Great Western Railway
Records of the Great Western Railway
These records are available immediately for research
The GWR was incorporated by the Great Western Railway Act 1835 which empowered that company to construct and run a railway between a field called Temple Mead in the Parish of Temple (otherwise Holy Cross) in the City and County of Bristol to a junction with the London & Birmingham Railway (L&B) at a field sited between the Paddington Canal and the turnpike road between London and Harrow in the Parish or Township of Hammersmith with branches to Trowbridge and Bradford (Wiltshire). The GWR would have reached the centre of London via the L&B using the L&B's station at Euston. The proposal to terminate at Euston caused problems as the engineer of the GWR, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was an advocate of the board gauge (seven feet and one quarter of an inch), whereas the L&B's engineer, Robert Stephenson, preferred the Standard Gauge (four feet, eight and a half inches). The GWR therefore decided to divert the London end of its railway to Paddington and this diversion was authorised by the Great Western Railway (Diversion to Paddington) Act 1837. Between the two above acts, the GWR had obtained another one in 1836 to make slight deviations in the original scheme. The main line was opened in several stages, the first being between Paddington (a station sited on the west side of the present Bishops Bridge) and Taplow on 4 June 1838. Followed by: Maidenhead to Twyford, 1 July 1839; Twyford to Reading, 30 March 1840; Reading to Steventon, 1 June 1840; Steventon to Faringdon Road (now Challow), 20 July 1840; Bristol to Bath, 31 August 1840; Faringdon Road to Hay Lane, 17 December 1840; Hay Lane to Chippenham, 31 May 1841 and Chippenham to Bath 30 June 1841 which completed the through route. The GWR went on to obtain many other acts which extended its own railway and absorbed many other companies, the most notable of which were: the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway in 1854; South Wales Railway in 1863; West Midlands Railway also in 1863; Bristol & Exeter Railway in 1876; South Devon Railway and West Cornwall Railway both in 1878; Cornwall Railway in 1889 and the Cornwall Minerals Railway in 1896. In fact by the time of the Grouping on 1 January 1923, the GWR had control of over one hundred former railways giving it a system of just under 2,900 miles extending from Paddington to Penzance, Fishguard, Aberystwyth, Chester and Wolverhampton. The mergers with other railways included the taking over of canals that had been bought by the railways. These included the River Avon, Bridgwater & Taunton, Glamorganshire, River Kennet, Kennet & Avon, Kidwelly & Llanelli, Monmouthshire & Brecon, Somerset Coal, Stourbridge Extension, Stratford-on-Avon, Swansea and Tennant Canals and Navigations, for which records are held. Other significant changes included the extension of the London end into the present Paddington Station in 1851 and the abandonment of the Broad Gauge for the Standard Gauge (completed by 1892). The GWR had twelve Divisions: London; Bristol; Newton Abbot; Wolverhampton; Worcester; Newport; Neath; Cardiff Valleys; and two Districts: Central Wales and Plymouth. On 1 January 1923, the railways in Britain were grouped to form four large companies and of those old companies, only the GWR retained its identity, in fact it was enlarged with the addition of some thirty-one companies including such substantial concerns as the Barry Railway, Cambrian Railway, Cardiff Railway, Rhymney Railway and Taff Vale Railway. The GWR carried on its business until nationalisation on 1 January 1948 when it became the Western Region of British Transport Commission: Railway Executive. For more information, see RAIL Division, The Catalogue, The National Archives at http://www.catalogue.nationalarchives.gov.uk/default.asp.
Through the cataloguing of the records, it has been established that the Great Western Railway had several departments: Deed Department, Chief Engineers Office, Divisional Engineers Office, Surveyors and Estates Department, all based at Paddington, and Chief Goods Manager and Canal Inspectors. Due to the fragmentary nature of the records held (for example, the archive only holds the canal-related records for the company), the collection has been arranged by canal for ease of use. The canals have been placed in alphabetical order. Some canals also have numbers which were used by the Great Western Railway, and these numbers can be found at Series level.