Thomas Brassey...a railway giant

Travel through Cheshire by train and the chances are you’ll be passing along some part of a line built by a farmer’s son who came to be a pioneering giant in the railway explosion of the Industrial Revolution.

Thomas Brassey, born 1805 at Buerton, between Malpas and Chester, was an insatiable railway builder. He constructed 1,940 miles of track in Britain alone and 6,415 miles in different parts of the world, including France, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Canada, India, Australia and Argentina.

During the Crimean War he also rendered notable service to his country by helping to build at cost around forty miles of line from Balaclava to very part of the front, to convey much-needed supplies to the sick and half-starving British troops.

Brassey was the son of a wealthy family whose ancestors came to England with William the Conqueror. He attended school in Chester and was articled to a land surveyor and agent. The first large civil engineering work on which he was employed was Telford’s Holyhead Road.

Eventually, he became a partner in the surveying and agency business and established himself at Birkenhead where he was visited by George Stephenson. As a result Brassey tendered for the building of the Dutton Viaduct but was unsuccessful. However, he had better fortune with the Penkridge Viaduct, between Stafford and Wolverhampton, and ten miles of line.

This contract set him on the way, though the building of railways was a totally new occupation to all. Appropriate methods had to be worked out from the canal blueprints and the navvies who helped construct them became the nucleus of the railway building workforce.

In 1862, when Brassey undertook to build 539 miles of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, from Quebec to Lake Huron, he had to ship out 3,000 navvies from England, chiefly from Lancashire and Cheshire.

In fact, this project was one of his least successful undertakings and when it was completed in 1859 it was at a loss of £1 million, a quite staggering sum.

Brassey was also a visionary and one of the projects in which he became interested was a Channel tunnel... 130 years before it was built.

Two of his best known works in Cheshire are Chester General Station, built in 1848, and the railway bridge spanning the Runcorn-Widnes Gap.

As well as railways he was involved with steamships, mines, engine factories and marine telegraph; he constructed docks and harbours and sewage works and laid out Cliff Town, from which sprang Southend.

At times, it was said, he and his partners employed upwards of 100,000 people.
Brassey died in 1870 and one wonders what he would make of today’s railways?