The famous terminus could have been elsewhere. . . . . . .
Proposals for a railway between the capital, London, and the country’s “second city”, Bristol, started to emerge as early as 1824, but it wasn’t until 1832 that things started to get serious. Committees representing business interests in London and Bristol formed, and by March 1833 they had appointed Isambard Kingdom Brunel as Engineer for the proposed railway. Bankers and directors were appointed and when the committees met in August 1833, they adopted the name “Great Western Railway” (GWR). Brunel set off in his horse-drawn “britzka” with assistants to survey the likely routes for a project then estimated at a very conservative £2.8 million. By November 1833, Brunel had submitted a report for a railway line starting at Vauxhall very near to the present-day Vauxhall Bridge over the River Thames in London. The line would then run for the first four miles to the west on viaducts through Brompton, Hammersmith, South Acton towards Ealing and then through a tunnel south of Ealing. From Ealing, the line would run to West Drayton and on to Reading, much as the Crossrail/Elizabeth Line does now. The Sonning area on the approach to Reading was to have got a 1¼ mile-long tunnel where the extensive cutting now is. Another [unpopular] option floated in 1835 was for the GWR to share the proposed London & Birmingham Railway terminus at Euston.
“Nimbyism” was alive and well in 1833! But local landowners and residents along the first suggested route feared that “streams of fire would proceed from the locomotive engines”. They would be “deprived of light and the free circulation of air”, and be subjected to “a most incessant and frightful noise”. Apart from the vigorous campaign waged from the outset by Eton College, landowners along the route were worried about encroachment onto their estates affecting yields, livestock, wildlife, shooting and hunting. Other opponents came up with a fascinating and inventive set of objections. They complained about cuttings creating dangerous precipices; engines running off the rails out of control; carriages not being able to run round curves; passengers being made deaf by the noise or, more seriously, asphyxiated. Farmers’ cattle would be driven mad and rendered worthless. Worst of all was that the River Thames would be drained by the railway’s considerable appetite for water, and that the water supplies for Windsor Castle would be threatened, greatly inconveniencing the Royal residents.
Much of the year 1834 was taken up with the daunting task of gaining Parliamentary approval, dealing with landowners’ objections, winning support at public meetings and determining the chosen route and site of the London terminus. This was before the site at Paddington was settled upon. Eton College and the competing London & Southampton Railway continued their protestations, but the Great Western Bill passed through Parliament and received the Royal Assent in August 1835. The following month, and in the face of what other railways were doing, Brunel submitted his report to GWR Directors recommending a broad gauge of between 6 feet 10 inches and seven feet. The GWR Board met the following month and decided with a large majority to adopt the broad gauge recommended by Brunel: “to admit of rails being laid to the extreme width proposed by Mr Brunel, viz 7 feet”. By this time, Brunel’s annual salary was £2,000 – about £180,000 in today’s money. Further surveying and soil sampling took place to decide whether cuttings or tunnels should be made, building contracts were let and construction started in earnest.
In June 1838 the “Railway Times” published an article expressing concern about the value of the GWR’s shares and excessive waste of capital in the light of Mr Brunel’s personality and the attitude of the company’s directors. Brunel was described as “the first rough rider of the age” and “the devil on his mushroom throne”. The GWR directors were described as “stupid and bigoted set of men” and “precious noodles”. The magazine’s attitude was that the GWR broad gauge provided the worst sort of railway travelling to which the public had yet been treated. It added that some carriages, particularly those made in Manchester, gave the worst ride. These views were contested by the patriotic press in Bristol at the time, not least because many of the directors came from that city. In fact, in the previous month a GWR director called Thomas Richard Guppy, a sugar merchant in Bristol, had demonstrated the stability of the broad gauge train by walking along its carriage roofs while the train was in motion. This was during a special run for invited guests from Paddington to Maidenhead and back with the train hauled by the locomotive “North Star”. On the return journey, a stop was made near Slough where lavish refreshments were served to 300 guests in a large marquee. From his behaviour we can probably assume that Guppy may well have over-indulged. The outward journey on this occasion was made at an average speed of 28 mph and the return journey was faster at 33½ mph.
The first Paddington station at Bishop’s Bridge Road served from 1838. Then in 1850, given the success of the railway, it was decided to build a new terminus and hotel nearby. The new Paddington station designed by Brunel and built by Fox Henderson & Company opened in 1854. Brunel had been inspired by the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and incorporated much wrought iron and glass in his wide-span train sheds design. It’s still with us today.
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