Some bits of history

Brunel connections

Located in Bristol, alongside the SS Great Britain, is the Brunel Institute. This is a collaborative venture between the SS Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol and it is custodian of the University of Bristol Brunel Collection which is on long-term deposit in the Institute. It is regarded as being the most important collection of Brunel-related material in the world.

We were pleased to be given access to this collection in our search for items relating to Brunel's involvement with the Oxford and Great Western Union Railway (the Didcot to Oxford branch), and Culham station in particular. Due to space considerations we have highlighted some of the more pertinent documents only.

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Copies of letters written by Brunel were made by clerks who would write them long hand into letter books which could then be indexed and kept for future reference. It can be seen from the images below that at least three clerks were employed and that their styles of writing are very different. Brunel's home and office in London were at 18 Duke Street, Westminster.

Brunel letter 16th November 1837
DM162/10/1/folio 264

16th November 1837 to F.Davenport Esq.

concerning the Oxford branch line through Captain Pechell's estate at Culham

18 Duke Street Westr.
November 16th 1837
My dear Sir,
I shall be at Abingdon or rather at Culham most likely all Saturday to see what can be done with the Oxford Branch line at Capt. Pechells. I should wish to see you on the subject if you can meet me – You will hear of me at the Crown Abingdon or will see something of my Carriage on the Turnpike Road between there and Clifdon [sic] – enquire at the Turnpike also – I shall be there in the evening-
Yours very truly

George Francis Davenport was a surveyor based in Oxford and was, from the outset, appointed local engineer for the Didcot to Oxford branch. Objections had been raised by Capt. Pechell who owned Zouch Farm as to the planned line of the railway which was to pass close to the west of the house. A compromise was agreed and the route was modified to pass a little further away to the east instead. Read more of this on the 'Didcot to Oxford branch' page.

Brunel letter 2nd August 1843
DM162/10/2c/folio 188

2nd August 1843 to P.Walsh Esq., Oxford

concerning alternative sites for [Culham] station

18 Duke Street
2nd Aug 1843
My dear Walsh,
While riding with the Archbishop near Nuneham - the subject of the site of the station being mentioned - I stated that it had always & was still a matter of indifference to us as which road the station was placed and that I did not see that it would be any the better for the Abingdon people at the one than the other - The Archbishop then said that he preferred it at the farther road and I said no more - at dinner however the the subject was renewed and Miss Harcourt said she should prefer it at the nearest - I repeated that it was a matter of indifference to us. Miss Harcourt has since been to me with a letter from the Archbishop who now thinks as the Ladies did - now what is our position - can we put it at the Nuneham Road - Is there no agreement against it.
Yours sincerely

Percival Walsh of P.Walsh, Son and Davenport was a solicitor for the Oxford and Great Western Union Railway bill. The Davenport was John Marriott Davenport who acted as solicitor for the Company. It gets a bit confusing as he was brother to George Francis Davenport, surveyor and local engineer for the Company, and their father was George Davenport who was an Estate Agent and land owner in Oxford. They were all therefore involved in some way and all owned varying numbers of shares in the Company.

The two roads in question in the letter were the Abingdon to Dorchester turnpike and the road known as Thame Lane which diverged from the turnpike and progressed via Nuneham to Thame. A station where Thame Lane crossed the railway would have certainly been much closer to Nuneham House as the nearby Abingdon Lodge gate gave access to the estate, but the site would have been more restrictive as it was in a cutting. The eventual site, where the railway crossed the turnpike road was level, although a new estate road had to be built from there to meet Thame Lane and give access to the Abingdon Lodge gate. It is fortunate that Culham Station was built on the Abingdon road as Thame Lane was severed when the Naval Air Station was built and, effectively terminating at Thame Lane bridge, is now no more than a farm track. The station would probably not have survived as access would have become a major issue.

Brunel letter 7th August 1843
DM162/10/2c/folio 193

8th August 1843 to P.Walsh Esq., Oxford

concerning placing of Culham station

18 Duke Street
8th Aug 1843
My Dear Walsh,
I have been out of town for some time - Can you advise the Company that they are under no obligation to any body which can prevent them placing the Culham Station on the Nuneham road instead of the Dorchester Road?
Yours sincerely

Despite this apparent willingness to site the station on the Nuneham road (as was), this never happened and it was sited on what is now the busy main A415 from Abingdon. It is intriguing that the station is referred to as Culham Station as it opened as Abingdon Road Station, possibly to appease Abingdon at having missed out on a direct rail connection.

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Cottages at Steventon
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook9/folio 30

Sketches of buildings at Steventon

Whilst not relating directly to the Didcot to Oxford railway, or the station at Culham, these sketches by Brunel of buildings at Steventon are interesting. It is sometimes questioned whether Brunel actually had a hand in the design of certain buildings attributed to him, and those at Steventon are no exception.

When the main line reached the village of Steventon in June 1840, Click or tap to reveal our hidden page about the station at SteventonSteventon Station became Oxford’s closest rail link. Regular stage coaches connected with the city and the surrounding towns. Even after Didcot Station opened mail trains from the west continued to call at Steventon in order to drop off mails for Oxford. This practice did not stop until March 1962, with the station itself closing in 1964.

Cottages at Stenevton
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook9/folio 31

Steventon was briefly the headquarters of the GWR as in October 1841 the previously separate London and Bristol committees were merged. Steventon was chosen as a temporary meeting location because it was almost mid-way along the line and the superintendant's cottage, reputedly designed by Brunel, was used for this purpose. Weekly board meetings were held there from July 1842 until January 1843, when a permanent GWR headquarters was established at Paddington. The building still stands having become a private residence. It is believed that Brunel stayed in one of the cottages when visiting Steventon. These sketches indicate that Brunel did indeed have a hand in the design of several buildings at Steventon.

Oxford and Abingdon railway bridges
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook18/folio 9

Sketches of local bridges

The page on the left is headed 'Oxford and Abingdon' and shows a general view of a semi elliptical arch bridge with a second dimensioned sketch. It is quite possible that these were initial ideas for the road overbridges at both Appleford and Culham. The bridge carrying Thame Lane across the line is a less common arch span design.

The sketch on the right is headed 'Appleford' and it shows part of the arch of the Appleford road over-bridge and a section of culvert

Appleford bridge
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook18/folio 19

Wooden bridge
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook17/folio 38

Nuneham bridge
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook18/folio 25

Sketches of wooden bridges

The top two drawings are untitled and indexed simply as 'Wooden bridge'. They would appear to illustrate a generic design for a timber span, which could be repeated as required, and its cross-section. The two bridges over the Thames at Appleford and Nuneham (Culham) certainly followed this design, so these drawings are probably as close as we'll get. The central supporting piles look to be simply driven into the river bed and so could be liable to sinking. Subsidence is certainly one of the reasons that these two bridges were replaced by iron girder versions in the mid to late 1800s.

The third image shows several part sketches of a timber bridge. Whilst not titled as such, it is indexed as being Nuneham bridge.

Wooden bridge
DM162/8/1/3/GWR sketchbook17/folio 39

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The origins of the Brunel Collection

We feel privileged to have in our collection a book published by Sir Felix Pole in 1954, intended for private circulation. He was general manager of the Great Western Railway between 1921 and 1929, and the book recollects his working life. Our copy carries a hand written note To Mrs. Payne, With all good wishes & thanks for much help - 1954 signed Felix Pole. Mrs Payne was the lady who typed up the original manuscript and the book was bought from a member of her family.

In the book he recalls his involvement with what was to become the Brunel Collection.

About the year 1900, Mr Saxon Noble (a relative of Isambard Kingdon Brunel) wrote to Sir James to say that in clearing a warehouse a lot of papers and drawings had been found which appeared to relate to the Great Western Railway. In response to his invitation that they should be collected, a van was sent from Paddington and brought to the General Manager's office a great mass of extremely dusty documents, books drawings, etc. I borrowed a big overall and became very dirty in sorting out what had obviously been the property of I.K.Brunel. Not only was there a complete set of early Acts of Parliament relating to railways, but many interesting volumes. Outstanding amongst them were Brunel's letter-books in the late 1830s or early 1840s.

...In addition, there were volumes labelled "Facts", in which Brunel recorded formulae and interesting items which he desired to keep.

...Sir James Inglis and Mr. Potter were immensely interested in this collection and with their concurrence all the books and documents were beautifully bound and labelled "Brunel Collection", while the drawings and pictures were framed and in like manner labelled to show that they were part of that collection. During my period as General Manager the Brunel Collection occupied a prominent place in the large bookcase in my room, and I can only hope that it is equally prized by the present "National" owners.

Sir James Inglis was General Manager of the Great Western Railway from 1903, and Frank Rowe Potter was Superintendent of the Line at that time, becoming General Manager himself between 1912 and 1919.