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Published date: 14 November 2008

Find out how the development of the railways transformed the landscape of Great Britain and became the agent of enormous social change. Bruno Derrick explores the early years of the Great Western Railway, from its foundation to the death of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, and brings to light the vast collection of records in the custody of The National Archives.

Author: Bruno Derrick Duration: 45:28

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Transcription

Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to a talk on the Great Western Railway [GWR] which this year celebrates its 175th anniversary; although it was actually incorporated through Parliament in 1835. So you could argue that it’s proper 175th anniversary will be in two year’s time. I’ll talk about the history of the GWR a bit and principally about Isambard Kingdom Brunel who is the main person you associate with the GWR. But I suspect there are quite a few railway experts here who may conceivably know even more about the history of the GWR than I do, it’s possible.

So I am mainly going to be talking about some of the amazing documents we have got here relating to that subject and records you can look at if you want an idea of how railways, in particular GWR, transformed Britain in the early 19th century. I am going roughly from the early 1830s up to when Mr Brunel died in 1859.

So it’s called “God’s Wonderful Railway” which sounds to me a bit like a marketing term. I mean, I suspect the workers on there didn’t call it that on their job application, or when they’re courting somebody, they didn’t say, “Oh I work for ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’”. But it caught on; ‘God’s Waiting Room’ as well, and rather more critically the ‘Great Way Round’ because it didn’t always follow direct routes.

Key dates: obviously the railways had an enormous effect on Britain and in one sense every new railway company had key dates: they had new lines, new railways, new bridges, new railway towns being constructed; and I just picked out the key dates in the early history of GWR and it is founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833 and is incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1835. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, born 1846, was appointed Chief Engineer of the line. In 1838 the line between Paddington and Maidenhead was opened, 22 and a half miles; and in 1840, two years later, the line from Bristol to Bath was opened. Gradually they all met up with one another.

In 1841 the Box Tunnel opened. I am sure most of you have been through the Box Tunnel at some state; it’s an amazing engineering achievement. After the opening of the Box Tunnel trains could run from Paddington all the way to Bridgewater, Somerset. It’s 152 miles. In 1856 the line was extended to Neyland in South Wales by meeting up with the South Wales Railway. So the GWR under the auspices of Brunel pushed further westwards and when it met up with other smaller railway companies the tendency was to amalgamate with them or take over them or merge with them.

In 1859 Brunel died when he is was 53, and eight years later after his death the line was further extended down to Penzance and then in conjunction with the South Devon Railway and the West Cornwall Railway which basically ceased to exist soon after that date. That’s your man Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He’s got the cigar in his mouth there but when the Royal Mail issued some stamps to commemorate his life the cigar’s removed. But that’s the iconic picture of him. He looks sort of fairly scruffy there but he was on a very good salary. As we will see further on I mean he was being employed by more than one Railway Company and the GWR was paying him £2,000 a year. So he is a rich man although he doesn’t look particularly rich there.

I will give you a few notes about Brunel himself. The first and greatest engineer of the Great Western Railway, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the son of the French engineer, was born in Portsmouth in 1806. His name is forever associated with the Great Western Railway but he also designed tunnels and bridges such as the Clifton Bridge and the New Bridge which crossed the Thames at Hungerford in 1841; and also steamships such as the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Western which sailed between Bristol and New York. He is generally described as the greatest engineer of the heroic period of 19th century engineering.

Often troubled by ill health, on one occasion he swallowed a half sovereign while performing a conjuring trick for his children in 1843 and they had to perform an emergency tracheotomy and I don’t think he really quite recovered from that. But his main problem was that he was an incredible workaholic. He was just non-stop and he attended to all the minutiae of details in relation to all the projects he was working on particularly the Great Western Railway. So I think he may have died from exhaustion; he was only 53 when he died on 1859 and he’s buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. In the very same month he died his last steamship the SS Great Eastern embarked on her maiden voyage. So that’s a brief outline of Mr Brunel.

I found him on the 1841 census; you can see “IK Brunel a civil engineer” living in Bath at that time, probably engaged in the railway business, I expect. Here he is ten years later, the house of: “Isambard and Mary Elizabeth Brunel resident at [...] Duke Street of Westminster in London.” They’d got quite a classy address by that stage.

Now, you can know statistics galore about the Great Western Railway; I can just give you some examples of a few I’ve managed to get hold of. The GWR operated initially until the 1890s brought in narrow gauge railways. In 1850, 2,491,712 passengers travelled 1,425,573 miles of railway with receipts of £630,515 and by 1934, 80-odd years later, it massively increased. But that doesn’t include season ticket journeys!  It was a major railway and it had a huge franchise over the London; western England; south western England; the West Midlands and throughout Wales as well.

I’ll just briefly talk about the issue of railway gauges. Anyone who is interested in that particular subject, and many railway historians are, can of course just of search in our catalogue under whatever topic you choose to search under. I mean if you were to search under “broad and narrow gauge railway” or just “broad and narrow gauge” and narrow your search down to any RAIL series. Most gauge lines and trains were brought to Paddington in 1861 thus allowing through passenger trains from London to Chester. The Broad Gauge South Wales Railway amalgamated through the GWR in 1862 as did the West Midland Railway which brought with it the Oxford Worcester Wolverhampton Railway; a line that had been conceived as another broad gauge route to the Midlands but which had been built as narrow gauge after several battles to ensure that it was so.

On the 1st April 1869 the broad gauge was taken out of use between Oxford Wolverhampton and from Reading to Basingstoke. In August the line from Hereford was converted from broad to narrow and the whole of the line from Swindon through Gloucester to south Wales was similarly treated in May 1872. In 1874 the mixed gauge was extended along the main line to Chippenham and the line from there to Weymouth was narrowed. The following year saw mixed gauge laid through the Box Tunnel with a broad gauge narrow retained only for through services beyond Bristol and on a few branch lines. The Bristol and Exeter Railway amalgamated with the GWR on 1st January 1876.

They’d already made a start on mixing the gauge on its line, a task completed through to Exeter, March 1876 by the GWR; the station here being shared with the LSWR since 1862 and its rival company continued to push westwards over the Exeter and the Crediton line and arrived in Plymouth late in 1876, which spurred the South Devon Railway to also amalgamate with the Great Western. A lot of these amalgamations were taking place and the question between narrow and broad gauge was finally settled in the 1890s with the last broad gauge leaving Paddington in January 1892. But there are obviously narrow gauge, well different gauge railways, all over this country and broad as well.

Before I talk about various documents we have got in our custody relating to the history of the GWR I though I would just refer to a letter from the vicar in Swindon who sent it to the GWR; presumably it’s copied to Brunel; praising the conduct of the GWR relative to the building of the schools and a church at New Swindon and mentioning also the increasing extent of vice in Swindon is most awful. Now he didn’t specify what sort of vice there was but you can image a new railway town, and Swindon was effectively a new town, would have brought lots of drink problems possibly and other related issues. So he wasn’t too happy about that but he was quite happy about the railway itself and in the fact that they were building schools and churches because of the coming of the railway.

If you are looking for someone who worked on the Great Western Railway the main Series you should be looking at, I mean there are other ones, there is RAIL 264. This is a particularly important series because of the size of the company and because many research on ancestors who worked for the GWR. You could look elsewhere and of course people started with one company and perhaps moved onto the GWR afterwards.

At the moment we are cataloguing some of the staffing records for the GWR in RAIL 264 and the first nine piece numbers in RAIL 264 cover clerks employed by the GWR. So you can actually search on a catalogue under the clerk’s name just to see if you can get details of the person you are looking for when he joined; when he left; etc. And the aim is to have all the clerks catalogued, hopefully, fairly soon.

If you are looking for and you find the original record for someone who served as a clerk on the GWR, as we are talking about the clerks, that’s the sort of information you are going to find: just get the name; date of entrance into service; which station they’re based.

Now I thought I’d briefly mention what happened before the Rocket came along. Obviously George Stephenson and others designed the famous Rocket which first went up between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. But a common misconception is that the Rocket was the first steam locomotive. In fact the first steam locomotive to run on tracks was built by Richard Trevithick some 25 years earlier but his designs were not developed beyond the experimental stage. There then followed the commercially successful twin-cylinder steam locomotives built by Matthew Murray in Holbeck for the Middleton Railway between Middleton and Leeds in Yorkshire.

George Stephenson as well as a number of other engineers had built steam locomotives before. Rocket was in some ways an evolution not a revolution. Rocket’s claim to fame was that it was the first modern locomotive drawing together several recent strands of technological improvement, some tried elsewhere and some still experimental, to produce the most advanced locomotive of its day and the template for most steam locomotives since. In fact the standard steam locomotive design is often called “The Stephensonian Locomotive” and so the concept of railways was pretty well known before Stephenson came along and certainly well known before the Rocket was designed.

You’ll find certain railway companies were in existence beforehand; there is the famous one, the Surrey Iron Railway, went down from Wandsworth near Croydon and that was in 1803. So railways as a means of technology mainly to transport goods as well as possibly passengers; the idea had been well developed and well known about before the 1830s. And of course the canal owners weren’t particularly happy about this because this was seen, rightly, as a direct competition to what they were doing.

If you’re interested in the early history of railways, we’ve got various files you can look at. RAIL 371, for example, was an estimate for a proposed railway between Liverpool and Manchester in February 1825 and in [another file] find planning section and proposal as well between Waterloo Road, Liverpool and Quay Street Manchester surveyed and designed by George Stephenson in November 1824. I mean a lot of people do regard 1828 to 1830 as being roughly when railway mania began which is a convenient starting period if you like; and as I say the GWR started only three years after that. In 1824 there was also, bearing in mind what we are going to be discussing this afternoon, a proposed railway between Bristol and Bath.

This is the proposal itself: “The elevating distinguished position of this country was probably never more visible than at the present period. The commercial prosperity of almost every town and district in the Kingdom and the plans now in contemplation to facilitate trade and manufacture must be so apparent to every observer that to particularise is unnecessary.”  Well it’s necessary for us possibly but it wasn’t necessary at the time for them. “Among the most important is that grand improvement the locomotive steam engine for the conveyance of passengers and merchandise on a railroad by means of this power a company will be able to transport the heaviest goods with certainty and security by day and night at all times during the year in periods of frost or of drought at the rate of at least eight miles an hour and passengers at a rate of 12 miles an hour.”

So that proposal was made in 1824, some ten-odd years before the GWR set up. So Brunel was able to work on existing plans and proposals which had been suggested beforehand. The Act itself, as I say, the Great Western Railway set up a public meeting in Bristol in 1833. In 1835 in this document here Rail 1063382 we see an Act for “making a railway from Bristol to join the London and Birmingham Railway near London; to be called the Great Western Railway with branches therefrom to the towns of Bradford and Trowbridge in the Country of Wiltshire.”

And a Prospectus was issued at about the same time concerning “London, Bath and Bristol Railway and beyond with capital of £2,500,000 in shares in £100 each with a deposit of £2.10s per share – subscribers not to be answerable beyond the amount of their respective shares. The line will be 114 miles in length from Bristol to the point of junction with the Birmingham line near Wormwood Scrubs. The station of passengers in London is intended to be near the New Road in the parish of St Pancras.” And that was the original Prospectus for the GWR.

Here we see a map showing how the GWR expanded in the early years. It is dated the mid 1840s and it reaches as far as Bristol; later to join up with other lines already in existence in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. It only really barely extends into south Wales at that stage but that did come along very extensively over the next few years and it joined up with companies already in existence over there.

Now various bills and papers were presented to Parliament in relationship to the establishment of the railway with proposals as to where the line should be routed; compensation for farm owners, land owners etc; objections from various interested bodies. Here we have the Great Western Railway Bill of 1835 with what’s called a “Proof” of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer, on surveying the proposed lines from London to Reading and Bath to Bristol. And the witness stated that he was a Civil Engineer and that he surveyed the proposed series from London to Reading and from Bath to Bristol; that the line from the west end of London to Reading proceeds by Acton; Hanwell, Southall Green, West Drayton, Slough and across the River a little to the south of Maidenhead Bridge in a straightforward line to Reading.

And here is further proof on the same matter submitted to Parliament at that time. Again Brunel was asked to prove that “the witness was originally employed by the Provisional Committee with whom this matter originated to investigate the lines which might offer and advise him as to the best line. That he had examined the country and pointed two lines: one to the south and the other to the north of the Marlborough Downs.”Now one thing which I alluded to earlier on was the fact that Mr Brunel worked eight days a week. He was an incredibly industrious person and he attended to the smallest and minutest of details.

I found this letter here dated 3rd September 1835 as the Bill was going through Parliament, “My Dear Sir, I’ve received directions to set out the line between Bath and Bristol and London and Reading and have written to Mr Townsend to obtain immediate permission to act to cut sufficiently the small but thick underwoods”, I think it says, “in Brislington and that neighbourhood. Will you have the goodness to assist in obtaining leave from the different proprietors in order that this may be done? There’s no need for us to ask the Duke of Buckingham, we know he will consent his tenant.”

So we was involved in all aspects of the establishment of the company and later on, this next letter I found dated a couple of years earlier, I’d say at more or less at the time the GWRs initially established in Bristol: “One of the girders, the main girder at the south front of the Greenford land or the Metropolitan Road Bridge has broken. Steps have been taken to leave it temporarily and at present no further accident need be apprehended. No time must be lost however to remedy this serious defect and I should wish to see you on the subject as quickly as possible. I shall be in Duke Street in London all of the evening” – this letter is dated 3 o’clock in the afternoon by the way – “and when you have been on the spot yourself and examined the state of the work you had better come to me.”

So he was aware of even minor difficulties or issues which may have come up which could have affected the sort of establishment of the railway or problems as they arose; and he expected people to sort out the problems straight away. The Oxford Railway Company – Isambard Kingdom Brunel provided Proof in 1836 that “he is engineer to this Railway”. So he was also engineer to the Oxford Railway Company as well as the Great Western Railway and a number of other companies as well. He submitted here that “the proposed railway is intended to unite with the Great Western Railway at Didcot – a distance of nine miles from Oxford – there joining a complete railway communication between London and Oxford and between Bristol and Oxford.”

As we will see later on Isambard Kingdom Brunel was employed as Chief Engineer to the Great Western Railway. However he was also employed as engineer to a number of other railway companies. Now he was probably a bit naughty because when he signed his contract with the GWR he said he would be “exclusively employed on doing works of great magnitude”, however you define that. So he interpreted that as meaning that he could work for other companies on work “not of great magnitude” but which could be seen by other reasonable people as being “works of great magnitude”. So if he is building a dirty great bridge for the Oxford and Worcester Company or any other railway company – that possibly did conflict with the work he was doing for the GWR, especially when the GWR was actually seeking to amalgamate and absorb these other smaller railway companies.

So he is being paid by companies while the GWR is at the same time trying to take them over, which is what happened. But then given his, I suppose given his position maybe he was entitled to do that. But you know as you see here he has fingers in several pies and he was certainly very active not just for the GWR.

Another aspect of his industriousness as I call it and his great attention to detail is that he took on board the fact that the introduction of railways actually did start to deal with the fact that there were different time zones within this country. So you know people weren’t too bothered about exact following of Greenwich Mean Time but of course trains had to, in theory anyway, run in accordance with certain timetables. So he noted down the differences which in time were ironed out, for example Paddington is 38 seconds different to GMT; Reading three minutes 51; and Bristol is way behind at ten minutes 19 seconds. Again, the railways sort of ironed out all these local traditions and eccentricities because presumably they just started the day when the sun came up and set their clocks accordingly and at the end of the day as well.

Here we see the first general meeting of the proprietors of the Great Western Railway and they have appointed Mr Brunel as Engineer to the Company “who has been actively employed in setting out and appropriating the land; preparing the contracts and making other preliminary arrangements.”  This is actually a bit later on but it shows how things have developed. This is a GWR poster advertising “cheap excursions to the west of England. First Class travel and travel in covered carriage with children under the age of three being allowed to travel at no charge and with older children being charged at half price.”  The railways made cross country travel an affordable pleasure for many people and the West of England became a popular holiday destination with the GWR opening up what was called the ‘English Riviera’.

Of course at the time it was greatly resented. The railways themselves were greatly resented and also the fact that they enabled people to go out on these sort of rather pointless holidays all over the place. That wasn’t liked at all, you saw that up in the Lake District as well but also in the south west as well. So the term the “English Riviera” does date from that period of time. This reference of RAIL 109/68 is Mr Brunel’s support on the cost of the Great Western Line to Cirencester and the probable costs £2,223,000 that can’t be right, I think I will have to check that figure there. But that’s £249,000 in mid 19th century prices.

Here are most of the bailiffs in “Bath, Taunton and Gentlemen, a deputation for the Great Western Railway Company being desirous of explaining the nature of objects and prospects of their undertaking. We the undersigned request you to call a meeting for the purpose of giving the inhabitants of Taunton and its vicinity an opportunity of judging whether this part of England will be benefitted by having the extension of a railway communication with a Metropolis; whether the undertaking in question is well calculated to make that object and whether the time is right for giving support to the measure.”  The thing about the Victorians they tended to use very verbose language wherever possible and that’s a good example of that.

Here we see the 1835 first meeting of the Directors of the Great Western Railway Company since the passing of the Act of Incorporation and it lists the names of all the Directors appointed. And this is in the same document and it says “That I K Brunel be appointed Engineer in Chief to the Company on a salary of £2,000 per annum to include all personal charges for his general professional duties and for the personal Superintendant of the Works together with an allowance of £300 per annum in lieu of travelling expenses.”  Obviously he is allowed free travel on the railways he built himself – that seems reasonable. “It is stipulated that Mr Brunel is to devote himself to the general service of the Company and is not hereafter during the existence of this Agreement to undertake construction of any other railway or work of magnitude other than branch railways to unite with the Great Western Railway without first obtaining the consent of the London or Bristol Committee.”

In this next file I’ve found here, RAIL 558/98, what you see, a case presented and it’s on the 11 March 1851 and “in the case already laid before Counsel in this matter of the question of Mr Brunel’s position as Engineer both with the Great Western Railway Company and the Oxford and Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway Company as affecting the interests of the former company in the present hostile attitude of the two companies is indirectly raised and has already been discussed and considered by Counsel.”  So what you’re seeing here is a collision of interests and it’s put forward the two companies are hostile interests towards one another mainly because their interests to an extent coinciding.

Mr Brunel said “It cannot but be evident that cases will very soon arise in which the interests of the two companies: the Great Western and the Oxford and Worcester; will be at variance. But these will grow so gradually upon us that it maybe difficult to determine the precise moment at which, as I had before proposed, I should withdraw and, however strictly I might really confine my duties to simple engineering, and although the Directors even of both companies might be satisfied that I acted impartially, I should expose myself to imputations from out of doors” – I am not sure what he means by that – “of pertaining to advice to clients and neglecting or betraying the one for the benefit of the other.”  So that’s his way out of it basically and he continued to be employed by different railway companies for the rest of his life.

Here we see objections, this is back in 1835 again, objections to the extension of the railway company and correspondence between the Great Western Railway and Eton College regarding the college’s opposition to the Great Western Railway Bill back in 1835. They conceded “that no depot shall be made at Slough or within two miles in either direction of the Great Western Railway. That a close fence or wall shall be constructed at both sides of the line and within the same distance. That a sufficient and satisfactory police shall be maintained at all times within the same distance by the company to be appointed by and subjected to the control of the Provost of Eton and the Fellows of Eton for the purpose of presenting or restricting under their alders all access way to the railway for the Scholars of the College.” So they’re very worried about children or Scholars at Eton College wandering onto the railway but I haven’t seen similar concerns expressed for children who went to more humble schools. But they had to take into account that, I suppose, Eton was quite an important school.

If you look at this file here it’s concerning the Box Tunnel itself which was constructed in the mid-1830s. “This Contract comprehends the excavation of the Tunnel and the depositing of the materials separating the stone in the manner hereafter described and the construction of all masonry brickwork that maybe required.”  And those are the procedures there following for the excavation for the Tunnel itself which was an amazing piece of engineering. It’s worth very extensive research just in its own right. Still on the subject of the Box Tunnel I found a letter here from someone called William Glynnis addressed to another railway official based in Box itself and he says “My Dear Sir, I have to request that no orders may be given to admit visitors to the Tunnel.” (This is just after it had been completed or was about to be completed). “I find it necessary to exclude everybody not connected with the works on account of the delays occasioned by visitors interrupting the view when we have been ranging the line” – so they’re wandering around getting in the way basically – “and otherwise interfering with the work.”

So once it was built it was seen as a huge big tourist attraction and people were going down there, presumably getting the railway down there just to look at the Tunnel works itself.

Here we see a “Petition of Owners and Occupiers of Land or Premises on or near the Line of the Proposed Great Western Railway against the Bill with signatures. That a Bill is defending in Your Lordship’s House for making a Railway from Bristol to join the London to Birmingham Railway to be called the Great Western with certain branches therefrom.”  And these people didn’t like it. What they say is that “The direction proposed of such a railway appears in many parts to be far from the most eligible which might have been chosen.” So really they were largely objecting to railways going through their land or possibly canal owners were objecting to the loss of business or it’d have a disruptive effect on the local economy. They had a number of reasons they could put forward for it and here you see the names of the Petitioners. So if one of your ancestors was a fairly prominent person he may have signed a petition against the extension of the Great Western Railway – you never know.

The next one is a poster advertising “The General Receiving Officer for all parts of the west of England daily via the Great Western Railway to their Warehouse at North Street in Taunton, from where the goods were sent by fly wagon because that line only reached as far as Taunton at that date.”  So this is GWR being used for the separation of mail and correspondence. As you saw earlier, that letter from Brunel dated at 3 o’clock: in those days you could send a letter and it would arrive at its destination amazingly quickly and there are reasons, that’s one of his many achievements or benefits, was making the Royal Mail as successful as it was within Britain; the whole of the country.

This is dated 1849 at Swindon. Swindon is I think a fairly ancient town but until about 1840 it was barely in existence at all and then it grew massively as a railway town. Here’s just a list of drivers and firemen employed at Swindon and at Box giving their names and their salary details. That’s in RAIL 257/6. Unfortunately, as soon as railways came along you tended to see accumulation of railway accidents and as I explained in my talk a few weeks ago when I was talking about railway staff records, these are very detailed reports prepared by officials working on behalf of the Board of Trade who then submitted their reports to Parliament, partly on the basis or the expectation that these accidents should not reoccur. But that wasn’t really the case.

But here you see an account of an accident on the Great Western in 1854. It’s a rather sad case really: a young girl about 13 years of age who died as a consequence of the accident itself. Again if you have an ancestor who worked on the Great Western Railway, these records are certainly worth consulting because especially when the railway staff either died or where held to be culpable, there’s a very high chance they will be referred to by name.

Here we see the Great Western which was Mr Brunel’s excursion into steam ships; “strongly built; coppered and copper fastened with engines of the best construction by Maudslay Sons and Field; and it sailed directly from Bristol to New York” and that’s one of the advertisement they used to advertise the voyage itself. It proved to be a great success and the ships were well built; sturdily built. The SS Great Eastern which sailed in the month Brunel died; there was a tremendous explosion on board. I think a number of people died but the ship was so sturdily built it didn’t sink…Staying in the same document RAIL 101408 we’ve got a layout of the steamship itself. By the standards of the time they’re very well advanced; quite sophisticated.

Mr Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, he was a workaholic; didn’t enjoy the best of health and he was involved in a huge number of different projects. Let’s see: railways; bridges; steamships; working for different railway companies; rushing about the country; inspecting what he had been building; what he’d created; supervising works. He was a very busy and industrious persona and he’s so heavily involved in the Great Exhibition in 1851. He was key figure in early to mid-Victorian Britain but as I say he rather exhausted himself. He died in 1859 aged only 53 and there’s a letter here from someone called J Bennett in RAIL 10134/24 – “I am sure that you hear with much regret of Mr Brunel’s death which took place at half past ten the previous night”; so 15th September 1859.  And there we have again in Rail 1014 a rather nice photograph of the last steam hauled scheduled train leaving Paddington; Locomotive Clun Castle Number 7029 left at quarter past four heading to Banbury and that’s dated as on June 11th 1965.

So the great experiment in steam started by people like Brunel had really run its course by the mid-1960s. The Great Western itself, this is in about 1930, had a huge monopoly, in fact a complete monopoly by 1930 of all railway lines in the west of England and in Wales as well. In 1922 there was a partial merger of the railways which sort of anticipated a bigger merger in 1947/1948 when you had nationalisation. The smaller companies were absorbed or disappeared and the big four including the Great Western were really responsible for all the trains in England, Scotland, Wales and not a lot of Northern Ireland until 1948. There you see they, this is pre-Beeching of course, so they had tentacles going everywhere.

In those days you could travel around Wales by train. If you wanted to get from south Wales to Aberystwyth now you would have to go into England and then come back into mid-Wales again. That wasn’t popular in Wales. And you see these little branch lines going all over the place: little villages; obscures little places. So within less than a hundred years, that’s just one line here, you had a complete massive level of coverage of the whole, virtually every within England and Wales and a few little places up in north Wales around Anglesey which were sort of relatively cut off. But you were never far from a railway line really and so the GWR was in a sense rightly called “God’s Wonderful Railway” if you like because it had almost a divine like power to take over the country and re-map Britain, if you like.

As I say that line down there was particularly popular for people going on holiday to the south west of England. In places like Paddington of course you had, Paddington became possibly very much a Welsh area because the Welsh were coming from south Wales via the GWR and settled around there. So it was just like parts of St Pancras where lots of Scots people settled down there as well. They came as far as they could on the railways and stayed there and that partly accounted for that. So that’s about 1930. And I thought I’d go on just to show a rather nice picture of a restored steam train. This is three years ago and it’s the Plymouth to Bristol Temple-Meads Cornish Riviera Express, speeding through Highbridge behind the GWR City Class 440 Number 3440 City of Truro; taken on 3rd December 2004 by someone called Robert Bowville.

What you see now is that there are actually more and more steam trains being restored and occasionally being built from scratch. Railway lines are being opened and so in one sense steam is more popular than ever now. If you are coming here and are searching for the history of the Great Western Railway there are obviously a huge number of records here and I’ve only given you a taste of the sort of information you can find; the sort of records you are likely to find here. I suppose most people coming in are interested in ancestors who worked for the railways; worked for particular railway companies even they can sometimes extend their interests into looking for the organisation they were working for and how they were set up; how they run; how they operate; what their profits were; what their losses were etc.

So I would recommend anyone who is interested in railway genealogy does extend their research into the overall history of the railways themselves. You could, if you’re interested in Brunel, you could just search under his name perhaps limiting the dates to 1820 to 1860 and that’s just a sample of the sorts of records that you are going to find which will have “a copy of the reward to Mr Brunel pertaining to payment etc”; letters for I K Brunel. There’s a whole series of records just connected with him and letters sent by him; received by him. Minutes of a meeting before Brunel in the arbitrationary at Odiham and the Oxford Worcester and Wolverhampton Company; I referred to that earlier on.

If you are interested just in the Great Western Railway itself then search just on “the Great Western” between shall we say “1820 and 1860″. You will get up all these different Series here which either directly relate to the Great Western of indirectly relate to them because most of them were later absorbed by the Great Western Railway. So there you will see Parliamentary Bill papers in Rail 280. Southwell Railway Company that was later absorbed into the GWR. We’ve lost the references here but these should still be all Ministry of Transport records NT 6. These relate specifically to the creation and building of the Box Tunnel: payments; contractors; letters to Thomas Osler etc. That’s the one I showed earlier on asking that no more visitors be admitted to the tunnel.

If you are interested in this particular subject there are a number of different organisations you can contact. There’s the Steam Museum in Swindon is rather good; I’ve been there myself, rather nice artefacts there; very approachable staff. There’s also an organisation concerned with the modelling of the Great Western Railway GWR Railways engines and tracks and infrastructure. So you just go to http://www.gwr.org.uk/. The main one though is the Didcot Railway Centre which describes itself as the home of the Great Western Society where you can find huge amounts of not just restored trains but literature, pamphlets, books etc and it’s not too far from Oxford. So if anyone has got a spare afternoon or spare day I would recommend a visit there.

That was really just an introduction into the sort of records we have on the early history of the GWR.

  1. 4 September 2013
    6:23 am

    Peter Fletcher

    It is claimed here that the Rocket for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was designed by George Stephenson and others. This is a MYTH.

    George Stephenson had NOTHING AT ALL to do with designing the Rocket, according to page 38 of “Robert Stephenson: Railway Engineer”, by John Addyman and Victoria Haworth, published by the North Eastern Railway Association and the Robert Stephenson Trust in 2005.

    Please get your facts right and use reliable sources for your information.

  2. 12 September 2013
    6:19 pm

    Marion Downie (admin)

    Thank you for your comment. We believe you are right. Credit for the design of Rocket is now generally attributed to Robert Stephenson, since his father George Stephenson was away in Liverpool at the time Rocket was created at the Forth Banks Works, Newcastle. However, it is thought that Robert would have no doubt been in communication with George, and would have incorporated any advice or guidance from George into the final design.

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