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Reminiscences of Mr. Brunel, 1833-1835

During this contest Mr. Brunel made among his fellow-labourers many deep and lasting friendships. One of the most intimate of these friends, Mr. St. George Burke, Q.C., has, in compliance with a request made to him, furnished the following reminiscences of his intercourse with Mr. Brunel during the progress of the Bill through Parliament.

March 9, 1869.

‘My dear Isambard,—You wish me to supply you with reminiscences of my old associations with your father, in order that, in your biography of him, you may present a true picture of those features of his character which so endeared him to his most intimate friends.

‘For many years it was my good fortune to enjoy his friendship, and many of the pleasantest hours of my life were due to it.

‘For a period of nearly three years, viz. during the contest for the Great Western Railway Bill, I think that seldom a day passed without our meeting, whether for purposes of business or pleasure, both of which his buoyant spirits enabled him to combine in a manner which I have seldom seen equalled.

‘It would be wearisome to detail the many incidents which occurred illustrative of the singularly facile manner in which, in the midst of the heaviest and most responsible labours, he could enter into the most boyish pranks and fun, without in the least distracting his attention from the matter of business in which he was engaged; but all who knew him as I did could bear testimony to this characteristic of his disposition.

‘I believe that a more joyous nature, combined with the highest intellectual faculties, was never created, and I love to think of him in the character of the ever gay and kind-hearted friend of my early years, rather than in the more serious professional aspect under which your pages will, no doubt, rightly depict him.

‘In 1833 your father and I occupied chambers facing each other in Parliament Street, and as my duties involved the superintendence, as Parliamentary agent, of the compliance with all the Standing Orders of Parliament, and very frequent interviews and negotiations with the landowners on the line, we were of necessity constantly thrown together. To facilitate our intercourse, it occurred to your father to carry a string across Parliament Street, from his chambers to mine, to be there connected with a bell, by which he could either call me to the window to receive his telegraphic signals, or, more frequently, to wake me up in the morning when we had occasion to go into the country together, which, it is needless to observe, was of frequent occurrence; and great was the astonishment of the neighbours at this device, the object of which they were unable to comprehend.

‘I believe that at that time he scarcely ever went to bed, though I never remember to have seen him tired or out of spirits. He was a very constant smoker, and would take his nap in an arm-chair, very frequently with a cigar in his mouth; and if we were to start out of town at five or six o’clock in the morning, it was his frequent practice to rouse me out of bed about three, by means of the bell, when I would invariably find him up and dressed, and in great glee at the fun of having curtailed my slumbers by two or three hours more than necessary.

‘No one would have supposed that during the night he had been poring over plans and estimates, and engrossed in serious labours, which to most men would have proved destructive of their energies during the following day; but I never saw him otherwise than full of gaiety, and apparently as ready for work as though he had been sleeping through the night.

‘In those days we had not the advantage of railways, and were obliged to adopt the slower, though perhaps not less agreeable, mode of travelling with post-horses. Your father had a britzska, so arranged as to carry his plans and engineering instruments, besides some creature comforts, never forgetting the inevitable cigar-case among them; and we would start by daybreak, or sometimes earlier, on our country excursions, which still live in my remembrance as some of the pleasantest I have ever enjoyed; though I think I may safely say that, pleasurable as they were, we never lost sight of the business in which we were engaged, and for which our excursions were undertaken.

‘I have never known a man who, possessing courage which to many would appear almost like rashness, was less disposed to trust to chance or to throw away any opportunity of attaining his object than was your father. I doubt not that this quality will be fully exemplified in the details which you will have received of his engineering experiments; but I speak of him also in the character of a diplomatist, in which he was as wary and cautious as any man I ever knew.

‘We canvassed many landowners together, and I had plenty of opportunities of judging of his skill and caution in our discussions with them, though we had many a good laugh afterwards at the arguments which had been addressed to us as to the inutility and impolicy of the scheme in which we were engaged, and the utter ruin it would be sure to entail on its promoters, as well as on the country affected by it.

‘I frequently accompanied him to the west of England, and into Gloucestershire and South Wales, when public meetings were held in support of the measures in which he was engaged, and I had occasion to observe the enormous popularity which he everywhere enjoyed. The moment he rose to address a meeting he was received with loud cheers, and he never failed to elicit applause at the end of his address, which was distinguished as much by simplicity of language and modesty of pretension as by accurate knowledge of his subject.

Yours very truly,
St. George Burke.

Isambard Brunel, Esq.’

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