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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, and 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 waggons 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.
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.