Early Years. Thomas Brassey was perhaps the most important civilengineering contractor in the world in the nineteenth century. He was born into a respectable rural family in northern England in 1805. His father worked a small family farm in addition to cultivating a large farm owned by the Marquess of Westminster. Thanks to these resources, Thomas received a solid education in Chester, where he studied commercial subjects until the age of sixteen. After his sixteenth birthday in 1821 he was apprenticed to a surveyor, an on the completion of his apprenticeship he soon became the partner of his master. The local surveys he conducted throughout the north of England provided the foundations of his career as a railway surveyor and contractor. Well-respected and financially secure, Brassey began undertaking contract work in the fledgling British rail system in the 1830s. His first building design project was a railway viaduct at Bromborough. Soon afterward, Brassey won a contract to build the Grand Junction Railway, marking his emergence as the most important individual in Britain’s railway boom.
France. Brassey’s ambitions were not confined to Britain alone, however, as his interests expanded into mainland Europe. From 1841 to 1843 he built the Paris-Rouen Railway (together with William Mackenzie), and over the coming decades he was responsible for the construction of more than one-half of the French rail network. Brassey returned to England in 1843 to build the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway, initiating a string of important contracts including the Caledonian Railway, the Tilbury & Southend Railway, the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway, and the Great Northern Railway (built between 1847 and 1851, this line connected London to the coalfields and industrial centers of Yorkshire and Lancashire). By the early 1850s Brassey had overseen the construction of almost seven thousand miles of railroad in the United Kingdom. His British interests were not restricted to the rail system, as he played an active role in the development of Britain’s industrial north and was also pivotal in the construction of the Victoria Docks in London.
Colonies. The experience, wealth, and authority that Brassey accumulated in Europe positioned him well to exploit colonial rail booms. In partnership with Sir Samuel Morton Peto and E. L. Betts, he won the prized contract to construct Canada’s major rail artery: the 1,100 miles of the Grand Trunk was built between 1853 and 1859. Brassey also oversaw the erection of the lengthy bridge over the St. Lawrence River. These Canadian projects marked the beginning of Brassey’s sustained period of rail construction in the colonies. He executed contracts in India (1858–1865), Australia (1859–1863), and Argentina (1864), providing the capital and technical expertise that facilitated the opening up of distant frontier zones and the modernization of colonial societies.
Manager of Money and Men. Brassey’s successful juggling of multiple contracts in far-flung parts of the empire rested not only on shrewd financial management (enabling him to survive the financial crashes in the rail industry during the 1840s and 1860s) but also on his ability to raise and run a huge labor force. More than ten thousand workers were routinely employed by Brassey and, according to legend, at one point this number exceeded seventy-five thousand. His workers generally respected Brassey because he believed well-fed and well-rested workers were more efficient and produced better results than laborers who were poorly paid and fed. While the scope of Brassey’s contract work carried high risk, it also generated tremendous wealth, and by the 1860s he was renowned as one of the richest men in the British Empire. Brassey’s success certainly owed much to his ability to capitalize fully on the global boom in railway construction, but it was also the result of his renowned diplomacy, which allowed him to negotiate effectively with foreign governments, and his insistence on the swift completion of any contract, qualities that secured him a reputation as the most honest and reliable contractor in a high-risk business. As a result, Brassey was showered with honors: in Britain, he was awarded the cross of the Legion of Honour, while he received the cross of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus from King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and the emperor of Austria presented Brassey with the Iron Crown (an honor that had not been previously conferred on any foreigner) for his distinguished service in the construction of European railways. At the time of his death on 8 December 1870 in Sussex, his estate was valued at £3.2 million and he was widely celebrated as a “great builder” of the empire. In 1872 the prolific Victorian historian Arthur Helps produced a popular history of Brassey’s life titled The Life and Labours of Mr. Brassey, which reached its seventh edition by 1888 and secured Brassey’s reputation as one of Britain’s leading industrialists in the age of empire.
Arthur Helps, The Life and Labours of Mr. Brassey (London: Bell & Daldy, 1872).
Keith Middlemas, The Master Builders: Thomas Brassey, Sir John Aird, Lord Cowdray, Sir John Norton-Griffiths (London: Hutchinson, 1963).
Charles Walker, Thomas Brassey: Railway Builder (London: Muller, 1969).