Construction of the Severn Valley Railway

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Laying the foundation stone of Victoria Bridge

Construction of the Severn Valley Railway began in August 1858 and was completed in time for the railway to open on 1 February 1862. Chief Engineer Sir John Fowler oversaw the construction, with Henry Orlando Bridgeman responsible for day to day matters as Resident Engineer. The contractors Peto, Brassey and Betts employed a workforce of some 900 navvies to build the Railway[1].

The contractors

Main article: Peto, Brassey and Betts

The partnership of contractors who were nominally responsible for building the railway were usually referred to as Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts. Although MortonA type of brakes used on GWR wagons after Grouping in 1923, replacing the earlier DC (Dean Churchward) types. Peto was substantially involved in the successful formation of the original Severn Valley Railway Company, Thomas Brassey appears to have been the most active of the three main contractors once construction began. Some contemporary newspaper reports refer to Thomas Brassey's own company Messrs. Brassey & Co as the Contractor,[2][3] while other contemporary newspaper reports refer to Brassey and Field as Contractors.[4][5] At the half-yearly shareholders meeting on 1 August 1860 the Chairman noted that " their arrangement with Mr Brassey some delay might arise in opening the line." William Field worked in partnership with Brassey on a number of other railway projects including Albert Edward Bridge at Buildwas and other sections of the Wellington to Craven Arms Railway on which it lay.[6]

The commemorative paper laid under the foundation stone of Victoria Bridge during construction referred to the contractors as Messrs. Brassey, Peto and Betts rather than the customaty form of 'Peto, Brassey and Betts, perhaps reflecting the relative significance of each to this particular project.


The contract between the Severn_Valley_Railway_Company and the appointed contractors Peto, Brassey and Betts for construction of the 40 miles of railway between Hartlebury and Shrewsbury was completed on 26 May 1858. The contract stated that the line was to be built on the pattern of the Mid Kent Railway. FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933’s specification, attached to the contract, specified that cuttings and embankments were to be 30ft wide at formation level. For an additional payment of £20,000, all earthworks were to be built for double track. Tunnels were to be 24ft wide and not less than 16ft high at the centre and brick lined if the Engineer specified this was necessary. Bridgnorth Tunnel was to be built without shafts and without disturbing any buildings.[7]

On 23 July 1868 an Act of Parliament was passed extending the deadline for completion to 23 July 1861. Following the passing of that Act, construction work began in August 1858.[8] On 9 August FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 reported to the half-yearly shareholders' meeting that:[9]

"...the works on some of the heaviest portions of the line are now in progress. The Contractors have been put into possession of land for a length of nearly two and a half miles at Stourport, Highley, Chelmarsh, Bridgnorth and Broseley, and are prosecuting the works with energy; and having sent materials to Ironbridge, Bridgnorth, Arley, Bewdley and Stourport, they are prepared to enter on any portion of the line as soon as the arrangements for the purchase of the land are in a sufficiently forward state. The viaduct across the valley of the Stour will be commenced immediately and several other large bridges; and the cutting through the sandstone rock at the entrance to the tunnel under the town of Bridgnorth is begun."

On 31 December a clause in the contract between the Company and the Contractors that the railway should be built as a single line but with earthworks for double track for a consideration of an additional £20,000 was confirmed. It was subsequently decided to defer the additional expenditure until traffic made doubling of the track necessary, although in the event almost all bridges were built to double track capacity. However the two tunnels at Mount Pleasant and Bridgnorth were only built to single track width (Knowlesands Tunnel was classified as an overbridge)[10].


At the next shareholders' meeting on 23 February, FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 reported that;[1]

"...the acquisition of land for the purposes of the most important works on the line has been steadily attended to and the Contractors have placed men and materials on the ground as soon as they have had permission to do so. At the present time seven of the cuttings on the line have been completed and fourteen more are in progress. Ten of the bridges are also in progress, including the viaduct across the Stour at Stourport. A considerable number of rails and permanent way materials have been delivered."
"The quantity of land actually in the hands of the Contractors at the present time is eleven miles and sixty chainsAs a unit of measurement, 22 yards or 1/80th of a mile but I am informed that a large additional quantity will be ready in a very short time. I see no reason to doubt that the line may be opened throughout on 1st October, 1860."

(FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933's estimates of the completion date were always optimistic, although he emphasised that they were dependent on the availability of land.)

In May 1859 Henry Orlando Bridgeman made a special trip to Liverpool to recruit additional navvies to strengthen the labour force.[1]

On 25 June 1859 Berrows Worcester Journal reported on the construction of Wribbenhall Viaduct:

"Bewdley - Works on the Severn Valley Railway are proceeding with almost unparalleled rapidity in this neighbourhood. For some time past the destruction of the houses in Wribbenhall has given the place an appearance somewhat resembling a town that has been sacked by an invading army. Out of this seeming destruction, however, may be expected shortly to arise as beautiful a structure as any on the whole line of the railway. On Saturday last (18 June) the first stones of the viaduct that crosses the main turnpike road were laid, the one by the mayor of Bewdley, John Nicholls Esq, and the other by John Montgomery Esq MD. From the designs of the bridge, which will be on a skew arch, and the elaborate workmanship of the entire structure, it cannot fail of being a great ornament to this place in an artistic point of view."

Work on installing the large sandstone blocks from which the viaduct was built continued over the next few months, with the keystones of the main arch being laid on Saturday 10 December.

By the next general meeting on 8 August 1859, Foster was able to report that over 350,000 cubic yards of excavation had been removed and 20 large bridges and viaducts were in hand or completed. Work on the tunnels at Mount Pleasant and Bridgnorth had begun. However he noted that;

"Considerable difficulty has been experienced in several places on the line, from the slippery nature of the ground, and at one point, especially, between Bewdley and Bridgnorth, it has been found necessary to make a deviation from the original direction of the railway to an extent which involves considerable alteration in the character of the works to be executed. "

The most significant landslip, north of Highley, resulted in a change to the line’s route and an expected delay in opening to the end of 1860.[11]

On 24 November 1859 the foundation stone for Victoria Bridge at Arley was laid by Henry Orlando Bridgeman[12].


On 8 February FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 reported that the contractors were in possession of 34½ miles of land and that work was continuing despite the weather which had caused numerous slips. Between Hartlebury and Bridgnorth over 9 miles of formation was ready for the permanent way, the main cuttings remaining unfinished being at Wilden, Arley and north of Highley where the landslip had caused a deviation in the planned route. North of Bridgnorth the works were lighter. Over 800,000 cubic yards of excavation has been carried out, while Mount Pleasant and Bridgnorth tunnels were in an advanced state. Six public road bridges and three viaducts were complete and 18 stream and occupation bridges were in hand. Of Victoria Bridge he reported;

"the foundations are well advanced and the Coalbrookdale Company have been entrusted by Messrs. Brassey, Peto and Betts with the execution of the castings and wrought ironwork for the superstructure."

Plans for the stations were complete and work on the buildings was about to begin. These were built by Messrs Eassie & Sons of Gloucester, mainly using brick made by Messrs Matthews & Co of Stourbridge.[13][14]

On 29 March the Law Clerk reported that all of Thomas Whitmore’s land was now in possession of the contractors.[14]

Despite several months of continuous wet weather, FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 was able to report on 1 August 1860 that about 12 miles of permanent way had been laid. Hartlebury to Bewdley was expected to be open by 1 November and the rest of the line by May 1861. Station buildings were in hand and would be complete by opening.[15]

Contemporary newspaper reports suggest that as well as the wet weather, the tunnel collapse in 1860 also contributed to the delay. The newspaper reports also gave details of some of the many accidents which took place during construction between 1859 and 1861.


On 2 February 1861 FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 reported that 35 miles of cuttings and embankments were complete with 21 miles of permanent way laid and ballasted. Work on buildings had been delayed by the bad weather but would be complete by the anticipated opening date which would now be by August 1861. Most of the bridges were finished and the tunnels were substantially complete apart from the fronts.[15]

In February 1861, positioning of the four cast iron ribs of Victoria Bridge began. While work on the bridge was still in progress, the first steam working on the line took place between Stourport and Bewdley on 5 May, watched by large crowds which had gathered for the occasion. Victoria Bridge was completed 5 days later.[15]

Problems with the wet weather continued. In early 1861 the stone wall near Wribbenhall Viaduct collapsed. At Folly Point, two acres of woodland slipped into the river, while several acres of land near Linley also began to slip. Another slip occurred at Chestnut Coppice opposite Apley.[15]

On 5 August 1861, FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933 reported that earthworks were almost complete apart from places where the slips had occurred. Station buildings were complete apart from fittings, and signalling (rudimentary at that time) was in a forward state. He thought it should be possible to open in October 1861.[16] However following further slips he advised that to "...obtain a permanently substantial formation for the permanent way, time for consolidation is essential", with the opening being put back to 1862.[17]

A first inspection of the line was carried out by Col. Yolland of the Board of Trade’s Railway Inspectorate during December. His report, dated 30 December 1861, listed a number of matters to be addressed before he could recommend opening, including installation of a turntable at Hartlebury, adjustment to the layout at Buildwas station and re-positioning of signals[16].


A second inspection was carried out by Col. Yolland on 15 January 1862; two days later two trains ran over the still incomplete railway calling at stations to deliver apparatus for working it. On 23 January Colonel Yolland's report recommended that the Board of Trade should approve the opening of the railway.[18] The formal opening ceremony with a special train took place on 31 January 1862, with passenger services operated by the West Midland Railway beginning on 1 February.

FowlerHenry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the Midland Railway 1909-1923, and of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 1923-1933’s final report dated 1 February noted that the opening had been delayed by numerous and large slips in various locations, but that by means of proper drainage and continued attention the works were in a safe and satisfactory condition. His report again emphasised the particular involvement of Thomas Brassey, ending;

"It is due to Mr Brassey to state, that through great difficulties and at considerable expense to himself, he has finished the works and permanent way to my entire satisfaction, and the trains of the West Midland Co have been run with great regularity."[18]

At the half-yearly meeting on 15 March 1862 it was reported that total expenditure incurred by the Company was £521,098. Payments to the Contractors Peto, Brassey and Betts in accordance with the Contract totalled £325,398, of which £240,000 was paid in the form of shares in the Severn Valley Railway Company and the balance in cash[18].

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Nabarro (1971) p. 36.
  2. Shrewsbury Chronicle, 29 June 1859 via the British Newspaper Archive
  3. Derbyshire Courier, 3 September 1859 via the British Newspaper Archive
  4. Eddowes’s Journal and General Advertiser for Shropshire and the Principality of Wales, 9 March 1859 via the British Newspaper Archive
  5. Hereford Times, 28 May 1859 via the British Newspaper Archive
  6. Presthope tunnel on
  7. Marshall (1989) pp. 37-38.
  8. Nabarro (1971), p. 34.
  9. Nabarro (1971), p. 35.
  10. Marshall (1989), p. 40.
  11. Marshall (1989), p. 41.
  12. Marshall (1989), p. 43.
  13. Nabarro (1971, p. 38.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Marshall (1989), p. 44.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Marshall (1989), pp. 45-46.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Marshall (1989), p. 48.
  17. Nabarro, p. 38.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Marshall (1989) pp. 48-50.