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Brassey, Thomas

BRASSEY, THOMAS (1805-1870), English railway contractor, was born at Buerton, near Chester, on the 7th of November 1805. His father, besides cultivating land of his own, held a large farm of the marquess of Westminster; his ancestors, according to family tradition, having been settled for several centuries at Bulkeley, near Malpas, Cheshire, before they went to Buerton in 1663. Thomas Brassey received an ordinary commercial education at a Chester school. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a surveyor, and on the completion of his term became the partner of his master, eventually assuming the sole management of the business. In the local surveys to which he devoted his attention during his early years he acquired the knowledge and practical experience which were the necessary foundation of his great reputation. His first engagement as railway contractor was entered upon in 1835, when he undertook the execution of a portion of the Grand Junction railway, on the invitation of the distinguished engineer Joseph Locke, who soon afterwards entrusted him with the completion of the London and Southampton railway, a task which involved contracts to the amount of £4,000,000 sterling and the employment of a body of 3000 men. At the same time he was engaged on portions of several other lines in the north of England and in Scotland. In conjunction with his partner, W. Mackenzie, Brassey undertook, in 1840, the construction of the railway from Paris to Rouen, of which Locke was engineer. He subsequently carried out the extension of the same line. A few years later he was engaged with his partner on five other French lines, and on his own account on the same number of lines in England, Wales and Scotland. Brassey was now in control of an industrial army of 75,000 men, and the capital involved in his various contracts amounted to some £36,000,000. But his energy and capacity were equal to still larger tasks. He undertook in 1851 other works in England and Scotland; and in the following year he engaged in the construction of railways in Holland, Prussia, Spain and Italy. One of his largest undertakings was the Grand Trunk railway of Canada, 1100 m. in length, with its fine bridge over the St Lawrence. In this work he was associated with Sir M. Peto and E.L. Betts. In the following years divisions of his industrial army were found in almost every country in Europe, in India, in Australia and in South America. Besides actual railway works, he originated and maintained a great number of subordinate assistant establishments, coal and iron works, dockyards, etc., the direction of which alone would be sufficient to strain the energies of an ordinary mind. His profits were, of course, enormous, but prosperity did not intoxicate him; and when heavy losses came, as sometimes they did, he took them bravely and quietly. Among the greatest of his pecuniary disasters were those caused by the fall of the great Barentin viaduct on the Rouen and Havre railway, and by the failure of Peto and Betts. Brassey was one of the first to aim at improving the relations between engineers and contractors, by setting himself against the corrupt practices which were common. He resolutely resisted the "scamping" of work and the bribery of inspectors, and what he called the "smothering of the engineer"; and he did much in this way to bring about a better state of things. Large-hearted and generous to a rare degree, modest and simple in his taste and manners, he was conscious of his power as a leader in his calling, and knew how to use it wisely and for noble ends. Honours came to him unsought. The cross of the Legion of Honour was conferred on him. From Victor Emmanuel he received the cross of the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus; and from the emperor of Austria the decoration of the Iron Crown, which it is said had not before been given to a foreigner. He died at St Leonards on the 8th of December 1870. His life and labours are commemorated in a volume by Sir Arthur Helps (1872).

He left three sons, of whom the eldest, Thomas (b. 1836), was knighted and afterwards (1886) created Baron Brassey. Lord Brassey, who was educated at Rugby and Oxford, entered parliament as a liberal in 1865, and devoted himself largely to naval affairs. He was civil lord of the admiralty (1880-1883), and secretary to the admiralty (1883-1885); and both before and after his elevation to the peerage did important work on naval and statistical inquiries for the government. In 1893-1805 he was president of the Institution of Naval Architects. In 1894 he was a lord-in-waiting, and from 1895 to 1900 was governor of Victoria. In 1908 he was appointed lord warden of the Cinque Ports. His voyages in his yacht "Sunbeam" from 1876 onwards, with his first wife (d. 1887), who published an interesting book on the subject, took him all over the world. Lord Brassey married a second time in 1890. Among other publications, his inauguration of the Naval Annual (1886 onwards), and his volumes on The British Navy, are the most important. His eldest son Thomas, who edited the Naval Annual (1890-1904), and unsuccessfully contested several parliamentary constituencies, was born in 1862.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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