Brunel and the Great Western Railway

Britain’s first ‘true’ railway, the Liverpool and Manchester, successfully connected one of England’s biggest ports with its largest textile manufacturer. This remarkable achievement was the first major link in the national rail network that eventually covered more than 6,000 miles and joined together all England’s major cities and ports.

Britain now lavishes the same care on its industrial heritage as it once reserved for its castles and cathedrals. Honour, too, is now paid to its creators. Telford, a ‘new town’ in Shropshire, records the name of the founding father of modern civil engineering. But Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) is honoured, not by the name of a town but of a university, a unique distinction in Britain. Fittingly, Brunel University is renowned for its technological departments. Also fittingly it is located on the western ledge of London, for one of Brunel’s most significant achievements was to link the Capital with the West.

Historians disagree about when we should date the first ‘true’ railway but most accept it to be the Liverpool and Manchester, which opened in 1830, linking one of Britain’s biggest ports with the nation’s largest textile manufacturing centre. The Surrey Iron Railway (1803) and the Stockton and Arlington (1825) might vie for this title, but the Liverpool and Manchester was the first to carry both passengers and freight solely by the use of steampower. The practical and financial success of this venture plunged the country into a railway mania that by 1850 had established a national network covering more than 6,000 miles and joining together all the major cities and ports.

Britain was unified as never before. The tyranny of distance had been smashed. A cheap national system of postage, national daily papers and the general adoption of Greenwich Mean Time (essential for the co-ordination of timetables) were unlooked-for benefits of this revolutionary new form of transport. National unification may have been the outcome of the establishment of Britain’s railway system. But profit rather than unity was the aim of the railway promoters and there was precious little system about their methods. If it was an age of bold engineers and even bolder capitalist it was also an age of bogus ‘experts’ and unscrupulous speculators. Fortunes were lost as well as made as bands of railway promoters jostled one another before parliamentary committees whose approval was essential for the construction of any new line.

Liverpool was one of England’s great Atlantic ports. Bristol was the other. And the merchants of Bristol feared permanent eclipse at the hands of their upstart rival unless they too could obtain the benefits of the new technology. But they looked not to a link with a nearby manufacturing centre (there was none nearby comparable to Manchester) but with London itself, which would mean building a railway some four times as long as the Liverpool and Manchester, a feat of construction on a scale never attempted since the age of the pyramids. They sought an engineer to oversee this stupendous task. They found him–Isambard Kingdom Brunel, not yet 30 years old.

Brunel the engineer was the son of Brunel the engineer. Brunel senior, a royalist, had fled the French Revolution to become, briefly, official engineer to the city of New York, and then, having settled in London, a consultant engineer to the Royal Navy. Educated and trained in both French and English schools and workshops, Brunel junior served his practical apprenticeship assisting his father in the building of the first tunnel under the Thames. (It now carries the Underground between Wapping and Rotherhithe.) Twice the young engineer came within seconds of death when the workings collapsed and hundreds of tons of debris and water came crashing down on the construction gangs. The second collapse brought an end to all work on the tunnel for seven years. Convalescing, Isambard dreamed of the day when he would ‘at last be rich, have a house built, of which I have even made the drawings . . . be the first engineer and an example for future ones.’ What he feared most was what he thought most likely: ‘a mediocre success–an engineer sometimes employed, sometimes not–£200 or £300 a year and that uncertain.’

Years of frustration were to follow as Brunel busied himself with a bewildering variety of projects, from an experimental chemical engine to supersede steam-power to supervision of routine coastal drainage works. Public recognition came at last with dramatic success in the completion to design a bridge to span the might Avon river gorge at Bristol. Ironically, the bridge was not to be completed until after Brunel’s death but the commission brought him into contact with the promoters of the projected Bristol to London railway and thus set him on the road to his first great work.

Appointed in March 1833, Brunel was required to complete a preliminary survey of the route by May. With characteristic ingenuity he designed what he called his ‘Flying Hearse’, a streamlined carriage which doubled as office and bedroom–and also housed a monster case for 50 cigars. But even the demonic Brunel confessed to an assistant: ‘it is harder work than I like. I am rarely much under twenty hours a day at it.’

Six months later final plans were completed and in March 1834 the bill needed to incorporate the company which would build the near railway was referred to a parliamentary committee for scrutiny and approval. Here the promoters would be required to do battle with all those vested interests who opposed the venture. Some were landowners who either objected to railways for the simple reason that they were new or because it was alleged that they would terrify their livestock; others hoped to bid up the price of the land the railway would need. But the most vociferous opposition came from rival transport interests: coach companies, the Kennet and Avon Canal and rival groups of railway promoters. The contest lasted for an epic 57 days and ended in defeat for Brunel and his backers.

Undeterred, the directors of the projected Great Western Railway submitted another bill in 1835 and entrusted their youthful surveyor with the task of presenting their case. His cross-examination went on for 11 days. An eye-witness later paid tribute to what can only be called the performance of a lifetime: ‘He was rapid in thought, clear in language and never said too much or lost his presence of mind. I do not remember ever having enjoyed so great an intellectual treat as that of listening to Brunel’s examination.’

This enquiry lasted 40 days and ended, in August 1835, in final victory for the G.W.R.–at the cost of £90,000 in legal fees and ‘parliamentary expenses’. On 26th December, 1835 Brunel sat alone in his London office, recording his reflections in the diary which two years of frantic work had obliged him to abandon:

’When I wrote last in this book I was just emerging from obscurity. I had been toiling most unprofitably at numerous things . . . The Railway is now in progress. I am their Engineer to the finest work in England–a handsome salary–£2,000 a year–on excellent terms with my Directors and all going smoothly . . .’

When Brunel began work on the G.W.R. he was 30 years old, had no previous experience of railway construction and no trained assistants to guide him or rely on. His achievement therefore was to be as much a managerial as a technical one. But technical challenges intrigued him and his solution to one of them was to have consequences which would endure for a generation after his death. He was determined to build not just a railway but the railway. Once, while actually travelling on the Liverpool and Manchester, he had written prophetically: ‘I record this specimen of the shaking of the Manchester railway. The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45 m.p.h.–let me try.’

The route surveyed by Brunel from London to Bristol is one of the flattest in England. There are few gradients and those mostly gradual ones. Determined to take best advantage of this Brunel rejected the already established gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches worked out pragmatically in the hilly Northeast by George Stephenson, the ‘father of Britain’s railways’. Instead he opted for a ‘broad gauge’ of 7 feet, which would accommodate larger, more powerful engines, travelling at unprecedented speeds but also with greater stability than ever before. Brunel was certain that the technical superiority of his system–proved in numerous trials–would eventually lead every other line to convert to it. He was wrong. The ‘battle of the gauges’ was be temporarily resolved by laying a third rail inside the broad gauge tracks to accommodate through traffic from lines running on the standard gauge. the G.W.R. only completed its full conversion to standard gauge in 1892.

The first completed section of the G.W.R., from London to Maidenhead on the Thames, opened on 4th June, 1838. By March 1840 the route had been extended to Reading. The Bristol end involved major technical challenges, with Temple Meads Station being built 15 feed above ground level and requiring an arched wooded roof span of 72 feet, four feet wider than Westminster Hall, the largest medieval roof-span in England. Bath station, similarly elevated, required a 73-arch viaduct approach. And between the two stations it was necessary to build another viaduct, four bridges and seven tunnels. Nevertheless this section was opened on the last day of August 1840. All that remained was the most difficult section of all, from Chippenham to Bath, which would involve more viaducts, a crossing of the river Avon, the diversion of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the construction of the Box Tunnel, which Brunel’s critics were to call ‘monstrous and extraordinary, most dangerous and impracticable.’

At two miles long it was by far the longest tunnel ever attempted. Every week for two and a half years it accounted for a ton of candles and a ton of gunpowder. It also accounted for the lives of more than 100 men of the 4,000 who worked on it. In December 1840, four months after the tunnel should have been completed, Brunel took personal charge of the site. By June 1841 the entire route was completed. It had cost £6,500,000, more than double the original estimate but it was indeed ‘the finest work in England’.

The ultimate accolade came just one year later when, for the first time ever, the young Queen Victoria graciously assented to travel by rail. Ensconced in a magnificent Royal Saloon, specifically built at Swindon on the orders of the directors of the G.W.R., and with Brunel himself and Daniel Gooch, the 26-year-old Superintendent of the Locomotive Department, riding on the foot-plate, the Queen travelled the dozen or so miles from Slough, near Windsor, to Paddington in just 25 minutes. Railways had now, in a social sense, finally come of age.

But it was to be another decade before the London terminus was to acquire a full-fledged station building worthy of its importance. Brunel wrote to the architect Matthew Digby Wyatt to invite his collaboration on the project. The letter reveals a curious mixture of impatience, decisiveness and sensitivity so characteristic of the man:

’I am going to design, in a great hurry, and I believe to build a station after my own fancy . . . such a thing will be entirely metal …it is a branch of architecture of which I am fond, and, of course, believe myself fully competent for; but for detail of ornamentation I have neither time nor knowledge . . . I trust your knowledge of me would lead you to expect anything but a disagreeable mode of consulting you . . . If you are disposed to accept my offer, can you be with me this evening at 9 1/2 p.m.? It is the only time this week I can appoint, and the matter presses very much. . . .

After the Great Western Railway came the Great Western, a steamship intended to link Bristol and America as the railway had linked Bristol and London. The Great Western was followed by the Great Britain, the first all-iron, screw-driven steamship, which can still be seen in its home port of Bristol. Not that Brunel’s interest in ships meant any lack of interest in other projects, which included a vastly expensive and ultimately abortive series of experiments to develop a railway run on compressed air, the construction of a bridge over the 1,100-foot-wide river Tamar and the design of a standardised prefabricated hospital for use in the Crimean war. His last and greatest project was the construction of the Great Eastern which, at 20,000 tons, was six times larger than any ship ever previously built. Brunel lived just long enough to see it launched. Daniel Gooch extolled his former master in a most fitting epitaph:

’By his death the greatest of England’s engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.’


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