Thomas Brassey- Railway Builder

Tuesday January 14th 2014

‘Thomas Brassey- Railway Builder’ by David Jones, RCEA

This illustrated talk outlined the life of the unsung railway contractor Thomas Brassey, a phenomenal organiser and leader This illustrated talk outlined the life of the unsung railway contractor Thomas Brassey, a of men, who never swore or raised his voice. He is credited with the building of 2061 miles of railway in the UK, one third of the total mileage, and a further 4462 miles overseas as far away as Argentina and Australia, about one twelfth of the world’s mileage. At one time his workforce was 45,000 men.
Born on 7 November 1805 at Manor Farm, Buerton near Aldford, Cheshire, he later attended Mr. Harling’s School in Chester then in 1821, aged 16 years joined William Lawton, Land surveyor and Agent in Birkenhead subsequently becoming a partner in 1826. He was articled to build a small bridge at Saughall Massie in the Wirral, but George Stephenson who had contacted him for stone from Storeton quarry to repair the Sankey
Viaduct on the 1830 Liverpool Manchester line, suggested he move into railway work. He introduced him to Joseph Locke, his pupil and engineer for the Grand Junction Railway who persuaded him to tender for building the Penkridge Viaduct and 10 miles of railway line, which marked the beginning of the association between the two men.
In 1837 Locke and Brassey worked on the London – Southampton Railway, which had already been started by Francis Giles, engineer for the Basingstoke Canal, but he used small contractors for each section which caused difficulties. The line opened throughout in 1840 by which time it had become the LSWR. An extension to Gosport encountered problems at Fareham due to the unstable ground and almost broke Brassey.
In 1841 Joseph Locke was engaged as engineer in France on the Paris to Rouen line so brought in Brassey, partnered with brothers William and Edward McKenzie, another firm of contractors. The locomotives for the line were built by William Buddicon, previously with the Grand Junction Railway at Crewe, and constructed at a new factory in Rouen. One of the Buddicom engines is preserved at the railway museum in Mulhouse. The onward route to Le Harve included the Barentin Viaduct, built 1845, where there was a problem with the local lime cement causing a collapse on 10 January 1846. It was rebuilt at Brassey’s own expense in six months with better cement of his own choosing, opened in 1847 and is still in use today.
Further lines in England included the Caledonian Railway – Section One, later known as the Lancaster to Carlisle Railway which included Shap Fell where 250,000 cubic yards of rock had to be blasted away, requiring the use of 9,600 men and 800 horses. George Stephenson favoured the long coastal route, but Joseph Locke got his own way with his direct 70 mile route over the hills. The first sod was cut July 1844 at 914 feet altitude, with the line opening on 15 Dec 1846. Chester Station was opened in 1848, where there are now three plaques commemorating Thomas Brassey.
The Great Northern Railway main line from London to Peterborough was largely Brassey’s own work, which included the impressive Welwyn viaduct designed by William Cubitt and opened by Queen Victoria in August 1850. The cast iron bridge at Peterborough, designed by Joseph Cubitt, was also opened in August 1850 and is still in daily use. Brassey received a Testimonial Salver shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
In 1853 Brassey decided to lay his own speculative 32 mile Portsmouth Direct Railway from the then terminus at Godalming to Havant which trimmed the existing route to Portsmouth by 30 miles. Completed by 1858 it was first offered to the SER, but eventually purchased by the LSWR. This resulted in a dispute between the two existing lines so the LBSCR blocked the entrance to Havant using a locomotive chained to the track on January 1 1859, when the LSWR started to run trains. A court enquiry followed but only delayed the opening until 24 January 1859.
The largest contract was jointly with Samuel Morton Peto and Edward Ladd Betts for the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, 539 miles along the St. Lawrence from Quebec to Toronto including the Victoria Bridge at Montreal, designed by Robert Stephenson and completed December 19 1859. All the materials including locomotives were made in Birkenhead at the 1853-built Canada Works of Thomas Brassey and Co.

In late 1854, having heard of the difficulties in the Crimea, especially following the Charge of the Light Brigade fiasco on 25 October and the hard winter, Brassey teamed up again with Peto and Betts and offered to build a railway from Balaclava to the siege lines. This was gratefully accepted by the Government and Generals, so in early February 1855 23 ships with equipment and navvies reached Balaclava harbour and 20 miles of the railway was constructed within six weeks, the mileage being doubled by the time Sevastopol was abandoned by the Russians in September 1855.
Further railways included the 112 mile Eastern Bengal Railway, Inverness and Aberdeen Junction Railway and the 66 mile Bilbao and Miranda railway together with Salisbury Station and completion of the Mount Cenis tunnel in Italy. After the Maremma to Leghorn (now Livorno) Railway of 138 miles in Italy and Jutland Railway of 270 miles in Denmark, he diversified to help build part of the London sewer system for Joseph Bazalgette. Then followed the Mauritius Railway of 64 miles and the line from Ringwood to Christchurch, plus in 1864 the East London Line and the Dehli Railway. Brassey and his partners then bought ‘The Great Eastern’ steamship of I. K. Brunel, launched in 1858, to lay the successful continuous transatlantic cable in 1864, as the short-lived cable of 1858, which was joined in the middle, broke.
In 1866, the Cracow to Lemberg Railway, now Krakov to Lvov, was built at the height of the Prussian assault on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The men were owed their wages, so agent Victor Ofenheim persuaded an elderly engine driver to go flat out through the battle lines to deliver bags of cash to the men. Emperor Franz
Joseph of Austria later asked “Who is this Mr. Brassey for whom men would risk their lives”, and presented him a medal, ‘The Cross of the Iron Crown’.
Also in 1866, the collapse of the Overend, Gurney Bank caused the bankruptcy of Peto, Betts and Crampton which affected Brassey as he had to finish off the joint contracts on his own. He became ill whilst living in St. Leonards-on-Sea and was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hotel on the sea front where he died aged 65 on the 8th December 1870. His wife Maria Farringdon died, also aged 65, on the 3rd January 1877, and both are buried at St. Laurence churchyard, Catsfield, East Sussex. A comprehensive display and a bust of Thomas Brassey can be seen in Hastings Museum, and there is a chapel to his memory in Chester Cathedral. He left £5.2 million to his three surviving sons who became MPs or country squires.