Isambard Kingdom Brunel is heralded as the outstanding civil engineer of his generation, remembered for his great feats of pioneering iron ships, railways, tunnels and bridges. He had a vision to connect London to New York via rail and sea, through Bristol, and was aided considerably by the Gibbs family in achieving this ambition.
In the rivalry between Bristol and Liverpool as sea ports in the 1830’s, Bristol was sensing that it might be left behind when Liverpool became connected to London by the railways being constructed via Birmingham. The Bristol merchants (including George Gibbs of Bristol, and his business partner Robert Bright) wanted their own railway connection to London and convened a meeting of potential shareholders at the office of Antony Gibbs & Son (AGS) in London where the name of the Great Western Railway (GWR) was decided upon. One of the Directors appointed to the London committee was George Henry Gibbs of London. The company needed an engineer; one of the applicants was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a somewhat arrogant young man, still in his twenties.
The trials and tribulations of bringing the GWR to fruition are recounted in great detail in George Henry Gibbs’ diaries of the time, intertwined with his personal life and other AGS business. The diaries are available here, with GWR from page 26 onwards. Extracts from his diaries form the core of the book “The Birth of the Great Western Railway”. They highlight both the financial and technical challenges faced in realising this broad gauge railway of over 100 miles
As monuments go, the Great Western Railway, called by some “God’s Wonderful Railway”, must be one of the finest any family has to offer. Elements of Brunel’s stations at Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads are still visible. And as we tackle the environmental problems of our time the GWR provides a system with lower CO2 emissions, lower micro particulate emissions and a far better safety record when compared with travel by road. Next time you travel between London and Bristol by rail, wonder at the scale and foresight of the GWR enterprise started by those Gibbs Directors…
GWR was the first half of Brunel’s London to New York vision; the “Great Western Steamship Company” completed the link. The SS Great Western was followed shortly by the iron steam ship SS Great Britain, by far the largest vessel afloat at its time. After running aground on its 3rd transatlantic crossing the SS Great Britain was acquired by Gibbs Bright & Co., so the Gibbs family was involved in the full journey from London to New York! However the discovery of gold in Australia resulted in the SS Great Britain being transferred to the England Australia route which she served for nearly 30 years. A previous post recounts her eventual return to Bristol harbour.
While these two George Gibbs’s as enthusiastic Brunelians are the greatest link between the family and railway history, there are some other odd connections. Vicary Gibbs, went on a ‘gap year’ and circled the world in 1883. In his diaries he described witnessing the ‘gold spike’ ceremony of the Northern Pacific Railway when the last ¼ mile of railroad was completed before an invited audience and the ceremonial spike was driven by General (former President) Ulysses S Grant. Other Gibbs family involvement in railways include Henry Hucks Gibbs (1st Baron Aldenham), who was a Director of the Mexican Railway Company. George and Stanley Gibbs met Joseph Gibbs in Mexico in 1869 to try to resolve a conflict, during their ill fated voyage dying of yellow fever (also recounted in previous post)
On my mother’s side, her maternal great-grandfather, John Charles Molteno, as Prime Minister of the Cape Province, promoted and initiated railways across the South African plateau. Her maternal grandmother’s father’s first wife, Aurelia, had a town in Texas named after her, by her father John Insley Blair, who became the “largest owner of rail mileage in the world”, building across the American wild west.