Reading books on railway history you come across the name of contractors, Peto & Betts; Peto Brassey & Betts or just Peto. But no-one ever went beyond mentioning the name. So who was this man Peto.
My biography of him was published by Ian Allan in July 2009.
Peto is one of the great – forgotten – Victorians. He was junior partner to his cousin Grissell, between them owning the civil engineering and building contracting company of Grissell & Peto, founded in 1830. This company built canals, the first shopping mall in Britain – Hungerford Market at Charing Cross, the Royal Stables at Windsor, they cleared the area for Trafalgar Square,built he square with its fountains and lions and built Nelson’s Column. They then took on as sole contractors, the job of building the present day Houses of Parliament. Peto got the contractor to build the Wharncliffe viaduct for the GWR – Engineer I.K Brunel. Peto was treated with less than politeness by Brunel after Peto’s men had built the great viaduct, on time and within budget. It was several years before Peto took a chance and did some more work for Brunel – on the Banbury – Birmingham route. Peto was a politician, the Liberal M.P for Norwich and he was very much involved in railway politics too. He was closely connected with Robert Stephenson and the L&NWR. Peto built the Chester & Holyhead route, or a large part of it and ran the C&HR Company for a while and at the same time he was was constructing the GWR line northwards from Banbury. Not far away, various inferior contractors were building the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, Engineer I.K Brunel. The OWR was destined by its Act of Parliament to have been a broad gauge railway and the only company the OWWR could sell or lease itself was the GWR – by law. The GWR supplied a great deal of the capital used in constructing the line. But the L&NWR and the Midland did not want the GWR getting into their territory in the West Midlands, rich in coal and iron and various manufactories and so they got Peto to wangle himself onto the Board of Directors of the OWWR so that he could – illegally – have the OWWR sold to the LNWR. He did not succeed but he caused a lot of money to be wasted in court cases and also in promoting fresh railways – none of which got as far as getting their Act of Parliament – so as to give the OWW an independent route towards London.
Peto was big in East Anglia and, with the willing co-operation of the Eastern Counties Railway Chairman, David Waddington M.P for Harwich, organised various swindles on the ECR shareholders. ECR money was used to improve Lowestoft harbour which was owned by Peto and Waddington and all the while the ECR’s harbour at Harwich was neglected. Peto built chapels and supported orphanges and was a very good employer. He treated his navvies with the greatest care and they were the best paid workmen in the country. Peto told the Parliamentary Inquiry into the working condition of railway labourers that as he required his men to shovel 20 tons of earth a day he saw the necessity of paying them well, housing them well when they were in places far from accomodation, feeding them well.
Peto was made a Baronet in 1855 as the result of writing letter on 30 March 1854 to the War Office suggesting a railway be built in the Crimea to assist the war effort there
The story of Morton Peto really is a wonderful series of paradoxes. One could say that he robbed the rich to feed the poor, certainly his ordinary shareholders frequently ‘lost their shirts’ but his navvies were employed well for 30 years. Peto eventually went bankrupt and brought down Overend Gurney, the people who had been lending him injudiciously large sums of money. The failure of Overend Gurney brought about the total collapse of the British banking system on 10 May 1866.
Peto’s bust at the exit doors of Norwich Station has an inscription which states that he was a ‘Baptist, Philanthropist and Entreprenuer’ that is true, but he was also a ‘Liar, a Cheat and a Fraud’. BUT – there is always a ‘BUT’ with Peto, he didn’t make shady deals for his own sake, although of course, he took his profit, he used ‘iffy’ money to created better housing, vast new industries, giving tens of thousands employment until recent times. He died on 13 November 1889 without a will, he had very little to bequeath. His wife died leaving £500 to the Baptist Missionary Society. Peto left behind him, a whole new holiday town and fishing port of Lowestoft, the Victoria Docks in London, railways all over the world. Employment, food and housing for the masses.