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Successful Application in 1835

The directors, undaunted by their defeat, lost no time in making preparations for bringing a Bill before Parliament in the session of 1835, with such improvements as the experience of the past campaign suggested to them. Taking into consideration the various grounds on which opposition had been raised to the plans they had proposed for entering London through the Brompton district, they opened negotiations with the London and Birmingham Railway Company, and arrangements were concluded by which the traffic of the Great Western Railway was to be carried upon the London and Birmingham line for the first four miles out of London, the junction being made a little to the west of the Kensal Green Cemetery.

They had also during the autumn raised money enough to enable them to apply to Parliament for powers to construct the whole of the line from London to Bristol. They thus escaped all the sarcastic observations which had been made upon the scheme of 1834, of which it had been said, that it would be a head and a tail without a body, and neither ‘Great’ nor ‘Western,’ nor even a ‘railway’ at all, but ‘a gross deception, a trick, and a fraud upon the public, in name, in title, and in substance!’

On March 9, the earliest day allowed by the standing orders, the Bill was read a second time and committed. A division being taken on the motion for committal, there appeared in favour of the motion 160, and against it none but the tellers.

Shortly after its first meeting, the committee, of which Mr. Charles Russell, then member for Reading, was chairman, came to the resolution that, inasmuch as the evidence given in the previous year as to the public advantages of a Bristol railway had been referred to them by order of the House, they needed no further evidence on that subject. Counsel were therefore directed to confine their case as much as possible to the merits of the line proposed.

Evidence was called by the opponents chiefly with a view to show the advantages of a proposed line from Basing to Bath, and the inexpediency of granting an entirely new line of 115 miles in length to the Great Western Railway Company, which involved the construction of a ‘monstrous and extraordinary,’ ‘most dangerous and impracticable, tunnel’ at Box, and this, when 44 miles of railway in a western direction—viz. as far as Basingstoke, had already been sanctioned by the legislature in the Southampton Railway Act, passed in the previous session. The promoters of the Bill contended that the levels of the Basing and Bath line were not so good as those proposed for their own, and that the Great Western Railway would approach almost every town of importance situated on the proposed Basing and Bath line, by means of short branches; whilst at the same time it presented the great advantage of being capable of easy extension to Gloucester and Wales, and to Oxford, an object wholly unattainable by the other line. In reply to these assertions, the opponents maintained that although the levels of the Basing and Bath Railway presented greater inclinations than those of the Great Western, yet that they were so balanced as that the rises and falls compensated one for another, so as to render the line practically level. The enunciation of this theory called forth a remark by the chairman that according to this principle the Highlands of Scotland would be as good as any other place for the construction of a railway.

The preamble was voted proved, and the Bill passed the House of Commons without further opposition, and on May 27 was read a first time in the Lords. On June 10, the second reading was carried after a sharp debate, the numbers being 46 contents, and 34 non-contents.

Lord Wharncliffe was chairman of the committee. [1] The proceedings began by an opposition on the standing orders, which, after much skirmishing, were voted to have been complied with. The promoters, however, judged from the nature of the first day’s proceedings, that they had to expect a contest of no inconsiderable duration; and the result proved their anticipations to have been correct. For forty days the battle was fought with a degree of earnestness and vigour on both sides, almost unequalled in any similar proceedings.

The committee soon came to the same decision as the House of Commons, that, with regard to the advisability of a Bristol railway, they were satisfied, and needed no further evidence. The case became then one of mere comparison between the relative merits of the two lines proposed.

The case in support of the Bill occupied eighteen days, and was closed with a speech by the Hon. John Talbot.

Mr. Serjeant Merewether, whom the opponents had chosen as their leader in the House of Lords, was then heard on their behalf, and occupied no less than four days in the delivery of his speech, in which certainly no argument that ingenuity could devise was omitted to strengthen his case. There was hardly any conceivable injury which, according to the learned serjeant’s notions, the Great Western Railway would not inflict. It was said that the Thames would be choked up for want of traffic, the drainage of the country destroyed, and Windsor Castle left unsupplied with water. As for Eton College it would be absolutely and entirely ruined: London would pour forth the most abandoned of its inhabitants to come down by the railway and pollute the minds of the scholars, whilst the boys themselves would take advantage of the short interval of their play hours to run up to town, mix in all the dissipation of London life, and return before their absence could be discovered. Moreover, while the beauty of the country and the retirement of private dwellings would be destroyed, the interests of the public would be far more effectually served by the adoption of the Basing and Bath line, and a line from the London and Birmingham Railway to Gloucester. This was in fact the point at issue, and on this the result of the contest depended. The promoters of the Bill had called, in support of their line, in addition to Mr. Brunel, who being engineer to the company might be considered an interested witness, Mr. Locke, Mr. Palmer, Mr. Price, Mr. George Stephenson, and Mr. Vignoles. They expressed their unqualified approbation of the line chosen by Mr. Brunel, and of the estimates he had prepared.

The preamble was proved, and after an unsuccessful opposition the Bill was read a third time, on August 27. The Royal Assent was given on the last day of that month. [2]

[1] At this time the Lords’ committees were open to all peers who chose to sit on them, and it was not considered indecorous for peers who had not attended any of the previous sittings to vote on the division.

[2] The Great Western Railway was constructed with but few deviations from the line sanctioned in 1835. The only alteration of any importance was at the London end, where, by an Act passed in 1836, the line was taken to Paddington, instead of joining the London and Birmingham Railway near Kensal Green. This change of plan was rendered necessary by reason of a difficulty having arisen between the two companies as to the terms of their agreement, and not, as has been often stated, in consequence of the adoption of the broad gauge on the Great Western line.

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