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The 1835 Act of Parliament which gave permission to build the Great Western Railway, was quickly followed by another Act in 1836 for a separate railway company, when Bristol merchants pressed for a trade route with Exeter and the West. This was partly driven by the need and greed for trade, and partly to have access to a second port thus avoiding the North Cornish Coastline. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed engineer, but retired from that position when he found that the duties clashed with those of his position as engineer to the Great Western Railway. He was succeeded by Francis Fox
The line was laid on the broad gauge, and its most important feature is Whiteball Tunnel, 1092 yards, which is on a gradient rising 1 in 127, when going towards Exeter.
The first broad gauge section of the line was completed to Bridgwater on 14 June 1841, and the extension to Taunton in July 1842 - both using trains leased from the Great Western. The line was completed to Exeter in 1844.
In 1849 the railway took over its workings from the Great Western and built carriage works at Bridgwater. Already established as a centre for railway engineering, by George Hennet obtaining permission in the town to cast atmospheric pipes for the South Devon Railway, the Bristol and Exeter Railway simply extended his works. The Hennet name continued to be linked to Bridgwater for many years, and was responsible for producing many wagons for various companies.
In 1867 the Bristol and Exeter Railway laid a mixed gauge along the line from Highbridge, Somerset to Glastonbury. It worked the line, but when the Somerset Central rebuffed a takeover offer by the Bristol and Exeter, they withdraw their locomotives.
The Bristol & Exeter Railway was a reasonable financial success and between 1844 and 1874, paying an average annual dividend of 4.5 per cent. This was partly thanks to the merchants of Exeter, who refused the railway access to the dock of the Exeter Canal until 35 years after the railway entered the city in 1844. The railway built its own new dock, which could accommodate the new larger steam ships, and bankrupted the canal in 1867.
The railway was fully amalgamated with the Great Western Railway 0n 1 January 1876.
1876 Accident - On July 27th the up Flying Dutchman was derailed at Long Ashton near Bourton, on the Bristol and Exeter section of the Great Western Railway. The two engine-men were killed, but there were no serious injuries to tho passengers. Two points should be noted:- (1) The line was converted from the broad to the mixed gauge in 1875, and whilst the longitudinal principle was continued the extra rail brought difficulties, and the permanent way inspector did not get all the increased staff he asked for; (2) the Bristol and Exeter Railway had been taken over by the Great Western as from the previous April, and the permanent-way inspector just, mentioned told the Board of Trade Inspector "They had run too close with the materials towards the end of the Bristol and Exeter time, and it was about six weeks after the line was handed over before they could get material...He could have kept the line better if he had had more men and material." The engine was No. 2001 of the well-known 4-2-4 tank type. Captain Tyler reporting to the Board of Trade concluded that the permanent way was not in good condition. The off rail rested loosely on the longitudinal timber and the sleeper loosely on the ballast. The line was not in good level and the gauge was slightly tight.
Locomotives for the railway were provided by the Great Western Railway until its lease finished on 1 May 1849, after which the railway provided its own locomotives. Engine sheds were provided at major stations and on some branches, and workshops were established at Bristol in September 1854.
Charles Hutton Gregory was responsible for the locomotives until May 1850, when James Pearson was appointed as Locomotive Engineer. He designed several classes of tank engines, including his distinctive large 4-2-4T locomotives, the first of which were introduced in 1854.