Ref NoDM1306/2/1
TitlePersonal diary kept by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the locked diary)
DescriptionDiary kept by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, expressing his innermost thoughts, emotions, and aspirations, including his courtship of Ellen Hulme. It includes descriptions of his work on the Thames Tunnel and an account of his accident in the Tunnel, written while he was recovering from his injuries.

The diary begins in October 1827 and ends on 6 April 1829. Brunel added a letter to Benjamin Hawes at the beginning of the volume, and wrote a codicil to the letter in August 1832.

Also known as 'the locked diary'.

The record for each page includes a transcript by Professor Angus Buchanan, with footnotes. The entire transcript, with introduction and notes, can be found on the Special Collections web site. (

THE PERSONAL JOURNAL OF I.K. BRUNEL: introduction by Professor R. Angus Buchanan:

Brunel began writing this Personal Journal in October 1827. He was twenty-one, and was already working as assistant engineer to his father on the Thames Tunnel, based at the head of the shaft in Rotherhithe from which the tunnelling shield patented by Marc Brunel was burrowing its way northwards under the river. The young Brunel had been trained by his father to keep a fairly formal diary, which he managed to do episodically during the years in which he was working on the Tunnel. But he felt the need also for some more personal form of self-expression by which he could record his most intimate thoughts and feelings. So he acquired a small leather-bound notebook sealed with a clasp and key, and began to confide to it a series of reflections intended for no eyes except his own. Writing in ink, on one side of each page only, he filled 35 pages and then, on 6th April 1829, he stopped.
At this point he appears to have had some sort of apprehension of early death, and lightened his gloom by penning a dedicatory letter to his friend Benjamin Hawes, leaving the Journal to his friend in the event of his death. He added a ‘codicil’ to this letter three years later, while he was assisting Hawes in the parliamentary election campaign of 1832. But so far as we know, Hawes never received this legacy, because the document survived with other papers in the family, to be deposited eventually in what is now the Special Collection of Brunel material in the University of Bristol Library. It has been used by biographers of Brunel, who have found it to be a revealing and sometimes puzzling source of information about the mind of their subject. Until now, however, it has not been available in a form in which it is both easy to read and possible to understand most, if not quite all, of the sentiments expressed therein.
The entries in the Journal occur in four episodes, of unequal length and significance. The First covers the period from October to December 1827 [1-14] with entries on 11 October, 13 October, 4 November, 5 November, 21 November and 29 December. The mood at this time was up-beat and dominated by the work for which Brunel was responsible on the Thames Tunnel, but it was lightened by fanciful depictions of prospects - his ‘castles in the air’ - including his relations with the Fair Sex. The Second episode is in more sombre mood, covering the period from April to August 1828 [15-34] with entries on 22 April, 6-7 May, 8 June, 13 June, and 17 August. The first of these, on 22 April, is a long reflection on the dramatic incidents of 12 January, when he almost lost his life in an inundation of the Tunnel. At the time of writing he was still recuperating in bed from the after-effects of this accident, and he remained in bed for the next entry on 6-7 May. He took the opportunity to outline what was in effect a rule of life, stipulating a desirable allocation of his time. In the entries for 8 and 13 June he was concerned mainly with his matrimonial prospects, but on 17 August he returned to the deplorable state of affairs in the Tunnel business, which had virtually come to a standstill. The Third episode was an entry on 6 April 1829 [35], in which he briefly noted the lack of progress in both his business and personal interests. Finally, the Fourth episode was marked two days later, on 8 April 1829, the eve of Brunel's twenty-third birthday, by the addition of the letter scribbled in the opening flyleaves of the notebook to Benjamin Hawes. [i-iv] This was completed by the ‘codicil’ of 2 August 1832, after which there is no record of Brunel ever having looked at the notebook again. It can be surmised that he made subsequent efforts to keep a personal record of this type, but if he was successful in doing so there is no record of anything having survived. The period from 1832 to his death in 1859 was, moreover, one of virtually continuous pressure from enormous preoccupations of business, so it was not conducive to the sort of reflectiveness that is essential for sustained journal writing.
Even though the Personal Journal covers such a small fragment of the early career of I.K. Brunel, it contains some wonderful insights into the mind of its author, both as a professional man and as a human being. We are not dealing with juvenilia here: despite his youth, Brunel had already travelled extensively and was currently carrying tremendous professional responsibilities in place of his ageing father. His reflections, even when they are occasionally immature and fanciful, are informed by a powerful creative imagination and a disciplined dedication to his chosen career. His professional commitment, indeed, is remarkable in such a young man, and testifies to the diligence with which Marc Brunel had attended to his son’s training. The young engineer was already so committed to his career that he was prepared to conclude that ‘my profession is after all my only fit wife’. [28] The enthusiasm with which he equipped himself with the best tools [13-14], collected useful information [21], and ranged over possible engineering projects [24, 30, etc] are all indicative of single-minded devotion to the profession. There is no talk yet of railways, or even of building ships, but he thinks of bridges [24] and lighthouses [30], where other engineers were already making great reputations for themselves, and allows his mind to conjure up all sorts of grandiose imperial projects – ‘in fact take Algiers or something in that style’ [4] - in which he could use his engineering expertise. Considering the still largely inchoate nature of the engineering profession in Britain at this time, it is quite astonishing to find so clear a resolve in the mind and aspirations of such a young recruit.
As far as his personal life was concerned, the Personal Journal is illuminating about Brunel. For one thing, it shows his strangely obsessive secrecy. [i] One expects a diary to be a personal document and not open to the eyes of everybody, but the anxiety with which the young Brunel preserved the privacy of this particular document is curious. Then there is the charming candour with which he catches his own pride and vanity, as when he finds himself ‘trying to look big on my little pony’ [3] and regretting his lack of a horse [18]; and deploring his inability to purchase tools, so that he acknowledges the need to ‘attendons un peu’. [14] Most dramatically, perhaps, we have Brunel's musings on possible marriage partners, from which it is clear that his thoughts ranged widely. The names of several young ladies, hidden behind initials, have not yet been identified, but one of them, Ellen Hulme, emerges as his first love – ‘the oldest and most constant’[11] – whose affections had reigned for ‘nearly seven years’, which takes them back to 1820, when Brunel would have been fourteen.
Ellen came from a Manchester family, so that it seems likely that the young Brunel would have met her in the course of a visit or other business of his father, but it has not been possible to establish any details with certainty. What we do know is that Brunel broke off any tentative ‘engagement’ in 1829 – ‘I have had long correspondence with Ellen which I think I have managed well’. [35] But she had shown herself a lively young lady, capable of quizzing Brunel – ‘A shocking habit that of quizzing it at last prevents a person from thinking seriously’ [32] - and we know that Brunel retained a soft spot in his affections for her because he went to some trouble to arrange an annuity for her in the last year of his life.1 The real sticking point for him, however, had been that he could not afford to marry in 1827-28, and he did not actually undertake such a commitment until eight years later, by which time he was well established and on the way to making a fortune.
Finally, the Journal demonstrates a close bond between Brunel and his brother-in-law, Benjamin Hawes, although it is not possible to determine the extent to which the surprisingly warm feelings expressed by Brunel in his dedicatory letter were reciprocated. [i-iv] We know that Brunel was close to his elder sister, Sophia, who had married Hawes in 1820 and that he spent a considerable amount of time at the Hawes’ home, Barge House in Lambeth. [15] He also turned out to support Hawes in be successful election campaign he ran in 1832 for the new parliamentary constituency of Lambeth [iv] and the families of the two men remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives. But the strength of the feelings expressed by Brunel in his dedicatory letter, where he expresses passions which are ‘staunch and true and unchangeable’ [ii] is puzzling. So is the confession of faults – ‘what is worse they decidedly increase’ [iv] - and the expression of misery – ‘I’m unhappy - exceedingly so’ [iv] - with its suggestion that Brunel did suffer from moods of deep introspection and near despair, which he describes as feeling ‘blue’. Possibly, like Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’ moods, Brunel was prone to these moments of dejection. Happily for his reputation, however, he seems to have left them behind once the pressure of work from his colossal professional commitments took his mind off such personal considerations.
The text of the Personal Journal is not easily read in its original form. Even familiarity with the flowing handwriting of Brunel does not mean that every word is immediately decipherable, and there are a few phrases that do not submit even to prolonged investigation. The substance, moreover, gives the impression of having been written in a sort of stream of consciousness, as the author relaxed from his professional commitments and allowed his thoughts and reflections to pour out onto the page without much regard to the disciplines of punctuation, syntax, and spelling. Idiosyncrasies of spelling such as Brunel’s habit of writing ‘always’ with double ‘l’ have been preserved in this version, but some attempt has been made to tidy up the punctuation in order to make clear the author's intended meaning. The addition of footnotes provides explanations where necessary of the subject discussed by the author, but these are not intended to be intrusive. The page format of the Journal has been preserved with the page number being given in square brackets. It is hoped that, by presenting the text in a tidy and annotated form, the quality of Brunel’s insights into his own activities and motivations can be most clearly revealed.
DateOctober 1827 - August 1832
FormatManuscript volume
Extent1 volume
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