Extraordinary trove of Brunel letters discovered

An extraordinary trove of letters written more than 175 years ago by Isambard Kingdom Brunel have been discovered hidden among some old maps and charts.

Roger Henley with the letters written more than 175 years ago by Isambard Kingdom Brunel that he discovered at Bristol Port. Picture: Bristol Port Company/PA Wire

Experts said the “remarkable and extremely rare” find – one of the largest collections of Brunel’s writings to be uncovered in recent years – provides significant new insights into the life of Britain’s greatest engineers during the most prolific years of his life.

A total of 15 documents by Brunel from 1832 to 1846 were found tucked into an old yellowing folder at Bristol Port by a book researcher. They give a new perspective on the period in which he was appointed engineer to Clifton Suspension Bridge, launched the SS Great Britain, and completed the Great Western Railway.

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Among the revelations are reflections from Brunel about his concerns for the environmental impact of the Industrial Revolution, and typical examples of his perfectionism as he attacked a series of “entirely useless” efforts which had been undertaken against his counsel.

Bristol Port has donated the entire collection to the SS Great Britain Trust and Brunel Institute, where they are being transcribed and prepared for display to the public.

Nick Booth, head of collections at the SS Great Britain Trust, said: “The documents provide a remarkable and unique insight into Brunel in his formative years.

“It is extremely rare to receive a single letter or report written by Brunel, so we are enormously grateful to receive such a generous donation.”

Most of the correspondence is from Brunel to the directors of the Bristol Dock Company and addresses the problem of the city’s floating harbour becoming laden with mud, causing large vessels to run aground. There are four letters from 1833 to 1846 and five reports from 1832 to 1842, as well as quotes from Brunel for completing work on the Southern Entrance dock.

The discovery was made by Roger Henley, a retired engineer, who was sifting through papers in the archive room at Bristol Port Company’s St Andrew’s House in Avonmouth as part of his research for a new book about the port.

Mr Henley said: “I found a yellowing folder, inside of which were a stack of carefully penned, hand-written documents … It was an incredible moment and a surreal feeling to realise I had in my hands original letters penned by the world’s greatest engineer.”