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Brunel's Great Western Railway 175th anniversary

Brunel Institute unveils previously unseen diary items affording a rare glimpse into the character of the youthful Brunel.

Image captions
Above left: pencil drawing by Brunel in his pocket notebook from 1838

Above right: sketch from Brunel's 1831 diary, drawn while travelling on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Curators at the Brunel Institute in Bristol have unveiled previously unseen diary and notebook entries by legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, written years before his appointment as chief engineer for the Great Western Railway Company.  The items have been revealed in advance of the 175th anniversary of the running of the first train between London and Bristol which is being celebrated on 30 June.

The entries, which show the passion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – who has been described as “one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history” will be displayed at Brunel’s ss Great Britain from Tuesday 28 June to Saturday 2 July along with other items connected to his work on the Great Western Railway. The special series of free drop-in sessions will take place from 12.30pm to 1.30pm daily. A Facebook Live webcast will launch the programme on Tuesday 28 June at 12.15pm (

Above: entry from Brunel's 1831 diary (3 December) "...let me try"

One diary entry from 1831 describes a journey he took on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Brunel wrote: “The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45 miles per hour… let me try.”

Two years later, Brunel was appointed chief engineer for the Great Western Railway, the length of which he personally surveyed in its entirety in a bid to find the smoothest, flattest route.

Brunel is known to have often attempted to draw a perfect circle while travelling on the nation’s bumpy railway lines. One entry is a pencil drawing that Brunel made; seemingly of himself travelling in a cold carriage as he attempts to draw circles and write smoothly.

Eleni Papavasileiou, Head of Curatorial and Library Services at the ss Great Britain Trust, said: “From Brunel’s extensive diary entries and notebooks, we start to sense his thought processes and understand how he approached the creation of the Great Western Railway. These informal musings and doodles might appear trivial, yet they tell us so much about Brunel’s mind and how he was absorbing every facet of the challenge he faced.”

GWR Commercial Director Matthew Golton has studied the early history of the Great Western Railway. He said: “All these items give us a real sense of the young Brunel’s determined – and on occasion playful – personality. The diary extract could well be documentary evidence of the moment of inspiration that gave birth to Brunel’s vision of the Great Western Railway, so flat it became known as the Brunel’s Billiard Table.

“The second – likely a self-portrait – bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the famous photographs by the landing chains of the ss Great Eastern almost 30 years later.”


Editor's notes

  • Brunel’s ss Great Britain is the world’s first great ocean liner and the most innovative steam ship of her time. Launched in 1843, this iron-hulled steamship revolutionised travel and set new standards in engineering, reliability and speed. Today, Brunel’s ss Great Britain is Bristol’s number one visitor attraction (as voted by the public on Trip Advisor) and home to the Brunel Institute, housing one of the world’s finest maritime and Brunel collections.
  • The Brunel Institute is a collaborative venture between the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol. It houses one the world’s finest maritime collections.
  • Items on display during special ‘Archive in Five’ drop-in sessions, 12.30pm to 1.30pm daily:
    • 28 June – Brunel’s diary from 1831 and pocket notebook from 1838
    • 29 June – sketch by Brunel and a letter about the Box Tunnel
    • 30 June – Brunel’s drawing curves and a large drawing from 1836
    • 1 July – silver gilt tableware gifted to Brunel by the Great Western Railway Company
    • 2 July – Brunel’s sketches of Paddington Station and Bristol Temple Meads Station
  • Since opening on 30 June 1841, billions of passengers have travelled along the Great Western Railway line between Bristol and London. While trains have changed, the line, and many of Brunel’s engineering solutions including the Box Tunnel, viaducts, bridges and stations, are still in use today. The line celebrates its 175th anniversary on 30 June 2016. GWR and the ss Great Britain Trust have announced a partnership which will see GWR supporting the work of the Trust as a major partner.
  • Please note, for brand continuity, the attraction is ‘Brunel’s ss Great Britain’, the ship herself is the ‘ss Great Britain’, the charity which manages and maintains the ship is the ‘ss Great Britain Trust’ and the trading branch of the charity is ‘ss Great Britain Trading Ltd.’ The ‘ss’ is always written in lower case or small caps.
  • Images on this page are from The National Brunel Collection, held at The Brunel Institute, a collaborative venture between the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol. Please contact us to request high resolution, uncropped versions for publication.


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Above: page from Brunel's sketchbook possibly showing an early plan of London Paddington Station.