one of the great schemes which he set on foot can fairly be called profitable,
and yet they are cited, not only with pride, but with satisfaction, by
the great body of a nation supposed to be
pre-eminently fond of profit; and the man himself was, above all other
projectors, a favourite with those very shareholders whose pockets he
so unceasingly continued to empty.
There is always something not displeasing to the British
temperament in a magnificent disappointment.
Obituary in the Morning
In the midst of difficulties of no ordinary kind, with an ardour rarely
equalled, and an application both of body and mind almost beyond the limit
of physical endurance, in the full pursuit of a great and cherished idea,
Brunel was suddenly struck down, before he had accomplished the task which
his daring genius had set before him.
Following in the footsteps of his distinguished parent… his early
career, even from its commencement, was remarkable for originality in
the conception of the works confided to him. As his experience increased,
his confidence in his powers augmented...
We, at least, who are benefited by their successes, who feel that our
Institution has reason to be proud of its association with such names
as Brunel and Stephenson, have a duty to perform; and that duty is, to
honour their memory and emulate their example.
Joseph Locke in address to the Institution of Civil
Engineers, November 1859
of Brunel’s atmospheric railway at Dawlish (Private collection)
I remember with singular distinctiveness the first
time I ever saw him, when I was a lad of fourteen, and had just obtained
my studentship at the Royal Academy. He criticised with great keenness
and judgment a drawing which I had with me, and at the same time gave
me a lesson on paper straining. From that time till his death he was my
most intimate friend. Being naturally imbued with artistic taste and perception
of a very high order, his critical remarks were always of great value,
and were made with an amount of good humour which softened their occasionally
somewhat trying pungency. He had a remarkably accurate eye for proportion,
as well as taste for form. This is evinced in every line to be found in
his sketch books, and in all the architectural features of his various
From letter to Isambard
Brunel by John Horsley, February 1870
His power of doing without sleep for long intervals was most
remarkable. He also possessed the power, which I have never seen equalled
in any other man, of maintaining a calm and even temper, never showing
irritation even when he was bearing an amount of mental and bodily fatigue
which few could have sustained. His presence
of mind and courage never failed
In fact, he was a joyous, open-hearted, considerate friend, willing to
contribute to the pleasure and enjoyment of those about him; well knowing
his own power, but never intruding it to the annoyance of others, unless
he was thwarted or opposed by pretentious ignorance...
His professional friends before his death, and his private friends at
all times, well knew the genius, the intense energy, and indefatigable
industry with which every principle and detail of his profession was mastered;
and both knew and valued the high moral tone which pervaded every act
of his life.
From letter to Isambard Brunel by William
Hawes, June 1870
Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and
that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge,
or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason
with him for adopting an altogether different course...
Mr Brunel... determined that the Great Western should be a giant’s
road, and that travelling should be conducted upon it at double speed.
His ambition was to make the best road that imagination could devise;
whereas the main object of the Stephensons, both father and son, was to
make a road that would pay.
Samuel Smiles in George
The time has long passed away since there was any difference of opinion
as to the deplorable error of the original [Great Western Railway] board
in neglecting the sober-minded, practical, and economical engineers of
the North, already deservedly famous, and in preferring to them an inexperienced
theorist, enamoured of novelty, prone to seek for difficulties rather
than to evade them, and utterly indifferent as to the outlay which his
recklessness entailed upon his employers. The evil consequences of his
pet crotchet, the ‘broad gauge’ system, on the commerce of
Bristol will have to be noticed here after. For the present it will suffice
to show the fallaciousness of Mr Brunel’s estimates.
John Latimer in Annals of Bristol in
the Nineteenth Century 1887
Despite the gaiety, the wit, and the high spirits which so distinguished
him as a youth and as a young man, Brunel’s was not, fundamentally,
a happy disposition. His own writing in his youth confirm this. They suggest
that at the core of his being there lay a profound melancholy and that
it was to escape from it that he became so addicted to what he called
his ‘castle building’. In his unhappiness, in a nature so
intensely proud and gifted with so vivid an imagination, we have surely,
the key to his extraordinary energy. Doubt and pessimism which might have
driven weaker natures to apathetic despair or to orgies of self-indulgence
drove Brunel into a fury of creative activity. So proud a man could never
admit despair nor any defeat. Whatever imagination suggested, pride drove
him to undertake and so the ‘châteaux d’Espagne’
of youth became the great achievements of his maturity.
L T C Rolt in Isambard Kingdom Brunel
He was indeed a great man, an exceptional man, though he did not,
by himself, ‘build the railway’ but received vital assistance
from untold thousands of other men – whose efforts he rarely if
ever acknowledged. It is astonishing to think that his seemingly superhuman
labours and the intense mental energy he focused came from an unhappy
mind, a mind plagued with ‘blue devils’ and so supremely lacking
in self-confidence that he believed he had to slave incessantly or be
destroyed by the hobgoblin of ‘idleness’...
His perfect taste, his insistence on only the best workmanship, his obsession
with his status and his frequent changes of mind and grievous mistakes
cost his shareholders dear... while he himself did not achieve great wealth
and indeed paid for his dreams by his death at the early age of fifty-three.
But he did not dream in vain. He took up his challenges as an honourable
knight-errant should, he pursued his dragons with the utmost tenacity
and executed them with reckless bravery.
Adrian Vaughan in Isambard Kingdom Brunel:
engineering knight-errant 1991
I K Brunel came rapidly to receive from posterity the accolade of
having been one of the greatest and most heroic of British engineers.
This judgment does justice to the dynamic, effervescent personality, which
inspired such loyalty and affection amongst his friends. He was a man
motivated by a vision of creative imagination to transform the ability
of people to travel... Brunel was never an easy man to live with. He was
always restless, ebullient, challenging those around him to do what he
wanted them to do. In many respects, he accepted the assumptions and prejudices
of his own society without question, being a conformist in most matters
of taste and belief. But in his engineering vision he was a driven man,
and he devoted himself to the fulfilment of his objectives and thereby
to the transformation of the way of living in modern societies. He was
not so much a Renaissance Man as a man of his time, an eminent early Victorian,
of the heroic age of British engineering.
Angus Buchanan in
Brunel: the life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel 2002