Thomas Brassey is the most unsung of Victorian heroes, “a rare and truly monumental original”, in the view of Tom Stacey, his great-great-grandson, in this elegant monograph composed — as if for the enlightenment of Brassey’s descendants — in celebration of the bi-centenary of his birth on 7 November, 2005.
Brassey was and remains by any measure the greatest railway-builder in the world, employing on average 80,000 men throughout three decades, on a dozen or so projects in up to four continents. His navvies adored him. In his lifetime, the world’s vastest bridges, longest tunnels, loftiest viaducts, and most distant lines were all his.
A yeoman farmer’s son from Cheshire, Thomas Brassey was the supreme “exemplar of the work ethic and daring and undaunted enterprise of high Victorian England, stamping the consciousness of the world with the English marque of quality; of the will to surmount every obstacle to the righteous intent; and of the Englishman’s word as binding.”
After many a vicissitude, he left one of the largest Victorian fortunes. Of his three sons, one resided at Kent’s finest mid-century mansion, Preston Hall, whose “ornamentation and mediaeval fancy the snooty Pevsner, blind to the romance of neo-Gothic… described as ‘repellent in the extreme’.” Another son restored the interior of Heythrop Park to the apogee of mid-Victorian splendour, while a third, his heir Tom, built his dream house, Normanhurst, on the site of the Battle of Hastings.
Written with penetration, scholarship and verve, this illustrated monograph sets Brassey’s achievements in the context of Britain’s expanding worldwide role in the 19th century, and rediscovers this unsung colossus of the Victorian era who surely deserves to be as famous and honoured as his friend and occasional colleague, I. K. Brunel.