Railway historian Steve Wakefield continues his series on the 175 years of the GWR and looks at the reasons why the railway was built.
In the 1820s the Port of Liverpool was becoming a busy gateway to both the Americas and the Empire – driven by the need to import and export goods from the Lancashire, and particularly the Manchester industrial conglomeration of entrepreneurial businesses owned by influential folk who saw themselves as building the ‘new Jerusalem.’
This growth threatened the prominence of Bristol as a major transatlantic port and its position as the second city to London.
In the 1820s horse power was the principle provider of muscle to move goods by road or by canal and river navigation. It was already possible to transport goods between London and Bristol by these modes of transport, but it was a somewhat fractured journey with goods being transferred from cart or by loading and unloading in wharves.
Roads carried the mail stage coaches and they were the fast passenger lifeline between the two cities. Traffic jams were not uncommon with carts and wagons clogging the roads at pinch points. This functional but slow link effectively limited trade, rationed supplies and kept the prices of goods and transport artificially high.
Animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep bought at Bristol had to be herded all the way to London as no other method or economic mode of transport existed. This lead to deterioration of the animals or worse they died on the journey. These losses had to be made up by increasing the cost of the meat on the hoof at market when it reached London. Yet the price suffered because of the quality of the animals that in some cases had just trekked almost 130 miles.
In 1830 the world’s first intercity railway was opened between Liverpool and Manchester and proved to be a boom to the economy of northwest England, and rocketed it to the forefront of both political and financial prominence.
In 1832 the inaugural meeting of the Great Western Railway Company was held in Bristol at Merchants’ Hall, supported by the Society of Merchant Venturers and its membership.
The coal mine owners of Somerset and Gloucestershire were also eager supporters of the railway as they could see whole new markets opening up.
The influence of the Merchants may have been to the forefront of nominations for engineers to build the railway. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a bright young engineer they were familiar with. Although still only 27 and working in his father’s office, he was at that time constructing the Clifton Suspension Bridge for the society.
Yet the project to connect London with Bristol was an ambitious proposal; the Liverpool Manchester was only 30 miles long. Although Brunel had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830, the decision to appoint him the GWR engineer on 7 March 1833 was a leap of faith.
He set about surveying the route of a railway from Bristol to Bath where it joined the Kennet and Avon Canal and then constructing a railway from Reading to London.