The Bristol & Exeter Railway was a railway company formed to connect Bristol and Exeter. It was friendly to the Great Western Railway, which had been opened between London and Bristol the previous year, and the two railways operated in collaboration.
The company's head office was situated outside their Bristol station. Designed by Samuel Fripp, it was opened in 1854.
In addition to the mainline from Bristol to Exeter (Devon), branches were opened to Clevedon, Cheddar and Wells, Weston-super-Mare, Chard, and Yeovil in Somerset, and to Tiverton, Devon. The Bristol & Exeter also worked a number of small independent railways: the Bristol and Portishead Port and Pier Railway, the Somerset Central Railway, the West Somerset Railway and Minehead Railway, the Devon and Somerset Railway, and the Exeter and Crediton Railway.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed engineer, and the first broad gauge section of the line was completed to Bridgwater on 14 June, 1841, and the extension to Taunton in July 1842 - both using trains leased from the Great Western. The line was completed to Exeter in 1844.
At first the railway was worked by the Great Western Railway, but the Bristol & Exeter took over its own working in 1849. It built a carriage works at Bridgwater, which already had a railway engineering industry. George Hennet obtained permission in the town to cast atmospheric pipes for the South Devon Railway, the Bristol and Exeter Railway simply extended his works. The Hennet name continued to be linked to Bridgwater for many years, and was responsible for producing many wagons for various companies.
The Bristol & Exeter Railway was a considerable financial success and between 1844 and 1874, paying an average annual dividend of 4.5 per cent. The city fathers of Exeter refused the railway access to the dock of the Exeter Canal until 35 years after it entered the city in 1844. The railway built its own new dock, which could accommodate the new larger steam ships, and bankrupted the canal in 1867.
The railway was fully amalgamated with the Great Western Railway on 1 January 1876.
Main article Bristol and Exeter Railway locomotives.
Locomotives for the railway were provided by the Great Western Railway until its working arrangement finished on 1 May 1849, after which the Bristol and Exeter provided its own locomotives. Engine sheds were provided at major stations and on some branches, and workshops were established at Bristol in September 1854.
Charles Hutton Gregory was responsible for the locomotives until May 1850, when James Pearson was appointed as Locomotive Engineer. He designed several classes of tank engines, including his distinctive large 4-2-4T locomotives, the first of which were introduced in 1854.