READING AND WRITING ON THE GWR


“Two new locomotives! The replica 1840 broad gauge locomotive “Fire Fly” on broad gauge track and the A1 Trust’s new build “Tornado” at Didcot Railway Centre. Photo: Frank Dumbleton.”


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1833. By October 1835 he had persuaded the Great Western Railway Board of Directors by a large majority to adopt his broad gauge, "to admit of rails being laid to the extreme width proposed by Mr Brunel, viz 7 feet" (now accepted to be 7ft 0¼ inch). By this time, Brunel's annual salary is £2,000 (£260,000 at current values).


180 years ago in spring 1841, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was giving evidence to the Select Committee on the Prevention of Accidents on Railways. In his evidence he said that “the very best engine driver we ever had; a very superior man, who is now foreman of our engineers at Reading, a man whom I trust better than anyone I have got on the line, can neither read nor write, and yet he issues instructions, and he has a clerk who writes written orders; and it would be a serious mischief if any regulation of the Legislature should deprive us of him and of a number of others that we have. I am not one to sneer at education, but I would not give sixpence in hiring an engineman, because of his knowing how to read or write.”


He went on, “it is impossible that a man that indulges in reading, should make a good engine driver; it requires a species of machine, an intelligent man, an honest man, a sober man, a steady man; but I would much rather not have a thinking man.” There had been trouble earlier with enginemen misunderstanding instructions relating to Disc or Ball Signals. Brunel had to explain to the Select Committee that most enginemen could neither read nor write and that they probably understood the word “ball” more readily than “disc”. Fortunately, the more obvious Disc and Crossbar signals were introduced very soon afterwards. In 1840 a GWR driver was fined £5 (over £500 at today’s values) for passing a ball signal with a red light at danger at Southall.


On driving, Brunel confessed that he was easily distracted! While he often rode on the footplate he said, “I never dared drive an engine, although I always go upon the engine; because if I go upon a bit of the line without anything to attract my attention, I begin thinking of something else.”


By Mike Peart.

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