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date: 11 November 2019

Brassey, Thomasfree

  • David Brooke

Thomas Brassey (1805–1870)

by George Zobel (after Frederick Newenham, in or before 1850)

courtesy of the Institution of Civil Engineers Archives

Brassey, Thomas (1805–1870), civil engineering contractor, was born on 7 November 1805 at Buerton, near Audlem, Cheshire, the son of John Brassey, landowner, and his wife, Elizabeth. He had two brothers and one sister. Brassey attended Mr Harting's school in Chester and then, at the age of sixteen, was apprenticed to a land surveyor and agent named Lawton. Five years later, having become Lawton's partner, Brassey went to live in Birkenhead where he augmented the experience which he had acquired in road surveying and improvement, including work under Thomas Telford on the London to Holyhead road, by engaging in property development in the new town.

Among his achievements in these years was the building of a new road from Tranmere to Bromborough with a bridge over Bromborough pool. A meeting with George Stephenson at Storeton quarries, Wirral, when the engineer was looking for stone for Sankey Viaduct during the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1826–30), proved a significant turning point in Brassey's career. His competence in business apparently so impressed Stephenson and his assistant, Joseph Locke, that they later encouraged Brassey, who still had only the most slender experience of civil engineering work, to compete with some of the country's leading contractors for the Penkridge contract of the Grand Junction Railway (Birmingham to Warrington). This and subsequent major work under Locke on the London and Southampton and Glasgow, Paisley, and Greenock railways had by the summer of 1841 earned him at least £500,000 and laid the foundations of his career as a railway builder. On 27 December 1831 Brassey married Maria Faringdon (d. 1877), daughter of Joseph Harrison of Liverpool and Birkenhead; she strongly encouraged Brassey to extend his career as a railway contractor. The Brasseys had four children: John, who died very young, Henry Arthur, Victor, and Thomas Brassey.

The 1840s saw Brassey embark on a series of assignments which made him the greatest international civil engineering contractor of his time. His initial achievements outside Britain came in France where, in partnership with William Mackenzie, Brassey successfully tendered first for the line from Paris to Rouen and then its extensions to Dieppe and Le Havre. Either with Mackenzie or alone, Brassey eventually contributed to the construction of approximately 870 miles of railway in France, including the lines connecting Orléans and Bordeaux, Amiens and Boulogne, and Mantes and Cherbourg. An extraordinary event associated with his work in France was the collapse in January 1846 of the huge Barentin Viaduct on the Rouen to Le Havre line which occurred partly through the use of mortar of an inferior quality.

The successful completion of the railways between Paris and the channel coast proved the springboard for contracts in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania totalling approximately 3000 miles of line throughout continental Europe by the time of Brassey's death. They included the first substantial railway tunnel in Switzerland, the Hauenstein between Basel and Olten, and the construction of track at considerable height on both sides of the approaches to the Mont Cenis Tunnel.

Outside Europe, Brassey was responsible for about 1550 miles of railway. He worked in Australia, Argentina, Algeria, Brazil, and India, but his most demanding assignment, and one of the least profitable, was the building and equipping of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada which he undertook in partnership with S. M. Peto, E. L. Betts, and W. Jackson. This entailed making the majority of the railway linking Toronto with Montreal and Quebec and the construction of a tubular bridge of massive proportions across the St Lawrence at Montreal. In order to provide the vast quantities of materials and equipment for the line and bridge, the contractors set up Canada Works, Birkenhead, which, under the management of George Harrison, Brassey's brother-in-law, and William Heap, made the locomotives, excavating machinery, bridge sections, and other components for Canada. After four years' work, the first train ran from Toronto in October 1856, and across the bridge in 1859.

The outbreak of the Crimean War brought a request to Brassey, Peto, and Betts from the government for the construction of a line about 7 miles long from the port of Balaklava for the carriage of supplies required by the allied forces besieging Sevastopol. The speedy completion of this line in 1855 played a significant part in securing victory and alleviating the suffering of the troops.

Despite the demand for his services abroad, Brassey did not neglect opportunities at home. In the 1840s the partnership of Brassey, Mackenzie, and John Stephenson obtained two contracts on the Chester and Holyhead Railway and responsibility for the entire lengths of the Lancaster and Carlisle, Trent Valley (Rugby to Stafford), and Caledonian (Carlisle to Glasgow and Edinburgh) lines; the combined tender price of this work was £2.84 million. Among his contributions to other major projects in this decade were part of the North Staffordshire Railway, the route of the Great Northern Railway from King's Cross to Peterborough, and lines to connect the Caledonian Railway with Forfar, via Stirling and Perth.

The promotion of many secondary lines in rural areas in the second half of the nineteenth century meant that contractors were often expected not only to build but also to finance railway companies, and sometimes even manage their traffic. Brassey showed no reluctance to participate in this process and made major purchases of shares or accepted debentures as the contractor of several lines, including the Salisbury and Yeovil, Ringwood, Christchurch, and Bournemouth, and Hereford, Ross, and Gloucester. More conventional business arrangements in the 1860s saw him engaged in work of national importance with contracts on the Midland Railway's Bedford to St Pancras route. His contribution to the British network finally came to approximately 1900 miles of line.

Although Brassey was predominantly a railway builder, his achievements included two projects of first-rate importance outside that field. The opening of Victoria Dock in 1855, as constructed by Brassey, Peto, and Betts, gave London its first dock designed for steamships and served by railways. In the 1860s, in association with Henry Harrison and Alexander Ogilvie, he completed the middle level sewer (Kensal Green to Bow) of the new drainage system of London designed by J. W. Bazalgette.

The financial crisis of 1866 began in banking and spread to many other forms of business, including civil engineering. Brassey avoided the bankruptcy which overtook Peto but lost, it is believed, about £1 million. The construction of the Grand Trunk Railway, his joint ownership of Victoria Dock, and the leases of Danish lines and the London, Tilbury, and Southend Railway were at one time or another a burden on his financial resources.

The reputation for integrity and generosity of spirit accorded to Brassey in his lifetime endured throughout the twentieth century. He was not afflicted by the insularity of outlook of some others in his profession. He admired American methods of manufacture and, in common with Locke, saw much merit in the system of railway promotion adopted in France. The extent of his commitments compelled him to delegate considerable authority to talented agents, such as James Falshaw and Stephen Ballard, who then operated largely without interference. In return, they, and, it is said, many of his navvies, regarded him with respect and even affection. Brassey accepted two foreign honours as a matter of courtesy but eschewed all suggestion of awards in Britain. Although a wealthy man he was without venal instinct or desire for an ostentatious lifestyle. His greatest achievement was to raise the status of the civil engineering contractor to the eminence already attained in the mid-nineteenth century by the engineer.

The first signs of a serious deterioration in Brassey's health appeared in 1867 and he died of a brain haemorrhage on 8 December 1870 in the Victoria Hotel, St Leonards, Sussex, where he had lived for some years. A member of the Church of England, he was buried at the parish church, Catsfield, Sussex. He died one of the wealthiest of the self-made Victorians, leaving an estate of almost £3.2 million in the United Kingdom, but, on the evidence of records at an early point in his career, considerable assets abroad. His sons entered Liberal politics and society. Some of his money benefited the Bodleian Library, Oxford, via his son Thomas.


  • PICE, 33 (1871–2), 246–51
  • The Engineer, 30 (1847), 406
  • T. Brassey, Work and wages (1872)
  • C. Walker, Thomas Brassey: railway builder (1969)
  • J. Millar, Thomas Brassey, railway builder, re Canada Works, Birkenhead (1993)
  • A. W. Currie, The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (1957)
  • M. Chrimes, Civil engineering, 1839–1889: a photographic history (1991)
  • d. cert.


  • Flintshire RO, Hawarden, contracts and papers relating to the construction of railways in Italy
  • Inst. CE, tender for the construction of the Taw Valley railway
  • Inst. CE, business records of Messrs Mackenzie and Brassey


  • M. Wagmüller, marble bust, 1871, Inst. CE
  • G. B. Black, lithograph, BM
  • M. Wagmüller, bust, Chester Cathedral
  • G. Zobel, engraving (after F. Newenham, 1850), Inst. CE [see illus.]
  • carte-de-visite, Inst. CE; repro. in Chrimes, Civil engineering, 26
  • engraving, National Railway Museum, York
  • portrait, repro. in A. Helps, Life and labours of Mr Brassey (1872), frontispiece

Wealth at Death

under £3,200,000 in UK: double probate, March 1871, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

over £2,000,000—trust fund: The Times (6 Feb 1871)

British Museum, London
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers
Institution of Civil Engineers, London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]