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A Serious Evil

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    Posted: 29 May 2014 at 12:31
One of the advantages of living in a former railway town is the existence of historical data. Much of that in my case is inherited by the local railway museum, but some, such as the archives previously held at the Mechanics Institute, have reached the hands of my local library and are thus very easy to access.

Browsing the shelves yesterday I spotted one thin volume. You can tell it's an old document given an new binder by  the appearance, and old documents are always worth a peak or two - you literally never quite know what you might find. In this case, I was not disappointed.

Those of you acquainted with Britains early railway history will know about Brunel and his 7' broad gauge with which he connected London to the west country. Most railways were adopting 4' 8", which we now call 'Standard Gauge', but back then was referred to as 'Narrow Gauge'.

What had happened was that a Gauge Commision had been set up by government to look into the ramifications of various widths of railway lines, especially since in the 1840's railway projects were becoming a whole field of commercial enterprise requiring legal assent from Parliament. They were concerned that the competition between the Great Western and the London & Birmingham Railway in particular would become a cause of civil strife (given that a few years later Brunel would lead a private army in a civil dispute at the Battle of Mickleton, they were probably right to be). The Commission included army officers from the Royal Engineers too. They looked at the implications of safety, commerce, and defence of the realm to such an extent that they termed 'Break of Gauge' as a 'Serious evil'. Brunel was under pressure to conform to everyone elses narrower gauge.

The document I had in my hand was called Observations on the Report of the Gauge Commission, published in 1847. It was basically a chance for the Great Western Railway to have their say and defend their choice of broad gauge. What struck me was less about the content but how well it read.

As an amateur historian I'm well used to trawling through the absurd and hilarious speculations of victorian antiquarians. They were often as bad at science. But here was a document nearly 170 years old that had very little of the florid victorian prose. It was about the safety, economics, and engineering of early railways, and it was a good read. I have no idea if the author was right, but he was discussing configurable axles, locomotive power and load, containerised shipping, commercial efficiency, proportional vehicle stability, and concepts that ring true today. The language was barely different to the documents published by British Rail a century later.

The Victorians may have struggled with the philosophical implications of their expanding knowledge, or even struggled with the knowledge itself, but as engineers, they were often brilliant. Brunel however would eventually give in to practicality and politics, and the broad gauge would later vanish from railways in Britain.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote toyomotor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 May 2014 at 05:03
 
But didn't Brunel also design and build bridges throughout England?
 
Didn't he design and build the biggest steel ship of his time?
 
Didn't he also build some of the most sophisticated machinery  of the time?
 
When does "evil" come into it?
 
Brunel just didn't do all of these things unbidden, he was employed by others to modernise Britain.
 
He was, imho, the most brilliant engineer of the 19th Century.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 May 2014 at 10:50
Yes, Brunel was a successful engineer who was willing to flout convention and push the limits of what was considered possible at the time.  The 'Evil' mentioned by the Gauge Commission was the potential disruption caused by different railway gauges all over the country. The politicians foresaw difficult transport and relationships between companies, the military foresaw logistical difficulties in defending the realm.

Was Brunel unbidden? Yes and no. Sometimes he was hired to complete a project, such as the GWR main line into the West country, or others, at his own initiative such as the SS Great Eastern, a concept he persuaded the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to underwrite.

However, he was also a very strong willed and at time fiercely resolute personality. Whilst working as Chief Engineer of the OWW Railway (later to be absorbed by the GWR), the company ran out of money to pay workers, and the contractors effectively went on strike. Brunel was not having it. He wanted the tunnel under Mickleton Hill complete, and set about breaking into the works to take away the tools required. A stand off occurred between Brunel's private army of navvies, the contractors navvies, and a magistrate with police armed with cutlasses. Eventually, after three days of repeated confrontation, fighting broke out, necessitating the call out of troops from a nearby artillery barracks.

That wasn't so unsual back then it seems, as I've come across a reference to a mass riot between english and irish navvies in the north of England ten or twenty years before. Again, troops had to quell the violence, which merely broke out again the day afterward. I don't know any details about it.

In another case, the tunnel under the River Severn was flooding. Not because of the river itself, but because the tunnel had tapped into an underground lake. Brunel called for a volunteer, who had to go down into the pitch black flooded tunnel at some depth and close an iron door so that the water could be pumped out, and gave the heroic chap little more than a pat on the back. Well done Sir. Right, gentlemen, return to work please. This tunnel won't finish itself...




Edited by caldrail - 30 May 2014 at 10:52
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote toyomotor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 May 2014 at 11:36
 
Though unintended, Brunel forced the adoption of a Standard Gauge for railway tracks nationwide.
 
As for the Irish Navvies, they really came to the fore during WWII, when they came to work in England to fill the gaps by the men going off to war.
 
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 31 May 2014 at 12:15
Brunel did not force the adoption of standard gauge. He wanted nothing to do with it, preferring to build his 7'0" broad gauge which he insisted was superior. However, most engineers were building to the same gauge as Stephenson, supposedly based on the convenient width of a typical wagon, and the Gauge Commision was set iup in the 1840's to look into the problems with differing gauges. Brunel was eventually forced to comply and adopt 4'8" like everyone else. For a while the GWR was adapted to double gauge to allow older rolling stock to continue working, but between 1866 and 1893, broad gauge was converted to standard.

There was one amusing result of this. Brunel was contacting owners of private broad gauge wagons and telling them their stock was being returned. One coal mine owner in Wales said "No, you can keep the wagons. I don't want loads of useless scrap littering my mine!". He woke up one morning to find an adjacent field full of his wagons, where the GWR had quietly shunted the whole lot off the end of temporary rails overnight.

navvies in WW2? That's the first time I've heard of any such thing. Fit and healthy workers? Here Sir, take this letter and report to Aldershot Barracks on Monday. In fact, the railways in WW2 were desperately short of labour and suffered a decline in condition regardless of the Luftwaffes efforts.


Edited by caldrail - 31 May 2014 at 12:17
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote toyomotor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 31 May 2014 at 13:47
Originally posted by caldrail caldrail wrote:

Brunel did not force the adoption of standard gauge. He wanted nothing to do with it, preferring to build his 7'0" broad gauge which he insisted was superior. However, most engineers were building to the same gauge as Stephenson, supposedly based on the convenient width of a typical wagon, and the Gauge Commision was set iup in the 1840's to look into the problems with differing gauges. Brunel was eventually forced to comply and adopt 4'8" like everyone else. For a while the GWR was adapted to double gauge to allow older rolling stock to continue working, but between 1866 and 1893, broad gauge was converted to standard.

There was one amusing result of this. Brunel was contacting owners of private broad gauge wagons and telling them their stock was being returned. One coal mine owner in Wales said "No, you can keep the wagons. I don't want loads of useless scrap littering my mine!". He woke up one morning to find an adjacent field full of his wagons, where the GWR had quietly shunted the whole lot off the end of temporary rails overnight.

navvies in WW2? That's the first time I've heard of any such thing. Fit and healthy workers? Here Sir, take this letter and report to Aldershot Barracks on Monday. In fact, the railways in WW2 were desperately short of labour and suffered a decline in condition regardless of the Luftwaffes efforts.
 
 
You're not understanding what I'm saying. No he didn't do it, but as the result of the added confusion he brought to the railway gauge table, It was done.
 
The WWII Navvies were Irish who wouldn't actually fight for England. I know that many did though.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote caldrail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jun 2014 at 12:26
I agree Brunel was a high profile figure in the debate, but there were other gauges being touted in the 1840's, and despite a strong argument to the Commision, ultimately had to abide by their decision.

It seems you were right about irish navvies in WW2. In fairness, many irish emigres were employed in cities where the work could be found - since building railways in WW2 was pretty well limited to bombing repairs that were nothing like as widespread as those suffered by the Germans on the continent.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote toyomotor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jun 2014 at 12:32
Originally posted by caldrail caldrail wrote:

I agree Brunel was a high profile figure in the debate, but there were other gauges being touted in the 1840's, and despite a strong argument to the Commision, ultimately had to abide by their decision.

It seems you were right about irish navvies in WW2. In fairness, many irish emigres were employed in cities where the work could be found - since building railways in WW2 was pretty well limited to bombing repairs that were nothing like as widespread as those suffered by the Germans on the continent.
 
Google "McAlpines Fusiliers", it will explain it to you.
 
P.S.
Q. What's the capital of Ireland?
A. Liverpool.
 
As yourself why.
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