The year is 1842 and before I even looked at any of Brunel’s entries it was a pleasure looking at the Letts Diary for that year. Every single Member of Parliament is listed for 1842 with their constituency. There are pages and pages of banking information and tables that surely only a few people in the country ever use, but faithfully reproduced every year. It took me back to my own childhood where I would look at my own Letts Diary with all the facts, figures, tide times and exchange rates for the year ahead.
The significance of the year 1842 is that the Great Western Shipyard would have been a hive of activity. It is the final full year of construction for the SS Great Britain prior to her launch in July 1843. Brunel was also very busy on the railways, having just opened London Paddington to Bristol and Bristol to Bridgwater in 1841. He was focused on extending the line to Taunton and Devon in the South and up to Gloucester in the North.
The diary is simply a record of his appointments and travels. On some days there is just a single word telling you where he was – “Tue 1 Feb; London”. On other days he would capture the time of the train he was taking and list the specific places he visited. For example – Fri 15 July; Mail Train Bristol to Taunton, Sat 16 July; Along line to Wellington, Collumpton, return to Taunton. Mail Train Taunton to London”
The handwriting is very varied through the diary, and it is possible that Brunel was often writing while on the move or when very tired. The most striking fact is that he was working every single day and very long days at that. It is common to find a day where he starts on a 6am train from London and finishes the day by returning to London on the Mail train – through the night. In some weeks he would do this for two or three days, almost constantly on the move, racking up thousands of miles.
There were many days where he simply did not write anything at all. In particular, during April and May, he was on a “continental expedition” recording that he left for Dover on 30 March and then returned on 28 May at 3.50pm to Duke Street with no entries in between. From other sources we know that Brunel was in Italy at this time looking at the route of the Genoa Railway, but he chose not to record this work in his appointment diary.
During the months of August and September Brunel based himself in Weston Super Mare and often the entry on a Sunday was simply Weston. During the other six days he recorded the closest he ever came to a regular commute; catching the 8.20 or 9.40am from Weston to Bristol, from where he would work or travel to another part of the Railway line under construction. His return journey would be on the 5pm or 7pm Bristol to Weston, the same journey so many of us take today.
I feel very privileged to be able to handle this diary and gain a small insight into his life through this record. It is clear that at this stage of the SS Great Britain construction he was rarely at the ship. His focus and much of his time was on the Railway construction, indeed he seemed to be their most “frequent flyer’ with thousands of miles spent on the lines between London and the South West. Occasionally there have also been some ‘goosebump’ moments. As normal, I was struggling with his handwriting and focused on deciphering the entry for a Board meeting for the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway. He recorded that he visited the Great Western Ship Yard on that day as well – the date was Friday October 21st 1842. I sat back and looked out the window at the very ship yard where he had visited and only then realised it was Friday October 22nd 2021 – almost to the day 179 years later.
I am sure if I tried hard enough I would be able to hear him giving his orders and smell the cigars…..but that could quite possibly be lost amongst the laughter and noise of 30 Year 2’s outside the Brunel Institute, building their own memories of this amazing ship and ship yard.
Author: Jan Bowen