Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gray, Thomas (1787-1848)

GRAY, THOMAS (1787–1848), the railway pioneer, son of Robert Gray, engineer, was born at Leeds in 1787, and afterwards lived at Nottingham. As a boy he had seen Blenkinsopp's famous locomotive at work on the Middleton cogged railroad. He was staying in Brussels in 1816, when the project of a canal from Charleroi for the purpose of connecting Holland with the mining districts of Belgium was under discussion. In connection with John, son of William Cockerill [q. v.], he advocated the superior advantages of a railway. Gray shut himself up in his room to write a pamphlet, secluded from his wife and friends, declining to give them any information about his studies except that they would revolutionise the world. In 1820 Gray published the result of his labours as ‘Observations on a General Railway, with Plates and Map illustrative of the plan; showing its great superiority … over all the present methods of conveyance. …’ He suggested the propriety of making a railway between Liverpool and Manchester. The treatise went through four editions in two years. In 1822 Gray added a diagram, showing a number of suggested lines of railway connecting the principal towns of England, and another in like manner bringing together the leading Irish centres. Gray pressed his pet scheme, ‘a general iron road,’ upon the attention of public men of every position. He sent memorials to Lord Sidmouth in 1820, and to the lord mayor and corporation of London a year later. In 1822 he addressed the Earl of Liverpool and Sir Robert Peel, and petitioned government in 1823. His Nottingham neighbours declared him ‘cracked.’ William Howitt, who frequently came in contact with Gray, says: ‘With Thomas Gray, begin where you would, on whatever subject, it would not be many minutes before you would be enveloped in steam, and listening to a harangue on the practicability and the advantages to the nation of a general iron railway.’ In 1829, when public discussion was proceeding hotly in Britain as to the kinds of power to be permanently employed on the then accepted railway system, Gray advocated his crude plan of a greased road with cog rails. He ultimately fell into poverty, and sold glass on commission. He died, broken-hearted it is said, 15 Oct. 1848, at Exeter.

[Great Inventors, 1864; Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, iii. 181, 256; Gent. Mag. 1848, ii. 662.]

J. B-y.