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International Women’s Day: Brunel Museum Tour Guide is working on a historical crime novel that sees Emma Brunel act as an amateur sleuth. Here’s why

Emma Joan Brunel was the sister of civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However, little is actually know about her. She is merely a footnote in the numerous biographies about her famous brother. But the few facts that I was able to unearth suggest that she was an extraordinary woman in her own right.

Emma was born in Westminster on 06th April 1803 and baptised at St Margaret’s Church, which is right next to Westminster Abbey. Now comes the interesting bit: She got married on 31st October 1836 at the age of 33 and had her one and only child when she was already 41. These things are really remarkable for a woman of the 19th century. Her husband, The Rev George Harrison (not to be confused with a certain musician from Liverpool), was a widower but only two years her senior. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any records about his first wife yet or how and when he and Emma met. But I’ll keep digging.

The fact that Emma’s husband was a vicar might not seem such an interesting fact at first glance. However, this was also the profession of her paternal grandfather, who had been very determined for Emma’s father Marc to follow into his footsteps. But he refused and became an engineer instead, which definitely came in handy for Isambard. There are a few remarks in a biography about Marc that he did not care much for religionists, which gives me the impression that Emma chose her husband herself. It also made me wonder if spirituality might have given her a sense of belonging in general. She didn’t seem to have had any interest in engineering and probably often felt excluded from the mind-boggling conversations about her father’s (and brother’s) work. Emma was also a middle child, who tend to be overlooked anyway.

I’ve recently got my hands on a letter of condolences that Emma wrote in 1831, which confirms that she was indeed a spiritual person. She knew the Bible so well that she quotes it by heart several times in her letter. Judging by the way she comforts her friend in her bereavement, I’m sure that being a vicar’s wife was something that Emma must’ve really enjoyed. It also seemed to have been a very comfortable life. When she died on 25th October 1883 at the age of 80, her personal estate was worth 990 pounds, 14 shillings and 9 pence.

Emma’s interest in people as well as her sense for right & wrong makes her the perfect amateur sleuth. As a spinster she also had a lot of time on her hands while the Thames Tunnel was built from 1825 onwards, which is an important setting in my crime novel. But there’s something else that Emma brings to the table: A strong inner conflict.

Four years prior to the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the Thames Tunnel, Emma’s father went bankrupt and was arrested for debt. Her mother accompanied him into King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, which was not far from the infamous Marshalsea Prison. At that time Isambard was in France for his education and Emma’s older sister Sophia lived in Lambeth with her husband.

But what happened Emma?

It seems logical that she either joined her parents or lived with her sister/other relatives. But according to a biography about her father, Emma stayed at the family home in Chelsea (together with a trusted maid) and seemed to have taken charge of the household. This suggests that she was someone, who was considered to be capable of coping on her own in a crisis. But since she had only turned 18 that year, I imagine that this situation was still quite a traumatic experience for her. As Dickens describes it so vividly in his novel ‘Little Dorrit’, being sent to debtor’s prison came with a huge stigma and the uncertainty of not knowing when the prisoner would be released. Emma’s father was lucky. He only had to spend three months in prison before The Duke of Wellington/the British Government arranged for his debts to be paid.

However, in my novel Emma is still affected by the aftermath of these events, which both motivates and hinders her during her investigations.

Of course, this is only fictionalised version of the real Emma Joan Brunel. But it is a great way for me to give her a voice, which is the main reason why I have decided to make this extraordinary woman an amateur sleuth.

Happy International Women’s Day!


Andrea Vasel (Pen name: Rea Rhine), Tour Guide & Museum Ambassador (This blog post has also been published on:

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