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Brunel Letters

For most people, the name Isambard Kingdom Brunel is associated mainly with the South and South West – the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, and his pioneering steam ships. How many people today realise that he was also responsible for the construction of Monkwearmouth Docks, on the north side of the River Wear?

Ordnance survey map for Sunderland showing the new dock area

New light is shed on this North East connection by a group of letters recently acquired by Tyne and Wear Archives Service. The letters, purchased with the assistance of a generous grant from the Museum, Library and Archives Council’s PRISM fund, were sent to Michael Lane, Resident Engineer to the Wearmouth Dock Company from 1835-1839. Lane had worked for Brunel for most of his life, and was Brunel’s second in command at Monkwearmouth, responsible for the day-to-day running of the project.

The letters, mainly from Brunel himself, either in his own hand or via his secretary, include instructions and discussion of possible changes to the design as work progressed, and contain references to disputes between Brunel, the Dock Company, and latterly the River Wear Commissioners. These references are all the more valuable – and tantalising – because no records of the Wearmouth Dock Company have survived.

Aside from the obvious local value, the letters also show a more human side to a man often regarded as distant and autocratic. Early in 1838 – while himself incapacitated – Brunel took the trouble to send a series of letters to Lane, who had suffered an accident while working on the docks, expressing his personal concern for Lane’s progress, and promising to make sure no expense was spared in assisting his recovery.

Brunel’s sometimes impulsive nature is also shown, for example in this extract from a letter from his secretary, Hammond, regarding a proposed visit to view the Monkwearmouth works:

“when you come out to meet us, in case the ‘City of Aberdeen’ [a new steamer, possibly unfamiliar with the Wear] should hesitate about stopping, Mr B. wishes that you should provide a few of our best men [in] boats, as in such a case he should not hesitate to jump overboard. I leave it for you to pick him up”

Unfortunately there is nothing to show whether such extreme measures were ultimately required!

The letters have been catalogued under reference DX1269, and can be viewed at Tyne and Wear Archives Service in Newcastle. The searchroom is open Monday-Friday from 9-5, and on the first Saturday of every month. Contact Rachel Gill on 0191 277 2248, or email for further information.

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