Portrait of a father, Sir Marc Brunel

12 December 2017


12 December 2017


On 12 December 1849 French-born engineer, Sir Marc Brunel, died at the age of 80 after suffering a series of strokes in the preceding years. A highly accomplished engineer, Sir Marc achieved much in his lifetime and is most celebrated for his professional role in constructing the world’s first underwater tunnel under the River Thames in London. However, on a personal level, perhaps less is known about this remarkable man.

A booklet of reminiscences described as ‘memoranda’, written by Sir Marc’s daughter Sophia Hawes, have been recently acquired by the SS Great Britain Trust’s Brunel Institute providing a touching glimpse into the relationship between this father and daughter.

It seems this relationship contrasted with that of Sir Marc and his own father who Sophia says was “opposed to his [son’s] mechanical inclinations” and at an early age he prevented Marc from getting to the carpenter’s shop in the village which was his “favourite place of resort – here he learnt the use of tools and it was a great pleasure to work when able to escape from the house.”

That Sir Marc did indeed persist and follow his calling into engineering is clear from his widely celebrated and highly accomplished portfolio of work – and that of his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps.

What is less known is Sir Marc’s other passions, which included “his love and admiration of nature”. In her memoranda, Sophia describes:

“Some of my earliest recollections are associated with walks together in the country where he used to point out all the beauties, would draw my attention to the prospect, or to an insect or flower, gathering wreaths of joy to twine round my hat, or acorns to convert into little toys, nothing in fact passed unnoticed…”

Elsewhere Sophia talks of her father’s fondness for children and “benevolence and kindness of heart” saying “his purse was always open to any appeal for assistance, & they were consequently very frequent.”

She also writes of his character: “In early days my father was remarkable for his buoyant spirits, nor did they through by age even forsake him entirely – they supported him both in illness & under trials, all of which he bore with remarkable cheerfulness.”

In 1842 Sir Marc had the first of two strokes or “slight attack of paralysis” as Sophia describes, with the second more severe attack taking place in 1845.

Sophia writes: “[This] prevented his going without assistance, & also deprived him of the use of his right hand; but even this severe deprivation did not affect his temper which continued still cheerful & amicable as ever, & when all contrivances failed for using a pen in the powerless hand he set to work to write with the left & soon succeeded.”

In later years, Sophia talks of her mother Lady Sophia Kingdom’s devotion to her father during those years of severe illness. Sir Marc’s health continued to diminish approaching his death in 1849 and in a poignant entry Sophia writes:

“During his illness his mind did not wander but appeared absent to what was passing around, the fingers moving as if he were drawing his ideas in the air.”

Author: Nick Booth, Head of Collections