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Brunel: Gone but not Forgotten


This photograph was taken early on 5 September 1859, it shows Brunel on board the Great Eastern, his third and final ship, leaning heavily on his walking stick for support. There is a slight puffiness to his face and fingers, and he already looks like a sick man. Indeed, towards midday, he suffered a fit of paralysis and was taken back to his home in Duke Street. This was to be the last photograph of the great engineer.

Isambard Brunel Jr, Brunel’s eldest son, records that his father “died quietly and without pain” ten days later, at 10.30pm. Hundreds of private and professional friends attended the funeral and railwaymen lined the roads to pay their last respects as his family followed the coffin to its final place of rest; Kensal Green cemetery in London. Here, Brunel was buried in the same grave as his father Marc and his mother Sophia.

Brunel’s probate will was read less than a month after his death and was confirmed to stand at £90,000. His estate would have been greater, but the financial strain of the Great Eastern project had significantly decreased his wealth. Interestingly in 1858, shortly before his death, Brunel had an inventory of his personal property carried out, perhaps because he was planning to raise funds by selling some of his assets. Today, this inventory is a crucial source used to research Brunel’s domestic and private life and was essential in the recreation of the Shakespeare Room in Being Brunel.

An obituary published in the Illustrated London News featured an engraving of I.K. Brunel surrounded by images of his projects, including the Great Britain, the Great Western and Saltash Bridge. Underneath the portrait, his name is shrouded in a laurel wreath, a plant commonly used in 19th century mourning rituals to notify friends and family that loved ones had passed. The obituary was published four days after Brunel had been laid to rest, on the 24 September.

His family placed a memorial window on the north side of the nave in Westminster Abbey. The stained glass depicts the building of the temple in Jerusalem, and Christ teaching there. It is still in place in the Abbey today. To pay for this, the family sold a magnificent silver gilt centrepiece which formed part of the set presented to Brunel by the Great Western Railway. As described in Herapath’s Railway Journal, the centrepiece consisted of a “candelabrum, surmounted by a beautifully designed group of figures representing on the base or plinth rising from the pediment between the brackets, Science, Genius and Invention aiding Commerce; whilst around the base are groups representing the four seasons. Elaborately wrought scrolls spring from the sides, supporting the candelabra for containing 12 lights.” The rest of this silver gilt set is now on display in the Shakespeare Room of Being Brunel.

In honour of his memory his friends at the Institute of Civil Engineers completed the Clifton Suspension Bridge. In 1864 the first memorial statue of Brunel, by Carlo Marochetti, was installed on the Victoria Embankment below Temple Gardens in London. These memorials, and many others, still stand. Although 15th September 2018 is the 159th anniversary of Brunel’s death, the great engineer is most definitely not forgotten.

Author: Natalie Fey, Interpretation Assistant