Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway, by JMW Turner, 1844

A fast track to success

The growth of the Dowlais works was closely tied to the dramatic development of the railways. In the process, the GKN story became linked with many of the great Victorian engineers, the pioneers of the American railroads and the transformation of 19th century life.

The birth of the railways played a huge part in the Industrial Revolution, transforming the transport of goods and people and fuelling a host of supplier industries. Dowlais quickly became one of the industry’s key suppliers leading to a huge surge in production and workforce in the first half of the 19th century.

American railroads, Opening a new railway, SS Great Britain

Sir John Guest was instrumental in this growth having worked hard to form close relationships with the emerging rail companies and the great Victorian engineers, most notably Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Dowlais iron was used in the construction of Brunel’s most famous railway enterprise: the Great Western Railway linking London’s new Paddington station with the west of England and South Wales. Brunel also used Dowlais as a supplier for many of his other projects, including the famous SS Great Britain – the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship and, at the time, the largest ship ever built.

Dowlais supplied iron rails to rail companies throughout Britain, but also exported them around the world. From the 1830s, rails were sold to the USA for use in the construction of the new railroads opening up America’s frontiers. Then in the 1840s, markets in Europe began to expand with major sales to Russia and Germany, and smaller sales across the continent. Lady Charlotte Guest described a contract made in 1844 to supply 50,000 tons of rail to Russia as, “the largest contract of the kind ever made.”

As a result, of the railway-led boom, Dowlais had, by 1845, become the largest ironworks in the world, and had helped transform the industrialising world.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Brunel was one of the world’s greatest engineers. Despite building the world’s first tunnel under a river – the Thames tunnel – it is for railways, bridges and ships that he is really remembered. His most famous railway was the Great Western from London to Bristol that boasted soaring viaducts and vast tunnels, including the famous Box Tunnel – the longest railway tunnel in the world. Among his many bridges the Clifton Suspension Bridge had the longest span in the world. And he built the world’s biggest iron ships – first the SS Great Britain and then the SS Great Eastern.


1817 Invention of the bicycle

1825 First permanent photograph

1829 Stephenson’s Rocket train

Evan James
Music: 1800s
Welsh male voice choirs became popular