< Previous Chapter ToCNext >

Unsuccessful Application to Parliament in 1834

The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons, and on March 10, Lord Granville Somerset moved that it be read a second time. This motion was seconded by the Earl of Kerry, and supported by several influential members, amongst whom were Mr. Labouchere (the late Lord Taunton) and Mr. Daniel O’Connell.

The second reading was carried by a majority of ninety in a House of 274 members.

The Bill was then referred to a committee which met on April 16, Lord Granville Somerset being in the chair. Evidence was called to prove the advantages of the railway to the agricultural and trading community of the country through which it would pass, even if only the two proposed divisions of the line were constructed.

The traffic in merchandise between Bristol and London was at this time principally carried on by means of water carriage, consisting, first of the river Avon navigation from Bristol to Bath, next of the Kennet and Avon Canal from Bath to Reading, and lastly of the river Thames from Reading to London. The evidence went to show that the distance between London and Reading, which by railway would be thirty-six miles, amounted by the river to nearly eighty; that the delays and impediments arising from drought, flood, and frosts on the rivers, were such as sometimes to detain barges for several weeks; and that so great were the consequent uncertainties and inconveniences of this navigation, that goods which came as far as Reading by the canal, were frequently sent thence to London by road, although at a great increase of expense. Even under the most advantageous circumstances, goods could not be conveyed from Reading to London in less than three days, or in less than a day by the river Avon from Bath to Bristol. It was therefore contended, that to form a railway which should supersede, or at all events come in aid of, the worst portions of the navigation between London and Bristol, would be an important public benefit. [1] The various advantages of the measure were most fully discussed in an investigation which lasted during fifty-seven days. Against the Bill was arrayed every class of opponent that a private Bill could possibly encounter. Those interested in the canals, rivers, and stage-coaches, opposed it from the fear of competition; the inhabitants of Windsor opposed it, because the railway did not run so near to the town as they wished; the corporation of Maidenhead opposed it, because they thought that all the traffic which paid toll on their bridge over the Thames would be diverted to the railway; landowners and farmers near town opposed it, because they feared it would bring produce to London from a distance, as cheap as that supplied by themselves.

There was another very formidable class of opponents to the Bill, consisting of landed proprietors and owners of houses in the immediate neighbourhood of London.

Many engineers were called by these several opponents, to show that a more advantageous line of railway might have been selected; but, upon sifting the merits of the various new lines proposed, it became apparent that the one chosen by Mr. Brunel was the best. Indeed, although some trifling deviations of his line were suggested, the opposing engineers admitted that in all essential features the railway had been most skilfully laid out. It was generally agreed that the line through the valley of the Thames, and thence in a direction north of the Marlborough Downs, was the only proper course for a railway between Bristol and London, as the levels were much better, and communication could be made with much greater ease with the northern and South Wales districts, than if the route to the south of the Marlborough Downs had been selected.

The plans proposed for entering London raised great opposition. In this respect public feeling has greatly changed, for now no railway is thought complete which has not a terminus in the heart of London; and it is considered an advantage for houses to be within easy reach of a railway station; but in 1834 such a neighbour was looked upon with horror and dismay—a nuisance to be, if possible, absolutely prohibited.

When Mr. Brunel commenced the survey for the London terminus, he had some idea of bringing the railway in on the south side of the Thames; but this was abandoned, as it was found to involve very heavy works, and the line proposed in the first Bill was made to terminate on the north side of the river at Vauxhall Bridge. It was to have been carried on a viaduct 24 feet high, with a parapet 6 feet 6 inches high, to prevent the passengers looking into the windows of the neighbouring houses.

The owners of the land through which this part of the line would pass were influential members of the Upper House, and therefore the directors thought it useless to brave their opposition; accordingly, on the thirteenth day of the hearing, they abandoned the last two miles of the viaduct, and proposed to stop at the ‘Hoop and Toy,’ a public-house near the site of the South Kensington Station of the Metropolitan Railway.

But although the opposition of some of the landowners was conciliated by this concession, that portion of the line through Brompton which had not been abandoned was attacked with unabated energy. The residents in Brompton opposed the Bill from the apprehension that the railway would interfere with their quiet and seclusion; Brompton being at that time considered, at any rate by one of the counsel for the opposition, ‘the most famous of any place in the neighbourhood of London for the salubrity of its air, and calculated for retired residences.’ They could not, indeed, be blamed for indulging in these apprehensions, if they really believed in their counsel’s statement that ‘streams of fire would proceed from the locomotive engines.’

Others objected to the viaduct itself as being an undertaking of so colossal a nature as hardly to be practicable; and the supposed increase of traffic and consequent obstruction in Piccadilly and other leading thoroughfares brought down upon the promoters the opposition of the Commissioners of Metropolitan Roads.

All these objections were made the ground of much argument in committee, and doubtless had great influence over the minds of those who voted against the Bill.

The engineering evidence occupied, as might be expected, the greater part of the forty-two days during which witnesses were examined before the committee, and of these forty-two days no less than eleven were taken up by the cross-examination of Mr. Brunel. So protracted a cross-examination has probably never been heard in any court or committee-room. One of those present thus describes it:—

‘The committee-room was crowded with landowners and others interested in the success or defeat of the Bill, and eager to hear Brunel’s evidence. His knowledge of the country surveyed by him was marvellously great, and the explanations he gave of his plans, and the answers he returned to questions suggested by Dr. Lardner, showed a profound acquaintance with the principles of mechanics. He was rapid in thought, clear in his language, and never said too much, or lost his presence of mind. I do not remember ever having enjoyed so great an intellectual treat as that of listening to Brunel’s examination, and I was told at the time that George Stephenson and many others were much struck by the ability and knowledge shown by him.’

In his evidence, Mr. George Stephenson stated that he did not know any existing line so good as that proposed by Mr. Brunel. ‘I can imagine (he said) a better line, but I do not know of one so good.’ [2]

At length, on the fifty-fourth day of the sittings of the committee, Mr. Harrison, K.C., rose to reply on behalf of the promoters, and on the conclusion of his address the Bill was passed.

In the House of Lords the second reading was moved by Lord Wharncliffe. It was opposed, and on a division being taken, the motion was lost by a majority of seventeen (30 content and 47 non-content). The Bill was therefore thrown out.

[1] By means of the railway (it was said) goods would be conveyed with ease from London to Reading in three or four hours, and from Bath to Bristol in one hour.

[2] During Mr. Stephenson’s cross-examination, several questions were put to him as to the dangerous consequences which might be expected to result from travelling through a tunnel a thousand yards long. At length he lost all patience at the ignorance displayed by the questions put to him by counsel, and the following passage of arms took place:—

Mr. Stephenson. I wish you had a little engineering knowledge—you would not talk to me so.

Counsel. I feel the disadvantage.

Mr. Stephenson. I am sure you must.’

In other parts of the engineering evidence there are some statements which read strangely enough at the present day, as for example the following: ‘The noise of two trains passing in a tunnel would shake the nerves of this assembly. I do not know such a noise. No passenger would be induced to go twice.’

< Previous Chapter ToCNext >