This is from the March issue of Total Politics

Sir Daniel Gooch was one of the greatest Victorian railwaymen, forever linked with Brunel’s Great Western Railway. For 20 years he was also combined this business career with being a Conservative MP.

In the 1840s, not yet an MP, Gooch had a leading role, on behalf of the GWR, in the parliamentary battles over railway legislation. These were arduous sessions, as at the committee stage of an 1845 Bill: “We met in a temporary committee-room, and the crowd and heat was excessive. Sitting in this heat all day, and working most of the night in preparing evidence for the witnesses, almost broke me down.”

He first stood as a Tory candidate in July 1865 in Cricklade, the constituency that encompassed the expanding town of Swindon, where Gooch had founded the GWR’s massive railway works. Reluctantly, he began active canvassing in the constituency that spring.

With polling day imminent, Gooch was on board Brunel’s massive ship, the SS Great Eastern. Gooch was in charge of the laying of the first transatlantic cable, and wanted to take part in the historic event, having been forced out of the GWR the previous year. 

To him, the cable-laying was far more important than his election, which he dismissed as making “no earthly difference to anybody, and to myself, the not doing so will add much to my comfort, and probably health”.  When he belatedly heard the result of the poll, which saw him elected in second place, he wrote: “Well, I sleep to-night as an M.P. Do I feel any happier? No. Has it in any way satisfied an ambition? I say no, for I do not feel I ever had any particular ambition for the honour.”

By the time the new Parliament met in February 1866, Gooch had returned in triumph to the GWR as its chairman. Despite this, he attended Parliament regularly, and, although he never made a speech, he was active on committees and in divisions. He dined with the Tory leader, Disraeli, in March, finding him “a much more genial fellow at dinner than he looks when sitting in the House”.

He did not enjoy parliamentary life, especially its late hours. Nevertheless, Gooch remained an active member, and in 1867 was appointed to a Royal Commission on Trade Unions, which sat for two years. Unsurprisingly, Gooch supported the employers’ line. 

At each of the subsequent Cricklade general elections, he was reluctant to stand, but was persuaded to do so for party reasons. He was always second in the poll, except when Disraeli triumphed in 1874, and a four-way split in the anti-Tory vote enabled him to top the poll. 

No conventional politician, with no detailed policy manifesto, Gooch was regarded by opponents locally as a representative of the railway interest.  There were even suggestions that his supporters had, contrary to his explicit promises, tried to influence the votes of GWR employees.

He disliked the “disagreeable job” of campaigning – the “asking for votes” was “a detestable office.” He claimed not to have “perfect faith in the Conservative Party as a whole”, and even wrote: “I should prefer to get rid of Parliament altogether; it gives me no pleasure or position”. The electoral hustings were a “farce… perfectly useless for any effect it has upon the result”.

Throughout his time in the House, he joined with other railway barons in fighting what they regarded as intrusive government interference in their industry. During the 1880s, this intensified as Gooch assumed leadership of the Railway Companies Association. 

Almost 70, he resisted invitations to stand in the 1885 election, and wrote that “it is a great relief to me to feel I am not to be mixed up in the coming contest”.  He deplored the more fractious Chamber of the 1880s. The “body of gentlemen”, when he first arrived in 1866, had become a “body of roughs, or little better”.

Gooch was not abashed at never speaking in the House throughout his two decades as an MP. Far from it: “I have taken no part in any of the debates, and have been a silent member. It would be a great advantage to business if there were a greater number who followed my example.”

Tags: Daniel Gooch, JB Seatrobe, They were also MPs