The Parliamentary Act
In 1824 a group of Bristol merchants proposed a railway to link their City with London and produced a prospectus in 1833. This document mentioned a Swindon to Gloucester line as one of three possible branches off their proposed railway. A public meeting was held at the Tolsey in Gloucester, to encourage the Great Western Railway, as the Bristol Company named itself, to build this branch and thus secure a line to South Wales "affording a cheap expeditious and safe communication between this district and the Metropolis". The Great Western did not however pursue these proposals and a group of Cheltenham businessmen asked the Great Western's engineer, I.K. Brunel, to survey a line to Cheltenham from the Bristol line.
The Great Western Railway secured their Act in August 1835 and a public meeting was held in Cheltenham on the l3th October that year to discuss the possibilities of forming a Company. The meeting resolved:- "An Act having been obtained for making the Great Western Railway, it would be productive of important advantages to the town of Cheltenham and to the agricultural, manufacturing and commercial classes of the City and County of Gloucester, that a railway should be established from Cheltenham to join the Great Western Railway at or near Swindon in the County of Wilts".
The Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway was thus formed with a capital of seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds, estimated by Brunel as being more than enough to cover the entire expense of the line. However a few months later on Boxing Night 1835, a very depressed Brunel wrote "Cheltenham Railway. Of course this I owe to the Great Western - and may I say to myself. Do not feel much interested in this. None of the parties are my friends. I hold it only because they can't do without me - its an awkward line and the estimates too low. However it's all in the way of business and it's a proud thing to monopolise all the West as I do. But I must keep it as long as I can but I want the tools". He then continued to list his other projects at the time, summing them up as “unsought for on his part”.
A Bill was deposited before the 1836 Session of Parliament, with only tepid support from the Great Western. The bill was not destined to have a calm passage as the London and Birmingham Company sought to control all railways north of the Great Western. They supported a company to build a railway from their line at Tring running to Cheltenham via Aylesbury, Thame, Witney, Burford and Northleach. A branch would spur off to Oxford. This line would have been shorter by about 20 miles, 99 miles from Euston as against 120 miles from Paddington. The arguments raged both in Parliament and in the local press. Throughout the spring of l836 supporters and opponents of the schemes flooded the press with comment. An "Observer" wrote in the "Gloucester Journal" on the 22nd April 1836 that the estimated expense for the 80 mile Tring line was nearly a million and a half pounds while that for the 42 mile Swindon line was three quarters of a million pounds and continued to state the extra revenue to be earned from Stroud and Cirencester.
There were, however, problems of gradients on both lines. Robert Stephenson dismissed the geography of the Tring line as of "no difficulty", while its surveyor, Captain Moorsom, claimed gradients of only 1 in 330 would be needed from Andoversford to Tring. Brunel however said that the Tring route was "next to impossible". This was the first move in hostilities between the Great Western Railway and the London and Birmingham Company, the GWR seeing the Tring line as a wanton attack on its natural territory. Prolonged Parliamentary debate gave the Cheltenham and Great Western Union victory, the Tring Bill being defeated, only to be re-presented a couple of years later and again defeated.
The Bill for the Birmingham and Gloucester was also before this session of Parliament and as both Companies claimed the ground between Gloucester and Cheltenham they agreed to make what was in effect a joint railway. The lawyers of the day found this a strange idea and incorporated protection clauses into the Act. The two Companies also agreed to the joint purchase of the Gloucester and Cheltenham Railway for thirty five thousand pounds. This was a plate tramway opened in 1811, running from the Berkeley Canal basin in Gloucester to Knapp Toll Gate in Cheltenham, with a branch line to Leckhampton Hill serving the local quarries, owned by the Tyre family. The Tramway was nine miles long and had been established under an1809 Act. It was worked by horses and used chiefly for the conveyance of coal. Only a small portion near Gloucester was to be used for the railway, the rest continuing to work until 1859. It was paying a dividend on the tolls of six and a half percent when it was taken over and continued to pay a small dividend until its closure when the GWR and MR Companies obtained an Act for its abandonment, with power to sell the land.
The Cheltenham and Great Western Union Act received the Royal Assent on the 21st June 1836 but it had been necessary to buy off two formidable opponents for seventy five thousand pounds each. These were the Thames and Severn Canal Company who realised the effect the railway would make on their trade, and a local landowner, Squire Gordon. He resided in Kemble House and as well as securing compensation for "damage to be sustained" also enforced the building of the "cut and cover" Kemble tunnel to hide the railway from his house. He also laid down that no public station was to be built on his estate and that a bridge should be built over a stream called the Thames. The Gordons were owners of several Manors in the area and had much parliamentary influence.
The Act authorised a double line of railway from the Great Western at Swindon, where it crosses the North Wiltshire Canal, then across the upper Thames valley to the north west of Swindon to Kemble. It was then to cross the old Roman Fosse Way and pierce the Cotswolds under the 600 foot Sapperton Hill through a curved tunnel 2,800 yards long. From the west end of the tunnel the railway was to run through the Golden Valley passing Stroud and Stonehouse, running parallel to the Thames and Severn Canal. From Stonehouse it was planned to swing north to a point just east of the new Gloucester cattle market. A line from Cold Bath in the tithing of Alstone, Cheltenham would meet the line in a field in Wotton St Mary, in Gloucester.
It was revealed some 64 years later, in speech, given by Colonel Sir R. Kingscote, KCB, at the opening ceremony of the Tetbury branch, that an original survey had stated that the line should travel by way of Tetbury and the Nailsworth valley. This would then save the costly engineering work needed in the Golden Valley. The Colonel then continued "But in those days there lived a very great man, Mr Brunel, the great engineer, and he simply desired to be told the shortest way. The reply was 'Going down the Golden Valley' and he said 'that's the way I will go'”.
The tunnel through the Sapperton Hills was planned to be on a curve and this caused apprehension so alternative plans were submitted straightening out the line.
With regard to the line between Gloucester and Cheltenham the Act provided for joint control. The line was to be built by the Cheltenham Company, the Birmingham and Gloucester financing half of the building. The Birmingham and Gloucester were to have sole control over the half nearer Gloucester as though they had built it themselves. The Cheltenham Company were to have the trusteeship of the Gloucester portion. The Birmingham Company were to build a common depot in Gloucester at their own cost, the Cheltenham Company leasing them the land required, while the Cheltenham Company were to make a common depot in Cheltenham.
The line between Gloucester and Cheltenham was directed to be built in standard gauge with the provision for the Cheltenham Company to lay additional rails for broad-gauge working. Each Company was to keep its own half in good repair, including the additional rails for the other's traffic. The Cheltenham Company was compelled to complete the line so that it opened at the same time as the line between Birmingham and Cheltenham.