The Network Rail archive is the custodian of a vast collection of historic documents and plans relating to today’s railway infrastructure.

It represents the development of the most significant structures, engineers and innovation on the railway from the 19th century to the present.

Each month we will delve into the archive to shine a light on the development of our network through the ages.

December: Brunel and Stephenson’s Christmas in Cairo – two giants’ last rail projects

Cairo, Egypt, 1858 – two great engineering rivals and close friends spend the last Christmas of their lives together.

To outsiders, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson were opponents throughout their ground-breaking work during the Victorian railway revolution. Their world-renowned structures and techniques would change engineering – and the world – forever.

The competition to each establish Brunel's broad gauge and George Stephenson's gauge as the industry standard for track would divide them, with Robert Stephenson taking his father George’s side – and winning.

To those who knew them well, they shared a long friendship, during which they consulted on significant projects.

In December 1858, they were each very ill and had separately gone to Cairo, hoping the warmer weather would improve their health. For Brunel, this meant leaving his last big projects – the construction of the Royal Albert Bridge between Devon and Cornwall and the ship SS Great Eastern.

According to Brunel’s SS Great Britain, a museum of Brunel’s pioneering ship, he wrote to his sister, Lady Sophie Hawes, that he arrived in Egypt to “a continuation of the river, with distant islands shut in by mountains, of beautiful colours, some a lilac sandstone, some of the bright red yellow of the sands of the desert”.

They spent that Christmas Day – their last – dining together, perhaps knowing it would be one of their final meetings. Brunel died at home from a stroke on 15 September 1859, aged 53. Stephenson died in London less than a month later, on 12 October. He was 55.

The story of their final Christmas is shrouded in mystery

What did two giants talk about as they came to the end of their lives – and an engineering era?

John Page, a records assistant at the National Records Group at Network Rail, said: “Brunel and Stephenson in Egypt in 1858, it’s a very tantalising piece of their joint history as no-one knows what was said or any real detail except, they spent Christmas Day together.

An iconic profile of the Royal Albert Bridge dating from 1858 to 1859

“Brunel was in Egypt during the construction of the Royal Albert Bridge as he was told by his doctor to take some time off and the Royal Albert Bridge was a massive project.”

An amazing site – a Royal Albert Bridge drawing showing how the second tube floated into place.

“Brunel and Stephenson, although great engineering rivals, were also great friends… People saw them as rivals but behind the scenes they were always at each other’s parties. According to Stephenson’s biography from 1864, Robert had an invite from a Lord and Lady to dine with them at Christmas in Cairo, but he turned them down to dine with Brunel.”

The SS Great Britain museum has speculated the SS Great Eastern “would have been a charged topic of conversation”.

An original plan showing the location of the Royal Albert Bridge

Final works

Their careers, intertwined for much of their lives, remained so towards the end. John said: “[The Royal Albert Bridge] was [Brunel’s] last railway work – he was occupied by the SS Great Eastern at the end of his life.

“He was abroad a lot when it was being constructed and couldn’t attend the opening through ill health. The first and last time he saw the bridge completed was laying on a bed in a train going over it. Stephenson was also present at a lot of the Royal Albert Bridge works and consulted with Brunel’s chief engineer Robert Pearson Brereton.”

The famous lions and front elevation of Robert Stephenson's Britannia Bridge in Wales

As for Stephenson, he had become focused on road bridges, Canadian railway bridges on the Grand Trunk railway and the Norwegian railways – but the Britannia Bridge and Conwy Railway Bridge in Wales were his last projects on Britain’s railway. Brunel was present at both during construction.

Profile of the Britannia Bridge, with the Egyptian temple-style towers

This Britannia Bridge drawing shows statues in the original designs that were never built

Read more:

From the archive: war memorials

From the archive: WWII and the railway

From the archive: William Henry Barlow

From the archive: the Royal Albert Bridge

From the archive: the Royal Border Bridge

From the archive: Glasgow Queen Street

From the archive: London Charing Cross