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A diary of Henry Brunel

Henry Brunel


The Brunel Institute, which houses the SS Great Britain’s Collection and David Macgregor Library, has a team of approximately 40 volunteers working every day we are open to make the collection available to the public. One of our Collection Volunteers, Hilary, has been transcribing a diary which belonged to Henry Marc Brunel, the second son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his wife Mary, describing his travels in Europe and Egypt.

It is December 1858 and Henry, second son of IKB, is staying in a guest house in Geneva and waiting for his parents to arrive. He is 17 years old and travelling alone. He resolves to keep a journal and every day describes the minutiae of his daily life, the people he meets, what he sees in the towns and letters he receives and sends.  He keeps a record of his expenditure down to the last centime and worries about tipping servants.

He leaves Switzerland for France and after a few days, Mr. & Mrs. Brunel arrive, accompanied by a doctor.

It had been decided by IK Brunel’s doctors that a period away from work would help him to recover his health and so they start on an epic journey through Egypt.  But first they have to get there.

They go by boat from Marseilles to Alexandria and Henry suffers from constant seasickness. When they arrive, Mrs. Brunel finds moving from the large boat to a small one very difficult and the Arabs have to lift her on board.

It is decided to travel by train to Cairo and Henry tells us that it is 130 miles and they take 8 hours – this he works out is 16 ¼ mph. He describes the countryside as flat and ‘stupid’ - teenage boredom is nothing new.

Whilst in Cairo, Henry and his father visit mosques with domes, chandeliers and carpets from Mecca. They go to a Turkish bath and old men give them massages.

They then decide to take a trip on the Nile and set about hiring a boat.  A few are inspected and finally one is considered suitable. It is hired, together with men to do the sailing, fitted out and provisioned, and the group set off.

At each temple, Henry details the columns and the statuary but he and his father are also very interested in working out the weight of the stones used. They do this by first measuring their own steps in feet and inches and then proceeding to walk round each side of the temple, counting their steps, and noting the approximate height. They then do their sums in the margins of the journal and come up with an answer. At one temple they are told that there is a statue of Cleopatra but they are now too engrossed to notice it.  At one of the temples IK Brunel, instead of sketching what he can see directly on to paper, constructs a device called a camera lucida.  This uses mirrors and lenses to project the image on to the paper but unfortunately it is not working properly so he goes back to drawing what he can see.

When they arrive at the Cataracts, more men are employed to steer them through.  Sometimes the boat has to be manhandled from one section to another and in the end 40 men are taken on to do the job.  Henry describes a very thrilling eight hour ride through the foaming water between narrow gorges and rocks, with the men shouting and hauling on ropes to get them through.

One of the last places the family visit is the Granite Quarry and this is where I feel a personal affinity with Henry.  Lying on its side is an enormous obelisk which has been completed on three sides, but unfortunately has not been cut away from the base because there is a fault in it, and so it is abandoned. Henry visits it and adds a tiny sketch to his diary, 140 years later, I am there at the very same quarry being told the very same story, and I take a photograph.

After a few more visits to temples, Henry’s journal finishes. He returned to Britain with his father and mother, although sadly a few months later his father Isambard was to collapse while on board the SS Great Eastern, dying a few days later at the age of 53. Henry would go onto become an engineer himself, and worked on projects as diverse as Blackfriars Railway Bridge in London, and  the SS Chancy Maples, a missionary and hospital ship on Lake Malawi, which is regarded as the oldest ship still afloat in Africa.

Author: Hilary Parker, Volunteer