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Note: This is a sub-section of Thomas Brassey
Dictionary of National Biography, Volumes 1-20, 22. 1921-22
BRASSEY, THOMAS (1805-1870), railway contractor, was born on 7 Nov. 1805 at Buerton, Aldford, Cheshire. The Brasseys claimed to have lived for nearly six centuries at Bulkeley, near Malpas, Cheshire, whence they had moved to Buerton by 1663. They retained a property of three or four hundred acres at Bulkeley, which still belongs to the family. Brassey's father farmed land of his own at Buerton, besides holding a neighbouring farm under the Marquis of Westminster at a rent of £850 a year.
Brassey was sent to school at Chester, and when sixteen was articled to a land surveyor named Lawton, agent to F. R. Price of Bryn-y-pys. Lawton took him into partnership, and placed him about 1826 at the head of a new business in Birkenhead. On Lawton's death, Brassey became Price's agent.
In 1834 he made acquaintance with George Stephenson, and, through him, obtained a contract for the Penkridge viaduct on the Grand Junction line, then in course of construction. Locke succeeded Stephenson as engineer in chief to this line, and, upon its completion, was employed on the London and Southampton railway. Brassey, at his request, contracted for various works upon this line, and moved to London in 1886.
He had married (27 Dec. 1831) Maria, second daughter of Joseph Harrison, ‘a forwarding agent in Liverpool, and the first resident in the new town of Birkenhead’. Mrs. Brassey encouraged her husband to take up the career of railway contractor, though it involved constant absence from home and frequent changes of residence. Large contractors had already been required for canals, harbours, and other works, but the rapid development of railways now caused an opening, of which Brassey's extraordinary business faculties enabled him to take full advantage.
He extended his operations, until he was interested in enterprises in every quarter of the globe. Locke, on becoming engineer to the Paris and Rouen railway in 1841, introduced Brassey as contractor, and on the completion of that line in 1843 he undertook the works for the Rouen and Havre railway, which was completed in two years, according to the agreement, in spite of the fall of the Barentin viaduct, which had cost £50,000.
His sphere of action now rapidly extended. From 1847 to 1851 he was contractor for the Great Northern railway, employing from five to six thousand men, who presented him with a silver-gilt shield, shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, besides portraits of himself and family. A list of his numerous contracts is given in Sir A. Helps's 'Life and Labours of T. Brassey,' pp. 161-6. Amongst his chief undertakings were: Italian railways (1850-3), the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (1852-9), the Crimean railway (carried out with Sir Morton Peto and Mr. Betts in 1854), Australian railways (1859-63), the Argentine railway (1804), several Indian railways (1858-65), and Moldavian railways (1862-8).
In 1800 Brassey had to surmount great financial difficulties, and showed remarkable energy in completing at the same time a line in Austria, in spite of the war with Prussia. The anxiety probably affected his health.
In 1867 he made a business tour abroad. A breakdown at the opening of the Fell railway over Mont Cenis caused him much anxiety, and he exposed himself in witnessing the experiments. He had a serious illness and a paralytic stroke, which, though he recovered at the time, was followed by another in September 1868. He refused to allow himself relaxation, and his health soon declined, He spent his last days at Hastings, and died on 8 Dec. 1870. He was buried at Catsfield, Sussex. He left a widow and three sons, Thomas (now Sir Thomas), Henry Arthur, and Albert.
Brassey is described by his biographer as a man almost without faults. The only defect mentioned was a difficulty in saying no, which led to involvement in some disastrous undertakings. His ruling passion was the execution of great works of the highest utility with punctuality and thoroughness. He possessed the highest business talent, power of calculation, and skill in organisation. He knew how to trust subordinates and distribute responsibility. He was beloved by the men he employed, and made the fortunes of many subordinates who rose by his help. He was liberal, and indifferent to honours and to money, though he made a large fortune without suspicion of unfair dealing. His domestic life was perfect.
Although his education had been scanty, and he never acquired any command of foreign languages, he was a man of great natural refinement, with a been taste for art and for natural beauty. His courtesy and shrewdness made him an excellent diplomatist, and in all his undertakings he was on the most cordial terms with his associates. Brassey's experience in the employment of labourers of different races was enormous, and he made many interesting observations, of which some account is given in his life. Sir T. Brassey's ‘Work and Wages' (1872) embodies some information derived from this and other sources.
[Life and Labours of Mr. Brassey, by Arthur Helps, 1872, with full information from the family and many of Brassey's assistants and friends.]