How Thomas Brassey gave the world the rail thing

Richmond railway bridge
Richmond railway bridge

Thomas Brassey made East Sussex his home towards the end of an extraordinary career in which he rose to become the greatest builder of railways the world has ever known.

Thomas Brassey made East Sussex his home towards the end of an extraordinary career in which he rose to become the greatest builder of railways the world has ever known. Incredibly, his engineering expertise was also crucial to the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War.

Normanhurst, Catsfield

Normanhurst, Catsfield

Brassey was born in Cheshire in November 1805, just two weeks after the Battle of Trafalgar. The son of a yeoman farmer, his first employment was as a surveyor and he was successful enough to soon become manager of the company.

His first big railway construction project came in 1835 with a section of the Grand Junction line. Over the next dozen or so years he would be involved in the building of around a third of the railways in Britain. During this same period Brassey also worked abroad and would be responsible for constructing three quarters of France’s railways and scores of lines in the Netherlands, Italy, Prussia and Spain.

Outside of Europe, Brassey’s prodigious engineering appetite earned him work in Canada, Australia, South America and India. Indeed, by the time of death in 1870 it was estimated that Thomas Brassey had been involved in some way in one in every twenty miles of railway in the world with the biggest bridges, longest tunnels, most soaring viaducts and remotest routes all achieved with his participation.

Brassey even designed locomotives and was well acquainted with engine genius Robert Stephenson. He was also keenly interested in the pioneer steamship industry, ironworks and water supply and sewage systems. He built part of Bazalgette’s London sewer network that has stood the test of time and is still very much in use today. Becoming very wealthy very quickly, Brassey was a major shareholder in Brunel’s famous ship, “The Great Eastern”, the only vessel able to lay a robust transatlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. In 1866 The Times reported: "It is a great work, a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be truly honoured.”

Brassey epitomized the Victorian work ethic being seemingly tireless, hugely innovative and most benevolent to his loyal employees. At one time he had construction projects on the go in Europe, India, Australia and South America that collectively had 80,000 men on the payroll. Brassey ensured that all of his work was of the highest quality and he was only once mired in controversy. This occurred in 1846 when the Barentin Viaduct on the Rouen to Le Havre rail line collapsed following days of torrential rain. The finger of suspicion pointed at the poor quality of lime used to make the mortar. The contract had stipulated that this must be obtained locally. Brassey ordered the viaduct rebuilt entirely at his own expense but this time sourced lime of his preference. The replacement structure stands to this day.

Think of the Crimean War and inevitably the gallant but foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade springs to mind. Yet the ultimate British and French victory over the Russians was greatly down to the efforts of Thomas Brassey. In 1854 the Black Sea port of Sevastopol was besieged by an Allied army that faced the prospect of a winter camped out in the open. The conveyance of adequate supplies became an acute problem that was only solved when Brassey and some partners proposed the building of a railway. Equipment and materials together with a huge crew of workmen were shipped out to the Crimea. Despite freezing temperatures the line was completed within just seven weeks. The siege was maintained and Sevastopol finally fell in September 1855. Within months Russia sued for peace.

Not all of Brassey’s ideas came to fruition. He proposed a tunnel under the English Channel that would link Britain to the Continent and also the construction of a canal connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific at Panama. I suspect that if these projects had found support from the powers that be, Brassey would have completed them on time and on budget.

The Brassey family believed they had Norman ancestry who had arrived in England with William the Conqueror. Presumably this was what attracted Thomas Brassey to the Hastings area of Sussex. In 1865 he purchased land on a ridge near Catsfield and ordered a French chateau-style mansion to be built there. Ironically, it would be the only Brassey construction project ever undertaken in Sussex.

Before Normanhurst Court was completed in 1870, Brassey was diagnosed with cancer. He continued to work but by the late summer of that same year had become confined to his bed in the Victoria Hotel, St Leonards-on-Sea. He died there on 8th December. Thomas Brassey was interred in Catsfield churchyard and subsequently his estate, worth a colossal £5,200,000, was divided up between his three sons.

It fell to Thomas Brassey Jr to oversee the development of the Normanhurst estate and the house. He would later be elevated to the peerage in the course of an eventful life that will be the subject of a future “Yarns”.

The Brassey family lived at Normanhurst for several generations before changed circumstances saw them leave. In the Great War it served as a military hospital and then became a girls’ school. In World War II it housed prisoners of war. All the time the building had been deteriorating to the point that in 1951 it was demolished. Which strikes me as a great pity; the site is now home to a caravan park and clay pigeon shooting centre.