Great Western

Great Western Railway

The Great Western Railway (GWR) was a British railway company and a notable example of civil engineering, linking London with the West Country, South West England and South Wales. It was founded in 1833, kept its identity through the 1923 grouping, and became the Western Region of British Railways at nationalisation in 1948.

Known admiringly to some as "God's Wonderful Railway", jocularly to others as the "Great Way Round" (some of its earliest routes were not the most direct). It gained great fame as the "Holiday Line", taking huge numbers of people to resorts in the southwest.

The company's best-known livery was quite distinctive: locomotives were middle chrome green (similar to Brunswick green), above Indian red (later, plain black) frames; the carriages were two-tone "chocolate and cream".

In 1999, in recognition of the railway's historical importance, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport added parts of the GWR to UNESCO's tentative World Heritage Sites list. The nomination is being supported by English Heritage.


Early history

The Great Western Railway originated from the desire of Bristol merchants to maintain the position of their city as the second port in the country and the chief one for American trade. The increase in the size of ships and the gradual silting of the River Avon made Liverpool an increasingly attractive port, and with its rail connection with London developing in the 1830s it threatened Bristol's status. The answer for Bristol was, with the co-operation of London interests, to build a line of their own, a railway built to unprecedented standards of excellence to out-perform the other lines being constructed to the north-west.

The company was founded at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833, and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed as engineer. This was by far his largest contract to date, and he made two controversial decisions: to use a broad gauge of seven feet (actually for the track, potentially to allow large wheels outside the bodies of the rolling stock thus providing smoother running at high speeds; and to take a route which passed north of the Marlborough Downs, an area with no significant towns, though it did offer potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester and then to follow the Thames Valley into London. He surveyed the entire length of the route between London and Bristol himself.

G. T. Clark played an important role as an engineer on the project, reputedly taking the management of two divisions of the route including bridges over the River Thames at Upper Basildon and Moulsford, and Paddington Station. Involvement in major earth-moving works seems to have fed Clark's interest in geology and archaeology and he, anonymously, authored two guidebooks on the railway, one was illustrated with lithographs by John Cooke Bourne, the other was a critique of Brunel's methods and the broad gauge.

The initial group of locomotives ordered by Brunel to his own specifications proved unsatisfactory. 20-year-old Daniel Gooch was appointed as Locomotive Superintendent and set to establishing a reliable fleet. He bought two locomotives from Robert Stephenson and Company which proved more successful, and then designed a series of standardised locomotives which, from 1846, could be built at the newly established railway workshops. Brunel and Gooch had chosen to locate these close to the village of Swindon, at the point where the gradual ascent eastwards from London turned into the steeper route towards the Avon. The GWR also championed other technological advances, for instance commissioning the world's first commercial telegraph line. This ran for from Paddington to West Drayton and came into operation on 9 April 1839.

The first stretch of line, from London Paddington to Maidenhead Bridge station, had opened on 4 June 1838. Once the Maidenhead Railway Bridge was ready, the line was extended to Twyford on 1 July 1839, and then through the deep Sonning Cutting into Reading on 30 March 1840. The next section, from Reading to Steventon crossed the Thames twice but was ready to open for traffic on 1 June 1840 although a further extension moved the end of the line to Faringdon Road from 20 July 1840.

Meanwhile work had also started at the Bristol end of the line, where the opened to Bath on 31 August 1840. On 17 December 1840 the London section of the line was extended to a temporary terminus at Hay Lane, west of Swindon and from Paddington. 31 May 1841 saw the main line extended from Hay Lane to Chippenham, but also the opening of Swindon Junction and the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway (C&GWUR) to Cirencester railway station. This was an independent line worked by the GWR, as was the Bristol and Exeter Railway (B&ER), the first section of which from Temple Meads to Bridgwater was opened on 14 June 1841. At this time the GWR main line was still incomplete due to the lengthy Box Tunnel, which was finally ready to receive trains on 30 June 1841, from which time through trains ran the from Paddington to Bridgwater. In 1846 the GWR took over the running of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which offered a competitive route from London via Reading and Bath to Bristol.

The GWR was closely involved with both the C&GWUR and the B&ER, as it was with several other broad gauge railways. The South Devon Railway (which for a time was operated by the “atmospheric” system of propulsion rather than locomotives) was completed in 1849, extending the broad gauge to Plymouth, from where the Cornwall Railway took it over the Royal Albert Bridge and into Cornwall in 1859, reaching Penzance over the West Cornwall Railway by 1867, although this last stretch of line had been built originally using the standard gauge, or 'narrow gauge' as it was known at the time. The South Wales Railway had opened in 1850 and was connected to the GWR via Brunel's Chepstow Bridge in 1852, and was completed to Neyland railway station in 1856.

The "gauge war"

In 1844 the broad gauge Bristol and Gloucester Railway had opened, but Gloucester was already served by the narrow gauge Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. This resulted in a break of gauge, and the need for all passengers and goods to change trains if travelling from Bristol, Swindon or South Wales through Gloucester towards Birmingham. This was the beginning of the "gauge war", and resulted in the appointment by Parliament of a Gauge Commission, which duly reported in 1846 in favour of standard gauge. In the same year the Bristol and Gloucester had been bought by the Midland Railway and was converted to standard gauge in 1854, which brought mixed gauge track to Temple Meads station – this had three rails to allow trains to run on either broad or standard gauge.

Undaunted, the GWR was pressing ahead into the West Midlands in competition with the Midland and the London and North Western Railway. Birmingham was reached in 1852 and Wolverhampton in 1854, which was the furthest north that the broad-gauge reached. In the same year the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway and the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway both amalgamated with the GWR, but these lines were narrow gauge, and the GWR's own line north of Oxford had been built with mixed gauge. This mixed gauge was extended southwards from Oxford to Basingstoke at the end of 1856 which allowed through goods traffic from the North to the South Coast without transshipment.

Broad and narrow mileage operated by GWR
  Broad Mixed Narrow
31 December 1851 0 miles
31 December 1856
31 December 1861
31 December 1866
31 December 1871
31 December 1876
31 December 1881
31 December 1886
31 December 1891

The broad gauge line to Basingstoke had been built by the Berks and Hants Railway in an attempt to keep the narrow gauge of the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) out of Great Western territory, but in 1857 the two companies opened a shared line to Weymouth on the south coast, the GWR route being via Chippenham and a route initially started by the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway. Further west the LSWR took over the broad gauge Exeter and Crediton Railway and the connected North Devon Railway, also the narrow gauge Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway, although it was several years before these remote lines were connected with the parent LSWR system.

By now the gauge war was lost and mixed gauge was brought to Paddington in 1861, thus allowing through passenger trains from London to Chester. The broad gauge South Wales Railway amalgamated with the GWR in 1862, as did the West Midland Railway which brought with it the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, a line that had been conceived as another broad gauge route to the Midlands but which had been built as narrow gauge after several battles. On 1 April 1869 the broad gauge was taken out of use between Oxford and Wolverhampton, and from Reading to Basingstoke. In August the line from Grange Court to Hereford was converted from broad to narrow, and the whole of the line from Swindon through Gloucester to South Wales was similarly treated in May 1872. In 1874 the mixed gauge was extended along the main line to Chippenham and the line from there to Weymouth was narrowed. The following year saw mixed gauge laid through the Box Tunnel, with the broad gauge now retained only for through services beyond Bristol and on a few branch lines.

The Bristol and Exeter Railway amalgamated with the GWR on 1 January 1876. It had already made a start on mixing the gauge on its line, a task completed through to Exeter on 1 March 1876 by the GWR. The station here had been shared with the LSWR since 1862, and this rival company had continued to push westwards over its Exeter & Crediton line and arrived in Plymouth later in 1876, which spurred the South Devon Railway to also amalgamate with the Great Western. The Cornwall Railway remained a nominally independent line until 1889, although the GWR held a large number of shares in the company. One final new broad gauge route was opened on 1 June 1877, the St Ives branch, although there was also a small extension at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth in 1879.

Once the GWR was in control of the whole line from London to Penzance it set about converting the remaining broad gauge tracks. The last broad gauge service left Paddington station on Friday 20 May 1892; the following Monday trains from Penzance were operated by narrow, now standard, gauge locomotives.

Into the twentieth century

Freed from the burden of operating on two gauges, the years up to the Great War also saw improvements in service of the generally conservative GWR – restaurant cars, much improved conditions for third class passengers, steam heating of trains, and accelerated express services. This was largely at the initiative of T. I. Allen, the Superintendent of the Line, and one of a group of talented senior managers who led the railway into the Edwardian era: Viscount Emlyn (Earl Cawdor), Chairman from 1895 to 1905; Sir Joseph Wilkinson, general manager from 1896 to 1903, and his successor, the former chief engineer Sir James Inglis; and George Jackson Churchward, William Dean's successor as Chief mechanical engineer from 1902 to 1922. It was during this period that the GWR introduced road motor services as an alternative to building new lines in rural areas, and also steam rail motors to bring cheaper operation to those already in existence.

The route from Wales to London via Gloucester was a roundabout one, so work on the Severn Tunnel began in 1873, but unexpected underwater springs slowed the work down and prevented its opening until 1886. With its shares in demand from the later 1890s it was possible for the company to raise substantial sums from new issues to support the building of new lines and upgrading of old ones to shorten its previously circuitous routes. The principal lines were:

One of the 'Big Four'

At the outbreak of World War I the GWR, along with most other major railways, was taken into government control. Many of its staff joined the armed forces and it was not possible to build and maintain equipment as easily as in peacetime due to the demands of the military campaigns. After the war the government considered permanent nationalisation but instead decided on a compulsory amalgamation of the railways into four large groups. The GWR alone preserved its identity through the grouping, which saw many smaller companies amalgamated during 1922 and 1923.

The new Great Western Railway now included many more routes in Wales, including the Cambrian Railways and the Taff Vale Railway. A few independent lines in its English area of operations were also added, notably the Midland and South Western Junction Railway. This line had previously worked closely with the Midland Railway but now brought the GWR a second station at Swindon along with a line that carried through traffic from the North via Cheltenham and Andover to Southampton.

To add to the docks already operated on the south coast and in west Wales, the Welsh railway companies brought with them a large number of docks, making the GWR the largest private owner of docks in the world. These had come into being for handling the South Wales coal traffic. Though this appeared to be a great coup for the GWR, this traffic declined significantly as the use of coal as a naval fuel declined, and within a decade the GWR was itself the largest single user of Welsh coal.

The 1930s brought hard times but the company remained in relatively good financial health despite the Depression. The Development (Loans, Guarantees and Grants) Act 1929 allowed the GWR to obtain money in return for stimulating employment, and this was used to implement improvements at stations such as London Paddington, Bristol Temple Meads and Cardiff General, also to improve facilities at depots and even additional tracks to reduce congestion. An 'automatic train control' system was implemented, a safety system that applied a train's brakes if it passed a danger signal. The road motor services were off-loaded to local bus companies in which the GWR took a share, but instead it took to the skies with air services.

The GWR celebrated the centenary of during 1935. New 'centenary' carriages were built for its prestige trains. The 1929 also saw the culmination of GWR locomotive development with the introduction of the King class locomotives on principal expresses from London to Wolverhampton, Bristol and Plymouth. The legacy of the broad gauge meant that trains on some of its routes could be built just a little bit larger than was normal in Britain, and these included the1929-built 'Super Saloons' used on the boat train services that conveyed transatlantic passengers to London in luxury, and the 1935 'Centenary' carriages for the Cornish Riviera Express. These were just a part of the celebrations that year of the GWR's 1835 Act of Incorporation.

With the outbreak of World War II the GWR returned to direct government control, and by its end a Labour government was in power and again planning to nationalise the railways. After a couple of years trying to recover from the ravages of war, the GWR became the Western Region of British Railways on 1 January 1948. More than 40 years later the British railways were privatisated and the old name was revived by Great Western Trains, the train operating company providing passenger services on the old GWR routes to South Wales and the South West, which has now become 'First Great Western' as part of the First Group.


The original Great Western Main Line linked London Paddington station with Temple Meads station in Bristol by way of Reading, Didcot, Swindon, Chippenham and Bath. This line was extended westwards through Exeter and Plymouth to reach Penzance, the most westerly railway station in England.

A line from Swindon ran through Gloucester to Cardiff, Swansea and west Wales. This route was later shortened by the opening of the Severn Tunnel. Another route ran northwards from Didcot to Oxford from where two different routes continued to Wolverhampton, one through Birmingham and the other through Worcester. Beyond Wolverhampton the line continued via Shrewsbury to Crewe, Chester and Birkenhead. Operating agreements with other companies also allowed GWR trains run to Manchester.

South of the main line were routes from Didcot to Southampton via Newbury, and from Chippenham to Weymouth via Westbury.

There was a network of cross-country routes linking these lines and there were also many smaller branches to places such as Windsor, Basingstoke, Hereford and Salisbury. The Railways Act 1921 added many smaller companies within this area, notably the Cambrian Railways network in mid Wales and several railways in the Cardiff area.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel envisaged the GWR extending from London to New York and built the SS Great Western to carry the railway's passengers across the Atlantic ocean. Traffic soon switched to Liverpool but Great Western ships linked the United Kingdom with Ireland, the Channel Islands and France. The company owned a number of docks such as Fowey, Plymouth Millbay, Weymouth, and Cardiff.

Key locations

The railway's headquarters were established at Paddington station. Its locomotives and rolling stock were built and maintained at Swindon railway works but a number of other workshops were acquired as it amalgamated with other railways, notably Stafford Road works at Wolverhampton, but also at other locations such as Newton Abbot and Caerphilly. Workshops for signalling equipment were located adjacent to Reading railway station, and in later years a concrete works was established at Taunton where items ranging from track components to bridges were cast.


The Great Western Main Line was designed to be much more straight and level than was usual at the time, and so a number of important structures feature along its length. Working westwards from Paddington, the line crosses the valley of the River Brent on Wharncliffe Viaduct and the River Thames on Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which at the time was the largest span for a brick arch bridge. It then runs through Sonning Cutting before reaching Reading. It also crosses the Thames two more times, on Gatehampton and Moulsford bridges. Between Chippenham and Bath it then passes through Box Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel driven by that time. Several years later the railway opened the even longer Severn Tunnel to carry a new line between England and Wales beneath the River Severn.

Amalgamated companies were responsible for some other significant engineering feats, such as the South Devon Railway sea wall, and the Cornwall Railway's Royal Albert Bridge.


In the early years the GWR was managed by two committees, one in Bristol and one in London. They combined as a single Board of Directors which met in offices at Paddington.

The Board was led by a chairman and supported by a secretary and other "officers". The first Goods Managers were appointed in 1850. From 1867 this position was filled by James Grierson until 1863 when he became the first General Manager. The first Locomotive Superintendent was Daniel Gooch, although from 1915 the title was changed to Chief Mechanical Engineer. In 1864 the post of Superintendent of the Line was created to oversee the running of the trains.

Passenger services

Early trains offered passengers a choice of first- or second-class carriages. In 1840 passengers were also able to be conveyed by the slow goods trains in what became third-class. The 1844 Railway Regulation Act forced the GWR to provide at least one train each day with third-class accommodation at not more than one penny per mile and a speed of at least . By 1882, third-class carriages were attached to all trains except for the fastest expresses. Another parliamentary order meant that trains started to include smoking carriages from 1868.

Special "excursion" cheap-day tickets were first issued in May 1849 and season tickets in 1851. Until 1869 most revenue came from second-class passengers but the volume of third-class passengers grew to the extent that second-class facilities were withdrawn in 1912. The Cheap Trains Act 1883 resulted in the provision of workmen's trains at special low fares at certain times of the day.

Many express services were given names. At first these were just used by railwaymen but later appeared in timetables, on headboards carried on the locomotive, and on roofboards above the windows of the carriages. The late-morning Flying Dutchman express between London and Exeter was named after the winning horse of the Derby and St Ledger races in 1849. Although withdrawn at the end of 1867, the name was revived in 1869 – following a request from the Bristol and Exeter Railway – and the train ran through to Plymouth. An afternoon express was instigated on the same route in June 1879 and became known as The Zulu. A third West Country express was introduced in 1890, running to and from Penzance as The Cornishman. A new service, the Cornish Riviera Express ran non-stop between London and Plymouth from 1 July 1904, although it ran only in the summer during 1904 and 1905 before becoming a permanent feature of the timetable in 1906.

The Cheltenham Spa Express received its name in 1923. It was the first train in the world to be scheduled at over 70 mph when, in September 1932, it was speeded-up to cover the miles between London and Cheltenham in just 65 minutes. The train was nicknamed the "Cheltenham Flyer" and featured in one of the GWR's Books for boys of all ages.

Other named trains included The Bristolian, running between London and Bristol from 1935, and the Torbay Express, which ran between London and Kingswear. See also Named trains: UK. Many of these fast expresses detached slip coaches as they passed through stations and junctions without stopping. The first of these was detached from the Flying Dutchman at Bridgwater in 1869. The first sleeping cars were operated between Paddington and Plymouth in 1877. On 1 October 1892 the first corridor train ran from Paddington to Birkenhead and the following year saw the first trains heated by steam that was passed through the train in a pipe from the locomotive. May 1896 saw the introduction of first-class restaurant cars and the service was extended to all classes in 1903. Sleeping cars for third-class passengers were available from 1928.

Self-propelled "steam railmotors" were first used on 12 October 1903 between Stonehouse and Chalford railway stations; within five years 100 had been constructed. They had special steps that could be used at "halts" with lower platforms. The railmotors proved so successful on many routes that they had to be supplemented by trailer cars with driving controls, the first of which entered service at the end of 1904. From the following year a number of small locomotives were fitted so that they could work with these trailers, the combined sets becoming known as "autotrains" and eventually replacing the steam rail motors. Diesel railcars were introduced in 1934. Some of these cars were fully streamlined, some had buffet counters for long-distance services, and others were purely for parcels services.

Year Passengers carried Train mileage Receipts
1850 2,491,712 1,425,573 £630,515
1875 36,024,592 9,435,876 £2,528,305
1900 80,944,483 23,279,499 £5,207,513
1924 140,241,113 37,997,377 £13,917,942
1934 110,813,041 40,685,597 £10,569,140
Passenger numbers exclude season ticket journeys.

Freight services

Passenger traffic was the main source of revenue for the GWR when it first opened but goods were also carried in separate trains. It was not until the coal and industrial districts of Wales and the Midlands were reached that goods traffic became significant. In 1856 the Ruabon Coal Company signed an agreement with the GWR to transport coal to London at special rates which nonetheless was worth to the railway at least £40,000 each year.

As locomotives increased in size so did the length of goods trains from 40 to as many as 100 four-wheeled wagons, although the gradient of the line often limited this. The vacuum brake, by then standard equipment on passenger trains, was fitted to a number of ordinary goods wagons by 1904 and a number of vacuum 'fitted' trains were scheduled to run at speeds in excess of . While typical goods wagons could carry 8, 10 or (later) 12 tons, the load placed into a wagon could be as little as 1 ton. The many smaller consignments were sent to a local transhipment centre where they were re-sorted into larger loads for the main segment of their journey. There were more than 550 'station truck' workings running on timetabled goods trains carrying small consignments to and from specified stations, and 200 'pick up' trucks that collected small loads from groups of stations.

Year Tonnage Train mileage Receipts
1850 350,000 330,817 £202,978
1875 16,388,198 11,206,462 £3,140,093
1900 37,500,510 23,135,685 £5,736,921
1924 81,723,133 25,372,106 £17,571,537
1934 64,619,892 22,707,235 £14,500,385
Tonnage for 1850 is approximate.

Ancillary operations

Powers were granted by Parliament for the GWR to operate ships in 1871. The following year the company took over the ships of Ford & Jackson on the route between Neyland in Wales and Waterford in Ireland. The Welsh terminal was relocated to Fishguard Harbour when the line to Fishguard was opened in 1906. Services were also operated between Weymouth Quay and the Channel Islands from 1889, taking over the routes of the Weymouth & Channel Islands Steam Packet Company. Smaller vessels were also used as tenders at Plymouth Great Western Docks and, until the Severn Tunnel opened, on the River Severn crossing of the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway.

The railway owned the docks at Plymouth, which was used by Trans-Atlantic passenger ships, and also at Fowey in Cornwall where the main export was china clay. Following the Railways Act 1921 most of the large coal-exporting docks in South Wales came into the GWR's ownership, such as those at Cardiff, Barry, and Swansea. This made the company the largest docks operator in the world. A number of canals became the property of the railway when they were purchased to remove competition or objectors to proposed new lines. Most of these continued to be operated; in 1929 they took £16,278 of receipts (freight trains earned over £17 million).

The GWR initially leased out the refreshment rooms and hotels that were built at many stations, however the Bristol and Exeter Railway was operating its own when it amalgamated in 1876 and the GWR extended this practice. It opened the Tregenna Castle, its first "country house" hotel at St Ives, Cornwall in 1877 and added to this the Fishguard Bay Hotel in 1910 and the Manor House at Moretonhampstead, Devon to which it added a golf course in 1930.

The first railway-operated bus services were started by the GWR between Helston railway station and The Lizard on 17 August 1903. Known by the company as road motors, these chocolate-and-cream buses operated throughout the company's territory on railway feeder services and excursions until they were transferred to local bus companies (in most of which the GWR held a share) in the 1930s.

In association with Imperial Airways the GWR inaugurated the first railway air service between Cardiff, Torquay and Plymouth. This grew to be part of the Railway Air Services.

Traction and rolling stock


For most of the period of its existence, the GWR painted its locomotives a middle chrome green colour (similar to Brunswick green), with Indian red (later, plain black) frames. Name and numberplates were generally of polished brass with a black background, and chimneys often had copper rims or "caps".

Broad gauge

The GWR's first locomotives were specified by Isambard Kingdom Brunel but did not prove too successful. In order to meet his demands some novel ideas were tried such as the Haigh Foundry's geared locomotives and TE Harrison's Hurricane and Thunderer which had the engine and boiler on separate chassis.

More conventional locomotives were soon ordered by Daniel Gooch when he was appointed as the railway's Locomotive Superintendent. Following on from the Star Class that he ordered from Robert Stephenson and Company, he designed a series of standardised and successful locomotive types starting with the Firefly and Sun classes of passenger locomotives, and the Leo and Hercules classes for goods trains. By 1846 Swindon Works had been established was able to build its own locomotives. The most familiar from this period are the Iron Duke Class 2-2-2s with their driving wheels, a type that operated express trains right up to the end of the broad gauge in 1892. Gooch further developed the broad gauge locomotives, producing the first bogie tank design for the steep and curving South Devon lines in 1849, and condensing locomotives for the Metropolitan Railway in 1862. He produced over 100 Ariadne class goods locomotives to a standardised design at a time when most classes ran to only ten or twenty locomotives, and components he designed were often interchanable between different classes.

In 1864 Gooch was succeeded by Joseph Armstrong who brought his standard gauge experience gained in the Northern Division to bear on the larger broad gauge locomotives. He designed the Hawthorn class of 2-4-0 and, in 1870, started the renewal of the Iron Dukes with more powerful boilers. The conversion of many broad gauge lines to standard gauge meant that this was a period of consolidation but in 1876 the amalgamation of the Bristol and Exeter and South Devon Railway locomotives saw 180 locomotives added to the GWR's fleet. To replace some of these earlier locomotives, Armstrong put broad gauge wheels on his standard gauge 1076 Class and from this time on GWR locomotives were given numbers rather than the names that had been carried by broad gauge locomotives up till then.

Joseph Armstrong's early death in 1877 meant that the final phase of broad gauge motive power was the responsibility of William Dean. He continued the Iron Duke renewal programme and added more convertibles, including some of Armstrong's 388 class goods locomotives. He also developed some elegant express locomotives such as the 3031 Class singles. Following the abandonment of the broad gauge on 20 May 1892 the majority of the remaining 195 broad gauge locomotives were taken to "the dump" at Swindon. Most of the convertible locomotives were altered to run on the standard gauge over the following 18 months while the remainder were cut up.

Standard gauge

With the acquisition of the northern standard gauge lines in 1854 came 56 locomotives, a second workshop at Wolverhampton, and Joseph Armstrong. Wolverhampton was responsible for maintaining standard gauge locomotives for many years, although Daniel Gooch did design some new locomotives that were built at Swindon and carried to Wolverhampton on special trucks. The first, the 57 class were 0-6-0 goods locomotives built in 1855. At the same time some 69 class passenger locomotives were built by Beyer, Peacock and Company in Manchester so were able to be transported on their own wheels. By the time that Armstrong replaced Gooch at Swindon in 1864 many more locomotives had been acquired with the Birkenhead and West Midlands Railways.

Armstrong developed the 2-2-2 as his preferred express locomotive, producing 30 of the Sir Daniel class from 1866 and 21 of the Queen class from 1873. Smaller 2-4-0s, such as the 439 class of 1868, worked slower passenger trains while 0-6-0s continued to operate, such as the 388 class freight trains. Tank locomotives were constructed to operate lighter trains and branch lines, the most familiar of which were the 1076 "Buffalo" class 0-6-0STs (later 0-6-0PT), and the lighter 517 class 0-4-2T and 455 "Metro" class 2-4-0Ts. The 517s were originally Northern Division locomotives while the Metros were used around London, but this distinction was blurred in later years.

William Dean had worked under Armstrong on and off for 22 years before becoming his successor and he perpetuated his locomotive policy for some time. He later produced standardised 0-6-0 and 2-6-0 goods locomotives (the 2301 and 2600 "Aberdare" classes), and 0-6-0STs of various sizes (the 850 or 1901, 2021 and 2721 classes). For express trains he initially developed the 2-2-2 type, culminating with the elegant 3031 class. He later moved on to the 4-4-0 type, producing the Badminton and Atbara classes with wheels, and the Duke and Bulldog classes with wheels. For branch line and suburban trains he built 31 3600 class 2-4-2T locomotives.

GJ Churchward

George Jackson Churchward started his railway career in the South Devon Railway locomotive workshops at Newton Abbot. After that company became a part of the GWR in 1876 he was sent to Swindon and worked under Armstrong and Dean. After his appointment as Locomotive Superintendent in 1902 he developed a series of standard locomotive types with flat-topped Belpaire fireboxes, tapered boilers, long smokeboxes, boiler top-feeds, long-lap long-travel valve gear, and many standardised parts such as wheels, cylinders and connecting rods.

For express passenger trains he quickly turned out the City class of 4-4-0s, the first taking to the rails in 1903. The following year one of these, 3717 City of Truro, was the first locomotive in the world to exceed 100 mph . However it should be noted that due to no official measuring of the locomotive's speed taking place on this run, the record is not officially recognised. A larger 4-4-0 was produced in 1904 in the form of the County class, but further increases in size demanded more wheels.

Experiments had already been made for a 4-6-0 design while Dean was still in charge, and these continued under Churchward. One locomotive was converted to a 4-4-2 for direct trials against French designs that he tried in 1903. These experiments moved the GWR towards using four cylinders, and there was even a 4-6-2 tried, 111 The Great Bear which was the first locomotive of this type in the United Kingdom. Production 4-6-0s appeared in 1902 as the two-cylinder Saint class, and were followed in 1906 by the four-cylinder Star class. A freight version of the Saint, the 2-8-0 2800 class was introduced in 1903. For lighter trains a series of 2-6-0s were turned out in 1911, the 4300 class, which were to become the most numerous GWR tender locomotives. In 1919 this design was enlarged to become the 4700 class 2-8-0s.

Churchward's standardisation aims meant that a number of tank locomotives were produced that were based on these tender locomotives. The 2221 class of 1905 were a 4-4-2T version of the County class, indeed they were known as the 'County Tanks'. These were then developed into a 2-6-2T design, being produced as the 3100 class in 1903 and the 3150 class three years later. Smaller 2-6-2Ts, the 4400 class were introduced in 1904 and were succeeded by the slightly larger 4500 class in 1906. Two very different freight tank locomotive types appeared in 1910. The 4200 class was a tank version of the 2800 class, but a demand for small locomotives for working on dock and branch lines was met by modernising the old Cornwall Minerals Railway 0-6-0ST design while using as many of Churchward's standard parts as possible, which resulted in the 1361 class.

Other innovations during Churchward's office included the introduction of self-propelled Steam Rail Motors for suburban and light branch line passenger trains. From 1915 his post was renamed that of the 'Chief Mechanical Engineer'. He also remodelled Swindon Works, building the boiler-erecting shops and the first static locomotive-testing plant in the United Kingdom.

Collett and Hawksworth

Charles Collett became the Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1921. Almost straight away he had to take on all the locomotives of myriad types from the railways absorbed in 1922 and 1923. Many of these were 'Swindonised', that is they were rebuilt using standard GWR parts. He also set about designing many new types to replace the older examples. Many of the most familiar GWR tank locomotive classes were designed during this period: the 1400 class for small branch lines and auto trains; the 4575 class (a development of the 4500 class with larger tanks) and the large 6100 class 2-6-2Ts; the massive 7200 class of rebuilt 4200 class 2-8-2Ts; and the iconic pannier tanks of the 5700 class, the first of which appeared in 1929.

Collett further developed the 4-6-0 type as the ideal GWR express locomotive, extending the Stars into Castles in 1923, and then producing the largest of them all, the four-cylinder King class, in 1927. He also produced slightly smaller types for mixed traffic (either passenger and goods) duties, the Hall class in 1928, the Grange class in 1934, and the Manor class in 1934. All these continued to carry appropriate names. For lighter goods services he produced his own standard 0-6-0, the 2251 class.

It was under Collett's control that diesel power was first appeared on the GWR. He introduced the first streamlined rail cars in 1934 and by 1942 38 had been built, although the latter ones had more angular styling. Some were configured for long distance express services with buffet counters, others for branch line or parcels work, and some were designed as two-car sets.

Frederick Hawksworth only became the Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1941 and the Second World War meant that his new designs were few. He updated Collett's 'Hall' class to produce the GWR 6959 Class, known as 'Modified Halls', and produced the last GWR 2-cylinder 4-6-0s, the 'County' class 4-6-0, which ended a tradition that had begun with the 'Saints' 42 years before. Their boilers were based on those of the LMS Stanier Class 8F 2-8-0, a number of which had been built at Swindon during the War. Other designs included three designs of 0-6-0PT: the taper boilered 9400 class; the 1500 class with outside Walschaerts valve gear and no running plate designed for pilot work around large stations; and the very light 1600 Class.


Early GWR carriages, in common with other railways at the time, were based on stagecoach practice and built on rigid six-wheel (or sometimes four-wheel) underframes, although the broad gauge allowed wider bodies with more people seated in each compartment. Three classes were provided, although third class carriages were not conveyed in every train and, for the first few years, were little more than open trucks with rudimentary seats. Some rigid eight-wheeled carriages were produced but vacuum brakes and bogies made an appearance before the end of the broad gauge in 1892.

The first train in the United Kingdom with corridor connections between all carriages entered service on 7 March 1890 on the Paddington to Birkenhead route, and further corridor trains were introduced on all the main routes over the next few years. In 1900 a new Milford Boat Train set introduced electric lights and the communication cord was moved inside the train; until now a passenger needing to stop the train in an emergency had to lean out of the window and pull a cord above the door. At this time carriages generally had a clerestory roof but elliptical roofs were fitted to the GWR steam rail motors in 1903 and became standard for all carriages. The first were the "Dreadnought" stock built from 1904 in lengths of up to . The "Concertina" stock appeared in 1906, so named as the doors were recessed into the body side rather than flush with the outer panels. The following year saw the introduction of shorter "Toplight" stock of around , the toplights being small "lights" or windows above the main windows. Coaches panelled in steel rather than wood first appeared in 1912.

The next significant change came in 1922 when bow-ended stock was introduced in both 57 ft and 70 ft lengths. Hitherto coaches had featured flat ends but bow ends were easier to fit with Buckeye couplings that were then finding favour with passenger trains in the United Kingdom. These coaches were generally more plain than earlier vehicles as they had flush sides without beaded panels. Some articulated sets were built in 1925. From 1929 coaches had windows flush with the body panels, the first such sets being for the Cornish Riviera Express but general coaches followed the following year, including the infamous "B Sets", two-coach trains mainly used on branch lines.

In 1931 some "Super Saloons" were built, also known as "Ocean Saloons" as they were used on the Plymouth to London Ocean Mail trains. These were fitted out to very high specification for the Trans-Atlantic passengers. In 1935 excursion stock with open saloons instead of compartments was introduced, and the "Centenary" stock for the Cornish Riviera Limited service. During World War II some "Special Saloons" were built for the use of VIPs and for the Royal Train. A distinctive new profile appeared in 1944, when Hawksworth introduced coaches with domed roof-ends, although non-corridor coaches and auto trailers retained a more conventional roof. Fluorescent lights were tried in new coaches built in 1946.

A few sleeping cars were operated on the broad gauge and these became familiar on overnight trains. Restaurant cars became practical following the introduction of corridor trains; the first cars in 1896 were for first class passengers but a second class buffet car appeared on the Milford Boat Train in 1900. Slip coaches were operated on many routes that could be uncoupled from the rear of a moving train and serve intermediate stations that the train did not call at.

The livery of early carriages was a dark chocolate brown but from 1864 the upper panels were painted white which became a pale cream after being varnished and exposed to the weather. This colour eventually became a richer cream. From 1908 carriages were painted chocolate brown all over but this changed to a red lake colour in 1912. A two-colour livery reappeared in 1922, now with a richer cream on the upper panels and chocolate brown below.


In the early years of the GWR, its wagons were painted brown, but this changed to red before the end of the broad gauge. The familiar dark grey livery was only introduced about 1904.

Most early wagons were four-wheeled, although a few six-wheeled vehicles were provided for special loads. The first bogie wagons appeared in 1873, again for heavy loads, but bogie coal wagons were built in 1904. The first large coal wagons had appeared in 1898. Rated at 20 tons they were twice the size of typical wagons of the period, but it was not until 1923 that the company invested heavily in coal wagons of this size and the infrastructure necessary for their unloading at their docks; these were known as "Felix Pole" wagons after the GWR's General Manager who promoted their use. Container wagons appeared in 1931 and special motor car vans in 1933. Indeed, special wagons were produced for many different commodities such as gunpowder, china clay, aeroplanes, milk, fruit and fish.

All wagons for public traffic had a code name that was used in telegraphic messages. As this was usually painted onto the wagon it is common to see them referred to by these names, such as "mink" (a van), "mica" (refrigerated van), "crocodile" (boiler truck), and "toad" (brake van).

Cultural impact

Known admiringly to some as "God's Wonderful Railway, jocularly to others as the "Great Way Round" (some of its earliest routes were not the most direct). It gained great fame as the "Holiday Line", taking huge numbers of people to resorts in the southwest.


The GWR had operated hotels at major stations and junctions since the early days, but in 1877 it opened its first "country house hotel", the Tregenna Castle in St Ives, Cornwall. It promoted itself at home and abroad as a holiday line through a series of posters, postcards, jigsaws, and books such as SPB Mais's Cornish Riviera. GWR road motor services carried tourists to popular destinations, and its ships offered cruises from places such as Plymouth. Redundant carriages were converted to camp coaches then placed at country or seaside stations and hired to holiday makers who arrived by train.

Cultural references

The GWR attracted the attention of the media from an early date. John Cooke Bourne's History and Description of the Great Western Railway was published in 1846 and contained a series of detailed lithographs of the railway that give us a glimpse of what the line looked like in the days before photography. J. M. W. Turner painted his Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway after looking out of the window of his train on Maidenhead Railway Bridge. In 1862 William Powell Frith painted "The Railway Station", a large crowd scene on the platform at Paddington. The station itself was painted for Powell by W Scott Morton, an architect and a train was specially provided for the painting, in front of which a variety of travellers and railway staff form an animated focal point.

When writing the Railway Series of children's books, the Rev. W. Awdry was inspired by memories of listening to heavy freight trains on the GWR Main Line near his childhood home of Box, Wiltshire. "It was not hard to imagine train engine and banker talking to each other, and for me, steam engines developed personality." Two characters were directly inspired by GWR locomotives: Duck and Oliver. Duck's character, in particular, frequently revealed his pride in his GWR ancestry. In further acknowledgement of their GWR heritage, both Duck and Oliver were portrayed in full GWR livery, unlike the fictitious colours worn by other locomotive characters. The two engines were even given their own branch line to run, with pairs of autocoaches, which was nick-named The Little Western.

The GWR has featured in many television programmes, such as the BBC children's drama series "God's Wonderful Railway" in 1980.

Manic Street Preachers lead vocalist James Dean Bradfield's first solo album was named The Great Western, most likely being a reference to the trips he took to London from his home in South Wales.

The GWR was immortalised in Bob Godfrey's animated film "Great", which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film of 1975. It tells the story of Brunel's engineering accomplishments. The film features poignant shots of disused and neglected GWR engines to the background of a specially written song entitled 'GWR':

GWR, we've never been that far, Brunel has had his first success. When he drew up the plans, the company said yes, that's how they opened up the west, it's too spectacular, it's GWR!


The GWR's memory is kept alive by several museums such as STEAM – the museum of the GWR (in the old Swindon railway works), and the Didcot Railway Centre where there is a section of operating broad gauge track. Preserved GWR branch lines include the Totnes to Buckfastleigh, Paignton to Kingswear, Bishops Lydeard to Minehead, and Kidderminster to Bridgnorth lines. Many other heritage railways and museums also have GWR locomotives or rolling stock in use or on display.

Many stations still operated by Network Rail also continue to display much of their GWR heritage. This is not seen at only the large stations such as Paddington (built 1851, extended 1915)and Temple Meads (1840, 1875 & 1935) but other places such as Bath Spa (1840), Torquay (1878), Penzance (1879), Truro (1897), and Newton Abbot (1927). Many small stations are little changed from when they were opened as there has been no need to rebuild them to cope with heavier traffic; good examples can be found at Yatton (1841), Mortimer (1848), Bradford-on-Avon (1857), and St Germans (1859). Even where stations have been rebuilt, many fittings such as signs, manhole covers and seats can be found with 'GWR' cast into them.

UNESCO are considering a proposal to list the Great Western Main line as a World Heritage Site. The proposal comprises seven individual sites. These are Bristol Temple Meads railway station (including Brunel's Company Offices, Boardroom, train shed, and the Bristol and Exeter Railway Offices along with the route over the River Avon); Bath Spa railway station along with the line from Twerton Tunnel to the Sydney Gardens, Middlehill and Box Tunnels; the Swindon area including Swindon railway works and village; Maidenhead Railway Bridge; Wharncliffe Viaduct; and Paddington railway station.

Notable people

Joseph Armstrong – he was appointed Locomotive Superintendent to the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway and the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railways at Wolverhampton in 1853. When they amalgamated with the GWR the following year he was given the title of Northern Division Locomotive Superintendent (1854-1864), he then moved to Swindon as the chief Locomotive Superintendent (1864-1877).

Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Chief Engineer to the GWR (1835-1859) and many of the broad gauge lines that it amalgamated with, also the standard gauge Taff Vale Railway. He was responsible for chosing the route of the railway and designing many of today's iconic structures including Box Tunnel, Maidenhead Railway Bridge, and Paddington and Temple Meads stations.

George Jackson Churchward – Locomotive Superintendent (1902-1915) and Chief Mechanical Engineer (1915-1921).

Charles Collett – Chief Mechanical Engineer (1922-1941).

William Dean – Locomotive Superintendent (1877-1902).

Daniel Gooch – the GWR's first Locomotive Superintendent (1837-1864) and its Chairman (1865-1889), he was responsible for the railway's early locomotive successes, such as the Iron Duke Class, and for establishing Swindon railway works.

James Grierson – Goods Manager (1857-1863), he then became the General Manager (1863-1887) from which position he saw the railway through a period of expansion and the early gauge conversions.

Frederick Hawksworth – Chief Mechanical Engineer (1941-1947).

Henry Lambert – the General Manager (1887-1887) responsible for managing the final gauge conversion in 1892.

James Milne – General Manager (1929-1947) who saw the GWR through World War II.

Felix Pole – as General Manager (1921-1929) he oversaw the Grouping of the South Wales railways into the GWR following the Railways Act 1921, and promoted the use of 20 ton wagons to bring efficiencies to the railway's coal trade.

CE Spagnoletti – the GWR's Telegraph Superintendent (1855-1892) patented the Disc Block Telegraph Instrument which was used to safely control the dispatch of trains. First used on the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 and the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway in 1864, it was later used on many other lines operated by the company.

See also


Further reading

  • Bryan, T. (2004) All in a Day's Work: Life on the GWR, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-2964-4
  • Great Western Railway (1904) Rules and Regulations - For the Guidance of the Officers and Men, Reprinted 1993, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-2259-3
  • Nock, O.S. (1962) The Great Western Railway in the nineteenth century, Ian Allan
  • Nock, O.S. (1964) The Great Western Railway in the twentieth century, Ian Allan
  • Nock, O.S. (1967) History of the Great Western Railway. Volume Three: 1923-1947, Reprinted 1982, Ian Allan, ISBN 0-7110-0304-1
  • Tourret, R. (2003) GWR Engineering Work, 1928-1938, Tourret Publishing, ISBN 0-905878-08-6
  • Vaughan, Adrian (1990), Signalman's Reflections, Silver Link Publishing, ISBN 0-947971-54-8

External links

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