a research resource from Stroud Local History Society

Research note by By Peter Griffin                                                                                 Copyright copyright logo

First published in ‘A Millennium Miscellany’ in 2000 by Stroud Local History Society

Two years ago a manuscript journal kept between February 1835 and July 1838 came to light. The author of the journal had felt it unnecessary to put his name even on the flyleaf of the bound volume, but it soon became apparent that he was involved in railway engineering and was a pupil of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Better still, there were a number of references to the Stroud district, particularly for the first nine months of 1837. It has been established that the young engineer was Charles Richardson (1814 – 1896), known to have been a resident engineer for the Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway from the late 1830s until the opening in 1845, but more celebrated as engineer for the Severn Tunnel later in the century. The journal has been made available to me for academic study and what follows deals with a relatively small area of that research.

Charles Richardson first visited Stroud in April 1835 with I.K. Brunel, The engineer had arranged an expedition into Gloucestershire to give a small group of pupils, including Charles, some practical experience of surveying. Judging from the margins of error mentioned in Richardson’s journal this may have been their first attempt at surveying in the field. After a couple of days in Northleach the party travelled to Stroud and spent the night at the Royal George Hotel in King Street. The evening appears to have been rather lively:
” …a great row in the house, one man tore the coat off the back of another.”

The following day’s work gave a foretaste of what was to occupy Richardson for several months in 1837:
” …. Went in Mr. B’s carriage up the Valley of Stroud – beautiful scenery all along. Levelled from one mouth of [Sapperton canal] Tunnel to Bench mark, about 1,4 mile from other mouth … lost our way by going along wrong road, but came into the line shortly after, and continued levelling along road through wood till we met a man who showed us the benchmark – we walked a little further and met Mr. Brunel and rest of Party – walked a long way along side of Canal till we came to Mr. B’s chaise.”

No doubt Brunel was already considering what might be the best railway route between Cheltenham and the Great Western Railway. The GWR Bill had not yet been passed but the promoters of what later became the C&GWUR were already active in preparing their own bill for the following year. When the public meeting to inaugurate the C&GWUR was held on 21 September 1835, Brunel was appointed engineer and instructed to survey the area. That he was able within a fortnight to recommend the route through the Stroud and Chalford valley may have owed something to the reconnaissance in April, whatever the limitations of the surveying on that occasion.

Richardson was only 20 in April 1835. He came of a Cheshire landed family but his widowed mother had moved to Clifton, so it is possible that I.K. Brunel’s reputation in Bristol induced her to place her son with him as a pupil in 1833. Charles had spent some years at school in France before studying mathematics at Edinburgh University. Both these factors are likely to have enhanced Brunel’s regard for him. After the Chalford Valley expedition he improved his surveying technique on the GWR between Bristol and Corsham and then on the northern part of the Bristol & Exeter Railway with a brief secondment to help on the Clifton Bridge. In the early autumn of 1836 Richardson was given some responsibility for surveying the C&GWUR based on Gloucester. His team made gradual progress through Haresfield, Standish and Stonehouse where Charles stayed at the Crown & Anchor which backed on to the proposed line. Eventually he reached Stroud where, on the 21 October he reported:
” …Got up Stroud depot staff and hoisted colours to a large body of admirers.”

At this point, somewhat to his chagrin, Brunel sent him to work for three months to work with his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, on the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe. There are indications that Charles did not much enjoy this posting but some aspects of what he learned at Rotherhithe may have proved useful at Sapperton and more particularly on the Severn Tunnel project. In January 1837 Richardson was given a choice between continuing at Rotherhithe as deputy to Thomas Page, the assistant engineer for that project, and returning to Gloucester to continue the C&GWUR survey. With little hesitation Charles chose the latter and thus spent from late January to mid August 1837 superintending progress between Cheltenham and Sapperton as a fully-fledged assistant to BruneI.

During these months he was rarely in the same place for more than a few days at a time. In fact, he began to make the journey from Gloucester to Sapperton at least once a week, often with an overnight stop at the George at Stroud. (He never called it the ‘Royal George’). If he wished to complete the journey in one day he changed coaches at the George, making time for a meal while he waited. At other times he journeyed on horseback, perhaps taking the opportunity for a gallop on Bisley Common. Occasionally, as an enthusiastic “pedestrian” he walked all or part of the way. One dark night he needed the assistance of Mr, Chew of Chalford to carry a lanthorn in front of him along the canal towpath when returning to Stroud from Sapperton.

From April to August he spent increasing periods of time at Sapperton, basing himself on the White Horse Inn near the coach route. To return to Gloucester from there he would usually catch the mail coach early in the morning, have breakfast at the George, and proceed to Gloucester through Stonehouse on the Alert coach. Richardson sometimes remarked how overcrowded the mail coach could become in those last days before railways transformed passenger carrying capacity.

13 May, 1837: ” …Went by Mail to Stroud [from Sapperton]; forced to stand on the mounting step as far as Chalford …”

5 July, 1837: “…went by coach to Stroud [from Gloucester] and thence by Mail to Sapperton mail carried three more than number …. ”

2 August, 1837: ” …Went by Alert coach to Stroud [from Gloucester] and thence by Mail to Sapperton – carried four more than the number … ”

At this stage in the project there seems to have been little activity between Stroud and Chalford. We learn relatively little about life in Stroud beyond a few details about the George and brief descriptions of how he spent his leisure time. The C&GWUR had an arrangement with the George whereby Richardson settled the company’s bills at intervals rather than on each occasion that he and any of his colleagues stayed. He always recorded his room number in his journal, from which it appears that there were at least 23 guest rooms in the hotel. On the 1 February, 1837 Richardson had travelled with Brunel in his chaise from Gloucester to have lunch with the railway company directors at the George before one of their meetings. Thus he was able to confer with Mr. Brown over recruiting staff and with Mr. Hyett regarding quarry stone from Painswick.

On the whole Charles appears to have been satisfied with the George, though on one occasion his desire to make an early start after breakfast was frustrated.

2 March, 1837: “…Waiters &c extremely slow at the George – was detained nearly two hours by it…”

The hotel did not repeat the entertainment he encountered on his first visit and he passed many quiet evenings there, often in earnest self improvement.

19 May, 1837: ” …Wrote remarks upon the anomaly of Friction and Resistance …”
The next evening he read part of the differential calculus.

As an enthusiast for outdoor pursuits Richardson sometimes used a few spare hours at Stroud on a Sunday morning to sample the views from local landmarks such as Selsley Hill or Randwick Hill. At Easter 1837 he and his colleague R.P. Brereton took sketches featuring the unseasonal snow on a fir tree near the town.

Apart from the Royal George, only one other Stroud hostelry is mentioned anywhere in the journal:

21 May, 1837: “Sunday. Set out on foot to Glos’ter – met Mr. Lewis (of the County of Glos’ter Bank) a little distance out of Stroud. Returned with him and went to Chapel. Dined at the Swan and walked with him to Gloucester…”

Before the contracts for the main construction work in the Stroud area were settled the engineer was already investigating sources of materials. In February and March 1837 Richardson concerned himself with prices for timber, bricks and stone. The railway survey and construction made use of facilities whose interests the operating railway would damage. The fortunes of the George were affected by the opening of the railway in 1845, the mail and stagecoaches which Charles used so regularly in 1837 were quickly superseded, and the canal along which timber for the works at Sapperton was taken from Gloucester would also suffer reduced trade. Charles made no comment on these impending changes; in writing his journal he usually confined himself to a factual outline account of a day. There is virtually no discussion of his thoughts and feelings, nor any attempt to summarise a particular problem or the progress of the project. The purpose of the journal appears to have been as a personal aide-memoire rather than as something intended for eventual publication. This makes it difficult to form a coherent picture of the activities of his workforce from the technical details he provided.

The diplomacy required in dealing with landowners and other interested parties seems to have been something at which he excelled. He already possessed the urbane good humour which was associated with him later in his career. We find him discussing the location of trial pits with Mr. Niblett at Haresfield, and agreeing some details of the line of the proposed Sapperton Tunnel with Lord Bathurst and his agent, Mr. Anderson. These negotiations were conducted successfully and evidently in a good spirit. When the survey reached the territory of Squire Gordon of Kemble, who had distinct reservations about railways, no doubt Richardson found this part of his job more difficult. Even in Sapperton his skill in averting confrontation needed to be exercised on occasions:

9 August, 1837: ” …Walked to Three-ash piece – fine and extensive views thence – Gamekeeper came to turn us off – he began by speaking savagely, but, on its having no effect, he became very civil- gave him a cigar.”
The gamekeeper may have had in mind an incident a fortnight or so previously when one of the railway employees, named Gibbons, had been arrested and fined for poaching.

The 23 year old engineer also needed his man management skills in controlling his own workforce when quarrels arose within the gangs. He had to decide whom to dismiss and whom to redeploy:

20 February, 1837: “…Disagreement among the men [near Gloucester]. Turned off all Baker’s gang of men except two …”

2 March, 1837: “…Rode to Glos’ter. Paid off nine men and sent Baker, their ganger, to Sapperton … ”

At times the project was seriously short of funds. This problem is mentioned several times in the journal and could lead to the sort of difficulty described in laconic fashion on the 18th March:
” ….. Walked with Brereton to Sapperton. Paid men. Had some trouble with Hurst and other of the men. Short of cash.”
A month later Hurst appears to have been laid off and given his coach fare to London.

It was on the 27 April that the people of Sapperton became fully aware of the surveying activity as a large staff was raised. This merits an unusually detailed description from Richardson:

“Got hauling pegs &c driven – got large sheer legs up and had some difficulty to get the hauling parts in the right place. The Staff had a violent shake when first lifted off the props. Raised it easily, steadily and without the slightest accident – large crowd of spectators many of whom lent a hand. Tried several ways of getting up the Staff but was forced to climb up by the main hauling rope. Tightened cross tree gyes and plumbed the head of the Staff thereby. Cast hauling tackle adrift and was lowered down. Tightened the gyes but was forced to put a sheepshank, about a yard long, in each.”

Subsequently, there were frequent references to the use and maintenance of staffs, including a smaller version at the end of the Broad Ride. Timber was painted, guys tarred, ropes belayed to cleats, lanyards spliced, rigging cords roved and burgees hoisted. Mr. Chew, the blacksmith from Chalford, made a hook for grappling the crosstrees which answered its purpose beyond expectation, but sometimes it was necessary for someone to ascend a staff:

8 June, 1837: ” … Gave a boy a shilling to climb up the Staff- he drew up tackle. Went up and tightened crosstree gyes. Mr. R. K[imber] went up part of the way but didn’t like it much …”

The men at Sapperton also spent a good deal of time levelling and pegging between the staffs and the trial pits being excavated along the line of the proposed tunnel. These were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 4a, 5 and 6. Observations of the strata were made and specimens collected. Richardson then reported progress and findings to Brunel’s London office and made sure that the position of the pits was accurately marked on all plans. Wishing to learn what he could from the nearby canal tunnel he had himself lowered down its deepest shaft but received a thorough soaking for his pains. Toward the end of his time at Sapperton there was a drainage problem in at least one of the railway tunnel pits. Charles attempted to devise a solution but, typically, does not say whether this succeeded.

After the work began to be concentrated at Sapperton in April 1837, warmer weather and longer daylight allowed Charles to indulge his interests more fully while staying at the White Horse. Physical fitness was very important to him; the journal records a number of evenings spent in gymnastic and athletic exercises on a rope ladder or throwing a bar or javelin. He also sought out bathing places along the Thames & Severn Canal. For instance, on the 4 August he bathed in one of the locks with Benjamin Chard who was to serve him for 20 years as his surveying staff holder. They found the water very cold. Cherington Pond was another favourite spot which provided some interesting experiences:

Sunday 9 July: ” ….. Walked to Cherington pond and had a bathe there. Chard bathed at the same time. Found a small snake and put it into water where it dived and swam as well as an Eel.”

8 August: ” …Walked with Mr. Bidmead to Cherington pond in order to have a bathe were hindered some time by some ladies fishing.”

During his stay at Sapperton, Charles became friendly with the Kimber family from whom he had hired Ash Hill Bam. At an early stage Mr. Kimber had briefed him on the ownership of fields, so when the surveying began in earnest he reciprocated by calling on the family to explain what was going on. Thereafter he was a frequent guest, sharing the Kimbers’ taste for music and singing and lending them instalments of the ‘Pickwick Papers’. On one occasion he ventured into the Sapperton canal tunnel with young Mr. Richard Kimber and his cousin:

“. ..met a barge when about half a mile from the other end, which jammed us against the wall and made the old boat creak violently. Mr. K, his cousin and the boatman scrambled into the barge as speedily as possible and left me sitting by myself. The men in the barge were legging along as fast as they were able on purpose. Mr. K’s cousin, who was sitting by me, was too much frightened to push the stern away from his side as I told him, or the accident would not have happened – no damage was done however except making the boat rather leaky.”

His other most notable social invitation was to the home of Mr. Hancox when “a few shots” were followed by a long political discussion and some singing. In fact, pistol shooting was another favourite recreation. If he spent the evening at the White Horse he might play bowls, kill the earwigs in his room or observe the behaviour of the customers:

21 June: ” Some men walked blindfold for beer.”

22 June: ” Walked back to the White Horse. Had a few bowls. A boy got very drunk.”

Richardson was always very appreciative of the beauty of the landscape in the Stroud area and in Sapperton in particular, so it is no surprise to find him producing further sketches of trees, evidently a favourite subject; a yew tree near the White Horse, ash trees at Aston Down and a maple at ‘Prinley’ [Pinbury?] Park.

During his time at Sapperton Charles had relatively little personal contact with I.K. BruneI. After the lunch with the directors at the George in early February they did not meet again until Brunel visited Cheltenham three months later. On this occasion the letting by contract of the trial pits at Sapperton was discussed. Then, in late June and early July, Charles spent a week in London in the course of which he had a number of sessions at Brunel’s Duke St. office discussing progress at Sapperton and marking up plans. A few days later he looked at a house near Sapperton which implies that he expected to be in the area for some time. He considered the house too expensive, however, and in the light of his calculations on 1st August this is understandable:

“Made copy of accounts and sent it with bills to Mr. Bennett [Brunel’s Duke St. office manager]. Letter to do. Brought C&GWR Co. and myself to have, each, about £18 in the Bank.”

At the company’s half yearly meeting on 3 November, 1837 it was announced that no material progress had been made recently because of an economic slump. In fact, Richardson had left for South Wales in the middle of August and paid only a couple of fleeting visits to Sapperton thereafter. His new brief was to monitor the quality of the iron rails produced for Brunel at Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil and to oversee experimental modifications to the process. He spent a short time at Dudley for the same purpose. When Charles resumed work on the Cheltenham to Swindon line early in 1838 his area of responsibility lay between Cirencester and Swindon.

Richardson’s surviving journal ends in July 1838. His work to the south of Cirencester occupied him until the line from Swindon to Cirencester opened on 31 May, 1841. Thereafter he returned to the Stroud area as a resident engineer until the line to Gloucester was opened in May 1845. We know that he lived for a while at Chalford and distinguished himself by designing a remarkable sloping bridge known variously in the locality as Jackdaw, Westley or Skew Bridge. Charles remained faithful to I.K. Brunel throughout the great engineer’s life, acting as a railway engineer between Gloucester, Ross and Hereford, from the later 1840s until the mid 1850s, and then undertaking the South Wales link from Bristol in 1859. That project led to his greatest claim to fame, the genesis of the Severn Tunnel, but never again was his day to day life laid bare as it had been in the period of this journal.

Charles Richardson’s Journal 1835 -1838
Directors’ Minute Book, Cheltenham & Great Western Union Railway, GRO D3798/5.
Dictionary of National Biography; ‘Missing Persons’
E.T. MacDermot, History of the Great Western Railway, Vol. 1, 1833 -1863 (Allen revised ed. 1964).
Colin G. Maggs, The Swindon to Gloucester Line (Alan Sutton, 1991)
Philip Walmsley, Stroud (Alan Sutton, 1994)
The Railway Comes to Stroud, 1845 (Stroud Local History Society, 1995)

A research note from the SLHS digital archive added Nov 2014. Copyright copyright logo

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