Brunel’s Cigar Case, 1859

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The Object

  • This portable cigar case belonged to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and still contains a cigar which is believed to have belonged him – his “last cigar”. It is over 150 years old!
  • It is made of black leather and is stamped with ‘I.K.B Athenaeum Club Pall Mall’. The Athenaeum Club was a members’ only club for ‘Literary and Scientific men and followers of the Fine Arts’. Brunel would come here to meet and socialise with fellow members; which, included many important politicians, architects, scientists and writers; it still exists today.
  • The case can hold up to 48 cigars (24 in each end) and has a small pocket on the front with compartments which could hold business cards and stamps.
  • This cigar case is thought to have held just one day’s supply of cigars for Brunel in his later years. It is likely that Brunel’s love of cigars contributed to his early death in 1859.

The Story

How do you picture Brunel?

For many people the famous image of Brunel with a hat and a cigar will spring to mind. A series of photographs taken by Robert Howlett in 1857 show him with his famous stovepipe hat and a cigar in his mouth, and as a result, they are a big part of the image of Brunel we think of today.

Personal belongings, such as Brunel’s cigar case and his last cigar, can tell us a story about the people they belonged to and what life was like a long time ago.

The cigar case stamped with Brunel’s initials and ‘Athenaeum Club Pall Mall’ tell us that Brunel smoked cigars, and that he was a member of a Gentleman’s Club.

Gentleman’s clubs became popular in the Victorian times for people in professions such as Engineering, Science, and Politics to come together to socialise with people of similar intellect, discuss common interests and make business contacts.

Cigar smoking was a popular pastime amongst the upper classes and cigars were considered to be a luxury. Brunel was described by George T Clark (Brunel’s Assistant in 1839) as indulging in cigars ‘to excess’ and he remembered him as always having a cigar in his mouth, even in bed! Brunel’s large leather cigar case was always close to hand, and likely contained just one day’s supply of cigars.

This object shows us that Brunel had a passion for fine things and that he moved in well-connected social circles. Through objects like the cigar case, Brunel’s sketchbooks, diaries and other personal belongings, we can build up a picture about who Brunel was and what his life was like.

Continue The Story

Museums look after objects, so they can continue to be enjoyed by people for many years to come and help us to piece together stories about the lives of people that owned them.
Over time objects such as the cigar case can become extremely fragile. It is important that they are carefully looked after or ‘conserved’ as they can never be replaced. When the cigar case came to the Brunel Institute it had to be treated and cleaned with special chemicals and, in places, repaired, to make sure it remains stable and safe when on public display in the museum.
Changes in temperature can cause material, such as leather, to crack or become mouldy, and light can cause the colour to fade. To help stop this happening museum objects are often kept in a display case with low level lighting and they are kept at a temperature of between 16-22oC.
When not on public display, museum objects, are kept in special ‘archival’ boxes and padded with acid free tissue to prevent them from being damaged.  When handling these objects curators (people that look after objects in the museum) wear gloves to stop sweat and oils from their skin, which can damage the object, being transferred to it.

Extra Resources

  • Compare the photographs of Brunel taken by Robert Howlett in 1857 on the Great Eastern here and his final photograph standing by the funnel in 1859 here. What do these images tell us about Brunel?
  • What would you put in a museum to represent you? Try this activity to get you thinking.
  • Find out A ‘bit about Brunel’ with this factsheet.
  • Find out more about this object and others like it in our online Collection.

Brunel’s Cigar case and his last cigar: Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Clive Richards OBE DL and allocated to the SS Great Britain Trust, 2017