Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,766 pages of information and 210,006 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Note: This is a sub-section of Leaders of Modern Industry by G. Barnett Smith
Among the pioneers who have helped to transform the world by the peaceful triumphs of industry, an honourable place must be assigned to Thomas Brassey. He began his active career at the period when George Stephenson achieved his first great railway success, and from that time until his death he was indefatigable in his labours as a contractor at home and abroad. He was one of those men who are bound to elevate any trade or profession they choose, by reason of the serious earnestness with which they pursue it, and the fine integrity of character which shines through all their business relations. His skill and power of organisation were remarkable even in this enterprising age and there is no doubt that in foreign lands he did much to maintain the prestige of England as a nation not only able in conceiving, but in successfully carrying through, the most gigantic undertakings.
Brassey was born at Buerton, in the parish of Aldford, Cheshire, on Nov. 7th, 1805. His family was an ancient one, and it is stated that his ancestors came over with William the Conqueror. Artemus Ward humorously remarked that his did the same: 'I know they did,' he said, 'because I never knew a man whose didn't.' Many a man has claimed Norman ancestors on quite as shadowy grounds as Artemus's: but, if Norman ancestors be worth anything, Brassey really seems to have been entitled to claim them. For nearly six centuries his predecessors resided at Bulkeley, near Malpas, in Cheshire, where they possessed a small landed property of about four hundred acres.
It still remains in the family, and Brassey was much attached to it. When the old mansion became uninhabitable, he built a large and handsome one upon the site. The Brasseys did not lose their ancient inheritance, like so many other families, during the Wars of the Roses; but after two more centuries of vicissitude they moved to Buerton, certain documents showing that they were already there in 1663. The father of Thomas Brassey, in addition to farming his own land, rented a large farm from the Marquis of Westminster at £850 per annum.
Sir Arthur Helps, who gives these details in his memorial sketch of Brassey, says: 'I am particular in noting these facts about the history of Mr. Brassey's family, because it resembles that of many of those families from which our most distinguished men have sprung — an origin which I conceive is very favourable for a man who is destined to do great things in this world. There is a certain amount of culture and of knowledge in such a family; while at the same time it has run no risk of being enervated by luxury, or of having, if I may venture to use the expression, thought itself out. We cannot be blind to the fact that there are amongst us but few descendants of our most eminent men. It certainly seems as though a family, after long ages, like some slowly developing plant, produces its best flower, and then dies off. And when we see distinguished families still producing remarkable men, I believe that if we could investigate the records of those families, we should find that there had been a frequent accession of new blood of minds unwearied by mental labour, of bodies not exhausted, or rendered unfruitful by luxury.'
From twelve to sixteen years of age, Brassey was at school at Chester, and then he was articled to a land surveyor and estate agent named Lawton. One of his first pieces of work was to assist Mr. Parsons of Oswestry in making the surveys for Telford's well-known and magnificent highway, the Holyhead Road. Brassey soon became such a general favourite, that his master, Lawton, proposed to take him into partnership.
The offer was accepted, and at the age of twenty-one, Brassey went to reside at Birkenhead as Lawton's partner. The whole of the Birkenhead estate was the property of Mr. Francis Richard Price, of Bryn-y-pys, Overton, Flintshire, for whom Lawton acted as agent. When Lawton died, Brassey became sole agent and representative of Mr. Price, and he did much towards developing the now flourishing town of Birkenhead, which in 1818 consisted of only four houses.
After being at Birkenhead for eight years, Brassey was introduced to George Stephenson an introduction which changed the whole current of his life. There was a certain stone-quarry at Stourton under Brassey's charge, and Stephenson wanted stone for repairing the Sankey Viaduct on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He therefore examined the quarry, being accompanied by Brassey, and he was so struck with the latter that he endeavoured to draw him into the enterprise of railway-making. Acting on the great man's advice, Brassey sent in his first tender, which was for the Dutton Viaduct, near Warrington, on the London and North-Western system. He failed to obtain it, however, his estimate being £5,000 higher than the successful tender.
His next tender, in 1834, was for Penkridge Viaduct, between Stafford and Wolverhampton - including also ten miles of railway on the same line — and this was accepted. A contractor at this time had to do all his own work, for sub-contracts were almost unknown, and he had to show great skill in selecting and directing large bodies of workmen. Stephenson's successor on the Grand Junction Railway, John Locke (sic), was afterwards engaged for the London and Southampton Railway. He invited Brassey to go with him, and the latter contracted for and executed the important works between Basingstoke and Winchester, as well as works on other parts of the line.
When Brassey was thirty-one years of age he settled in London, and entered into an extended scale of business. All who had to do with him soon discovered that he could be thoroughly relied on to complete his contracts in the time and manner specified. Throughout his career, 'his faithfulness, his desire to do his work efficiently, whether at a gain or a loss, together with his resolution to avoid all petty subjects of dispute, naturally made him a most welcome fellow-worker to any person placed in such an arduous position — a position requiring so much watchfulness and supervision as that of engineer-in-chief to a railway. It was an immense comfort to have a man to deal with whom it was not necessary to be looking after in respect of any of the details of the work entrusted to him.'
In December, 1831, Brassey was married to Maria, second daughter of Joseph Harrison of Birkenhead. Mr. Harrison — who, by the way, was the first resident in the new town of Birkenhead — was a forwarding agent in Liverpool for the great Manchester houses. It is stated that Brassey's first connection with railways was partly due to the advice he received from his wife, who saw that he was capable of greater things than come within the necessarily restricted sphere of an agent or a land surveyor. Mrs. Brassey was also a believer in railways when many scientific men regarded them as impracticable. So, although she foresaw much domestic discomfort from the frequent change of residence necessary to a railway contractor, she would not allow her own feelings to weigh in the matter, but encouraged her husband in his new calling.
During the first thirteen years of his career as a contractor, Brassey changed his residence no fewer than eleven times. Three of these temporary homes he was compelled to make in France. Then, again, wherever the family was temporarily located, little could be seen of Brassey himself, whose engagements usually caused him to be absent from nine or half-past nine in the morning until ten o'clock in the evening. The education of the children at this period rested entirely with Mrs. Brassey, and to this and their welfare generally she devoted hers; if with true motherly affection.
The construction of railways is a work peculiarly adapted to being executed by contract, and the practice consequently speedily increased when once it had been instituted. 'It may be noted,' says Sir Arthur Helps, 'that in carrying out work in foreign countries, great benefit has accrued both to those countries themselves, and to the country in which these projects originated, from the works being confided to contractors who carried hither and thither bands of skilful workmen; and who, indirectly, brought much profit to the mother-country, while gradually they instructed the natives of other countries in skilled labour, and made them more useful citizens than they were before. There are some parts of Europe where the condition of the whole labouring population has been permanently raised by the introduction of British skill and British labour in the execution of a particular work. And this would hardly have been the case, or at any rate would not so soon have been the case, but for the presence of the British contractor and his accompanying army of British workmen — bringing new tools, new modes of working, new methods of payment; and, in short, introducing an element of vigour and prosperity which could not have been so well introduced in any other way.
When Brassey became thoroughly known as a contractor, and commissions multiplied with him, he let out portions of his work to sub-contractors. But these contracted for the manual labour alone; he furnished the materials and all the plant, and also provided the horses. Finding, however, in France that to provide horses did not pay, he afterwards stipulated that the sub-contractors should find their own horses. Brassey fixed the prices the sub-contractors were to receive, but he always raised them where the contracts proved unprofitable. He would make careful visits of inspection, and one who worked for him stated that such visits would often cost him a thousand pounds. So keen was his memory that as he went along the line he remembered even the navvies, and saluted them by their names. In making sub-contracts he recognised each man's speciality, and acted upon it. The sub-contracts varied from £5,000 to £25,000 and the number of men employed upon them from one to three hundred. Sub-lettings by sub-contractors he did not approve of, but he always favoured the co-operative system, and approved of the 'butty-gang' system — a system whereby certain work was done by, ten or thirteen men, who shared equally in the proceeds, something extra being allowed to the head man.
In the year 1841 Brassey began his foreign work. France, which first claimed his services, was not in as good a position fur the introduction of railways as Great Britain, where the public roads and canals had been brought to a state of comparative perfection. However, the French desired to have railway's at an early stage, and the Government were willing to give guarantees in view of their failure as a purely commercial speculation. The Paris and Rouen Railway was projected, as a line which would bring London and Paris nearer together, and the French Board suggested an amalgamation of interests with the London and Southampton Railway. This was agreed to, and a joint company formed called the Paris and Rouen Railway Company. Locke was appointed engineer to the new line; but the pretensions of French contractors were so greatly in excess of his expectations, that at his suggestion the Board invited English contractors to go over and compete with the French. It was found that Brassey and Mackenzie, however, were the only serious English competitors, and these two contractors agreed to join their forces, and tender conjointly. With only a very trifling exception, they succeeded in securing the execution of the whole of the works. Thus began Brassey's series of undertakings in foreign countries. He fixed his abode in France, and gave up the whole of his time to the new line. The works were begun in 1841, and the line was opened to the public in May, 1843. The undertaking was a very important and onerous one.
'Added to its extent, and the consequent and natural difficulties of organisation and management, it possessed the new feature of being in a foreign country, where railway works were as yet unknown, and where, consequently, it was not easy to secure assistants in the shape of practical agents, foremen, and gangers, or even the necessary labourers, miners, and navvies accustomed to that style of work, and to the means of execution adopted by the contractor. All this considerably enhanced the difficulties, more especially as the whole time for completion was very limited, and necessitated, therefore, great energy, decision, and discernment in organising rapidly a very large staff of employees of every description, and the bringing over from England numbers of workmen of all classes — amounting at times to several thousands.' But Brassey was like Napoleon in one thing—he did not believe in the 'impossible.' He had tact and shrewdness, skill in organisation, and a wonderful hold over those whom he employed - so much so, indeed, that master and man were alike loth to part after they had once established relations together.
The oversight of everything he took, looking after the quarters of the men, and providing for them medical assistance and hospital accommodation when necessary. No fewer than eleven languages were spoken on the works of this one railway. The undertaking was successfully carried through, and within the specified time. Higher wages for the natives followed the introduction of railway work into France and Belgium. When Brassey constructed the railway from Charleroi to Givet, as the works were light he sent out only a few Englishmen to commence and superintend the construction of the line. One of the sub-contractors, describing the effect of the work upon the natives, said, 'When we went there, a native labourer was paid one shilling and threepence per day; but when we began to pay them two francs and two francs and a half per day, they thought we were angels from Heaven.' As the native workmen were remarkably provident and abstemious, they managed to save a considerable amount even out of those very moderate wages, as they would be counted in England.'
The Rouen and Havre Railway—which was a continuation of the Paris and Rouen line, and completed the communication between Paris and London, via Southampton - was begun by Messrs. Brassey and Mackenzie in 1843. Mr. Francis Murton stated with regard to this new line: 'The works of the Havre railway were extraordinary in magnitude. The line, leaving the valley of the Seine at Rouen, had to cross several important valleys to attain the plateau or summit level, and then to descend to the level of the port of Havre. This necessitated a large bridge over the Seine, many tunnels, eight or ten in number, several large viaducts of 100 feet in height, and huge cuttings and embankments; moreover, the whole of the work had to be completed in two years. Mr. Brassey took up his residence at Rouen, and laboured at this heavy and important work with unbounded energy. I should say that, never up to that date, had such heavy works been carried out in so short a time. Although many of his people had had two years' experience in France, still, owing to the severe character of the work, there was much difficulty in obtaining the necessary labour, more especially as regards the mining, brickwork, and masonry.
'The contractors were again obliged to bring over from England hosts of bricklayers, from London or from any place where they could be found; and it may here be mentioned that, of all classes of railway labour, as a rule, the brickmakers and the bricklayers are the worst and most unscrupulous, and great indeed was the trouble and expense they caused. The necessity also of working night as well as day, rendered the supervision very difficult, particularly in the tunnels, and much anxiety was thereby occasioned to the engineers as well as to the contractors. During the progress of the works, a great accident occurred in the second section of the line, in the fall of the Barentin Viaduct — a huge brick construction of 100 feet in height and about one-third of a mile in length, having cost some £50,000; and which had, but a very short time previously, elicited the Praise and admiration of the Minister of Public Works, and the other high French officers who visited it.
This great downfall occurred a very short time before the proposed opening of the line. It is scarcely necessary here to seek to establish the causes of this failure; very rapid execution in very bad weather, and being built, in accordance with the contract, with mortar made of lime of the country (but with which the other smaller works had been successfully built), were no doubt the principal causes. Mr. Brassey was very greatly upset by this untoward event; but he and his partner, Mr. Mackenzie, met the difficulty most manfully. "The first thing to do," as they said, "is to build it up again," and this they started most strenuously to do; not waiting, as many would have done, whether justly or unjustly, to settle, by litigation or otherwise, upon whom the responsibility and the expense should fall. Not a day was lost by them in the extraordinary efforts they had to make to secure millions of new bricks, and to provide hydraulic lime, which had to be brought from a distance.
Suffice it to say that, by their indomitable energy and determination promptly to repair the evil, and, by the skill of their agents, they succeeded in rebuilding this huge structure in less than six months. I should mention that, as one inducement to the contractors to open the Havre line a few months before the contract time, a premium of about £10,000 was offered them. This, of course, they stood to lose by this accident. The company, however, in consideration of their marvellous and successful efforts to redeem the loss of time, allowed them the benefit of this sum, but the whole of the remainder of the expense they themselves bore. This is one of the many cases where, in spite of all loss, of all difficulty, that determination never to shrink, upon any pretext, from a contract, fully evinced itself: and therefore, it is a case worthy of note.'
In one portion of his work, Brassey's biographer draws interesting comparisons between the railway labourers of different countries, and their methods of work. An expert on manual labour has stated that the amount of work done by an English 'navvy' - a word corrupted from navigator — exceeds in severity that accomplished by any other class of workman. The power of English navvies in lifting earth during excavations is not nearly equalled by that of the navvies of any other country in the world. Strikes were almost unknown amongst Brassey's workmen. The English navvy abroad was rather troublesome at first, but he soon got into steady and regular grooves. The French navvy, owing partly to the inferiority of his tools, was worth only two francs a day, while the English labourer could earn four francs and a half. But in time, the Frenchman improved, and his value rose largely in consequence. The result was that ultimately the great bulk of the railway work executed in France was done by natives. Plate-laying was for a long time an English speciality, but French workmen came at last to do it extremely well.
In mining, the English labourer always maintained his superiority, being hardier and capable of more endurance. The English engineer was also superior to the French, and laboured as though he intended his work to be eternal. Piedmontese workmen were found to be quiet, orderly, and capable, and in cutting rock they could do the work cheaper than English miners. People born in the mountains were stronger than those born in the plains. The Neapolitans, who flocked in shoals to places where railway works were going forward, could only do light work; and as they generally worked in such districts as the Maremma, they could only labour for some six months in the year. Their wages were from one franc to two francs per day. The Germans were not first-class labourers, but the Belgians were very good, though behind the English in many things. They were not so ingenious in their methods.
Sir John Hawkshaw, who had experience of unskilled labour in almost all parts of the world, said on this question: 'I have arrived at the conclusion that its cost is much the same in all. I have had personal experience in South America, in Russia, and in Holland, as well as in my own country; and consulting engineer to some of the Indian and other foreign railways, I am pretty well acquainted with the value of Hindoo and other labour; and though an English labourer will do a larger amount of work than a Creole or a Hindoo, yet you have to pay them proportionately higher wages. Dutch labourers are, I think, as good as English, or nearly so; and Russian workmen are docile and easily taught, and readily adopt every method shown to them to be better than their own.'
The work of a contractor is not to be measured only by the undertakings brought to a successful completion. Preliminary surveys and laborious calculations are made with respect to schemes which frequently prove abortive; indeed, it is said that Brassey himself unsuccessfully tendered for works to the extent of £150,000,000. This points to a vast amount of investigation which was not only unremunerative but exhausting to the contractor. Brassey seems to have had a genius for seizing upon the essential points of any scheme submitted to him, and he was extremely rapid in his mental arithmetic. And it is a remarkable fact that his conclusions were scarcely ever found to be wrong.
Brassey became so widely known that in 1845 he had on his hands no fewer than thirteen large railway contracts, representing a length of about 800 miles, scattered over various parts of England and Wales, Scotland, and France. This did not leave him time to superintend everything in detail, nor was there any necessity for this, as it was one of his leading characteristics to be able to engage intuitively men competent to carry out all the minutiae of his plans, and he had many such men in his employment who served him ably. In course of time he became as it were 'the great consulting physician in railway matters, only making his appearance on critical occasions.' But whenever anything went wrong, he was on the spot immediately. His visits were likewise taken advantage of 'as opportunities for the redress of grievances, and for the settlement of all questions of difficulty.'
The great contractor loved his work better than anything. It was his ambition, we are told, to furnish large and continuous employment to his fellow-countrymen, and to the natives of other countries. He determined that this work should occupy all his lifetime, and he could never bear the thought of retiring from business. For the rewards which attended him — and which many men would have hailed with pride and delight - he cared little. When the Emperor of Austria conferred upon him the Cross of the Iron Crown, he remarked that he did not know what good crosses were to him as an Englishman; but as the Emperor had graciously offered it, he accepted the distinction, knowing also that his wife would appreciate the honour, as she took a deep interest in his works and his growing fame. He received two other crosses — those of the Legion of Honour of France and the Chevaliership of Italy, but so little did he regard them that when they were enquired for on one occasion they could not be found. The Emperor of the French invited Brassey to dine at the Tuileries, after conferring upon him the Order of the Legion of Honour; and at this dinner he sat near the Empress, 'with whose grace and manner he was much charmed, and he was especially pleased with her kindness in talking English to him during the greater part of the time.'
Some idea of Brassey's surprising energy and activity may be gathered from this statement of his brother-in-law, Mr. Henry Harrison: 'I have known him come direct from France to Rugby. Having left Havre the night before, he would have been engaged in the office in London the whole day; he would then come down to Rugby by the mail train at twelve o'clock, and it was his common practice to be on the works by six o'clock the next morning. He would frequently walk from Rugby to Nuneaton, a distance of sixteen miles. Having arrived at Nuneaton in the afternoon, he would proceed the same night by road to Tamworth, and the next morning he would be out on the road, so soon, that he had the reputation, among his staff, of being the first man on the works. He used to proceed over the works from Tamworth to Stafford, walking the greater part of the distance; and he would frequently proceed that same evening to Lancaster, in order to inspect the works then in progress under the contract which he had for the execution of the railway from Lancaster to Carlisle. The journey which I have described from Havre, via London to Rugby, thence over the Trent to Stafford, and by railway to Lancaster, to inspect the Lancaster and Carlisle line, was a route which he very commonly followed.'
The Great Northern Railway was one of the most formidable undertakings contracted for by Thomas Brassey. There was one special difficulty in connection with it, viz., how to get the line over the fens adjacent to Whittlesea Mere. In connection with this he called into his counsels Mr. Samuel Ballard, the skilful engineer of the Middle Level Drain, part of the Great Bedford Level in the Fens. The depth of the bog to be crossed was twenty-two feet, and its extent about three miles. Mr. Ballard laid layer upon layer of stakes over the surface upon which the soil was gradually piled up, giving the water time to run out. The effect was thus to displace the water, but to leave the solid parts behind, and eventually a solid basis was made.
The construction of the bridges in the Fens was another great difficulty, but Mr. Ballard successfully overcame it. Mr. Ballard was struck by Brassey's faculty for economising his time, and bringing his experience and judgment to bear where they were useful. He had a keen eye for discovering any defective point, and a comprehensive way of estimating its various bearings. Easy or trifling things he left to others to deal with, and only fixed his mind on those things which were of primary importance. He would indicate where difficulties might be expected, and predicate the condition of the works six months in advance. The number of men employed on the Great Northern line was from 5,000 to 6,000, yet he directed all their labour without a hitch. When the undertaking was finished, those interested in the line subscribed a sum of about £2,000, and presentation portraits were painted of Mr. and Mrs. Brassey.
A large silver-gilt shield, a fine piece of work designed by Mr. H. P. Burt, was likewise presented to the contractor. The shield, which measures a yard in diameter, has in the centre the Brassey arms, surrounded by portraits, enamelled in gold, of twelve of the engineers under whose direction Brassey executed important works. There are also twelve views of the principal undertakings he had carried through up to that period — 1851, — and outside them a blue ribbon in enamel, bearing the names of thirty-six of Brassey's agents. This trophy of labour is probably unique of its kind.
Brassey's financial method seems to have been a very simple one. The agent for each contract was made responsible for the amount of money he received, and he was to furnish information to the contractor in London, whenever required, as to his expenditure. This system with many masters would have been liable to abuse; but Mr. Tapp, Brassey's financial secretary, says that as the agents were put upon their honour, and trusted implicitly, they felt a pride in being thus confided in, and really carried on their business as though it were their own. In making the Bilbao railway in Spain monetary difficulties were frequently experienced. The banks were not accustomed to cash cheques for large amounts, so that the cash had to be obtained piecemeal. But Brassey taught the Basques the use of paper money. He and his partners had 10,000 men in their employment, but Brassey's credit was so high in the district that on one occasion, at Chambery, where no one had been authorised to draw cheques, Brassey's agent was allowed to draw as much as £28,000 on his own cheque. Brassey and his partners sustained a great loss over the Bilbao railway, for owing to the quantity of hard rock which had to be cut, to the very wet climate, and the frequent recurrence of fete days, the men were not able to work more than 200 days out of the 313 working days in the year.
Sometimes Brassey was ignorant as to the extent of his own pecuniary resources, and it took a long time to get together an accurate statement of his assets. With respect to the way in which he remunerated his agents, his secretary remarks that 'it was a system of paying sometimes by salaries and sometimes by a percentage on profits. The salaries which Mr. Brassey gave were decidedly not large; but he assigned to his principal agents a percentage upon the profits of the undertaking. In some instances these agents received cheques varying from £3,000 to £16,000. Indeed, several of these gentlemen who served under him succeeded in realising fortunes.'
Brassey bore his business losses with singular equanimity. One who knew him well said he never appeared so happy as when he had lost £20,000. At the Westminster Palace Hotel one night, when during a severe panic it was thought he had lost a million of money, he merely said, 'Never mind, we must be content with a little less; that's all.' His cheerful way of regarding misfortune was of the greatest advantage to him, keeping him up when many would have collapsed under their troubles.
Monetary difficulties of a formidable nature, however, fell upon Brassey in the year 1866. And as usual in such cases, they 'came not as single spies but in battalions.' To begin with, there were liabilities in connection with the Victoria Docks to the extent of £600,000; then there were contracts for certain railways in Denmark for which Brassey and Messrs. Peto Betts were jointly responsible. The latter firm failed and the total Danish liabilities were about £800,000. Next in connection with the construction of the Lemberg and Czernowitz line, Brassey had received bonds from the Company to the amount of £1,200,000. He was unable to negotiate them, and an effort to place them in a foreign market only yielded £13,000. They then became perfectly unsaleable; yet at this time the contractor was paying from £40,000 to £50,000 a month for wages alone on this line.
For the Evesham and Redditch Railway Brassey was entirely paid in shares, and for the Warsaw and Terespol line he was also largely paid in bonds upon which he could not realise, while the Queensland railway involved further heavy liabilities. He had several English contracts running upon which he could get nothing, and there was a heavy loss going on at the Barrow Docks and at Runcorn Bridge, which amounted to £44,000. These were difficulties enough to appal any man, but he pushed forward with the contract for the Lemberg line, and finished the works three or four months before the stipulated time. This not only gained him prestige with the Austrians, but it released large funds hitherto unavailable, as the Anglo-Austrian Bank now found it could do a profitable business by selling the bonds, of which Brassey held upwards of a million.
As the Austro-Prussian War was in progress while the Lemberg line was being constructed, there was great difficulty in conveying the money from Vienna to Lemberg — a distance of 500 miles — in order to pay the men. This daring feat was undertaken by Mr. Victor Ofenheim, afterwards the Chevalier d'Ofenheim, Director-General of the Company, and one of Brassey's advisers on Austrian questions. Sir A. Helps thus relates how the task was achieved: 'The intervening country was occupied by the Austrian and Prussian armies, who were on each side of the line, that is on that part between Cracow and Lemberg; for Mr. Ofenheim had succeeded without much difficulty in getting the money carried on the Northern Carl-Ludwig Railway as far as Cracow. However, he was full of energy, and was determined to get on somehow or other. They said that there was no engine; that they had all been taken off; but he went and found an old engine in a shed. Next he wanted an engine-driver, and he found one, but the man said he would not go, for he had a wife and children; but Mr. Ofenheim said, "If you will come, I will give you so many hundred florins, and if you get killed I will provide for your wife and family."
They jumped on to the old engine and got it up the steam. They then started and went at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, passing between the sentinels of the opposing armies; and Mr. Ofenheim states that they were so surprised that they had not time to shoot him. His only fear was that there might be a rail up somewhere. But he got to Lemberg, and that was the saving point of the line — they distributed the "pay " — otherwise the men would have gone away to their homes, and the line would have been left unfinished through the winter, and they would have had to wait until the next spring before they could have returned again; but that difficulty being overcome, they got the line duly opened. Mr. Ofenheim's conduct on this occasion is a notable instance of the influence Mr. Brassey exercised over those who worked with him, as well as those who worked for him; for Mr. Ofenheim had become a devoted friend, as well as a skilful and daring representative of Mr. Brassey.
The Emperor of Austria, with that appreciation shown by monarchs for devoted service — a thing they naturally very much approve of, - was much struck by what be had heard of this daring feat in getting to Lemberg, and sent for Mr. Ofenheim, and asked this pertinent question: "Who is this Mr. Brassey, this English contractor, for whom men are to be found who work with such zeal, and risk their lives?" The answer must have been satisfactory, for the Emperor said Mr. Brassey must be a very powerful man, and sent him the Cross of the Iron Crown.'
Notwithstanding the financial difficulties under which Brassey at times laboured, and which were almost inseparable from the gigantic nature of his undertakings, he yet amassed great wealth. But his profits on transactions were anything but large. His percentage of profit, taken as a whole, was only about three per cent. His expenditure of other people's money was £78,000,000, and upon that outlay he retained £2,500,000. The rest of his enormous fortune came through accumulations. His capital was in constant use — it was never suffered to lie idle. A typical instance of his liberality is given. One of his agents entrusted with an important mission died soon after reaching his destination, while his wife — whom be had left in good health in England died suddenly almost at the same time. Six orphans were left entirely without provision. Brassey, who had already advanced several thousand pounds on the agent's life policy, immediately relinquished the policy in favour of the children, and headed a subscription list in addition with a handsome sum. He does not seem to have cared for money as money, but only as he could keep using it beneficially, or turning it over and over in business.
Although his name did not appear much in connection with public charities, it is estimated that his benefactions during his lifetime amounted to £200,000. Two causes are cited which led to his accumulation of wealth: first, the very moderate nature of his personal expenses; secondly, the immense extent of his business, which he built up by quick, straightforward dealing. He always went straight to the point, and exhibited great determination and perseverance. In fact, one of his admirers declared that 'if he'd been a parson, he'd have been a bishop; if a prize-fighter, he would have had the belt.'
The contracts which Brassey carried out between the years 1834 and 1870 - either singly or in conjunction with partners — numbered no fewer than 174. Of these, the most extensive lines were the following:— Paris and Rouen Railway, 82 miles; Orleans and Bordeaux line, 294 miles; Lancaster and Carlisle Railway, 70 miles; Caledonian Railway (first contract), 125 miles; Great Northern Railway, 75 miles; Mantes and Caen Railway, 11 3 miles; Le Mans and Mezidon Railway, 84 miles; Grand Trunk Railway, 539 miles; Royal Danish Railway, 75 miles; East Suffolk Railway, 63 miles; Caen and Cherbourg Railway, 94 miles; Leicester and Hitchin Railway, 6, miles; Bilbao and Miranda Railway, 66 miles; Eastern Bengal Railway, 112 miles; Victor Emmanuel Railway, 73 miles; the Maremma, Leghorn, &c., Railway, 138 miles; the Jutland Railway, 270 miles; Mauritius Railway, 64 miles; Meridionale Railway, 160 miles; Queensland Railway, 78 miles; North Schleswig Railway, 70 miles; Central Argentine Railway, 247 miles; Lemberg and Czernowitz Railway, 165 miles; Delhi Railway, 304 miles; Warsaw and Terespol Railway, 128 miles; Chord Line (India), 147 miles, Kronprinz-Rudolfsbahn, 272 miles; and the Suczawa and Jassy Railway, 135 miles.
The engineers with whom he was at various times associated included Robert Stephenson, Locke, Gooch, Bidder, Neuman, Cubitt, Hawkshaw, Robertson, Rendel, Brunel, Neale, G. R. Stephenson, Berkley, Tite, Liddell, Vignoles, Whitton, Wylie, Fowler, McClean, Bazalgette, Sinclair, Fitzgibbon, Woods, Harrison, and Galbraith, in addition to many foreign engineers.
During Brassey's career there were periods when he and his partners were giving employment to 80,000 persons, upon works involving an expenditure of £17,000,000. This was a prodigious effect for one man to have upon British industry and labour.
Some interesting facts are adduced concerning the Turin and Novara Railway, the length of which was 60 miles. Brassey was thrown a good deal into contact with the celebrated Count Cavour in constructing this line, which was begun in 1853. At first the Piedmontese public would have nothing to do with the shares, but Cavour was determined to have the line, and he persuaded Brassey to share the deficiency with the Government. Then when the subscriptions were covered, the public applied for far more shares than had been originally offered to them. Again Cavour applied to Brassey, saying, 'The public are now crying out that they cannot get a share, and the shares are at a good premium. Will you give up some shares, as I am anxious to whet their appetite for other enterprises by letting them taste a profit on their first speculation?' Brassey consented to give up 2,000 of his shares, although they then stood at more than £2 premium. Brassey mentioned the remarkable fact in connection with this railway, that it was 'completed for about the same money as was spent in obtaining the Bill for the railway from London to York.' It appears, too, that the total charge of the Sardinian Government against Brassey for the concession was only £1O0! Soon after the railway was in operation, Cavour observed to Brassey, 'I am told that the line per se is yielding 14 per cent., and yet there was a time when I could not induce my Piedmontese to take a share!'
Quite a network of railways in Piedmont followed the opening of the line from Turin to Novara. Brassey was concerned in several of them, and frequently received the thanks of Cavour for the way in which he responded to the wishes of the Piedmontese Government. On one occasion, during a grand dinner at Coire, Cavour said: 'Mr. Brassey is one of the most remarkable men I know; clear-headed, cautious, yet very enterprising — and fulfilling his engagements faithfully. We never had a difficulty with him. He would make a splendid Minister of Public Works; and, if report be true, he understands the Finance Department equally well.'
In addition to Count Cavour, the Prime Minister, the Marquis D'Azeglio, and the Minister of Public Works, M. Paleocapa, were anxious to promote railway enterprise in Italy. In 1850 a contract was entered into between the Piedmontese Government and Messrs. Brassey, Jackson, and Henfrey, for the construction of the Turin and Susa Railway. The object of this line was to facilitate communication between Italy and France. Susa being situate at the foot of the Mont Cenis Pass. As Mr. Henfrey remarked, 'By the construction of this line railway communication would be complete from the Alps to the Mediterranean, and the first link in the chain of international communication with France and the West of Europe would be forged.'
The Victor Emmanuel Railway followed, its course being on the northern side of the Pass of Mont Cenis, along the Valley of the Arc to Chambery, and thence to the French frontier at Culoz. Into this line came the cutting of the Mont Cenis Tunnel - a gigantic work extending to seven and a half miles. The undertaking would have been impossible but for the adoption of a machine for boring rock, invented by Mr. Thomas Bartlett, Brassey's agent for this line. The railway was begun in 1853 and finished in 1858.
Reviewing the work accomplished by English contractors in Italy, Mr. Henfrey says: 'It will be seen that the railways completed by Mr. Brassey and his partners formed a continuous line from the then French frontier at Culoz, on the Rhone, to the old Austrian frontier at Buffalora, on the Ticino, with the exception only of the pass over the Mont Cenis; and the years during which these contracts were executed comprised that bright period in the history of Italy during which the Kingdom of Sardinia, emerging from comparative obscurity, took its place by the side of the great Powers of Europe.' There is no doubt that British labour and British capital had some share, though an indirect one, in advancing towards a triumphant issue the great movement for the unification of Italy.
Brassey next turned his attention to the American Continent, and, in conjunction with Messrs. Peto & Betts, he took the contract for the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Robert Stephenson was consulting engineer to the company, and Alexander Ross the company's engineer for the whole undertaking. This memorable line was begun in 1852 and completed in 1839. It was an important link in the system of American railways, and was not only of immense service to the vast districts of territory surrounding Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior, but also in opening up other large districts of valuable land, and in connecting the Erie and Great Western of Canada Railroads, and other lines of lesser importance.
Brassey visited Canada, and was received at the works by his agent, James Hodges, who assisted in the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway until the Prince of Wales had laid the last stone and put in the last rivet. Great attention was paid to Brassey, special cars being attached at the end of the trains for him, so that he might have a better opportunity of viewing the country, and the managers of the various lines invariably accompanied him. The scarcity of labour at first hampered the execution of the Grand Trunk line, notwithstanding the fact that a man who received five shillings per day in England would receive seven shillings and sixpence in Canada. But against this must be set the fact that outdoor work is impossible in Canada for four months in the year, which is more than double the time that English workmen are debarred from labour. To get over the labour difficulty, Brassey suggested that the agents should bring up a large body of French Canadians from Lower Canada. This suggestion was carried out, but although the French Canadians were useful for light work, they had not the physical strength for the heavier kinds of labour. It appears that Brassey's main object in going to Canada was a financial one. The Canadian Government had lent the Grand Trunk Company £3,000,000, on condition that this sum should have priority of interest over all other claims upon the shares. Brassey greatly relieved the company by persuading the Canadian Government to remit the priority of its claims.
Obstacles of a very unusual character had to be encountered in the construction of the Victoria Bridge over the River St. Lawrence. Some reference has been made to this bridge in the article on the Stephensons. It was carried out from the designs of Robert Stephenson and Alexander Ross. From a paper written by James Hodges we may quote the following passage, showing the difficulties experienced in constructing the bridge:
The site of the bridge is at the lower end of a small lake, called La Prairie Basin, which is situated about one mile above the entrance to the canal, at the west end of Montreal Harbour. At this point the Saint Lawrence is 8,660 feet from shore to shore, or nearly a mile and three-quarters wide. The most serious difficulty in the construction of the Victoria Bridge arose from the accumulation of the ice in the winter months. Ice begins to form in the Saint Lawrence in December. Then ice first appears in quiet places, where the current is least felt. As winter advances "anchor," or ground, ice comes down the stream in vast quantities. This anchor ice appears in rapid currents, and attaches itself to the rocks in the bed of the river in the form of a spongy substance_ Immense quantities accumulate in an inconceivably short time, increasing until the mass is several feet thick. A very slight thaw, even that produced by a bright sunshine at noon, disengages this mass, when, rising to the surface, it passes down the river with the current.
This species of ice appears to grow only in the vicinity of rapids, or where the water has become aerated by the rapidity of the current. Anchor ice sometimes accumulates at the foot of the rapids in such quantities as to form a bar across the river some miles in extent, keeping the water several feet above the ordinary level. The accumulation of ice continues for several weeks, until the river is quite full. This causes a general rising of the water, until large masses float, and, moving farther down the river, unite with accumulations previously grounded, and thus form another barrier, "packing " in places to a height of twenty or thirty feet.
As the winter advances, the lake becomes frozen over. The ice then ceases to come down, and the water in the river gradually subsides till it finds its ordinary winter level, which is some twelve feet above its height in summer. The "ice bridge," or solid field of ice across the river, becomes formed for the winter early in January. By the middle of March the sun becomes very powerful at mid-day, and the warm heavy rains rot the ice. The ice, when it becomes thus awakened, is easily broken up by the winds, particularly at those parts of the lakes where, from the great depth of water, they are not completely frozen over. This ice, coming down over the rapids, chokes up the channels again, and causes a rise of the river, as in early winter.
In order to avoid the dangers consequent on these operations of nature, the stone piers of the Victoria Bridge were placed at wide intervals apart, each pier being of the most substantial character, and having a large wedge-shaped cut-water of stone-work, slanting towards the current, and presenting an angle to the advancing ice sufficient to separate and fracture it, as it rises against the piers. The piers of the bridge were, in fact, designed to answer the double purpose of carrying the tubes and of resisting the pressure of the ice. In each of these respects they have fully answered the important objects sought to be attained
The agents had difficulties with the Indian chiefs, who owned the best stone-quarries of the district; then numerous strikes arose among the workmen, while the cholera at one time committed dreadful ravages in their ranks; and finally great financial stringency was felt by the Company in 1855, in consequence of the rise in the value of money caused by the Crimean War. Nevertheless, the works were pushed forward with energy. Great assistance was derived in the conveyance and shifting of stone by a steam-traveller designed by one of the sub-contractors, Mr. Chaffey. This machine had a span of sixty feet; it unloaded the waggons, and stacked with the greatest ease large blocks of stone, some of which weighed ten tons; upwards of 70,000 tons of stone were twice moved by this machine, and yet only one man was required upon the traveller, while one other could stack the stone. The following statistics are supplied as to the materials used in constructing the Victoria Bridge, and the number of men, etc., employed: Total length of the tubes, 6,512 feet; weight of iron in the tubes, 9,044 tons; number of rivets in the tubes, 1,540,000; number of spans, 25, one being of 330 feet, and the others from 242 to 247 feet; quantity of masonry in piers and abutments, 2,713,095 cubic feet; quantity of timber in temporary works, 2,280,000 cubic feet; number of men engaged, 3,040; horses, 144; locomotive engines, 4; and, finally, steamboats, 6, and barges, 75, representing together 12,000 tons and 450 horse-power. This magnificent structure remains a lasting monument to British skill, industry, and perseverance.
Of works carried through by Brassey and his partners between the years 1852 and 1865 may be enumerated the Crimean Railway, the Victoria Docks, the Northern Mid-Level Sewer, the East London Railway, and various Danish railways, etc. The construction of the Crimean Railway was a great feat because of the difficulties of organisation and of transport. Field-Marshal Burgoyne stated that it was impossible to overrate the services rendered by the railway, or its effect in shortening the time of the siege and alleviating the fatigues and sufferings of the troops. The Victoria Docks, which were carried out for the firm of Brassey, Peto, & Betts, under the direction of G. P. Bidder, have a water area of over 100 acres, divided by eighty-feet gates into a tidal basin of about 20 acres, and a wet dock of about 80 acres. They have vaults for wines, and warehouses for general merchandise, to the extent of about 20 acres of floor.
The Thames Graving Docks, constructed by the same firm, possess a water area of 15 acres, and hydraulic machinery and lifts for docking and under-docking vessels of all capacities. The Northern Mid-Level Sewer, which Brassey made for the Metropolitan Board of Works, was a great undertaking, though only twelve miles in length. It took nearly three years to construct, and it runs from Kensal Green — passing under the Bayswater Road, Oxford Street, and Clerkenwell - to the River Lea. The contractors had to tunnel under houses and streets, and to cross the Metropolitan Railway with a very large tube; and the whole undertaking is regarded as one of the most difficult ever carried through in this country. The East London Railway — running from New Cross through the Thames Tunnel to Wapping was another of Brassey's difficult enterprises successfully accomplished.
The Danish railways, constructed by Brassey, Peto, & Betts, were about 500 miles in extent. They took ten years to complete, as the Government would not allow the contractors to do more than a certain amount of work annually. The work was largely executed by Danish sub-contractors and labourers, who were a steady and superior class of men. Construction was somewhat hindered by the war over Schleswig-Holstein, the sub-contractors being obliged to assist in making military earthworks.
The Australian works of Brassey were executed between 1859 and 1863. Here, again, the railways constructed had a wider influence than any mere value they possessed as a convenience for the resident population. They had much to do with stimulating emigration, and opening up the colonies to settlers from the mother-country. Wilcox and Rhodes, Brassey's agents, went out to Australia in 1859, their mission being to construct three important lines in New South Wales - the Great Southern, the Great Northern, and the Great Western Railways. Although there were no serious engineering difficulties to surmount, the cost of labour was so much higher that a similar length of line to that of the Great Southern Railway could have been laid in England at a reduction of £3,000 or £4,000 per mile. Everything for the Australian railways except the timber came from England. The wages were very high: labourers earned from 7s. to 8s. per day, masons and bricklayers 12s., and carpenters from 10s. to 12s. The cost of living in Queensland was only 8s. or 9s. a week individually; but a good deal of beer-drinking went forward, and that was very expensive. About 2,000 labourers were exported from England and Scotland, their selection and outfit costing the contractors per man, while the Government paid the passage out, some £12 in addition. Altogether, the taking out of the 2,000 men involved an expenditure of £34,000. Mr. Wilcox, who might thus be regarded as a great emigration agent, stated in his evidence on this subject, that it would be a safe venture to send out say 20,000 people a year to the Australian colonies: they could all be readily absorbed.
The Argentine Railway was constructed by Brassey, Wythes, and Wheelwright in 1864. A special interest attaches to this enterprise, for, as Sir Arthur Helps observes, 'it is the first time in the history of railway constructions that railway promoters have been great colonizers,' The Argentine Government gave the railway company one league of land on each side of the railway throughout its entire extent, commencing at a distance of four leagues from the stations of Rosario and Cordova, and one league from each of the towns, San Geronimo and Villa Nueva, subject to the condition of such lands being peopled. The contractors accepted from the company one-half of the above-mentioned lands in part payment of their contract price. The line proved a very easy one to construct, and the railway has been most favourable to emigration. In the Argentine Republic, 'the colonizer may occupy land remote from cities, and therefore cheap, and yet find himself in immediate contact with one of the principal means and appliances of modern civilization.' If the Argentine were only in a settled condition politically, this fine field for emigrants might be more widely utilised and opened up.
The contract made by Brassey for the Moldavian railways illustrates the difficulties which sometimes attend preliminary negotiations. In this case they were of the most protracted character, plan after plan falling through, and at the end of ten years (1858-68) Brassey had only been able to complete 360 out of the 500 miles originally projected. A contract for the remaining 140 miles between Roman and Galatz was concluded with Dr. Strousberg in 1868.
The Indian railways, constructed between 1858 and 1865, formed another interesting and important feature in the labours of Brassey and his partners. To India and its development railway communication was a necessity. In 1858, Brassey, Wythes, and Sir Joseph Paxton agreed to construct the Eastern Bengal Railway, a line 112 miles in length, commencing at Calcutta, and terminating at a village named Kooshtea on the River Ganges. Brunel was the consulting engineer in England, and Purdon the chief engineer in India. This railway proved an unfortunate speculation — being a second similar experience for Brassey. In consequence of the numerous public works set on foot after the suppression of the Indian Mutiny, the utmost difficulty was experienced in getting sufficient labourers for the line, but the railway was persevered with and opened for traffic at the end of the rainy season of 1862. The line was expensive, the cost, including rolling stock, being about £14,000 per mile.
In conjunction with Wythes and Henfrey, he next constructed the Delhi Railway, Bidder being the consulting engineer to the Company in England, and Joseph Harrison the chief engineer resident in India. The railway extended from Delhi to Umritsir in the Punjab, a distance of 304 miles. It included some very long viaducts over the Rivers Jumna, Sutlej, and Beeas, in addition to many minor structures, but the works were executed at an inclusive cost of £14,630 per mile. 'All the ironwork and machinery were imported from England, and had to be carried upwards of 1,000 miles from the ports where they were landed. Including rolling stock, these materials weighed nearly 100,000 tons.' Labour was always obtainable for this line, and it was completed within the specified time, the eastern half of the line being opened in 1868 by the Viceroy, Sir John Lawrence.
In May, 1867, Brassey went to Paris with his family. He had a good many business interviews in the French capital and on the day he was to have left he was taken ill. He would only postpone his departure for a day, however, and then he travelled all night to Cologne. He made trial trips on the engines of the Fell Railway, and Mrs. Thomas Brassey could not help remarking 'the large-hearted way in which he entered into its merits, the anxiety he expressed for its success, and the interest he took in its completion as a great enterprise and an extension of civilization.'
His generous wishes here were directly opposed to his pecuniary interests, for with the completion of the tunnel under the mountain the greater would be his loss on the line over the mountain. He returned to England in June, but set out again early in October to attend the proposed opening of the Mont Cenis Railway. He revisited the Fell Railway, the weather being extremely severe and his health bad. Following upon these things came another trial — for the opening of the railway proved a disastrous failure. The French Government had insisted upon having French engines and carriages, and they ignominiously broke down. Brassey was now taken alarmingly ill with bronchitis. He was conveyed with great difficulty to Turin, and his family were telegraphed for. Though suffering from fever, he insisted upon proceeding to Venice, and he was in a critical state when his family arrived there. He rallied, nevertheless, in a remarkable manner, and in November he was able to travel by easy stages to England, safely reaching St. Leonard's.
It was the beginning of the end, however, and in September, 1868, he had a second stroke of paralysis. Though remonstrated with, he would pursue his labours; and, by a strange coincidence, his latest — or one of his very latest undertakings, the Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway was close to the Penkridge Viaduct, the scene of his first railway contract. But death drew on apace. For some time before the end Brassey knew his disease was fatal, but he bore the news with fortitude and resignation, for he had ever been a deeply religious man. The last days of his life were spent at Hastings, where he expired on December 8th, 1870. His death was mourned far beyond the limits of his own immediate circle.
Lord Brassey, the great contractor's eldest son, supplied Sir Arthur Helps with some interesting reminiscences of his father. The eminent virtues of the latter did not blind the sun to his defects, which, in some degree, resulted from those very virtues. Brassey's whole existence was not centred in his own labours; the triumphs of science and engineering elicited his warmest enthusiasm, and in many instances his liberal pecuniary aid to bring them to fruition. He also took an intense delight in nature, and especially in mountain scenery. But whether in country or town, little escaped his keen observation. He had a special appreciation of sculpture, of paintings, and indeed of art in every form. His love of yachting was proverbial, as well as his love of hospitality. His politics tended towards Conservatism, but he appreciated whatever was good and great among all classes of men. His hobby was correspondence, and although he made no pretence to literary skill, he was singularly clear in his statements and facts. He was of a very patient disposition, and indulged the most generous sentiments — so much so that he sometimes failed in reproof where reproof would have been justified. Chivalrous in heart and mind, he had that further characteristic of the true gentleman, a never-failing consideration for the feelings and susceptibilities of others.
In supplementing these recollections, Brassey's biographer refers to his fitness for the work which devolved upon him; his common-sense; his trustfulness; his excellent treatment of, and confidence in, his subordinates; his generosity and unworldliness; his tenderness and mental refinement; his freedom from vanity; and his appreciation of the merits of others. I rejoice in all this, because such men are an honour to human nature; and if I have one objection to Thomas Brassev it is that he left too much money behind him. The accumulation of such a sum as £7,000,000 - which he is reputed to have died possessed of — cannot be defended in such an age of suffering and privation as ours is for hundreds of thousands of the human race. No doubt all this vast wealth was obtained in a blameless manner; but its concentration in one individual cannot be defended on general humanitarian or Christian grounds. Apart from this, however, one cannot but admire the character of Brassey, and feel a national pride in his achievements.