Iron Barons

The creation of the UK railway network in the nineteenth century saw the equivalent of billions, if not trillions, of pounds invested in infrastructure. In five years alone, 5,000 miles of track were laid as the nation succumbed to railway mania. As with any such boom there were winners who would walk away with immense fortunes and, in some cases, bring about big changes to society.

Robert Stephenson was one of the pioneers of the railway. Along with his father, George Stephenson, he was the engineer responsible for designing the Rocket, the locomotive that famously won the trials to decide the best engine for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Robert Stephenson

Already instrumental in Britain’s first timetabled passenger railway, he would become a powerful force behind its most important line – the London and Birmingham Railway. His salary as chief engineer would eventually reach £2,000 – an economic status equivalent to several million pounds – placing him firmly in the league of today’s best-remunerated bankers and executives.

After a lifetime helping to design, build and ultimately finance the nation’s railways, Stephenson had amassed a personal fortune of £400,000 – an economic power equivalent to over £700 million in today’s money.

You didn’t have to be the chief engineer or owner of the railway to make a fortune. Thomas Brassey would go on to become on the greatest, most efficient and richest of the railway subcontractors. Brassey’s work dated back to some of the earliest railways, completing the Penkridge viaduct in Staffordshire for the Grand Junction Railway.

His expertise saw his company expand – both around the world and to projects outside of railway building. By the time of his death in 1870 his estate was valued at over £5 million (some £3.6 billion in today’s money), making him, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), ‘one of the wealthiest of the self-made Victorians’.

Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon By Nic Trott ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone walked away from the railway game with their riches intact. In a chaotic age of speculation, boom and bust, whole fortunes could be lost dizzyingly quickly. George Hudson was one of the towering figures of the railway age, the so-called Railway King, whose entry at the ODNB describes him as a railway promoter and fraudster. The latter of these descriptors gives a clue as to his fate.

As one of the first investors in the early railways, Hudson extended his empire from his base in York. His influence in this area helps explain York’s future as one of the key railway towns in the UK. By the mid-1840s, Hudson’s companies ‘controlled over a quarter of the railways then built in England’.

The extent of his ambitions was revealed in 1846, when his agents submitted plans for thirty-two parliamentary bills for railway projects costing a total of £10,000,000. This represents an economic cost in 2010 terms of £23.8 billion – significantly more than Crossrail’s £15.8 billion but less than the £40 billion earmarked for High Speed 2.

The whole empire began to unravel at the end of the 1840s and by 1859 Hudson was forced to flee for France to escape creditors. He came back in 1865 to fight for a seat in the general election but was arrested on account of his debts and was imprisoned in York for three months. He never quite plumbed the depths of penury, but he had fallen from the heights of influence, power and wealth to the cell of a debtors’ prison.

Another towering figure of the railway age who made and lost a fortune was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel’s engineering genius was understood and admired in his lifetime, and remains a potent symbol of the Victorian age. But his finances never recovered from his commitment to the SS Great Eastern.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel against the launching chains of the Great Eastern at Millwall in 1857, photo by Robert Howlett (1831–1858).

Still, Brunel’s legacy was never tarnished and he had become a hero to the British. He is commemorated in statues, in educational establishments (Brunel University) and in a starring role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. But most of all, he is remembered in the continued use and appreciation of his iconic constructions. In 2002, he was voted the second greatest Briton in the BBC poll that saw Churchill take the top spot.

Not all the railway fortunes came from laying track and running trains. William Henry Smith opened his first newspaper stand in 1848 at Euston Station. By 1850, the firm had expanded greatly with its eponymous stalls being serviced by depots in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Just 15 years after opening their first stand, Smith had 500 newsagents and stalls across the country.

W H Smith would continue to grow with the railways, eventually branching out and taking on the high street. The business would branch out from merely selling newspapers and started selling books and other essentials to cater to the travelling public.

Realising that the demand for books was limited by the high price of hard backs, Smith started selling cheaper editions nicknamed ‘yellowbacks’. These were cheap reprints of books that were no longer subject to copyright. They were joined by ‘traveller’s library’ editions published by Longmans.

Cover of the December 1888 edition of Cook's Continental Time Tables & Tourist's Handbook.

Another businessman who took advantage of the railway network was Thomas Cook. Thomas Cook was, in many ways, an unlikely pioneer or corporate titan. He was a Baptist minister and devoted temperance campaigner. His brush with business came from realising that the spare capacity of the railways could be exploited for cheap excursions.

The first publically advertised Thomas Cook excursion took 540 temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a temperance rally. At a shilling a head, it was not yet the heady stuff of business success, but it was a start.  Cook’s real break came from the Great Exhibition in 1848, when Cook’s arranged for up to 165,000 people to visit London.

By the 1880s, Thomas Cook had become a ubiquitous presence facilitating travel throughout the world. Its logistical capabilities were so renowned that the company was asked to supply the Gordon Relief Expedition to rescue General Gordon from Khartoum.