A FOURTH generation Swindon railway worker has written what may be the definitive history of the GWR’s rise.

Ken Gibbs, 82, writes in his introduction to The Great Western Railway – How it Grew: “This book is the story of a small predator with a voracious appetite and even bigger ideas.”

Mr Gibbs focuses not so much on the raw engineering side of the GWR – although he is an expert engineer – as on the aptitude and buccaneering which saw Brunel’s railway extend its routes from London to Wales and as far north as Birkenhead.

There is an alphabetical listing of the smaller firms swallowed up by the GWR, from the Abbotsbury and the Abercarn to the Wye Valley and the Yealmpton, and large sections of the book are devoted to the process by which the railways in general and the GWR in particular put canals out of business.

Mr Gibbs was inspired by magazine articles about the history of small railway companies, plus his own knowledge of the GWR and competition between railways and canals.

He said: “I’d come across some figures showing the Great Western Railway had literally put the canals out of business, and the machinations by which they did that were sometimes quite incredible.”

Examples of those machinations include buying up canals and then raising tolls so much that customers were forced to use the railway.

As Mr Gibbs notes: “A railway company could nip in and take over one of the key canals in a system, and then proceed to strangle the rest by forcing traffic onto the railway by controlling the freight fares.

“Within 40 years of its inception, the Great Western had expended almost £1m for a return financially of a minuscule £300 in obtaining control of certain canals which it had no intention of running as going concerns!”

Traces of this period in history remain today, and include Swindon’s own Wharf Road.

Sections of the book also trace the history of railways that existed long before the invention of the steam engine. It was realised centuries ago that horsedrawn or even human-propelled transport on rails, especially for heavy goods, made a lot more sense than struggling over muddy or rutted roads.

Railways in one form or another were also used for personal transport. One of the most startling photographs in the book shows a convoy of 19th Century Welsh quarrymen descending a hillside aboard handmade ‘car gwyllt’ – little more than seats on wheels.

Mr Gibbs lives in Old Town and is married to Monica, 86. His great grandfather started at the Works in 1849, his grandfather in 1875 and his father in 1909. In 1944 it was Ken’s turn.

A railwayman from the age of 14 until 35 apart from a stint in the RAF, he trained as an engineer and efficiency expert, later working in industry and finally for the council, where he spent the last three years of his career programming mainframe computers. .

He retired 28 years ago but his interest in the railway and engineering remains undimmed. He still designs and creates components for heritage railways, and his credits include Didcot Railway Centre’s replica of early GWR loco Firefly. His writing career began with magazine articles in the 1960s.

His first book, Apprentice in Steam, was published in 1986, and is due to be reprinted by Amberley. Next month the firm will publish the author’s newest work, The Steam Locomotive – An Engineering History.

The Great Western Railway – How it Grew, ISBN 978-1-4456-0450-3, has a cover price of £18.99 and can be ordered from bookshops as well as Amazon UK, where it is currently priced at £13.29.

Amberley’s website is www.amberleybooks.com