It’s my birthday and I’ll work if I want to

08 April 2020


08 April 2020


Discover how Isambard Kingdom Brunel spent his birthdays through extracts from his diaries, letters and sketchbooks.

As we approach Brunel’s 214th birthday on April 9. We thought we’d look back at his past birthdays mentioned in diaries, letters and sketchbooks in the University of Bristol Brunel Collection held at the Brunel Institute. Like all birthdays, some were filled with drama, some not, some with celebrations of sorts, others not so much. Mollie Bowen, Collections Officer delves into the big man’s big days.

Often Brunel prioritised work over celebrations even if others around him thought differently. On his 21st birthday in 1827 he titles his diary page ‘My birth day’ (pictured below). While he does say he got up “rather late”, he still heads to work for 8am and spends the day dealing with a group of grumbling workmen from the Thames Tunnel. Some were protesting about their wages while others were drunk:

“The men of both shifts are anything but sober and this combined with the wretched state of the ground accounts for our slow progress”.

After leaving Munday, one of his engineers in charge, he was able to head home and get dressed ready for a birthday dinner with his sister, Sophia and brother-in-law Benjamin. This celebration doesn’t appear to last for long though, and his diary records that at 11pm he heads back to work to find that the men have been celebrating his birthday for him, perhaps a bit too much

“I went below things going on tolerably well but very slow and not much aided by the wine which the foreman had been quaffing to my health tho”. He then spends several hours making repairs and “remained in room below writing notes for my journal and for report to Committee and a letter to Beamish at 5 ½ AM.”

Not exactly the crazy 21st birthday you’d imagine.

Other workaholic birthday highlights include taking drawings and estimates to the Admiralty on his 26th birthday in 1832, meeting with the Railway Committee for his 27th birthday in 1833 and drawing designs for Oxford Station on the day he turned 41. To top this off, he also received a letter from his good friend and collaborator Robert Stephenson on his 51st birthday. But rather than birthday wishes, he instead told him:

“I regret much that I cannot be with you as I have not only a good deal of pressing business on hand, but I have also on me a sharp diarrhoea”.

When a birthday is approaching, we often question if we have achieved anything of worth in our lives thus far and Brunel’s 23rd birthday seems to have this effect on him. The first page of his private, locked diary was written at 4am in the form of a letter to his friend, and brother-in-law Benjamin Hawes. This top secret journal was meant to only be read after Isambard’s death, and he uses this opportunity to share his pre-birthday existential crisis:

“Whenever I think seriously it appears to me how ridiculously unimportant every worldly occurrence is when for an instant compared with the future”

If only Isambard knew then that every one of his birthdays would be celebrated by future generations, even after his death.

Author: Mollie Bowen, Collections Officer

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