Thomas Brassey - the great Railway Builder of the 19th Century
He built the Penkridge Railway Viaduct and 10 miles of approach track

100 word summary   Life & Work of Thomas Brassey     Sketch of Thomas Brassey    Bicentenary Celebrations 

Lord Hatherton and the Railways

Princess Elizabeth just south of Station on upline 10 Feb 2007 © M I Walker 2007

Saturday 10 February 2007 - Princess Elizabeth crossing Viaduct (Merseyside Express to Liverpool)
© Andrew Watts

The first train (a trial run) crossed Penkridge Viaduct on the 1 June 1837 - the official opening was on 4 July 1837, when Engine No. 8, the WILD FIRE, pulling eight first class carriages each emblazoned with their names - Triumph, Greyhound, Swallow, the Liverpool-Birmingham Mail coach, Celebrity, Umpire, Statesman and the Birmingham-Manchester Mail coach, set off northbound on time at 7am and passed through Penkridge at approx. 8.30am.   Simultaneously a train left Liverpool at 6.30am passing through Penkridge at 10.45am.  The coaches were named Hibernia, Chanticlere, Patriot, Delight, Delamere and Columbus.  Attached to it were the Liverpool and Manchester Mail coaches.  Both these fast trains made an average speed of 20 m.p.h.

Thomas Brassey's first successful tender was for the construction of the Penkridge Viaduct plus 10 miles of railway line.  His labourers or "navvies" were recruited from Irish immigrants in Liverpool.  For 3 years these "navvies" were to be the scourge of Penkridge.They lived rough in make-shift bothies or under carts.  They cooked their meals on their shovels over braziers.  Much of their food was poached from local preserves or stolen from the livestock of of local farms.  Gamekeepers and farmers fought a losing battle against them, their swearing and drunkenness made them feared.  Errant daughters were warned they would become "navvies' molls".  Open warfare was waged with the local lads at all the hostelries in Penkridge.  Finally Lord Hatherton, as a Magistrate, barred them from all but one of the local inns.


At the age of 29, newly married Brassey, obtained the Penkridge contract to build the Viaduct and 10 miles of line.  He moved to Stafford where his first son was born - a son who was to become an MP, a Cabinet Minister and a Colonial Governor, eventually being raised to the peerage as the first Lord Brassey.

As part of his contract, Thomas Brassey had to provide the materials and to raise the workforce.  He brought his bricklayers and masons from the Birkenhead area.  His labourers or "navvies" were recruited from Irish immigrants in Liverpool.    For three years these "navvies" were to be the scourge of Penkridge.  They lived rough in make-shift bothies or under carts.  They cooked their meals on their shovels over braziers.  Much of their food was poached from local preserves or stolen from the livestock of of local farms.  Gamekeepers and farmers fought a losing battle against them, their swearing and drunkenness made them feared.  Mothers threatened their naughty children, not with the "bogey man" but with the "navvy".  Errant daughters were warned they would become "navvies' molls".  Open warfare was waged with the local lads at all the hostelries in Penkridge.  Finally Lord Hatherton, as a Magistrate, barred them from all but one of the local inns.

Penkridge Viaduct, 37 feet high, consists of seven arches, each with a span of 30 ft.  This work was completed by July 1835.  The ten miles of approach track was then constructed.   South of Penkridge, the track ran alongside the Turnpike road used by horse drawn traffic in those days.  Lest the horses should bolt when the "iron monster" passed, a special embankment had to be built between track and road. 

By August 1836 Brassey had fulfilled his contract and was appointed to build the London to Southampton Railway.  From his first contract at Penkridge, Brassey became the great railway builder of the century.  By 1847 he had built one out of three miles in Britain.  By 1850 he had constructed 3 out of every 4 miles in France.  When he died in 1870, leaving a fortune of over 5 million pounds in trust for his wife and four sons, he had constructed railways in Italy, Denmark, Russia, Austria, India, Australia, Canada and the Argentine.

Much of this was taken from the booklet "Penkridge and the Railway" by Robert Charles Wilkes,
published by Penkridge Parish Council in 1987

Thomas Brassey 1805-1870

Celebrations at Chester Station - Karen Kinver & Steve Leyland (Virgin Trains), Cllr. Mike Jones Lord Mayor of Chester, John Whittingham as Thomas Brassey and Roger Croston as Robert Stephenson



A one hundred word summary of Thomas Brassey - by Doug Haynes

Thomas Brassey was born on 7th November 1805, and was the eldest child of John and Elizabeth Brassey. He was initially educated privately at home, and then as a boarder at a private school in Chester. On leaving school at 16, he went as an apprentice to a Land surveyor. When he completed his apprenticeship at the age of 21, he became a partner with his employer in the firm of Lawton and Brassey, and when Lawton retired, he took over as sole manager of the business.

During this time he prospered, owning brick making works, stone quarries, lime kilns etc, and was obviously a very successful business man. He married on 27th December 1831, Maria Farrington Harrison, daughter of a Birkenhead business man, and it was she who encouraged him to tender to build a ten mile stretch of the Grand Junction railway that was to link Birmingham with Manchester. This contract included the Penkridge Viaduct. His tender was successful, and within twelve months he was building more sections of this Grand Junction Railway, he was completing the London to Southampton Railway, and was working on other contracts in the North of England and Scotland.

By then he was employing some 3,000 men, and the contracts were valued at £4M  (In present day terms I estimate this as something like one third of a BILLION pounds.

 During his life as a railway builder, he built one third of all the miles of railway in this country, and one twentieth of all the railways built in the whole of the rest of the world. In fact he built in almost all of the continents of the world and a high proportion of the countries. He built in excess of half a mile of railway, with the stations and bridges that were involved, for every day of his railway building life of 36 years. He worked with all the great engineers of his age, particularly with George and Robert Stephenson’s, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Joseph Locke.

He employed up to 75,000 people, and carried ALL the financial risks personally.
He had NO office or office workers but did ALL his correspondence personally.
He also built docks and warehouses, Harbours, Sewers, (a major part of the London sewers!), major drainage schemes throughout the world, housing estates, mines, railway rolling stock, and much more.
It is said by some that his influence on the world at large was greater than that of Alexander the Great, and it is also said by some, that;
He acquired more self-made wealth than any other Englishman did in the 19th Century.

 “Not bad for a farmer's son from just down the road whom most of us have never even heard”

© Doug Haynes of Tattenhall, Chester



The following is a more comprehensive account of Thomas Brassey's life and work, written and kindly supplied by Doug Haynes © of Tattenhall, Chester, who has made a special study of this extraordinary man.

The life and work of Thomas Brassey

Doug Haynes

Early life

Thomas Brassey was born on 7th November 1805, at Manor Farm, Buerton, in the parish of Aldford, about six miles due south of Chester, He was the first child of John and Elizabeth Brassey, and he was christened at Aldford Church on 22nd January 1806. John and Elizabeth subsequently went on to have another five sons and one daughter, but it is this son Thomas who was to become without doubt the greatest of a long line of Brasseys who claimed to trace their ancestry back some eight  hundred years.

John Brassey, Thomas’s father, had taken over the Manor Farm at Buerton in 1804 as a tenant of Sir Thomas Stanley, when he followed his father, George Brassey as tenant. It would appear that they farmed most of Buerton of some 673 acres, and also farmed additional land rented from the then Earl Grosvenor. The Brasseys had been tenants in a direct line at Buerton Manor since at least 1662. This farmstead is now gone.  Their historic ancestral home was at Bulkeley Old Hall, near Malpas, where a branch of the family continued to live until 1966. This was by then known as Bulkeley Grange, and this had been their family seat since 1147.

Elizabeth, the wife of John and mother of Thomas, was born at Haslington Hall, Near Crewe, and was the daughter of Ralph Percival.

Thomas was educated at home until the age of twelve, and then went on to school in Chester. One of his biographers, Charles Walker, refers to this as being a Grammar School but it would appear that it was more likely to have been at the “Old Saint John’s” Rectory, a school owned and run by a Mr Harling. Whichever was the case he left at the age of sixteen and became an articled apprentice to a local Land Agent by the name of Lawton. During this period Thomas helped to survey the new Shrewsbury to Holyhead road, which subsequently became the A5. He was 'contracted out' by Mr Lawton to a Mr Penson, of Oswestry, who was the chief surveyor for the work and during this time Thomas met the engineer for that road, the great Thomas Telford.

On the completion of his apprenticeship at the age of twenty one, Thomas entered into partnership with his former employer in the firm of “Lawton and Brassey”. He was given the task of running their new office at Birkenhead, where Mr Lawton had been Land Agent for many years of a Mr Price, a major landowner in that area. Birkenhead must have been a very small place at that time. It is recorded that there were just four houses there in 1818, even less than in Buerton!

Eventually on the death of Mr Lawton, Thomas assumed sole management of the company.

It was from that emerging town of Birkenhead that he met and married in 1831, Maria Harrison, the daughter of a wealthy business man of that area.

His business branched out into a whole range of different areas from the one of predominately working on land surveying. He owned and managed brick works and sand and stone quarries in the Wirral, and much of his business growth was in this Birkenhead area. He supplied many of the bricks for the emerging Liverpool. He was innovative in the way in which he handled the materials and he 'palatted', (to use a modern term), his bricks so as to avert the damage and breakages caused by the tipping of wagon loads of them. He also designed a 'gravity train', that ran from the brick works and stone quarry site down to the port, and the empty carriages were then horse drawn back to the works, thus saving considerable time and effort.

His first venture into the realm of civil engineering involved the building of the a four mile stretch of the New Chester Road at Branborough, ( recorded by that name but in reality Bromborough!) in the Wirral in 1834, and it was during this stage of his life that he first met another of the great engineers of the day, George Stephenson, who was looking for stone for the construction of the Sankey viaduct on the Manchester to Liverpool railway. This was to be the first railway for passenger traffic that was ever constructed in the world. George Stephenson met Thomas Brassey at his Stourton Quarry and it would appear that from this meeting Thomas Brassey was encouraged to enter into the emerging world of railway building.

Railway building

His first attempt to enter the railway building world was unsuccessful. He tendered to build the Dutton Viaduct, near Warrington, but his bid was too high by some £5,000. (this viaduct was completed in 1837 with the first train, engine number 576 crossing in July of that year).

It was shortly afterwards that he successfully took the first step that was to end in him becoming the greatest railway builder the world has ever known.

In 1835, he tendered for and won the contract to build a ten mile stretch of the Grand Junction Railway including the Penkridge viaduct in Staffordshire. He completed this task on time and within price, one of only a few such contractors to complete their sections successfully. This was the first step on the road to his outstanding success as a railway builder.  Incidentally, it was this Grand Junction Railway that was to result in a little village called Crewe growing into the major railway centre that it very quickly became. Initially the engineer for this Grand Junction Railway was the great man George Stephenson himself, but during the construction period he handed the responsibilities to his pupil and assistant, Joseph Locke, and it was this Joseph Locke who was to have such a great bearing on Thomas Brasseys railway building career.

Such was Brasseys success, and such the reputation that he quickly attained, that within a very short period of time he had railway building contracts on hand around the country, from the south of England to Scotland, with an estimated total value of some £3.5m pounds at that time.  It is estimated that in current terms this represents in the region of one third of a billion pounds!. Despite the scale of activities Brassey carried all his own financial commitments and was in no way subject to 'limited liability'.

Foreign undertakings

Until 1841 all his contracts were in this country, but in that year he started working in France.  For these French contracts, particularly in the early years, he did much of his work in partnership with the McKenzie brothers, William and Edward. (It was this McKenzie Partnership that had outbid him for the Dutton Viaduct contract in the 1830s).

The French had started rather later than Britain on the railway building programme and in the early 1840s, in an attempt to catch up, the French Government put out very large schemes for tender. Very few contractors were of sufficient size to take on such projects. Thomas Brassey and the McKenzie Brothers turned out to be the only ones who tendered competitively, and when they realised this, they agreed to work together rather than in competition with each other. Their first French contract was for the Paris and Rouen railway of 82 miles in 1841. In 1842 they were working on the Orleans and Bordeaux line of 294 miles, and in 1843 the Rouen and le Havre Railway of 58 miles. All of these lines included many major viaducts and similar works. During this period he and they built some 75% of all the miles of track in France.

This joint arrangement continued until 1848 when the more active of the McKenzie brothers, William, died, and the other brother Edward, retired on his well earned wealth. A little story attaches to this. In 1856 this Edward brought at auction the Bolesworth Castle and its land holdings here in Cheshire. However his wife refused to come up to Cheshire to live. He therefore sold the property on to the underbider at the sale, a Mr Robert Barbour, of Manchester, whose family still live at the castle and still own the estate.

Brassey was back in France again in the early 1850s with the Mantes and Caen railway of 113 miles,(1852). In the same year he was building the Le Mans and Mazidon line of 84 miles, and was at the same time building the Lyons to Avignon line of 67 miles. He was back in France again, in 1855 to continue the 94 miles of line from Caen to Cherberg.

It would be appropriate at this stage to refer to a failure in one of his contracts. In 1843 he was building the Rouen to Le Havre railway. For this contract of 58 miles Thomas Brassey moved to Rouen to oversee matters. One part of this contract was the construction of the Barentin Viaduct, a huge brick structure of 100 feet in height, and one third of a mile in length, built at a contract price of £50,000. This viaduct collapsed just after completion. It is generally accepted that the reason was that the lime in that area is of a different consistency to others, and had never been tested with such a major structure. Whatever the reason,

and regardless of whose responsibility it might have been, it was rebuilt at the expense of the contractors, and opened on time along with the rest of this contract. Thomas Brassey’s comments at the time were that when Thomas Brassey contracts to do a job he does so and delivers successfully, which he did, and this viaduct still stands and is still used today, having survived decades of use and the ravages of war.

In the early 1850s, Thomas Brassey took on the largest contract of his railway building career when he started on the Grand trunk Railway in Canada, (1854/60). His, and his partners part of this massive venture involved the building of 539 miles of railway along the valley of the Saint Lawrence River from Quebec to Toronto. This included the Victoria Bridge over the river at Montreal, which was designed by Robert Stephenson. This was the longest bridge in the world at that time, some one and three quarter miles in length.  It is still one of the longest overall and still the longest of its type. The contract also included all the materials and rolling stock, the manufacture and fabrication of which was achieved by opening his own works in Birkenhead, appropriately called 'The Canada Works', and shipping out all the materials, steelwork, and rolling stock for the contract.

There is not enough space to describe all of his contracts in most of the continents,  and a very high proportion of the countries, of the world, but a brief summary of the major undertakings can be given. In total there were over 8,500 miles of railway track throughout the world.

These main contracts were in:

The Argentine. The Central Argentine Railway of 247 miles, as well as contracts in other parts of South America,

Austria. The Kronprinz-Rudolfsbahn in 1867 of 272 miles, the Czernitz-Suczawa line of 60 miles in 1866, and  the Suczawa to Jassy railway in 1870 of 135 miles.

Australia.  The Nepean Bridge and the Queensland Railway of 78 miles in 1863.

Denmark. The Jutland Railway of 270 miles.

East Bengal. The Eastern Bengal Railway of 112 miles in 1858),

Canada. (as described above).

India. The Dehli Railway of 247 miles in 1864 which involved the transporting of about 100,000 tons of equipment and rolling stock imported from England some 1,000 miles inland; and the Cord Line, in 1865 of 147 miles.

Italy. The Maremma-leghorn Railway of 138 miles, built in 1860, and the Meridionale Railway of 160 miles in 1863.

To this should be added the other countries from around the world of;

Belgium, Bohemia, Crimea, Holland, Hungary, Prussia, Nepal, Norway, Spain, Moldavia, Saxony, France, Transylvania, Syria, Persia, Russia, apart from all the building that he did in Britain.

Other operations

Needless to say, Brassey didn’t simply build railways and the associated equipment. He built docks, such as the Victoria docks in London in 1852, of over 100 acres, along with all the associated warehousing. He built the Birkenhead docks in 1850, the Barrow Docks in 1863, as well as the Callao Docks in 1870. He built his own engineering works, one in France, (at Sotteville, Nr. Rouen) very early on to supply the contracts in France. For this he took over a Mr William Buddicom, who had previously been the Superintendent at Crewe for the Grand Junction Railway. He built as well the Canada Works at Birkenhead, which was initially built to supply all the equipment for the major contract in Canada. He built harbours around the world such as that at Greenock. He built major tunnels such as the Hauenstein Tunnel in Switzerland, on the line from Basle to Olten, (of one and a half miles length) in 1853, the Bellegarde Tunnel in France of two and a half miles in 1854.  He built hundreds of stations, but of particular interest to us, that at Chester, which had the longest platforms in the country at the time of its opening on 1st August 1848. He built Shrewsbury Station, opened 1st October in the same year, as part of the Chester- Shrewsbury line. This line included the beautiful viaduct known as 'Cefn Maur', (opened 14th August 1848). This is close to the Telford’s aqueduct across the River Dee at Llangollan, known as 'Pontcysyllte', and he built the station at Nantwich.  His company was also building the stonework for the Runcorn Bridge at the time of his death. He built housing estates such as that at Southend. There appears to be no end to what he did in his busy life. 

While representative of but a small part of his railway building life, his work in the Crimea should be particularly noted.  The Crimean War threw up a wealth of stories and personalities. Florence Nightingale certainly comes to mind. She was influential in working to help the soldiers who were suffering greatly as a result of what was seen at the time as the total mismanagement of the war. The plight of our forces was brought to the attention of the English public by William Howard Russell, correspondent of The Times who reported on the terrible condition of the men during the winter of 1854. The British, along with the French, had entered the war against Russia, alongside the Turks. We and our allies landed at Balaclava with the intention of defeating the Russian Army at the siege of Sebastopol. Starting on 12th September 1854, it was hoped that this would be a short, sharp matter, and would be finished before the winter set in, but this was not to be the case. A long, draw out siege was the result and the organisational abilities of the allies proved to be quite inadequate. Troops at the front were very soon suffering due to insufficient food, lack of medical supplies or attention, shortage of ammunition, mainly caused by there being no means of moving supplies from the docks at Balaclava to the front at Sebastopol. Many men were dying as a result, and Russell's reports made this clear to his readers in England. All this was reported in parliament, and as a result, Thomas Brassey, along with Sir Morton Peto and Mr Edward Betts, two other railway contractors, offered to build a line to connect these two sites, i.e, Balaclava and Sebastopol.. Their offer was gratefully accepted, and using material intended for other undertakings, in the January of 1855, twenty three large steamers were dispatched with men, horses, railway engines, track, sleepers, medical equipment, books for his workers to read, indeed, everything needed to complete the job. Within a matter of weeks the equipment arrived, the 39 and a quarter mile of track was laid, the battle front was supplied with all the requisites to fight, and the town was subsequently taken. Sebastopol finally fell at the end of August 1855, after 349 days of siege.

Thomas Brassey was directly and closely involved in two projects featured in a television series entitled 'The Seven Wonders of the Industrial World'.  The first of these was as a major shareholder in 'The Leviathan', as it was originally called, but which is better known as 'The Great Eastern'. This was by far the largest ship in the world at the time, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and launched shortly before Brunel’s death in 1859. It was Thomas Brassey who was instrumental in this ship being used to lay the first transatlantic telegraphic cable across the North Atlantic in 1864, linking Europe and America electronically. This was the only ship large enough to carry the weight of cable needed to stretch across the north Atlantic.

The second 'Wonder of the Industrial World' with which he was involved was the London Sewer.  In 1861 he built the twelve mile stretch of the Metropolitan Mid Level Sewer, for Joseph Bazalgette. Joseph William Bazalgettee, (1819-1891), was Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works and responsible for solving London’s cholera epidemics of the mid 1800s, by the construction of the London sewers. The section that Thomas Brassey built started at Kensall Green, went under Bayswater Road, Oxford Street and Clerkenwell, to the River Lea. This was considered by some to have been part of the greatest piece of civil engineering work ever undertaken in this country, and certainly changed for ever the health, and the quality of life of Londoners. This sewer is still operational to this day, a true testament to both Bazalgette and Brassey.

Summary of Brassey's achievements

During his civil engineering life he built over 8,500 miles of rail, with all the many bridges, stations, viaducts etc included. This represented over half a mile of track for every day of his railway building life of some 36 years. At times he employed in the region of seventy five thousand people. Despite the scale of his activities, he had no office or office staff, but did all of his correspondence himself. His was a personal company with no limited liability, where he personally carried all of his financial commitments and obligations. His main bankers were the 'Chester Bank' of Messrs Dixon and Wardell, based on the Town Hall Square, Chester, and at times there was more money going through the Thomas Brassey accounts with that bank than through the exchequers of some of the smaller European States.

During the early part of his career, Thomas Brassey had called on the financial support of his father to service his growing Empire.  However, it very quickly came to the point when even a reasonable well off Cheshire yeoman farmer could not meet his needs, indeed, all the farmers of Cheshire could not have done so.  Thomas Brassey went to this bank of Messrs Dixon and Wardell to ask for their help and support, (which Heap records as the finance needed for his first railway contract at Penkridge). They agreed to meet his initial needs and the venture proved hugely successful for both parties. He stayed with that bank for all of the rest of his life. In appreciation of their original help and continuing support, later on in his life, when he was well established and internationally famous, he built, and gave as a gift to Mr Wardell, a house, with its grounds, in Liverpool Road, Chester, known as 'Abbott’s Field', which was on the site of the former William’s and William’s, and more recently the Reliance Works.

He is said by some to have had a greater influence on the world at large than Alexander the Great.

He was involved in the building of one in three of all the miles of railway built during his life, and one in twenty of all the miles of track built in the whole of the rest of the world.

He was highly respected by everybody with whom he came into contact, whether King or Queen, Emperor or President, Engineer or navvy.

. …..and as a side line he is said by some to have acquired more self made wealth than any other person of this country in the Nineteenth Century.

The development of railways during these early years, involved not just great men such as Thomas Brassey as a contractor, and the engineers of whom we all know, but it also required a total change in the financial world as well.  The amount of money circulating around the world to finance these major enterprises was massive to say the least. In 1866, a major financial collapse occurred, brought about by the failure of one of the worlds most respected financial houses, that of “Overend and Gurney” in London. This house had been established for many years and had become known as 'The Bankers Bank', but in that year it collapsed, and took down with it many institutions, establishments and individuals. There was a considerable run on all banks, including the Bank of England, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gladstone, had to authorise the Bank of England to exceed its permitted note issue. The Bank Rate was raised to 10%, and credit became unobtainable. Sir Morton Peto and Mr Edward Betts, were ruined by the fall, and their failure left Thomas Brassey himself with the financial responsibilities that had previously been theirs jointly on a number of contracts. He himself lost a considerable amount of money and various advisors suggested that he should renage on some of his responsibilities. He refused to do so, he survived the crash, and four years later he died, the wealthy, successful, and highly respected man whose bicentenary we are celebrating in 2005.

Thomas Brassey died on 8th December 1870, in Hastings, and was buried in the churchyard at Catsfield, in Sussex, where his memorial stone can still be seen.

He was survived by his wife and their three sons.

As was the way that society worked in those days, Thomas Brassey, Senior, never aspired to, nor was he ever more than a highly respected and valued member of our society. There was no prospect of acceptance among the elite or the gentry, and as far as we know it is not something that he would have wished.  However, his sons were treated differently. They were all listed among the 'nouveau riche' of the age and none of them ever manually 'worked' in the true sense of the word. None of them ever got involved in 'getting their hands dirty', and certainly none of them got involved in the business that had produced the wealth on which they thrived. When their father died as sole proprietor of a hugely successful company, it was the 'administrators’ who came in and rounded things off, not these sons.

The eldest of these sons was another Thomas. He became the Member of Parliament for Hastings as a Liberal and served as. Secretary of State to the Admiralty (1884-1885) in the Gladstone Government.  He was Governor of Victoria, (1895-1900), and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, (1908-1913). He was knighted in 1881, created Baron Brassey of Bulkeley, 1886, and finally Earl Brassey in 1911. He died in 1918 and was, like his father buried at Catsfield. He was succeeded to the Earldom by his son, Thomas Allnutt Brassey but this Thomas died in 1919 and the title died with him.

The second son was Henry Arthur, M.P for Sandwich, from whom the existing Lord Brassey line descends, (created 1928). His father bought for him Preston Hall, Ayleford, in Kent. He is buried there at the church of St Peter and St. Paul. The third son was Albert, for whom his father bought as a wedding present, in 1870, just before his death, the estate at Heythrop, near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire,. He bought the property which had been derelict since it was burned down in 1831, which they restored to a majestic level, as can still be seen. On the estate Albert created a model village for his staff. Albert appears very much to have lived out the life of a country squire. To be fair to these three sons, they all seem to be remembered with affection in their various home areas, where they seem to have been very generous benefactors.

These three sons created a memorial to their father and mother in the St. Erasmus Chapel in Chester Cathedral in the form of a backcloth to the altar inscribed to their memory, and including a bust of their father to the north side of the altar.

There is a bust in the Grosvenor museum at Chester. There are plaques at the station in Chester. There is a tree called the 'Brassey Oak' to the rear of the mill in Bulkeley, near  Malpas, on land formerly owned by the Brassey family. This tree was planted and surrounded with four inscribed sandstone pillars to celebrate Thomas Brassey’s fortieth birthday in 1845. By then of course he was already a great international figure. These pillars were tied together by iron rails, but as the tree has grown, these have proved too short and have burst causing the stones to fall. It is  hoped that these will be re-erected in a more prominent and accessible place in the centre of Bulkeley, to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, where they can be seen and understood by all.

There is very little else anywhere to record or celebrate the life of this great Cheshire man other than the great railway structures that he created.

His was a remarkable career for the son of a Cheshire yeoman farmer, of whom most of us, even here in the county of his birth, have never even heard.


There can be few people anywhere, but certainly none from our county, whose influence upon the world at large has been so significant. Even during his failing years he was still way ahead of his time. He attempted to interest governments in this country and in Europe in the benefits that could be gained from a tunnel under the English Channel, without success of course. Equally he attempted to engender similar support for a canal through the Isthmus of Darien, which we now know of as the Isthmus of Panama, equally with no success. One can’t help but wonder what the impact would have been if he had gained support for the Tunnel. Perhaps the world would have been a very different place. I certainly feel very confident that it would have been completed on time and within budget if he had indeed been given the opportunity to build it.

It would be wrong to imply that all of these various schemes and enterprises were totally down to our Thomas Brassey. As was mentioned earlier the works he did in France up to 1848 were done in part in partnership with William and Edward McKenzie. With many of his other ventures, he worked in partnership with a range of people. Sometime after the death of William McKenzie in 1848 he started working with the company of Sir Morton Peto, M.P, and, Mr Edward Betts, with whom many projects around the world were carried out. Indeed, he worked with various different people, but even with the major players to whom I have referred Thomas Brassey was without doubt the senior partner and the driving force behind everything that was done.

These were the partners, but he also worked with and for, the major players when it comes to engineers in both this country and abroad, such as both George and Robert Stephenson, and also Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Although Brunel worked as engineer and contractor in his own right on most of his projects, Thomas Brassey built the Hereford-Ross-Gloucester railway for him, and as was mentioned previously, he was also a major player with Brunel’s 'Great Eastern'.  He also worked with various governments where they themselves were listed as the engineers involved, such as the French, Italian, Danish and Russian Governments.  The engineer who was most influential in Thomas Brassey’s working life however, was Joseph Locke, who had been George Stephenson’s assistant previously and who continued the business when his employer retired. Much of Brasseys work with and for Joseph Locke was as a result of a great understanding of each other coming from the very first of Thomas Brassey’s railway building works at Penkridge.  Neither must we forget  the work that he did with Joseph Bazalgette on the London sewers, which made such a difference to the London environment.  

There were also the agents. As was noted earlier, Thomas Brassey had no office or office staff. He managed his business to a great extent by using agents. These were tried and trusted men whom he employed to manage and carry out the day to day running of his various contracts around the world. Among Brasseys many strengths was his ability to choose good men to work with him and for him. The 'agents' were very important in this area. Brassey had a range of such men to whom he gave authority to deliver the outcomes of a project. For example he would take on a project at an agreed price. He would appoint an agent to deliver it. He would make the required money available to the agent to meet the costs of everything needed, and if the agent could deliver at less, he was able to keep the difference. If unforeseen problems arose that were reasonable and legitimate, Thomas Brassey would carry those additional costs. What this did was to create a lot of very wealthy men, who had benefited greatly from the way in which they worked with and for Brassey. His great success was directly as a result of being capable of knowing and choosing the right agents. There are literally hundreds of such agents listed who played a very significant part in Brasseys contracting life.  

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention a new breed of men, 'the Navvies'. In many countries around the world Thomas Brassey employed navvies locally. In some places there were simply not enough such people available to do the job, and British navvies travelled the world to work for Brassey, particularly in Canada and Australia. These were the most hardworking, heavy drinking men that society could have thrown up. The British navvy became famous for the amount of work he was able and willing to get through in a day. It is recorded that they would each regularly shovel in the region of 20 tons of earth in a working day, for which they might expect possibly two shillings in wages.  No other men in the world acquired such a reputation for work. If they had a fault it was their ability to consume a great amount of alcohol, and this became a particular problem when they worked in some of the countries where drink was cheap, such as in France where the Brandy was at a price that would allow it to be consumed in great quantities. They worked extremely hard, and were perhaps justified in playing hard as well. It is recorded that when Thomas Brassey was on his death bed, many of these navvies stood outside his resting place and paid homage to this great man who had so influenced their lives and their wellbeing for so many years.


Arthur Helps, The life and works of Mr Brassey (1872). (This was commissioned by the Brassey family.)

Brian Cooke, The Grand Crimean Central Railway. (Knutsford, 1990).

Nicholas Faith, The world the railways made (1990). This includes many references to Thomas Brassey.

John Millar, William Heap and his Company (1976). This includes many references to Thomas Brassey.

Charles Walker, Thomas Brassey, Railway Builder (1969).

See also ‘General Order after the fall of Sebastapol’, Prince Gortschakoff. www.victorianweb.org/history/crimea

Also The construction of Railroads in Argentina in the late 19th century. “The major role of English companies”, by Maria Heloisa Lenz, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.