Great Western Chairmen

Benjamin Shaw, 1835 - 1837

    The first Great Western Chairman was appointed at the first General Meeting of the company on 29 October 1835. Little is known about Shaw except that he resigned as Chairman on 9 October 1837 and left the Board entirely in 1839.

William Sims, 1837 - 1839

    William Unwin Sims succeeded Shaw as Chairman on the 26 October 1837, although another director, G. H. Gibbs, had been offered the post and declined. Sims initially supported Brunel in the merits of the use of broad gauge, but later urged the company to replace Brunel as its resident engineer.

    Not a strong person, he committed suicide on 17 November 1839. The Inquest felt that the news that his sister had become insane, and the pressures from his post contributed to his death.

Charles Russell, 1839 - 1855

    Born in 1786, Charles Russell served as the Conservative MP for Reading from 1830 - 7 and 1841 - 7. During his first term in office, he assisted the passage for the creation of the Great Western Railway in 1835. Elected as Chairman of the company in 1839, he fully supported Brunel's idea in the use of broad gauge. Because of his vigour in establishing and then the growth of the Great Western, he was described by one writer as ' . . . . one of the greatest early Victorian railway chairman'.

    By 1853, Russell wished to retire from his post, but was persuaded to stay until ill-health and old age forced him to leave on 2 August 1855. Unfortunately, his illness affected his brain and he committed suicide on 15 May the following year.

Rt. Hon. Spencer Walpole, 1855 - 1856 and 1863

    Another MP, Walpole was Home Secretary to Lord Derby's Government in 1852, and again in 1858 - 9 and 1866 - 7. Born at Stagbury, Surrey in 1806, he joined the Great Western Board in 1853. When Charles Russell retired as Chairman in 1855, Walpole agreed to temporarily take over the post during the 1855 Parliamentary recess and began an enquiry into the company's financial affairs. In February 1856, the Chairmanship was taken on by Lord Barrington, Deputy Chairman since 1843.

    Walpole again acted as temporary Chairman in 1863 upon the resignation of Lord Shelburne to oversee the inauguration of the Amalgamation Act. Succeeded as Chairman by Richard Potter later that year, he retired from the GWR Board in 1866 and died at Ealing on 22 May 1898.

Viscount William Barrington, 1856 - 1857

    Born in London in 1793, he was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church College, Oxford gaining a BA in 1813. Upon his father's death on the 4 March 1829, he became the 6th Viscount and was elected Conservative MP for Berkshire in 1837. He joined the Great Western Board in 1839, elevated to Deputy Chairman in 1843, and was made Chairman in February 1856. He agreed to take on the role on the understanding that a successor would be found to replace him, although he remained as Chairman until the following year. Barrington died on 9 February 1867.

Hon. Frederick Ponsonby, 1857 - 1859

    Ponsonby was Chairman of Pilbrow's Atmospheric Railway and Canal Propulsion Company before becoming Chairman of the Great Western in May 1857. During his short period in office, he secured peace in the row with the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. After his Chairmanship he remained a GWR Director until his death on 11 March 1895.

Lord Shelburne, 1859 - 1863

    Lord Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice Shelburne was born on 7 January 1816, the second son of the Marquis of Lansdowne. Elected as the Liberal MP for Calne in Wiltshire in 1837, he joined the Great Western Board in 1858. In February 1863, he succeeded his father as 4th Marquis of Lansdowne and resigned from the Chairmanship shortly afterwards. He died of paralysis on 5 July 1866.

Richard Potter, 1863 - 1865

    This Gloucester timber merchant was born in Manchester 1817 and joined the Great Western Board in 1849. His company made wooden huts for the English and French troops fighting in the Crimea and designed a prefabricated hospital at Renkioi. Potter resigned from the Board in 1856, but in 1860, he became a Director of the West Midland Railway. When the WMR amalgamated with the GWR in 1863, he returned to the GWR Board and was quickly elected as Chairman.

    His short period in office was an important one for the company as he consolidated the GWR stocks and introduced a superannuation fund for the workforce, but he was not a popular man. Potter resigned in 1865 because the work was preventing attention to his private affairs. He died at Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire on 1 January 1892.

Sir Daniel Gooch, 1865 - 1889

    Born the son of a manager of an iron foundry at Bedlington, Northumberland in 1816, young Daniel Gooch grew up among people such as George Stephenson, Timothy Hackworth and William Hedley. His first job was at an ironworks at Tredegar, but in the next five years he moved to - and gained much knowledge from - Robert Stephenson's Vulcan Foundry at Warrington, the London & Birmingham Railway with his brother Thomas, as draughtsman under James Stirling in Dundee, and by the time he was 20, he became a partner to Sir Robert Hawks at a new works in Gateshead. Unfortunately this project failed, but undaunted, he applied to Brunel for the post of Manager of the Great Western's "Engine Manufactory". Brunel accepted the young engineer's application and Gooch joined the GWR on 18 August 1837.

    At this time, Sir Daniel Goochthe company did not have any locomotives but when the first Brunel-designed engines did arrive, they were found to be underpowered and unreliable. Gooch modified the locomotives to a degree, but he persuaded Brunel to buy two locomotives from Robert Stephenson which were intended for export to America but were still in Newcastle. Altered to the 7-feet broad gauge, the first locomotive was named 'North Star'. He set about finding the type and size of engine to suit the Great Western's needs and began to produce his own designs, but as the GWR did not have its own construction facilities at that time, a number of locomotives were ordered from different manufacturers. In 1846 however, the new locomotive works at Swindon produced their first engine, appropriately named 'Great Western'. This engine was a great success and paved the way for design excellence at Swindon for many years.

    In 1864, Gooch left the Great Western to lay the Atlantic cable from Brunel's 'Great Eastern' and the following year he entered Parliament as the MP for Cricklade, however, the railways were in a state of serious financial depression. The GWR turned to Gooch for assistance and elected him as their new Chairman. Calling for drastic measures to restore the company's situation, he reduced the number of Directors, and some train services were suspended including the crack 'Flying Dutchman' service from Paddington to Exeter. The economies worked though, and the company went from strength to strength. He was knighted for his efforts in 1866

    Very much a 'hands-on' man, Gooch was the first person to pass through the small hole in the heading between the English and Welsh sides of the Severn Tunnel in 1884. Like Brunel, he realised the merits of the 7-foot broad gauge, but in his old age, he knew that it would have to go. He died while in office at the age of 73 on 15 October 1889 and was buried at Clewer near Windsor.

Frederick Saunders, 1889 - 1895

    Frederick Saunders was born on 24 December 1820 and was appointed as Assistant Secretary to the South Wales Railway in 1844, becoming Chief Secretary in 1849. When his uncle, Charles Saunders retired as Secretary to the Great Western in 1863, Frederick filled his place and when he resigned from this post in June 1886, he was made a Director of the company. Succeeding Gooch in 1889, he retired in June 1895 although he remained a member of the Board until his death at Reading on 1 January 1901.

Viscount Emlyn, 1895 - 1905

    Born the eldest son of the second Lord Cawdor on 13 February 1847, Emlyn was made a Director of the Great Western Board in 1890. Within a year he was elevated to joint Deputy - Chairman with Alexander Hubbard and in 1895 was elected the Chairman of the GWR becoming the youngest Chairman of a British railway company.

    During his term in office, he bought the lease of the refreshment rooms at Swindon since for many years the refreshment stop had been a thorn in the side for the company to speed up train services, improved carriages and introduced integration of the bus / rail connections. On the death of his father, he became Lord Cawdor on 29 March 1898.

    In March 1905 he resigned his position on the Board when he was offered the distinguished post of First Lord of the Admiralty. On 8 February 1911 he died in a London nursing home and was buried at Cheriton, Pembrokeshire.

Alfred Baldwin, 1905 - 1908

    Born in the pretty town of Stourport-on-Severn in June 1841, he became the head of the firm of Baldwins Limited, and for 16 years from 1892 was Conservative MP for Bewdley. He joined the Great Western Board in January 1901 and elected to the post of Chairman in 1905. His term in office ended suddenly when he died of a heart attack on 13 February 1908. He was buried at Wilden, Worcestershire. His only son, Stanley, became a more prominent figure as British Prime Minister in the 1920's and 30's.

Viscount Churchill, 1908 - 1934

    The only son of Baron Churchill of Whichwood, Churchill was born in London on 23 October 1864. Educated at Eton, he then went on to Sandhurst and later became a Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards. He was created the first Viscount Churchill in July 1902 and joined the Great Western Board in 1905.

    An early task for the new director was to counter claims of wasteful competition from newspapers and some shareholders due to the refusal of the company to merge the West of England traffic with the London and South-Western Railway. At this time, the GWR was building cut-off routes to improve their services to the West. Up to 1906, all passenger expresses from Paddington to Exeter and beyond passed through Bristol. In comparison with competing railways, this prompted a few travellers to rename the GWR as the 'Great Way Round'.

    Elected to the Chair in 1908, Churchill guided the company through the difficulties of the First World War, however back in peacetime, he was faced with a strike that added 5.5m pounds to the wages bill in addition to serious competition from road transport. Closely involved with the negotiations that resulted in the Grouping under the Railways Act of 1921, the longest serving Chairman of the Great Western died of pneumonia on 3 January 1934.

Viscount Horne, 1934 - 1940

    Viscount Sir Robert Stevenson Horne was elected as the Unionist MP for Glasgow Hillhead in 1918 and immediately appointed Minister of Labour. In 1920 he became President of the Board of Trade and in the following year elevated to Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    Leaving Parliament in 1922, he became director of a number of companies including the Great Western and in 1934, he was elected as Chairman. Overseeing the Centenary celebrations of the GWR in 1935, he died suddenly at Farnham on 3 September 1940.

Sir Charles Hambro, 1940 - 1945

    First son of Sir Eric Hambro, of the well-known banking house, Charles was born in London on 3 October 1897. As joint Managing Director of his father's firm, he was elected to the Great Western Board in September 1930. He became Deputy-Chairman in 1934 followed by Chairman in 1940. Although he resigned his position in 1945, Hambro remained an active member of the GWR Board until the end of the Great Western in 1948. He died on 28 August 1963.

Lord Portal, 1945 - 1948

    The last Chairman of the Great Western was born on 9 April 1885 at Overton, Hampshire. His family had been connected with railway affairs for many years and he was elected to the Board in 1927. He resigned his Directorship in 1938 when he appointed as additional Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Supply and he became Minister of Works in 1942.

    Returning to the GWR in 1944, he was elected as Chairman the following year. Although nationalisation was imminent, he refused to let that diminish the position he held. Presiding over the last GWR General Meeting on 14 March 1948, he resigned shortly afterwards. He was made a GCMG in 1949 but died later that year at Laverstoke, Hants.


Great Western Locomotive Engineers
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The History of the Great Western Railway
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