Thomas Brassey was the 19th century civil engineering contractor who built much of the world’s railways during his time, including one-sixth of the railway network in Britain and over half of the French railways. He was responsible for building major lines in several other countries all over the world including Canada, South America, Australia and India. As a railway engineering contractor, he also built several docks, stations, bridges and tunnels. He made an early venture into the field of civil engineering when at 16 he became an apprentice to a land surveyor and agent. As a teenager he also met the renowned civil engineer, Thomas Telford, who left a great impact on the youth. A bright young man, Brassey was just 21 when he formed a partnership with his past mentor, William Lawton. Their business flourished and laid the foundation for Brassey’s glorious future works. His first railway work was building the Penkridge Viaduct which he completed successfully. Following the success of this work, he began to gain popularity and easily won contracts to build several other railway networks. After becoming a prominent civil engineer in his native Britain, he started accepting work outside the country. Eventually he became a very rich and successful professional, and died as "one of the wealthiest of the self-made Victorians".
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on November 7, 1805 as the eldest child of John and Elizabeth Brassey. He had two brothers and a sister. He was educated at home till he was 12 and then sent to The King’s School in Chester.
He became an apprentice to a land surveyor and agent called William Lawton when he was 16. During his apprenticeship he helped to survey the new Shrewsbury to Holyhead road. His apprenticeship ended when he was 21.
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Brassey was a very talented and intelligent young man and Lawton was much impressed by him. Lawton took him as a partner and formed the company “Lawton and Brassey”.
The business thrived and expanded beyond land surveying. Soon they were managing stone and sand quarries, and also operating a brick kiln. After Lawton’s death Brassey became the sole proprietor of the flourishing business.
Encouraged by his wife and friends he submitted a tender to build the Dutton Viaduct on the Grand Junction Railway, but lost it. Eventually he won the tender to build the Penkridge Viaduct in 1835 which he completed successfully.
Over the next few years he won contracts to build Chester and Crewe Railway, the Glasgow Paisley and Greenock Railway and the Sheffield and Manchester Railway. He worked on all these projects with other civil engineering partners.
Inspired by the developments the British were making in the railways sector, the French too decided to implement massive railway projects for which tenders from British engineers were invited. Teaming up with a former rival, William Mackenzie, Brassey submitted a tender which was accepted in 1841.
The two men worked on several French projects between 1841 and 1844, building a total of 437 miles (703 km) of railway lines. However, following the French Revolution of 1848, the engineers had to look for opportunities outside France.
He got several contracts in England, Scotland and Wales in 1845. Working along with Locke, he built the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway which passed through the Lune Valley and over the Shap Fell.
In 1852, he received the biggest contract of his career—to build the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada. He worked with several partners on this project which included building the Victoria Bridge over the river at Montreal which is till considered to be one of the longest bridges in the world.
Along with his partners he built a factory in Birkenhead, Canada, called The Canada Works. The company could make 40 locomotives in a year and also produced the metallic components that were required for the construction of railway lines and bridges.
He had built a number of drainage systems including the London sewerage system and a waterworks at Calcutta. Several docks, stations and bridges were also built by him in addition to railway lines. He was a very brilliant and successful professional who worked till the end of his life.
One of the biggest works of his life was building the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Brassey worked in partnership with Peto, Betts and Sir William Jackson to build this railway line which totaled 539 miles (867 km) in length and connected Quebec to Toronto.
Awards & Achievements
He was a very simple person in spite of all his financial successes and refused to accept any awards within his native Britain though he did accept foreign honors like the French Légion d'honneur and the Italian Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and the Austrian Iron Crown out of courtesy.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Maria Harrison, the daughter of Joseph Harrison, a forwarding and shipping agent, in 1831. His wife was very supportive and motivated him to perform well in his career. The couple had four sons of whom one died in his infancy. The surviving sons all grew up to be successful professionals themselves.
He suffered from cancer during his last days and died from a brain hemorrhage on December 8, 1870. He died a very rich man; at the time of his death his estate was valued at £5,200,000.
His bicentenary was celebrated in November 2005 and a special commemorative train was run from Chester to Holyhead.