Brentford Dock and Railway by Diana Willment, Dandelion Publications, 2009, £7.50
On Friday 15 July 1859 the Great Western Railway’s new dock at Brentford, and the new railway line which linked it with the main line at Southall, was opened amid scenes of great rejoicing. To mark the 150th anniversary of this event Diana Willment, who lives on the Brentford Dock estate, the site of the original dock, has researched and written an account of the planning and construction of the dock and its railway, their useful life over the next hundred years, and their eventual closure.
According to local tradition the dock was built by the famous 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The author has carried out research in various archives and established that Brunel, as Chief Engineer for the GWR and the Great Western and Brentford Railway, drew up the designs for both the railway and the dock, and his name and that of his assistant, W. Davis Haskoll, appear on the first set of plans. However, by the time construction work started in 1856, Brunel was busy with other projects, and the overseeing of the actual building was undertaken by his Assistant Engineer, Edward Francis Murray.
The suggestion for building a railway and a dock was not universally popular. Predictably there was opposition from local landowners, the canal companies and the other local railway companies, who all felt their interests would be threatened, but it received enthusiastic support from local businesses who saw the advantages of the cheaper, faster and more efficient transport that the railway and the transfer of goods from the railway wagons to lighters on the River Thames could bring. Brunel himself was instrumental in persuading the Parliamentary Select Committee to allow a bill, which was passed in August 1855 as An Act for making a Railway from the Great Western Railway at Southall in the County of Middlesex to Brentford in the same County, with Docks at the last mentioned Place, thus enabling the development to go ahead. The author quotes some interesting exchanges between Brunel and the Select Committee members during the hearings.
The book then goes on to describe, using extracts from contemporary newspapers and specialist periodicals, the financing and building of both railway and dock, culminating in the official opening on 15 July 1859. The directors of the GW&BR and their guests arrived in a special train from Southall and on two paddle steamers from London Bridge. After the ceremony they all repaired to Brentford Town Hall for speeches and toasts and ‘a very elegant cold collation’.
Although the railway line from Southall had been built for goods traffic it was decided to run a passenger service starting in May 1860, and a station was built at Brentford on the north side of the High Street. The platforms were on top of the embankment, with stairs leading up from street level. Initially there were just a dozen or so trains each way every day, but as the service became better known, the number of trains increased until at the height of its popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s about 50,000 tickets were sold each year. Apart from a gap in WWI the passenger service was in operation up to 1942.
The book includes much fascinating detail of the construction of the railway and dock, and of the warehouses, cranes and the hydraulic equipment that powered them. Details of the cargoes carried, (and it is said that ten per cent of national trade passed through Brentford Dock) coupled with some recollections of a man who worked as a shunter, give a picture of the working dock at different periods in its life. The dock closed on 1 January 1965.
The book is extensively illustrated with maps, plans, a wide range of engravings and photographs, and includes a bibliography and index.
Carolyn Hammond, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18, 2009