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section: Engineers
From the outset the railway companies needed railway designers and builders who could combine new skills in civil,
Picture: 01_10318846.jpg
Isambard Kingdom Brunel with his ship the 'Great Eastern', c 1850s.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 architectural and mechanical engineering on an unheard of scale. They needed people who could fire the public imagination; men like Isambard Kingdom Brunel or George and Robert Stephenson. Driven by a passion for progress, their railways transcended mere utilitarian transport systems.

Brunel, for instance, created a new, broad gauge rail system suitable for high-speed rail travel.

They needed men who could fire the public imagination

 It was punctuated by the spectacular architecture of his stations, tunnels and viaducts. But he envisaged his new Great Western Railway line from London to Bristol as merely the first stage in a journey all the way to New York, and designed a steamship to carry passengers across the Atlantic during the second stage of that journey.
Picture: 01_1996-7316_CR_MC_115.jpg
London & North Western Railway engineers and navvies at Stockport, after having widened the Edgeley Viaduct around 1890.
Credit: National Railway Museum

George Stephenson was the archetypal self-made man. A rough and ready colliery engineer from north-east England, he overcame lowly birth and the opposition of the railways’ critics by sheer force of personality and technological genius. His son, Robert, was both a locomotive designer and civil engineer. He built pioneering engines at the works he founded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and also executed massive civil engineering projects.

Faith in progress brought great authority to the men who made it possible and engineers, who as a professional group had once been regarded as ‘rude mechanicals’, forged a new, sometimes powerful caste deserving of respect.

Picture: 01_1996-7316_CR_A_180.jpg
The Britannia bridge was built in 1850 over the Menai Straits by Robert Stephenson, to create a rail link to Holyhead.
Credit: National Railway Museum
Yet the engineers’ public profile declined as railways became commonplace and design came to rely on teamwork rather than the vision of one person. By the twentieth century the greatest public recognition was given to the railways’ chief mechanical engineers, because they were responsible for the design of the locomotives that could be seen at every station or engine shed.

Today, major construction projects and locomotive design are carried out by large teams of specialist civil and mechanical engineers. Unlike architects, engineers are virtually unrecognised by the general public, but their works speak for themselves.

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Subject: Navvies
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The British railway system was built by teams of itinerant navvies who came to form a distinct group, set apart by the special nature of their work and lifestyle. By 1850 they numbered a quarter of a million workers – a force bigger than both the Army and Royal Navy.  > more

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Section: Railway workers, railway towns
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With 620,000 people working on the railways in 1900, railway work fashioned individual lifestyles and identities. Towns such as Swindon or Crewe became so dependent on the railways that they became known as ‘railway towns’  > more
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