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“In the flattering endeavour of his several biographers to make out Robert Stephenson an infallible pattern of universal excellence and genius, positive injury has been done to his genuine merits, and controversies necessitated that, had sober truth alone been told, would never have been referred to.  Stephenson’s great superiority was as a leader of men.  We see the same genuine mastery . . . . in his command of the multitudinous details of the London and Birmingham office at the Eyre Arms, and the creation of the system of plans, specifications, contracts, and so forth, now become common property for the railway engineer; and in the general career and success of his life, in council, before committees, in the management of boards, in the homage and zealous support of his pupils and staff, and in the honest freedom of his life from a single slur or stain.”

The Practical Mechanic’s Journal, edition April 1866 – March 1867.


Robert Stephenson F.R.S., Civil Engineer.


A civil engineering project is a temporary collaborative enterprise, set up to achieve a particular aim within the built environment [2] subject to the usual constraints of time, cost and quality.

Broadly speaking, a transport infrastructure project, such as the London and Birmingham Railway, moves through a number of phases towards completion, usually with some degree of overlap and iteration between each:

  1. Initiation: Project Manager and Client agree on the projects deliverables.

  2. Outline plan: initial surveying and the identification of the most suitable route.

  3. Legislation: obtaining the necessary legal powers in the form of a private Act of Parliament.

  4. Definition: defining in greater detail what the project is to achieve, out of which comes a schedule of requirements.

  5. Preliminaries: preparing detailed designs and specifications.

  6. Preparation: addressing the many and varied legal issues.

  7. Implementation: staking out, building and commissioning the line.

  8. Handover: after some form of acceptance testing the Client takes possession and the project is closed.

In its day, the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was the largest civil engineering project yet undertaken.  Its aim was to create a public railway along a route sanctioned by Parliament, to be achieved within a budget £2,500,000 (Appendix I.) for delivery late in 1837. [3]  The project would require a team of suitably experienced people to manage it; the preparation of a great number of plans, drawings, specifications and contracts; the resolution of  legal issues (involving, for example, land purchase, conveyancing, contractual matters, compensation for damage and the diversion of roads and rivers); the supervision of contractors; and, throughout, accurate accounting and strict financial control.  Over the five years that the work took to complete, maintaining steady progress was to be a continual problem for the Board and their Chief Engineer, and some deviation from the project’s original goals was inevitable.

Large-scale civil engineering projects have always had a tendency to depart from their designers’ estimates of cost and delivery date, sometimes seriously, particularly when they are of a type that hasn’t previously been attempted.  In an earlier age, the Manchester Ship Canal, at £15,000,000, was almost three times over budget and two years late in opening.  The London and Birmingham Railway’s near neighbour for many miles, the Grand Junction Canal, was delayed by almost five years through serious flooding in the workings of the Blisworth Tunnel, the Canal’s eventual cost being three times the original estimate.  In our own age the Humber Bridge, the Jubilee Line extension, the Channel Tunnel and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) are just some examples of civil engineering projects that failed to meet their forecasts for one reason or another, and the Edinburgh Tramway project ― currently some £200m over the original £375m budget, and five years late ― looks set to join them.  Transport infrastructure projects such as these attracted much concern among their investors, which in our own age is usually the taxpayer.

If the out-turn for large-scale civil engineering projects can still depart seriously from forecast, it is unsurprising that the London and Birmingham Railway, a trailblazer in its day, was no exception:

“The way in which these things are usually got up for Parliament is so vague and undetermined, as to merit no other name than a guess, and not a good one either; hence has arisen the common saying with all great undertakings of this kind, ‘halve the receipts and double the expenditure if you wish to know anything about it.” [4]

The History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Lieut. Peter Lecount R.N. (1839).



Although the London and Birmingham Railway Act passed into law on 6th May 1833, a year was to elapse before the first construction contracts were let and building commenced.  That does not mean that little was done in the intervening period ― on the contrary, a great deal was done.

Railway engineering has grown into a multi-faceted discipline that includes, among other things, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and information and communications technology.  When the London and Birmingham Railway was built, its construction was entirely a matter of civil engineering, a discipline that then covered not only the design, construction and maintenance of cuttings, embankments, bridges, tunnels and a range of buildings, but track, signalling and rolling stock. [5]

The delivery of these components − locomotives being an exception − fell to Stephenson’s team.  Each needed to be planned and designed, and their construction managed to ensure that they were available when required, to specification and at the agreed price.  But before any detailed planning could take place it was first necessary to set up a structure for managing what for its time was a huge project, and to recruit the engineers and draughtsmen who were to produce the designs and specifications and oversee their realisation.  The management structure that Stephenson put in place was much the same as would apply to a similar project today.

George Parker Bidder (1806–1878),
assistant to Robert Stephenson.

From an early date in its history, the Board had divided the line into two equal sections, each under the direction of a committee, one based in London and the other in Birmingham.  Under the Board came their Chief Engineer, a role to which Robert Stephenson was appointed on the basis that “his time and services should be devoted exclusively to the Company”; this requirement departed from the usual arrangement whereby a Resident Engineer took charge of day-to-day operations, the Chief Engineer providing consultancy and occasional oversight, and charging his fee on a per diem basis. [6]  Instead, Stephenson was paid a salary, set initially at £1,500 p.a. plus £200 p.a. expenses, but later increased to £2,000 p.a. to keep abreast of that which Brunel was to receive following his appointment as Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway.

Beneath the Chief Engineer, the management arrangements were broadly those that John Smeaton had put in place during the construction of the Forth and Clyde canal over half a century earlier. [7]  The course of the Railway was divided into a number of sections, each being placed under the direction of an Assistant Engineer.  Each section was then further divided into shorter sections under the supervision of Sub-assistant Engineers. (Appendix II.)

Some of those that Stephenson recommended to the Board to fill these positions were men known to him, such as his former pupil, John Birkinshaw (whose father appears in Chapter 3); Thomas Gooch, who (together with Stephenson) had done much of the early surveying, and George Bidder, who Stephenson met while attending Edinburgh University.  A junior member of the project team left his recollections of two of the professional recruits who appeared at this time:

“Flying parties of surveyors were now succeeded by the regular staff.  A tall, very tall young man, upwards of six feet high, though losing somewhat from a slight stoop and a low crowned hat, was found to have actually rented one of the few available houses in the town.  He was a man whom no one set eyes on without wishing to see more of him.  A grave face, with a sweet and yet dignified expression, very dark eyes, lineaments such as those to be found in the drawings of Westall, a forehead not high, but broader than any often met with in portraiture, in sculpture, or in life; the dress of a decent mechanic, the air of an educated and well-bred man, and no gloves: these were some of the outward marks of a man who has since made his mark in the country.  He was one of a family, in a northern English county, distinguished for the talent of its members.  He was educated as a surgeon, but on coming of age declined to follow his paternal profession, and, after an engagement under Ericson, the inventor of the Monitors, during which he had a share in conducting those experiments on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in which the speed attained by the locomotives so much exceeded the expectations of their constructors, became one of the earliest subalterns of Robert Stephenson.  The colleague and senior officer of this engineer was a man considerably older, and rather of the stamp of the old country surveyor, or the engineers of the school of Telford, than of a mechanical turn.  His shrewd grey eye, half inquisitive, half defiant, twinkled with apparent love of fun.  He soon devolved the out-door work on his assistant, although the office-work at the station was light, the drawings being prepared and the principal accounts kept at the engineer-in-chief’s office in St John’s Wood.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).


Sir Charles Fox (1810-74).
Sub-Assistant, later Assistant Engineer.

The memories are of Francis Conder, whose pupil-master was Charles Fox (1810-74), “the very tall young man” referred to ― and less than six years older than Conder [8] ― to whom Stephenson allocated work on the Watford Tunnel and on the Camden Incline down to Euston Station, on which Fox constructed his fine iron bowstring bridge over the Regent’s Canal:

My father became a pupil of, and afterwards assistant to, Mr. Robert Stephenson, who was then the engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway, now the London and North-Western . . . . In 1837, Herbert Spencer entered the office at Camden Town as an assistant engineer to my father, and it was during this time that my father designed the roof over Euston Station, the first of the kind ever made.  He afterwards designed or built the large iron roofs of New Street Station in Birmingham, of the Great Western Railway at Paddington, and others at Waterloo Station, York, and elsewhere.”

River, Road, and Rail ― some engineering reminiscences, Francis Fox MInstCE (1904).

Fox might already have been known to Stephenson through the connection that Conder mentions with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He was later knighted for his contribution to the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The “colleague and senior officer of this engineer” to whom Conder refers, was G. W. Buck (1789–1854).  It is possible that Stephenson first met Buck during the latter’s visit to the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1828, or to the Rainhill locomotive trials in the following year.  Buck later described his duties as a member of the London and Birmingham Railway project team:

“I have been engaged in the execution of various Engineering Works for the last 20 years, but they were not of a very extensive character; I had not superintended any Railway until I was appointed one of the four Assistant Engineers, under Mr. Stephenson, upon the London and Birmingham Railway; my district is between London and Tring, and embraces a distance of 30 miles, and the work upon it is heavy compared with the rest of the Line, i.e. there is more Tunnelling, and the Embankments are higher and the Excavations deeper.  My office is to see that the Works are properly executed, and the amount of work done is measured monthly by my Assistants, and tested by myself, as I am responsible for its correctness.”

G.W. Buck, from Railway Practice, S. C. Brees (1839).

Buck later worked on the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, where among other work he designed the great Stockport Railway Viaduct, which when completed in 1840 was the largest in the world.

And so the professional ranks of the project team were gradually filled:

“These gentlemen had arrived to superintend the works of the great line of Railway, for which contracts had been taken.  Before long each of them had added a pupil to Mr Stephenson’s staff.  The younger of these gentlemen lived to succeed that famous engineer as engineer-in-chief of the London and North Western Railway . . . .”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

. . . . the “younger of these gentlemen” was Buck’s pupil, William Baker (1817-1878), who following Stephenson’s death in 1859 was appointed Chief Engineer of the London and North Western Railway Company.  One of the project’s sub-assistant engineers, R. B. Dockray (1811-71), was also to achieve a position of importance on the line, becoming its Resident Engineer in 1840, then Resident Engineer for the Southern Division of the London and North Western Railway upon its formation in 1846.  When Dockray retired through ill health in 1852, he was succeeded by William Baker.

Sir Robert Rawlinson (1810-98).
Assistant engineer and contractor).

At the bottom of the management tree ― if they could be considered a part of it ― were the ‘pupils’, in effect civil engineering apprentices taken on by professional engineers (in exchange for a ‘premium’) for a term under articles of seven years.  These young men . . . .

“. . . . unable to front a public meeting or a board of directors, were in demand everywhere for field work.  Engineers who had pupils to spare, lent them to one another, or let them out on terms of hire agreeable to all parties.  Thus the scene of personal recollection [for the pupil, in this case Conder] may readily change from the busy hive of workmen, that filled the great open ditch of the Euston Extension, to the Derbyshire moors, the Essex corn lands, or the Norfolk fens.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

Stephenson’s biographer, John Cordy Jeaffreson, leaves an interesting cameo of the Engineer’s regard for his pupils:

“One of the pleasant features of Robert Stephenson’s career was the strong personal attachment he formed for his pupils when they were young men of capacity and character.  He never forgot or lost sight of them.  A pupil of the ‘right sort’ was sure to win his approval and notice, and the pupil who had so earned his good opinion was sure to reap advantage from it.  On the other hand Robert Stephenson never considered himself either bound, or at liberty, to recommend for advancement an old apprentice, when he could not do so honestly.  ‘I can do nothing for you, unless you like to stop here as an ordinary workman,’ he said to more than one pupil when his time was out: but then the young men to whom he so spoke merited no other treatment.”

The Life of Robert Stephenson, F. R. S., J. C. Jeaffreson (1864).


Herbert Spencer  (1820-1903).

The most illustrious member of this particular strata of Stephenson’s team  ― indeed, with the exception of Stephenson himself, of the entire project team ― was Herbert Spencer, later to become a notable philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and prominent classical liberal political theorist.  The 17-year old Spencer joined Charles Fox’s team at Camden Town in November 1837, and was assigned to the sorts of duties that apprentices in most fields of endeavour might expect ― the lowly and mundane:

Many not unpleasant days were passed together during the winter and early spring in surveying at various parts of the line.  It was, indeed, disagreeable in muddy weather to make measurements of ‘spoil-banks,’ as are technically called the vast heaps of earth which have, here and there, been in excess of the needs for making embankments, and have been run out into adjacent fields; and it was especially annoying when, in pelting rain, the blackened water from one’s hat dripped on to the note-book.  The office-work, too, as may be inferred from the tastes implied by the account of my education, came not amiss.  There was scope for accuracy and neatness, to which I was naturally inclined; and there was opportunity for inventiveness.  So fully, indeed, did the kind of work interest me, that I shortly began to occupy the evenings in making a line-drawing of a pumping engine for my own satisfaction, and as a sample of skill as a draughtsman.

You will see by the date of this letter that I am not at present staying in London.  I have now been down in the country rather more than three weeks, where I am staying as the Company’s Agent to superintend the completion of the approach roads to the Harrow Road bridge.  My duties consist in seeing that the contractor fulfils the terms of the contract, and also to take care that when he draws money on account he does not get more than an equivalent for the work done.

An Autobiography, Herbert Spencer (1904).

Spencer is generous in his praise of Charles Fox, assigning to him credit for work sometimes given to Stephenson ― but such is generally the fate of any subordinate:

“. . . . in 1834, I had, in company with my father and mother, paid a visit to him [Fox] at Watford, where he filled the post of sub-engineer.  From this post he had some time after been transferred by Mr. Robert Stephenson, the engineer-in-chief, to superintend under him the construction of what was in those days known as ‘The Extension.’  For the London and Birmingham Railway was originally intended to stop at Chalk Farm [Camden Town]; and only in pursuance of an afterthought was it lengthened to Euston Square.  Mr. Charles Fox’s faculty had, probably, soon made itself manifest to Mr. Stephenson.  He had no special discipline fitting him for engineering — very little mathematical training or allied preparation; but in place of it he had a mechanical genius.  Much of the work on ‘The Extension’ for which Stephenson got credit, was originated by him: among other things, the iron roof at Euston Station, which was the first of the kind ever made.  After the Extension was finished he was appointed resident engineer of the London division of the line: his limit being Wolverton.”

An Autobiography, Herbert Spencer (1904).

Towards the end of the project, the number employed in Stephenson’s team in various capacities had grown to fifty-five.  In looking into the backgrounds of those for whom there is a record, it is surprising how many failed to reach their sixtieth birthdays, perhaps a reflection on the rigours of civil engineering in that age:

. . . . the havoc that death has made in the ranks of a profession, which might expect to be distinguished by unusual longevity has been most remarkable. Brunel, in the judgment of those who remember the iron energy of his youth, should now be a man in the prime of intellectual vigour. Robert Stephenson might naturally have looked forward to many more years of quiet authority. Locke, Rendel, Moorsom, ― how many are the names which a greater reticence of labour and more attention to the requirements of health, might have kept for many years from the obituary!

In regarding such a mortality it is difficult not to search for some cause peculiar to the profession. One sufficient cause may perhaps be detected in the habitual loss of the usual repose of the Sunday. For men to turn night into day is in itself a hard strain. Twelve days’ work per week will try the strongest constitution; but make the twelve into fourteen and the fatal result arrives with startling rapidity. And working by day, and travelling by night, make a constant and unrepaid demand on the vital energy of the brain. The cost of the English railways includes the lives of many eminent men.

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

Although a number of the team had successful civil engineering careers, only Fox and Rawlinson achieved public recognition, both being knighted.  Bidder was also recognised, but within his profession, being elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1859-61), a position that was also held by Stephenson (1855 & 56) and by Rawlinson (1894).

Brunel (right) shortly before his death on 15th September 1859, aged 53. An unrecognisable Stephenson (left) followed him on the 12th October, aged 55.

In concluding this section, I feel it necessary to mention a member of Stephenson
s team whose name crops up repeatedly in these pages, but of whom very little is known.  I refer to Lieutenant Peter Lecount RN, FRAS.

Lecount wrote two books of particular interest to railway historians and collaborated with Thomas Roscoe on a third, a travel guide to the London to Birmingham Railway.  So far as I can establish, his History of the Railway Connecting London and Birmingham is the only reasonably comprehensive and contemporaneous record of the Railway’s construction. [9]  In it, Lecount gives a chronological account (mainly from his perspective) of how the project unfolded and the main problems thrown up along the way, together with some technical details of the first locomotives used on the line and a brief geological description of the route.

At some point towards the end of construction, Lecount was commissioned to write a section on
Railways for inclusion in the Encyclopædia Britannica, but what emerged was far too detailed for the Editors purpose.  Presumably Lecount then reached a publishing agreement with his principal, for the entire piece appeared separately under the title of A Practical Treatise on Railways, Explaining Their Construction and Management (1839).  In it, Lecount joins Wishaw and Brees in examining the civil and mechanical engineering aspects of the railways of the time.

For more information on the life of Peter Lecount see Appendix III.




John Brunton (1812-99) ― in 1880.
(Sub-Assistant Engineer)

Following his appointment as Engineer-in-Chief, Stephenson moved his home from Newcastle to the Hampstead area of London, using the vacant Eyre Arms Hotel (which stood opposite the location of the present-day St. John’s Wood tube station) as the headquarters for his project team.  Its large ballroom became the drawing office in which thousands of skilfully crafted drawings were prepared, each signed off by Stephenson.  The draughtsmen worked in two shifts ― the day shift sleeping in the rooms the night shift had vacated ― to produce the drawings quickly to meet the demands of the Company’s directors, who had become impatient for work to commence following the long delay in obtaining parliamentary approval for their scheme.  However, before plans could be produced, the exact course of the line needed to be staked out and further detailed surveying undertaken to establish exactly what land needed to be bought, and from whom, and for conveyancing to take place:

“. . . . we got the survey and setting out of the line done, from Kilsby Tunnel face, to Birmingham, and I was ordered up to London to take charge of the designing of the necessary Bridge Drawings and other contract plans for the letting of the works to contractors.  The Railway Company took the ‘Eyre Arms’ Tavern, at St John’s wood as an Engineers’ drawing office, the Tavern at that time being unoccupied.  The Ball room formed the Drawing Office.  Twenty draughtsmen by day & the same number at night formed the corps I had to superintend, of course under the occasional inspection of my chief District Engineer Mr T. Longridge Gooch.

All the contract drawings had to be ready by a certain day — about a fortnight after the day we commenced the work upon them.  It was a tight pinch, for my draughtsmen then were not much used to this class of work.   But we struggled on — I, very anxious that this, my first important charge should not be behind time, kept at my post night and day with one night only in bed for the fortnight.  This was foolish, as I found out afterwards, but I was full of energy and determination.

One by one my staff dropped off quite overcome with the incessant work I called for, but at last work was accomplished on the evening before the Contract Plans & Specifications were due in Birmingham.  I had looked them all over — put them all into their special portfolios — and was waiting for the arrival of Gooch with some one, who was to take them in charge and convey them to Birmingham by the night Mail Coach.  (Recollect there were only 2 Railways in existence then, The Liverpool & Manchester and the Stockton and Darlington.)  Every thing being ready I went down to the Entrance and sent for a cab to take me to Edmonton, where my dear Father and Mother were then living.

Each completed plan was endorsed by Stephenson.

At that moment I met Mr. George Stephenson and Mr. Gooch.  The latter hailed me: “Halloo Brunton, I can find nobody to take these plans down to Birmm tonight, so you must take them.”  I made some slight remonstrance on the head of the work I had gone thro’ for a fortnight.  But no one else could be found, so the cab which I had hired, with anticipation that it would convey me to a good bed & sleep that night, was loaded with the packages of plans and directed to take me to the ‘Swan with Two Necks’, Lad Lane, whence the Mail Coach for Birmingham started at half-past eight.  I found all full inside and only one of the four outside places left for poor me.  I booked for Birmm, saw my packages safe in the boot of the coach, and got the middle seat of the three behind the coach man.  I drew my plaid round my head leaned back against the luggage on the roof and was fast asleep before the coach left the yard.  Nor did I awake until, 11½ hours afterwards, I was roughly shaken and told I was at the ‘Hen & Chickens’ Hotel Birmingham!  Very stupid I felt, but I deposited the plans . . . .”

From The Dairy of John Brunton, Sub-Assistant Engineer.

Following land purchase, detailed plans, specifications and schedules of quantities could be drawn up, which together with samples of the strata, could be made available to prospective contractors to assist them is preparing tenders for the work.  Thus, the first twelve months of the London and Birmingham Railway project were absorbed with this essential preliminary work, of which there was very little evidence on the ground.

London & Birmingham Railway Notice to Enter.

Following their appointment, the engineers set about staking out the exact course of the line, of which Conder leaves an account:

“The next step in the invasion [the first being surveying] proved a yet further aggravation to the farmers, although it was one which, for the first time in the course of the contest, afforded them the pleasure of retaliation.  Loads of oak pegs, accurately squared, planed, and pointed, were driven to the fields, and the course of the intended railway was marked out by driving two of these pegs, one left standing about four inches above the surface to indicate position, and a smaller one driven lower to the ground a few inches off on which to take the level, at every interval of twenty-two yards.  It is obvious that the operations of farming afforded many an opportunity for an unfriendly blow at these pegs.  Ploughs and harrows had a remarkable tendency to become entangled in them; cart wheels ran foul of them; sometimes they disappeared altogether.  A mute and irregular warfare on the subject of the pegs was generally protracted until the last outrage was perpetrated by the agents of the company; the land was purchased for the railway.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

By the end of November, 1833, the newspapers were beginning to report progress:

“We understand that about thirty miles of the line of London and Birmingham Railway in parts where the greater quantity of labour will be required, have been staked out.  About £96,000 (out of £125,000) of the second call have been already paid up; and it is not expected that any material deviation from the line for which the Act was obtained will be necessary.  The important undertaking is now proceeding with great spirit.”

The Northampton Mercury, 30th November 1833.

Following completion of land purchase, plans and drawings could be prepared:

“It [the London and Birmingham Railway] was the first of our great metropolitan railroads, and its works are memorable examples of engineering capacity.  They became a guide to succeeding engineers; as also did the plans and drawings with which the details of the undertaking were ‘plotted’ in the Eyre Arms Hotel.  When Brunel entered upon the construction of the Great Western line he borrowed Robert Stephenson’s plans, and used them as the best possible system of draughting.  From that time they became recognised models for railway practice.  To have originated such plans and forms, thereby settling an important division of engineering literature, would have made a position for an ordinary man.  In the list of Robert Stephenson’s achievements such a service appears so insignificant as scarcely to be worthy of note.”

The Life of Robert Stephenson, F.R.S., J. C. Jeaffreson (1864).

Specifications and contract documents were also drawn up, and the work then advertised for tender.  Some difficult work was let by single tender ― the Tring Cutting, for example ― but most was let through competitive tendering, Robert Stephenson being present at the opening of the sealed bids . . . .

“The works are let by Public Contract, and the Directors usually accept the lowest Tender, if the parties are respectable and are able to give security; I am present at the opening of the Tenders, but I have no opportunity of knowing their several amounts until then: in allotting the several Contracts, I have subdivided them pretty equally, and arranged them so that one Contract shall not interfere with another; the Work is measured at the time the Contractor delivers his Tender, which is accompanied by a ‘Schedule of Prices’, upon which his Estimate is founded, and at the expiration of every month the work is measured and priced according to such List, and the amount is paid him, with the exception of 20 per cent, which is withheld until half the contract is finished, the amount retained is then 10 per cent only, and the Contractor afterwards receives the full amount of his work.”

Railway Practice, S. C. Brees (1839).



At the commencement of the project, the Board had directed that:

those parts of the line which require the longest time for execution, shall be commenced first, and the rest in succession; so that the whole may be completed at the same time;

•    the purchase of land shall be made with reference to this arrangement;

•    the payment of the calls [on part-paid shares in the Company] shall be regulated, so that no part of the capital shall be demanded before it is actually required;

•    the works shall be executed by contract, by open competition, upon plans and specifications previously prepared; security being taken for the due performance of the engagements.  The only deviation from this plan which the Directors propose, is in reference to the portion of the line at the London end.  This portion they would recommend to be executed with all the expedition which may be found consistent with the stability of the work, and other considerations, from a conviction that the novelty and convenience of a railway contiguous to the Metropolis cannot fail to excite a general interest, and consequently to prove an early and productive source of revenue to the Company.

Chairman’s Report, London, 19th September, 1833.

Using contractors to build the Railway offered the Company three potential advantages.  By advertising their requirements in the marketplace, the Company could more readily acquire the appropriate manpower and equipment ― both being supplied by the contractor ― than to assemble and manage it for themselves. [10]  The Company was also relived of the task of disposing of surplus equipment (mainly wagons, barrows, planks; also ropes, chains, horses, possibly steam engines of various types, etc.) on completion of the work, the contractor removing it for his use elsewhere, or selling it by auction.  Finally, the acquisition of services through a process of competitive tendering offered the promise that the work would be carried out in the most economical manner.

However, even at this early stage in the development of large-scale civil engineering, competitive tendering was not considered to be a practice always to be adhered to.  The principle followed by the great civil engineer Thomas Telford, was better the devil you know than the one you don’t, advice that was reflected in early books on civil engineering:

“As there is no difficulty in making an accurate estimate of the sum which a new road ought to cost, if a contractor of established reputation for skill and integrity, and possessing sufficient capital, is willing to undertake the work for the estimated sum, it will always be decidedly better to make an agreement with him than to advertise for tenders.

If a contractor cannot be got, possessing the qualifications which he ought to have to justify a private arrangement, then an advertisement must be had recourse to.  But when tenders are delivered in, it is very important to take care to act upon right principles in making a selection from them.  The preference should invariably be decided on by taking into consideration the skill, integrity, and capital of the persons who make the tenders, as well as the prices which they offer: for if a contractor be selected without skill, or integrity, or capital, merely because his tender is for the smallest sum, the consequence will inevitably be imperfect work, every kind of trouble and disappointment, and frequently expensive litigation.”

A Treatise on Roads, Sir Henry Parnell (1833).

“We strongly advise every company not to look at the lowest tender, but at the respectability, competency, and character of the parties who come forward to offer for the work.  There are well-known persons who go about to offer for works of this kind, without the slightest intention of ever finishing them, who are in effect mere men of straw, borrowing perhaps a hundred pounds to make a beginning, and trusting to the chance of doing all the light and easy work, which will pay them well, and then standing stock-still till the company are glad to buy them out, after which they have to do all the heavy work themselves, at a proportionate cost, which is still farther increased by having to press the work in all directions, in order to make up as much as possible the time wasted by the contractor.

There is no way of preventing this but awarding the work to persons of established character, who will give in a fair estimate, and be content with a reasonable profit, and finish their work in such a way that they can look for future employment from the same parties; whereas there are many who in fact never make an estimate at all, but put in a round sum, taking no care but to be low enough so that they may get the job.  Many tenders of this kind have been put in at prices by which it was absolutely certain the parties must have lost several thousand pounds if they had completed their contracts.”

A Practical Treatise on Railways, Peter LeCount (1839).

That was the theory, but Stephenson was to have first-hand experience of the legal maxim caveat emptor, ‘let the buyer beware’.  Had everything gone according to plan, the London and Birmingham Railway would have been built by contractors to plans and specifications drawn up by the Company’s engineers, under whose general direction the work took place and who measured up and certified for payment each month the quantity of work completed on each contract.  But as events turned out, the contractors for eight of the thirty contracts (Appendix IV.) failed to fulfil their obligations, leaving the Company’s engineers to procure the necessary plant and manpower, and undertake the work themselves.  These failures included the most difficult sections of the line, the Tring and Blisworth cuttings and the Primrose Hill and Kilsby tunnels.

The first railway Act having being passed, at the following half-yearly shareholder’s meeting the Chairman was able to report significant progress in much of the preliminary work.  This involved setting up the project and the preparation that was necessary before tenders could be advertised to undertake the work:

“Since the General Meeting of the Proprietors in September last, the attention of the Directors has been principally occupied by preparatory measures for the construction of the Railway, and the arrangements for obtaining possession of the Land.

In their former report, the Directors announced the appointment of Mr. Robert Stephenson, as Engineer in chief.  They have since succeeded, to their complete satisfaction, in obtaining the services of a sufficient number of skilful and scientific persons as Assistant Engineers, for conducting the Works on every part of the Line, which has been arranged in sub-divisions for this purpose.

Notwithstanding the obstacles which an unfavourable season has presented to the field operations of the Engineers, the whole of the line from London to Birmingham has been staked out and levelled, with the exception of a few points, to which Mr. Stephenson is desirous of devoting his particular attention.  He has reported that the Plans and Specifications of the Works for the first twenty miles from London will be completed by the 1st of March.

The directors will then immediately advertise for Tenders for the execution of the Work on that portion of the Railway, and the Plans and Specifications for other parts of the Line will follow in such succession as shall bring the remainder into completion, in conformity with the intention announced in the former Report.”

Chairman’s Report, Birmingham, 21st February 1834.

James Copeland, who obtained the contract for building the Watford to Kings Langley section, including the long Watford Tunnel, left a record of the financial aspects of contracting for civil engineering work:

“I am now executing a Contract upon the London and Birmingham Railway, which I obtained by open tender; my Contract amounts to £117,000, and extends from Watford to Kings Langley, and is about 5¼ miles in length . . . . I found two Sureties . . . . to the amount £11,700 (or 10 percent upon the amount), each in half that amount . . . .  There is about 700,000 cubic yards of Cutting and 600,000 cubic yards of Embankment, also a Tunnel of 1,716 yards in length (the Cuttings and Embankments are nearly equal).  Ten or twelve Tenders were submitted for the Contract, and I believe my Tender was about the lowest; it consisted of a gross sum, and a ‘Schedule of Prices’ attached, in which the prices for open Cutting was 1s 2d per cubic yard (the price for the Cutting also includes the Embankment), the average Lead of which is about a mile, the Tunnelling was £28 per lineal yard, and the Fencing about 2s 6d or 2s 9d per yard for each side of the railway . . . . I find Waggons, Barrows, Planks, Sleepers, Chains, Keys and Pins, which amounts to about 2d per yard more; i.e. for the actual cost of Materials, exclusive of the Wear and Tear; as I have expended £15,000 for materials, there is the interest of that sum, and the Wear and Tear to be allowed for extra, there is a continual expense in the repairing of Waggons, &c.  The expence value of the materials, after the conclusion of the Contract, may be about ¼d per yard, which deducted from the original outlay, would make the price of the materials 1½d per cubic yard, the cutting therefore costs 10½d per cubic yard; and we take the risk of Slips and Contingencies; and prepare proper Drains; which in Clay cuttings are very considerable; also the Sodding of the Banks, as some of the soil is removed twice, which I have allowed for in the average of 2d per yard.  I therefore consider that a Contractor must pay great attention, to his business, and practice considerable economy, to make a profit out of the 1s 2d, as it is barely sufficient.”

James Copeland, from Railway Practice, S. C. Brees (1839).



It seems evident from the tone of the Chairman’s reports that the Board intended to exercise control over the project rather than leave everything to Stephenson.  They had good reason, for there were business risks to manage over and above than the line’s engineering.  Investor confidence needed to be maintained in what for the time was large-scale innovation, for even at an early stage of the work the Board probably realised that they would need to raise significantly more capital than first estimated to complete the line. [11 Thus, a quick win was needed, which was best achieved by bringing the southernmost section of the line ― its biggest revenue-earner ― into operation soonest.  Achieving this would also help raise the project’s profile in the eye of its investors and of the general public, hence the Board’s directive that:

The only deviation from this plan [the sequence for undertaking other stages of the project] which the Directors propose, is in reference to the portion of the line at the London end.  This portion they would recommend to be executed with all the expedition which may be found consistent with the stability of the work, and other considerations, from a conviction that the novelty and convenience of a railway contiguous to the Metropolis cannot fail to excite a general interest, and consequently to prove an early and productive source of revenue to the Company.

Chairman’s Report, London, 19th September, 1833.

It was also recognised that the long Tring Cutting represented significantly more work that elsewhere, and here excavations commenced early on to ensure that its completion did not delay the eventual opening of the line. [12]

At the half-yearly shareholders’ meeting held in February 1834, the Company Secretary [13] informed the meeting that, with a few exceptions, the entire length of the line had been staked out, that plans and specifications for the first 70 miles were nearing completion, and that the first construction contracts were let:

“The London and Birmingham Railway, which attracted so much of the public attention in the progress of the bill through parliament, may now be said to be fairly launched.  Tenders have been accepted for executing the first twenty-one miles from London in the period of two years, on terms which are considered very favourable, this being in many respects the most expensive part of the line.  The specifications and plans of the works are spoken of as being full, clear, and precise, shewing that the time elapsed since the passing of the act has been profitably employed.  The next contracts, which will be advertised in a short time, will comprise the district between Coventry and Birmingham.”

Birmingham Gazette, 5th May 1834.

By June, 1834, work had commenced on the Watford Viaduct and the section southwards to Willesden . . . .

“The London and Birmingham railway has been commenced by Messrs. Nowell and Son, the contractors for that part of the line commencing from the River Brent to the Colne.  They have a number of excavators
[navvies] digging the foundations for the bridge over the turnpike road at the lower end of Watford.  It will be about forty feet above the road, and there will be five arches, which, with the abutments, &c. will be near four hundred feet in length.  Messrs. Copeland and Harding, the contractors for the third part ― viz. from the Colne to King’s Langley, are likewise at Watford, with several other gentlemen connected with this work.”

The Northampton Mercury, 21st June 1834.

The Birmingham to Coventry contracts were let in August:

“The directors, in conformity with the intentions announced in their last report, contracted on the 21st April for the first 21 miles of the railway from London, by three separate contracts, binding the contractors, under a penalty, to complete their respective portions in two years from 1st June last.  They further contracted, on 12th August for the first 21 miles of the railway from Birmingham, by five separate contracts, to be completed, under similar penalties, in 2½ years.”

Chairman’s Report, London, 21st August, 1834.

And so work on the Railway commenced:

“During the years 1834, 5, 6, and 7, the most strenuous exertions were made in prosecuting the works: and although many harassing and unforeseen difficulties were encountered on some parts of the line, the continued energies and acknowledged skill of the engineer-in-chief and his able assistants were successfully employed to surmount them.”

Introduction to Drawings of the London & Birmingham Railway, John Britton (1839).



Several factors conspired to drive up the Railway’s cost and introduce delay.  Other railway projects that commenced during the 1830s added to the competition for increasingly scarce resources, the effect being to increase wage and material costs well beyond estimates: [14]

Retardation of Railways by the High Price of Labour. ― Owing to the great demand for labour the wages have risen considerably, and increased obstacles are thrown in the way of completing the lines which are in progress.  The Birmingham, Southampton, and other lines, we are informed, are not proceeding with little more than half the rapidity they were.  Of course this, with the great rise in iron and other things, must tell materially in the estimates, and tend much to retard that early benefit the country would otherwise derive from these undertakings.  Common labourers are offered on the London and Birmingham Railway, from fifteen to eighteen shillings per week, and masons four shillings and sixpence per day, but even at these wages the application for hands in many places has been unsuccessful.”

The Railway Magazine , Vol. 1, 1836

“Iron, one of the principal sources of expense, one of its indispensable requisites, rose from nine to fourteen pounds per ton, entailing an expense of about £300,000 above the parliamentary estimate, although a rise of two pounds per ton had been allowed for therein.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1838)

“From the great increase in prices, which took place almost immediately after the letting of the works, no less than seven contracts were thrown on the Company’s hands, and of course these were the most difficult and expensive parts of the works, and in each case, the directors had to purchase all kinds of implements and materials at a vast expense, including five locomotive engines, while, from the times at which these seven contracts took to complete them, there was very little possibility of transferring these implements (technically called the Plant) from one contract to another.  This, although a very expensive process, was the only one to be followed, or the line could not be opened under at least a year beyond the time contemplated.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Thomas Roscoe and Peter Lecount (1839).

The purchase of land also proved far more expensive than anticipated, for landowners soon developed tactics to inflate its value.  Lecount described one manoeuvre that landowners adopted to place more cash in their pockets:

“In one portion of the line, on the Birmingham division, some land was passed through in such a way that it was evident the proprietor required, in reality, no accommodation in the way of bridges at all.  At the first outset, however, he demanded five bridges; but, in the course of the discussion, came down to four, with an equivalent in the price of the land.  It was absolutely necessary to obtain the land, or the contractors would have been stopped in their operations, so that, after a great deal of argument, the Company was forced to submit to this enormity, and the agreement was signed, sealed, and delivered, guaranteeing to the proprietor a bridge at A, another at B, another at C, and another at D. Soon after the money had been received the proprietor wrote to say, he thought he could dispense with a bridge at A, and if the company would give him about half its value he would do without it; of course as this would save expense it was agreed to, and bridge A done away with, the proprietor receiving about half what it would have cost in building.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Thomas Roscoe and Peter Lecount (1839).

The reader might guess what happened next; bridges B, C and D were, in sequence, declared unnecessary by the landowner, in each case leaving him to pocket half the bridge’s construction cost as compensation for relinquishing it.  Sometimes the price demanded by a landowner was so exorbitant that the Company declined to buy.  An example was the high price asked for the land on which to build Tring Station, which caused the Company to consider relocating the station on cheaper land further down the line at Ivinghoe.  But in this case the townsfolk raised a collection to make good the difference between the asking price and what the Company was prepared to pay, and Tring got its station, albeit almost 2 miles from the town.

The Company was also under pressure over land purchase from another direction, their contractors:

“It will be much better if no contract is let till the company are in possession of all the land belonging to that part of the line.  Attention to this will most probably save the company many thousands; and if it be not done, exorbitant claims, which are sure to be advanced, will often have to be complied with, because the contractor is demanding the land, and very properly saying, that he cannot be bound to time, unless he be put in possession of his ground.”

A Practical Treatise on Railways, Peter Lecount (1839).

There were also engineering difficulties.  Although the canal builders had shown the way, the more direct route taken by a railway generally needed more substantial earthworks than a contour-following canal in order to create an acceptable gradient, [15] a need that could prove expensive to satisfy.  For instance, on closer investigation it was found prudent to build some of the London and Birmingham Railway’s cuttings and embankments with shallower slopes than had been intended in order to reduce the risk of slip.  This meant that more land had to be purchased, while the increased volume of earthworks that resulted required more man-hours of labour to construct.  Both factors acted to increase cost over estimate.  Engineering problems such as these [16] stemmed from a lack of experience, and of the equipment and data that today permit civil engineers to explore the strata and model the land more readily.

Adverse weather conditions also slowed or halted work on cuttings and embankments, for when ground is wet or sodden ― particularly if it has a high clay content ― it becomes difficult or impossible to work.  The same applies to the effects of frost and snow.  On average, over a year, the weather permitted contractors to work on five days out of seven.

Time lost to problems can be estimated for on the basis of past experience ― where it exists ― and contingencies included in the projected cost.  But the question the designers need to address is how much contingency to build in without making the project appear financially unattractive to potential investors:

“Mr. Moss, chairman of the Grand Junction Railway Company, on his recent examination before a committee of the House of Commons, made some strong remarks on the misrepresentations of engineers, in omitting important items of expense from the parliamentary estimates.  He stated, that the whole case of a railway is never fairly brought before Parliament on application for a bill; and added that engineers were aware, if they apprised the shareholders of the whole cost attending such undertakings, the latter would never embark on any of them.”

Introduction to Drawings of the London & Birmingham Railway, John Britton (1839).





Cap. xxxvi. An Act for making a Railway from London to Birmingham.

6th May 1833.

. . . . III. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the said Company to raise amongst themselves any Sum of Money for making and maintaining the said Railway and other Works by this Act authorized, not exceeding in the whole the Sum of Two million five hundred thousand Pounds, the whole to be divided into Twenty five thousand Shares of One hundred Pounds each, and such Twenty five thousand Shares shall be numbered, beginning with Number One, in arithmetical Progression . . . .


Estimates proved in the House of Commons



Excavations and Embankments






Masonry ― This Item is increased in consequence of an Agreement with the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Roads to add to some of our Bridges in Width and Height, and also an Agreement with the Trustees of the Radcliffe Library Estates to increase the Number of Arches in the Wolverton Viaduct, and also an Addition of Two Bridges over the Avon near Brandon, to avoid the Diversion of the River.



Rails Chairs Keys and Pins



Blocks and Sleepers



Ballasting and laying Rails



Fencing at £740 per Mile












Six Water Stations at £500



Six intermediate Pumps



Offices, &c. requisite at each End of the Line, for Convenience of Passengers, &c. and Walling for enclosing the Space for Depot



Forty Locomotive Engines £1,000



300 Waggons at £30



Sixty Coaches at £200


















 From The Life of Robert Stephenson, by J. C. Jeaffreson (1866).

Robert Stephenson was fortunate in having good subordinates.  Reserving a district, extending nine miles from Maiden Lane, Camden Town, for his own especial supervision, he divided the remaining 103 miles into four districts, each district having an assistant-engineer to superintend it, and each assistant-engineer being supported by a staff of three sub-assistants.  For purposes of construction the line was thus apportioned ―

District No. I.

This district, reserved for the engineer-in-chief’s especial personal supervision, extended from Camden Town for about nine miles, and on its completion comprised the Camden Town station, the Primrose Hill tunnel, the tunnel under Kensal Green, and the bridge over the River Brent. The principal engineer of this district, under Mr. Stephenson was John Birkinshaw, who was assisted by Mortimer Young, whose place was subsequently filled by Timothy Jenkins.

District No. II.

Assistant engineer G. W. Buck; sub-assistant engineers Mr., now Sir J. Charles Fox, F. Young, and Capt. Cleather, R.S.C. This district, extending from Harrow to Tring (23 miles) concluded with the Watford tunnel.

District No. III.

Assistant engineer William Crossley [not John Crossley, as cited by Lecount]; sub-assistant engineers, S.S. Bennett, E. Jackson, J. Gandell, and M. Farrell. This district, extending from Tring to Wolverton (22 miles), included the Tring cutting and the Wolverton viaduct.

District No. IV.

Assistant engineer, Frank Forster, who (on his succeeding to the post of assistant engineer of District No. V.) was succeeded by G.H. Phipps; sub-assistant engineers H. Lee, E. Dixon, C. Lean, and J. Brunton. This district reaching over Wolverton and Kilsby (24 miles), included the Kilsby tunnel.

District No. V.

Assistant engineer, Thomas Longridge Gooch, who (on his appointment to be the chief-engineer of the Manchester and Leeds Railway) was succeeded by Frank Forster; sub-assistant engineers, John Reid, B.L. Dickenson, M. Monteleagre, R.B. Dockray, and Lieut. P. Lecount, R.N. Extending from Kilsby to Birmingham: this district had for its principal works the Avon and Lawley Street viaducts.

The foregoing table assigns more than three sub-assistant engineers to the three last districts.  There were, however, only three sub-assistants acting on any one district at the same time.



Notes on
Lieutenant Peter Lecount R.N., F.R.A.S., C.E. (1794-1852).

Details of Lecount’s life and career are sparse.  The following notes represent what little I have been able to unearth.

A search through parish records suggests (one cannot be sure) that Peter Lecount was born in the parish of St. Leonard at Shoreditch, London, on the 22nd June 1794, to Peter and Hannah Lecount.

Naval service records show a Peter Lecount (then a ‘boy’) serving during 1810 on HMS Thunder at Algiers; as a midshipman, on HMS Infernal, also at Algiers; again on HMS Thunder; and finally in 1816, he returned to HMS Infernal again off Algiers.  These two ships were ‘bomb vessels’, a type of ship in which its primary armament was not cannon ― although they carried a few cannon for self-defence ― but rather mortars mounted forward near the bow and elevated to a high angle.  Explosive shells were employed rather than solid shot.  For his participation in each of these actions Lecount earned a clasp to his General Service Medal.  The last action is described as follows:

Infernal, 1815 ― Type: Bomb; Armament 10 ― Launched: 1815; disposed of 1831.

28 Jul 1816 ― sailed as a part of a fleet of 19 vessels from Plymouth Sound, for Gibraltar and the bay of Algiers.

9 Aug 1816 ― the fleet arrived at Gibraltar, where it joined the Dutch squadron, which had arrived the previous evening, and which, it was agreed, would join the expedition. Whilst at Gibraltar the fleet was victualled and preparations made for the forthcoming battle, with gunnery practice &c. taking place.

27 Aug 1816 ― circa 1400 hours, no reply having been received to Lord Exmouth’s demands, the ships of the fleet took up their stations and the Battle of Algiers commenced, ceasing about 2200 hours. Account of casualties. Account of powder and shot expended. Conferences &c. held with the Dey following the battle regards the demands of the allies and settlements made: honours and awards.

3 Sep ― the fleet sailed from Algiers for Gibraltar and England.

Medals granted to surviving officers, seamen and marines (and soldiers who served as marines) per order of 7th June, 1848.

Navy Lists show that Lecount passed for Lieutenant in 1816, but promotion to lieutenant was not automatic.  In the years following the Napoleonic Wars the navy list was crowded with (in effect) redundant officers in all ranks, many of them retired on half pay.  Lecount’s seniority date of 6th August 1827 shows just how long he had to wait for promotion; in fact, as the following extract suggests, without family influence Lecount was very fortunate to make Lieutenant at all:

At the conclusion of this command, a circumstance took place which we record as illustrative of the principle which governed Sir Robert's public conduct.  A Commander-in-Chief on completing his time of service, (1833) has among other privileges, that of nominating a midshipman to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant.  This was of course looked up to with eager eyes by all the young officers who were placed by him in his own ship, or who, from personal or family influence, hoped to be selected; and in the dearth of promotion which ensued after 1815, such a gift became the object of peculiar solicitude.  When, however, Sir Robert Moorsom struck his flag at Chatham, instead of selecting any of his private friends for this step of promotion, he conferred it on an Admiralty Midshipman of his ship, unknown to him otherwise than by service, and who had not even an ordinary letter of introduction to him.  A continuous service of eighteen years, and other circumstances, had given to the individual referred to claims on his country; but on Sir Robert Moorsom he had none beyond having performed the duty usually assigned to the midshipman intended for promotion.  This one act alone, were there no others to put on record, would place Sir Robert Moorsom far above the orbit of ordinary men.

Note: The officer here referred to is the present Lieut. Peter le Count, Royal Navy.”

The Annual Biography and Obituary, 1836, Volume 20.


Vice Admiral C. R. Moorsom (1792-1861).
Former Secretary to the L&BR Company,
L&NWR Vice-Chairman 1858, Chairman Jan-May 1861.

The admiral was Sir Robert Moorsom, K.C.B., Admiral of the Blue, (1760-1835) ― the name Moorsom appears in Lecount’s later career, Sir Robert’s son Captain (later Vice-Admiral) Constantine Richard Moorsom R.N. serving as joint Secretary with Richard Creed to the London and Birmingham Railway Company.  The term ‘Admiralty Midshipman‘ was used in the British Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries to describe a midshipman who had served his time (six years) and passed his examination.  He was appointed to a ship by Admiralty order as compared to those rated by the captain and appointed by an admiral.

In the period while still serving as a midshipman, a brief reference in the London Medical Gazette (Vol. XIV) mentions Lecount’s employment on the Island of Ascension, during the period of Bonaparte’s detention on St. Helena (1815-21).  During the 1820s and 1830s, he presented papers on magnetism, astronomy and navigational instruments to the Royal Astronomical Society, that on magnetism resulting in his election as a Fellow of the Society.

Lecount next appears as a member of Stephenson’s team on the London and Birmingham project ― one presumes that his navigational attainments at least equipped him for surveying.  In his Life of Robert Stephenson (1866), Jeaffreson lists Lecount as a sub-engineer under Forster working in district V., which extended from Kilsby to Birmingham, its principal works being the Avon and Lawley Street viaducts.  On completion of the work, the team presented Forster with a silver snuffbox on which Lecount’s name appears in the inscription:

To Francis Forster Esqr. Assistant Engineer on The London & Birmingham Railway, presented by the whole of his assistants on the Coventry District & Kilsby Tunnel, as a tribute of their sincere respect for his talents as an Engineer & affectionate esteem for his character as a man, May 19. 1838, Lieut.Lecount R.N., I.Brunton, W.Budge, C.Lean, R.B.Dockray, A.Fowler, B.L.Dickenson, W.Carter, W.Harding, I.A.Wilson, S.Meek, P.Bourne, M.Montealegre

The scene depicted on this box was a view of the Camden engine shed with the two winding engine chimneys in the background (sadly, the auctioneers wanted an exorbitant amount for the privilege of reproducing their photograph here!).  As for the man, there is little information other than a reference in the memoires of the Victorian Radical, George Jacob Holyoake.  Holyoake came across Lecount while the former was employed as an exhibition guide in Birmingham:

In 1839, an exhibition of machinery and art manufactures was held in the Shakspeare Rooms, New Street.  It was said that Prince Albert had in view to promote an International Exhibition (which was held eleven years later) should this experiment excite distinctive public interest.  Some machines of remarkable delicacy of action were supplied by Lieutenant Lecount.  Application was made to Mr. Wright to recommend some student at the Mechanics Institution, who, with assistants he might select, would explain the various objects to visitors.  Mr. Wright recommended me, and I undertook the duty.

One day Sir Robert Peel came, Prince Albert and other persons of distinction visited the exhibition, Lieut. Lecount came down daily.  He was a short man and wore a rough sea jacket.  He had served in the navy under Constantine Moorson,
[later to become Chairman of the L&NWR] and spoke with pride of a battle in which he had been engaged with him.*  He was liable to fainting fits, and when they were coming on he would crouch down among the machinery against the wall, telling me not to regard him, and when he recovered he rose and continued his survey.  He was spoken of as the mathematician of the London and Birmingham Railway, as he was engaged in its construction.  At that time the Rev. Timothy East, a saintly and popular preacher, to whose gentle tones and fierce expressions I was oft a listener who ranked next to the Rev. J. Angell James in his reputation in the town, was accustomed to call at the railway office.  As well as mansions in the skies, Mr. East had shares in the railway, which Lecount thought incompatible with his spiritual pretensions.  Not knowing the Lieutenant, and seeing him in his rough attire, Mr. East took him to be a porter, and called out, ‘Hold my horse.  Lecount replied with a naval oath of rotund quality and explosive as a shell being provoked by the superciliousness in the preachers tone, which offended Lecounts self-respect.  Mr. East complained of the singular behaviour of ‘the man at the door, when he was told that he had addressed Lieutenant Lecount, who was a French gentleman of official distinction and of great attainments.  Mr. East excused himself for his mistake, and regretted that his many acquirements did not include a little civility among them.  Lecount, under the name of Dr. P. Y., wrote a book of note at the time, which was published by my friend, Henry Hetherington, entitled A Hunt After the Devil.  There was little of that person in the book, which was filled with mathematical calculations, remarkably identical with those which Bishop Colenso afterwards made, of the dimensions of the ark and of its inadequacy to contain a ten thousandth part of the inmates which we are informed entered it.

Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, by G. J. Holyoak (1892).

* Probably the bombardment of Algiers, at which Moorsom was in command of HMS Fury, a Hecla-class bomb vessel.

In the 1851 Census, Lecount ― then living at 153, Wellington Road, Edgbaston ― described his occupation as Civil Engineer.  His death is listed two years later in the Quarterly Naval Obituary, in which he appears as a ‘Lieutenant Reserved on half-pay’.




Name of Contract

Original Contractor


Price £

Second Contractor

Euston Extension

W. and L. Cubitt

Dec. 1835



Primrose Hill

Jackson and Sheddon

May 1834


L&BR, Nov. 1834


J. Nowell and Sons

May 1834




Copeland and Harding

May 1834



King’s Langley

W. and L. Cubitt

Sept. 1835




W. and L. Cubitt

Sept. 1835




Richard Parr

Sept. 1835




Thomas Townshend

Sept. 1834


L&BR, Oct. 1837

Leighton Buzzard

James Nowell

Sept. 1835



Stoke Hammond

E. W. Morris

Sept. 1835




John Burge

Sept. 1835




William Soars

Oct. 1834


L&BR, June 1837

Wolverton Viaduct

James Nowell

Feb. 1835




William Soars

Oct. 1834


Craven, July 1835


William Hughes

Feb. 1835


L&BR, Dec. 1836


John Chapman

Feb. 1835



Stowe Hill

John Chapman

Feb. 1835




Edward Beddington

May 1835




J. and G. Thornton

May 1835



Long Buckby

J. and G. Thornton

May 1835



Kilsby Tunnel

J. Nowell and Sons

May 1835


L&BR, Feb. 1836


Samuel Hemming

Feb. 1835


L&BR, Nov. 1837

Long Lawford

W. and J. Simmonds

Feb. 1835




Samuel Hemming

Feb. 1835


L&BR, Jan. 1838

Avon Viaduct

Samuel Hemming

Nov. 1835




Greenshields and Cudd

Nov. 1834


L&BR, May 1837


Daniel Pritchard

Nov. 1834




Joseph Thornton

Aug. 1834




James Diggle

Aug. 1834



Rea Viaduct

James Nowell

Aug. 1834




Extracts from Stephenson’s schedules of contracts, showing, above, the contractors together with the number of miles of line (coloured strip) allocated to them; and, below, the corresponding supervising engineers and sub-engineers.





Taken from a book review ― The Life of Robert Stephenson, F.R.S., &c, by J. C Jeaffreson ― published in The Practical Mechanic’s Journal, Vol. II, third series, April 1866 – March 1867.


The term ‘built environment’ refers to the man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity.  This includes such objects as buildings, water and power supplies, drainage and highways of various types including railways.


No delivery deadline appears to have been stated, but at the first General Meeting of shareholders, held in September 1833, it was announced that the directors believed the Railway would be complete in about four years.


In common with many other large-scale innovative construction projects down to the present day, the published figures for completing the London and Birmingham Railway were probably those considered acceptable to its potential financiers.  If more prudent and realistic estimates had been published ― providing sufficient contingency for cost inflation and for tackling a multiplicity of civil engineering unknowns (including the ravages of the weather) ― the Railway’s initial capital might never have been fully subscribed.


The Institution of Civil Engineers, the association that represents the civil engineering profession in the UK, was founded in 1818.  When the London and Birmingham Railway was built, the design and construction of locomotives and rolling stock was considered to be a matter of civil, rather than mechanical engineering.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers was founded at the Queen’s Hotel ― adjacent to the London and Birmingham Railway’s Curzon Street Station ― Birmingham, on the 27th January 1847.  George Stephenson, a founder member, served as its first President until his death when he was succeeded by his son, Robert. The Institution was granted a Royal Charter in 1930.

The former Institution of Electrical Engineers (absorbed into the Institution of Engineering and Technology in 2006) was formed in 1889, although its roots go back further.


This agreement was observed more in the spirit, than in the letter, for Stephenson spent much time providing consultancy to other projects, such as the London & Brighton Railway Company.


“His [Smeaton’s] largest project was the Forth and Clyde Canal linking the East side of Scotland to the West.  By the time he was in charge of this project, he had developed his approach to managing works to a fine point.  In 1768 he set down his management scheme for the construction phase with detailed tables of responsibility for the engineer in chief, the resident engineer and the ‘surveyors’ for the various geographical sections working under him.  This provided a model which remained in use for the majority of civil engineering projects for two hundred years and is still used on projects managed in the traditional way.”

The Extraordinary History of Civil Engineering Management, Dr. Martin Barnes.


Francis Roubillac Conder (1815-89) was articled to Fox at the age of eighteen.  Initially he worked on the Harrow to Tring section of the London and Birmingham Railway project, but by 1835 had moved to the Eastern Counties Railway and then to the Birmingham and Gloucester.  He later became a railway contractor, eventually working on the Naples to Brindisi line, a project that ruined him financially through the dishonesty of his paymasters.  On his return to the UK he made his way in journalism.  His book Personal Recollections of English Engineers is an important and oft-quoted source of reference on railway engineering during the period 1835-55, although Conder rarely identifies by name those to whom he refers.


Of the other contemporary descriptions of the Railway, the authors of the several travel guides provide the reader with a commentary on the towns, the estates and their occupants, and the general history of the areas they will pass through during the journey.  Nevertheless, some useful information on the Railways history and civil engineering occasionally creeps into their texts.

As one might expect, authors with a civil engineering background focus on railways from their perspective, but in so doing often draw on London and Birmingham Railway practice by way of example.  Hence, in The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland Practically Described and Illustrated (1842), Francis Wishaw, in suggesting how an intermediate station should be set up, provides detailed descriptions of the layout and equipping of the stations at Tring and Rugby, information that appears nowhere else.  In Railway Practice: A collection of working plans and practical details of construction (1838 and later editions), Samuel Charles Brees provides a wealth of information on Parliamentary hearings together with extracts from contracts and reproductions of engineering drawings, both of which draw extensively on those prepared for the London and Birmingham Railway.

The newspapers of period provide a miscellany of information, sometimes describing its engineering features and travellers’ experiences, but more often dwelling on notable events, such as the opening of the line and accidents (the Watford Tunnel collapse being particularly well covered).


Although large firms of civil engineering contractors had yet to be established, there were individuals and partnerships equipped to undertake railway fairly substantial construction work.  The partnership of William and Lewis Cubitt ― later to become part of the firm of ‘Holland, Hannen & Cubitts’ ― is the only name out of those employed on the line likely to be recognised today.  In addition to letting contracts for building the line, contracts were also placed with manufacturers for the supply of building materials, railway lines (and associated equipment) and rolling stock.


And such was the case, with the final bill coming in at £5,500,000, well above the parliamentary estimate of £2,500,000 (Appendix I.)


A similar approach had been taken some forty years earlier by the engineers building the neighbouring Grand Junction Canal, who made an early start on excavating the Tring Cutting and the Blisworth and Braunston tunnels.


Captain (later Rear Admiral) Constantine Richard Moorsom (1792–1861) served as joint Secretary (with Richard Creed) of the London and Birmingham Railway Company, later becoming a director.  He became Chairman of the London and North Western Railway Company in 1852, a post he retained until his death shortly thereafter.


Forty years previously, the nearby Grand Junction Canal had also been hit badly by inflation  caused by the canal mania of the 1790s and the wars with France, which conspired to drive up its construction costs.


Early civil engineers avoided gradient so far as possible, being influenced by George Stephenson’s maxim . . . .

“. . . . that so small a rise as 1 in 100 would diminish the useful effort of a locomotive by upward of fifty per cent.  This fact called my father’s attention to the question of gradients in future locomotive lines. He then became convinced of the vital importance, in an economical point of view, of reducing the country through which a railway was intended to pass to as near a level as possible.”

Robert Stephenson, from Lives of George and Robert Stephenson, Samuel Smiles (1862).


The main engineering problems arose at the Primrose Hill and Kilsby tunnels, and the Blisworth cutting.  The Watford tunnel illustrates the sort of subterranean problem that could easily by bypassed by trial borings:

“. . . . gravel is most abundant in the neighbourhood of Watford, covering the upper chalk which in many places it penetrates, or in other words, the large fissures or rents in the chalk are filled with the gravel, and as this latter material was very loose and mobile, it was the occasion of much difficulty and danger in the excavation of the Watford tunnel; for at times, when the miners thought they were excavating through solid chalk, they would in a moment break into loose gravel, which would run into the tunnel with the rapidity of water, unless the most prompt precautions were taken.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Thomas Roscoe and Peter Lecount (1839).