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.
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.