You are here

Rare photo reveals Brunel's difficult last days

The last photograph of the great engineer
160 years ago, on 15th September 1859, following news of an explosion on board the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel suffered a stroke. Five days later, he died. 
 
A rare stereoscopic photograph (pictured), taken on 5 September 1859 - moments before that fatal stroke - shows a man almost unrecognisable from his iconic, ruthless image.
 
Brunel stands 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.
 
When we think of Brunel it’s easy to conjure him in his prime; a resolute and tireless engineer hurrying about his business of building railways, tunnels and ships. It’s much harder to imagine him as a worn, exhausted, and sick man suffering from Bright’s disease, but in 1859 this was very much the case.
 
Voted the second Greatest Briton of all time, after Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the 19th century engineering giants. His achievements, many of which are still part of our everyday lives and landscape, are a lasting testament to his far-sighted genius.
 

To celebrate the life of Britain’s greatest engineer, Brunel’s SS Great Britain will be dressing their iconic site in keeping with conventions of traditional Victorian mourning.

On Sunday 15th September, exactly 160 years since Brunel’s death, visitors to Brunel’s SS Great Britain will see; Brunel’s regulator clock stopped at exactly 10.30pm to mark the time of his death, his portrait draped in black crepe (a fabric traditionally used in Victorian mourning dress), along with the covering of the mirror outside his Duke Street office, as a mark of respect.

Brunel portrait

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. 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.

Natalie Fey, Interpretation Officer at Brunel’s SS Great Britain said: “When he died, Brunel’s probate will stood 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 of information used to research Brunel’s domestic and private life and was essential in the creation of the Being Brunel museum”.