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
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
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
Two of his best known works in Cheshire are Chester General Station,
built in 1848, and the railway bridge spanning the Runcorn-Widnes
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
Brassey died in 1870 and one wonders what he would make of today’s
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