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The Great Western Railway (GWR) was a British railway company formed in 1833, linking South West England and South Wales with London.

The 'Great Western Railway' kept its identity through the 1923 grouping, and became the 'South West Region' of British Railways at nationalisation in 1948.

Known to many by the play on its initials as 'God's Wonderful Railway ', the GWR became synonymous with Brunel, the great age of steam and the post-Napoleonic war 19th century optimism in technology which blossomed in the Victorian era as exemplified by The Great Exhibition (1851). The image of the GWR could only be enhanced by the halcyan patina it acquired as the "Holiday Railway", carrying holiday-makers by the hundreds of thausands to the resorts in the West Country it was itself instrumental in creating.

The GWR was founded by a group of Bristol business-men who announced their intention with a circular of January 21st, 1833;-

The Gentlemen deputed by the Corporation, the Society of Merchant Venturers, the Docks Company, and the Bristol and Gloucestershire Rail Road Company, to take into consideration the expediency of promoting the formation of a RAIL ROAD from BRISTOL to LONDON, request you to favour them, in writing, with such information as you may be able to afford, respecting the expediency of the proposed Rail Road, addressed to the Chairman, in time to be laid before an adjourned meeting of the said Deputies, to be held at the COUNCIL-HOUSE on Thursday, the 31st instant, at Twelve O'Clock.

I am, etc.,
John Cave, Chairman.

The company was founded at the January 31st meeting and four engineers were invited to tender for the survey of the proposed railway. The young Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), aged only 27, complained of the tender procedure . . .

You are holding out a premium to the man who will make you the most flattering promises, and it is quite obvious that he who had the least reputation at stake, or the most to gain by temporary success, and least to lose by the consequence of a disappointment, must be the winner in such a race.

. . . and even threatened to withdraw his application, but was appointed as the railway's engineer by only one vote. The survey took Brunel three months and he estimated the cost of the railway at £2.8-millions.

Brunel took two very important and no less controversial decisions. The first was to abandon the narrow guage of the tramways in favour of a broad guage of 2.14 metres (7ft 0.25inches) becuase of the smoother running it offered at high speeds. The second was to route the railway north of the Marlborough Downs, through an area of few towns but twith the potential of connecting to Oxford and Gloucester.

After legal and other fees amounting to £90,000, the Great Western Railway Act was passed on the second attempt and received the Royal Assent on August 31st, 1835.

Work started on the line in September 1835 and the first section, from London Paddington to Taplow near maidenhead in Berkshire opened in 1838. the opening of the full 118-mile line from London to Bristol Temple Meads had the await the completion of the two-mile-long Box Tunnel between Corsham and Box in Wiltshire on June 30th, 1841 and the first train along the completed line ran from London to Bridgewater on June 14th, 1841, reaching Bristol in four hours.

The company's livery was dark green locomotives with chocolate and cream carriages.

Various other railways were built in the area to connect with the GWR: The Bristol and Exeter Railway reached Exeter by 1844, The Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway linked Swindon to Gloucester and Cheltenham in 1845, and the Bristol and Gloucester Railway brought the broad gauge to Gloucester in 1844. Gloucester was already(?) served by the standard gauge Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, resulting in a "break of gauge", and the need for all passengers and goods travelling beyond Gloucester to change trains. This was the beginning of the "gauge war", and resulted in the appointment by Parliament of a Gauge Commission, which duly recommended in favour of the standard gauge.

The undaunted GWR pressed ahead into the West Midlands, in hard-fought competition with the London and North Western Railway. Birmingham was reached in 1852, at Snow Hill (although the GWR had initially meant to build to Rugby instead of Birmingham), and Birkenhead (on standard gauge track) in 1854. The Bristol and Gloucester had been bought by the Midland Railway in 1846 and converted to standard gauge in 1854, bringing mixed gauge track (with three rails so that both broad and standard gauge trains could run on it) to Bristol. By the 1860s the gauge war was lost; with the merger of the standard-gauge West Midlands Railway into the GWR in 1861 mixed gauge came to Paddington, and by 1869 there was no broad gauge track north of Oxford.

Meanwhile, further developments were made in the GWR's heartland: The South Devon Railway was opened in 1849, extending the broad gauge to Plymouth, and the Cornwall Railway took it over the Royal Albert Bridge and into Cornwall, reaching Penzance by 1867. The South Wales Railway opened in 1850 and was connected to the GWR via Brunel's ungainly Wye bridge in 1852. The route from Wales to London via Gloucester was roundabout, so work on the Severn Tunnel began in 1873, but unexpected underwater springs slowed the work down and prevented its opening until 1886.

Through this period the conversion to standard gauge continued. By this time most conversions were bypassing mixed gauge and going directly from broad to standard.

The 1890s also saw improvements in service of the generally conservative GWR - restaurant cars, much improved conditions for third class passengers, and steam heating of trains.

The company also built new track to shorten its previously circuitous routes.

After 1902 G. J. Churchward developed a distinctive style of locomotive in 4-4-0 and later 4-6-0 configuration, with flat-topped Belpaire fireboxes, tapered boilers, long smokeboxes and much standardisation of parts. These were the Star class locomotives. A notable locomotive (not of the Star class), was 111 The Great Bear, the first 4-6-2 locomotive in the United Kingdom.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, all the country's railways were taken under the direct control of the government.

Between the Wars

After World War I the government considered permanent nationalisation of the railways. Instead it opted for the mandatory amalgamation of the major railway companies into four large groups. The grouping came into effect on January 1st, 1923 and the GWR was the only company to retain its identity.

The grouping process had left the GWR in control of many smaller railways, mostly mostly handling coal from South Wales. Initially, this placed the company in an advantageous position but, the use of coal to power the ships of the Royal Navy declined rapidly and, within only a decade, the Great Western Railway itself became the largest single user of coal from Wales.

The 1920s also brought the Castle and King class locomotives developed by Collett - the most famous engines of the GWR.

Although the records of the Castle and King classes were beaten by other companies during the depression of the 1930s, the company managed to keep itself in relatively good financial health.

World War II

The outbreak of the Second World War brought all British railways under direct government control again.


After the end of hostilities, the Labour government planned to nationalise the country's railways. The GWR became part of the nationalised British Railways on January 1st, 1948.

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Modern Swindon is very much the result of the arrival of the Great Western Railway (GWR) in the mid-19th century which built New Swindon alongside its railway track to the north of the village on the hill which gives the place its name.

The GWR established extensive workshops in 1843 alongside its mainline track some eighty miles from London near its juntion with the Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway branch and the railway dominated the town for some one hundred and fifty years. New Swindon, as the railway town became known, grew rapidly to swamp its ancient neighbour on the overlooking hill but the were not united until 1900 when the Borough of Swindon was created.

The original GWR works which came into operation in January 1843 were intended as a repair and maintenance facility for the railway. Only three years later, the construction of locomotives began at Swindon under the influence of Daniel Gooch, the GWR's Locomotive Superintendent. In 1868, the company chose to site its Carriage and Wagon Works at Swindon as well and everything from locomotive to baggage barrows and station signs was made in the town.

After 1870, Swindon saw the arrival of an ever-increasing number of Brunel's seven foot guage locomotives and rolling stock for breaking up. The main line itself was eventually converted to standard guage in May 1892 and this brought neary two hundred locomotives, sevenhundred and forty eight passenger cars and almost three and a half thousand goods wagons to Swindon for rebuiding or dismantling.

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The initial locomotives ordered for the GWR line to Brunel's own specifications proved unsatisfactoy and Daniel Gooch, only 20 years old, was appointed was appointed as Superintendent of Locomotives.

They chose to locate the locomotive works just north of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal, a mile to the north of the village of Swindon. Here, with ample access to cheap Somerset coal afforded by the canal, the gentle ascent along the line from London became the steeper descent into the valley of the river Avon at Bath.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Daniel Gooch

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1711Start of campaign by Bristol Corporation and Society of Merchant Venturers (-1713) to stop the Royal African Company regaining monopoly status, arguing the importance of the slave trade to Bristol s economy
1833.Jan.21Group of Bristol business-men advertise their intention to found the Great Western Railway with a circular
1833.Jan.31Foundation of the Great Western Railway by Bristol businessmen (GWR) at a public meeting in the city
1835.Aug.31The Great Western Railway Act recieves the Royal Assent
Previous railway acts had stipulted the narrow guage of 4ft 8.25in - Brunel maneuvered the Act to avoid stipulating a guage
1835.SepWork starts on the Great Western Railway
1836Work starts on the 2-mile-long Box Railway Tunnel of the GWR between Corsham Box in Wiltshire
The longest railway tunnel in Europe at the time
1838Opening of the first section of the Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Taplow near Maindenhead, Berks.
1841.Jun.14Opening of the GWR London to Bristol railway line, the first train reaching Bristol in 4 hours and travelling on to Bridgewater on the Bristol to Exeter line.
Opening of the railway rapidly caused a drop in traffic on the Kennet and Avon Canal
1841.Jun.30Opening of the record-breaking 2-mile-long Box Railway Tunnel of the GWR between Corsham and Box in Wiltshire without any ceremony because of the horendous loss of life during its construction
1843The GWR\'s workshops at Swindon come into operation
1844.May.01Opening of the Bristol to Exeter Railway - the first steam locomotive arrives at Exeter
1852Purchase of the Kennet and Avon Canal by the Great Western Railway
1876Mixed guage track reaches Exeter
1877Branch line from the GWR main line at Little Somerford reaches Malmesbury, Wilts.
1892.May.20Last of Brunel\'s broad guage railways converted to standard guage over the weekend (Devon)
1903.Jul.06GWR Chacewater to Perranporth branch line (via St Agnes) opened in Cornwall
1905.Jan.02GWR Chacewater to Perranporth branch line extended to Newquay in Cornwall
1923Merger of the Didcot Newbury and Southampton Junction Railway with the Great Western Railway
1923.Jan.01Grouping of UK railways as an alternative to nationalisation - the GWR being the only company to preserve its identity
by 1924Great Western Railway attempts to close the Kennet and Avon Canal
1963.Feb.04GWR Chacewater to Newquay branch line closed in Cornwall
1995Privatisation of the British railway network (British Rail) forming three classes of company; Railtrack owning the track; Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs) and 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs)

Year   Word/Phrase    
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Isambard Kingdom Brunel
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  Box Railway Tunnel
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Recommend a Book for this Page

Swindon and the GWR
  by Richard Tomkins & Peter Sheldon, 1990, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud, Gloucestershire   ISBN 0-86299-790-9

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There was a Canadian railway company named the "Great Western Railway" operating in southern Ontario between 1853 and 1882.

On privatisation of the British railway network in 1995, the "Great Western" name was revived for the train operating company providing passenger services to the West of England.

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