Thomas Brassey (1805–70)

Thomas Brassey was the first civil engineering contractor to work on a European, or rather on a global scale. He had the ability to manage and complete large-scale projects that involved thousands of workers and the expenditure of colossal amounts of money.

He was born to a middle-class family near Chester, and in his early twenties worked on the Holyhead Road under the direction of Thomas Telford and on the building of Birkenhead, a new town with docks on the opposite side of the River Mersey from Liverpool. Brassey met George Stephenson who was seeking stone for the Sankey Viaduct on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and Stephenson encouraged him to tender to build the section of the Grand Junction Railway that passed through Penkridge, Staffordshire.

Subsequently, with a variety of partners, he constructed some of the most important main line railways in Great Britain, including the London & Southampton, the Sheffield & Manchester, the Chester & Holyhead and the Lancaster and Carlisle. From the early 1840s he contracted for lines in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. He was responsible for two particularly spectacular railways through mountainous country, the main line from Oslo to Bergen, and the line designed by J F Fell over the Mont Cenis pass, that opened in 1867.

On many of Brassey`s lines in continental Europe he employed navvies who had worked for him in England, and continued to do so when their overseas contracts were completed. Several of the navvies employed in the construction of the Severn Valley Railway in 1861 had offspring born in Normandy or the Rhone Valley. He also built 867 km of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, including the tubular bridge over the St Lawrence River at Montreal, and constructed a railway to carry supplies to the allied front line during the Crimean War.

His non-railway contracts included the Victoria Dock in London, one of the principal London sewers, and docks at Birkenhead, Barrow and Greenock. In 1852 he opened the Canada Works at Birkenhead to supply rolling stock and constructional iron to railway companies. In the closing years of his life he was involved with proposals to build a Channel Tunnel. Few individuals did more than Brassey to shape 19th-century Europe. As one of his obituarists remarked "No man has every constructed more railways than Thomas Brassey".