History - Broad and Narrow Gauges

Isambard Kingdom Brunei always sought to perform on the grandest possible scale and this tendency was reflected in his engineering designs for the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Railways.

He built his route from Paddington to Bristol with a 7' 01/4" spacing between the rails as this width would enable higher speeds to be obtained and make possible the use of larger and more comfortable carriages.

The Bristol & Exeter Railway, which was constructed to connect with the G.W. R. at Bristol, was also built to this gauge, so both these companies were anxious to see the broad gauge area extended as much as possible; it was hoped that the whole of the West Country would eventually be broad gauge territory.

Most of the other railways then in existence or under construction were built to the "standard" or narrow gauge (4' 81/2"). This difference between broad and narrow gauges later led to much difficulty and expense; it also significantly affected the development at Wells. Many readers will probably recall seeing old railway prints depicting the rush and bustle at stations where passengers, their luggage and other merchan­dise, had to be transferred from trains of one gauge to those of another, and the confusion which inevitably seemed to prevail.

Following the 1845 Royal Commission on Railway Cauges, the broad/narrow disagreement was resolved in favour of the narrow gauge which was confirmed by The Gauge Act of 1846. This decision was regarded as the melancholy end of an era by many west-country people who had been closely associated with the broad gauge system.

The conversion from broad to narrow (or standard) gauge was a very long and expensive operation for the G.W.R. and although the Royal Commission's decision was made in 1845 the final day for broad gauge trains on the G.W.R. was not until May 20th 1892. Over the intervening period broad and narrow gauge trains had been able to run on much of the system as a third rail had been laid, but by the final day arrangements had been made, for all broad gauge rolling stock to be worked to assembly lines at Swindon. The last broad gauge trains left Paddington and Penzance during the third week of May 1892 and the conversion of all lines west of Exeter was carried out on Saturday and Sunday May 21 stand 22nd.

By that time the GW main line between Paddington and Exeter was already "mixed" gauge and the third line was removed in sections at various times subsequently. Crowds gathered to see the last broad gauge trains pass and it was reported that many coins were placed on the rails to be flattened by the wheels and kept as momentoes.

The affection for broad gauge by long serving staff is shown by this anecdote from the "Gentleman's Magazine" of that period:

The other day an ancient guard on this line was knocked down and run over by an engine; although good enough medical attention was at hand, had skill been of any use, the dying man wished to see the Company's doctor. This gentleman, a man much esteemed by all the employees, was accordingly sent for.

"I am glad you came to see me start Doctor, as I hope, by the Upwards train" said the poor man. "I am only sorry that I can do nothing for you my good fellow" answered the Doctor. "I know that; it is all over with me. But there! I am glad it was not one of them narrow gauge engines that did it" was the dying man's reply.

Reprinted from Railways in Wells by R. Hayes and M. Shaw 1982


Broad and Narrow Gauges