bristol Information Services - Special Collections.