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Proposed Railway between London and Bristol—Mr. Brunel appointed Engineer, March 7, 1833—Survey of the Line

Meanwhile, the principal merchants of Bristol, who had in 1825 made an attempt to get up a railway company, were urged forward, both by the inadequacy of their communications with the metropolis, and by the success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, to make another effort. In the autumn of 1832 a committee was formed of members of the corporation, and other public bodies of the city of Bristol, to carry out the project of a railway to London.

The first step taken by the committee was the appointment of an engineer to make the preliminary surveys, and to prepare an estimate of the cost of the undertaking.

Among the candidates for the post was Mr. Brunel. He was well known in Bristol as the engineer of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and of the works for the improvement of the Floating Harbour. He had made many friends among the leading citizens, and they used their best exertions to procure his election; but there were several other candidates in the field who had great local interest, and the contest was a close one.

While the issue was yet undecided, an unexpected difficulty arose. Some members of the committee resolved to select their engineer by means of a competition among the candidates, as to which of them would provide the lowest estimate. Upon this being announced, Mr. Brunel declared that he must withdraw his name, as he could not consent to become a party to so objectionable a proceeding. ‘You are holding out,’ he wrote to the committee, ‘a premium to the man who will make you the most flattering promises. It is quite obvious that the man who has either least reputation at stake, or who has most to gain by temporary success, and least to lose by the consequences of disappointment, must be the winner in such a race.’ Happily, this plan was abandoned; Mr. Brunel obtained a majority of votes, and was appointed engineer on March 7, 1833.

He commenced the survey without delay; and in addition to his strictly professional duties, he assisted in forming a committee in London, and took a leading part in the consultations which were held upon various important matters connected with the general interests of the undertaking.

A hasty survey of the country between London and Bristol occupied him till the middle of June; and as soon as it was completed, and the course of the line settled on, preparations were made for placing the scheme before the public.

The first public meeting was held on July 30, 1833. Mr. Brunel thus refers to it in his diary:—‘Got through it very tolerably, which I consider great things. I hate public meetings: it is playing with a tiger, and all you can hope is, that you may not get scratched, or worse.’ The result, however, seems to have been successful, and in a month’s time a company was formally constituted, and the parliamentary survey commenced.

Mr. Brunel organised a staff of assistants, at that time rather a difficult task, and set them to work on various parts of the line. His own duty of superintendence severely taxed his great powers of work. He spent several weeks travelling from place to place by night, and riding about the country by day, directing his assistants, and endeavouring, very frequently without success, to conciliate the landowners on whose property he proposed to trespass.

His diary of this date shows that when he halted at an inn for the night, but little time was spent in rest, and that often he sat up writing letters and reports until it was almost time for his horse to come round to take him on the day’s work. ‘Between ourselves,’ he wrote to Mr. Hammond, his assistant, ‘it is harder work than I like. I am rarely much under twenty hours a day at it.’

A great portion of this labour was for the time thrown away, for as November 30 drew near, it became evident that subscriptions were not coming in to the extent which would enable the directors to lodge a Bill for the whole line in the session of 1834.

The directors therefore determined to apply to Parliament for powers to make a railway from London to Reading, and from Bath to Bristol, ‘as a means of facilitating the ultimate establishment of a railway between London and Bristol;’ postponing till a future session their application for an Act to enable them to complete the undertaking by making the line from Reading to Bath.

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