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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Samuel Morton Peto

Sir Samuel Morton Peto 1809 - 1889

Samuel Morton Peto
Samuel Morton Peto

The bust of Sir Samuel Morton Peto on Norwich Station commemorates a man whose enterprise and foresight brought the benefit of railways to Victorian Norfolk. 

Before railways were built, any stage coach traveller would attest to the slow, dangerous (because of highwaymen), and uncomfortable means of travel it was.  The coming of the railways meant that people and goods could travel faster overland than ever before, for pleasure as well as for business.

This Victorian entrepreneur knew that if this country were to prosper and trade with other nations, efficient systems to transport goods speedily to our seaports must be developed.  As well as bringing railways to Norwich and other parts of East Anglia he built railways in countries across the world. 

He was born in 1809 in Woking, Surrey where his father was a tenant farmer.  Aged twelve he was sent to an independent boarding school which was said to prepare boys for a business career in a strict, disciplined environment.  At fourteen he was apprenticed to his uncle, Henry Peto, a building contractor.  He worked daily alongside his uncle's men in the joiners' shop, spending his evenings learning the practical techniques and architectural skills that he would later use to great effect.

On the death of his uncle in1830 he and his cousin, Thomas Grissell, inherited the business and went into partnership.  Many building contracts followed, notable among which were for The Houses of Parliament in 1840 under the architect, Charles Barry, and the construction of Trafalgar Square, formerly known as William IV Square, in 1841 with the erection of the column to take Nelson's statue. 

He bought Somerleyton Hall near Lowestoft in 1844, re-building the existing Jacobean house in its present Italianate style.  Whilst in Norwich he lived on Bracondale and was elected as a Liberal MP in 1847.  Peto was a staunch Baptist and is recorded as worshipping at the Baptist Church in Colegate, but it seems more likely he attended the church in Duke Street/St Mary's Plain.

He has been described as "Father of modern Lowestoft" because it was here that he carried out some of his most important works in the region.  Pressure for a navigable waterway from Norwich to Lowestoft via Lake Lothing led in 1842 to a group of businessmen purchasing an earlier failed harbour scheme which they later sold to Peto at a profit.  He set to work immediately on an outer harbour to prevent further silting up of the old inner harbour.  A railway to link from Lowestoft to Reedham, thus connecting to the Norwich to Yarmouth line was proposed as part of the development.  Peto declared that the opening of the line would enable fresh fish from Lowestoft to arrive in Manchester in time for the customary local High Tea.

His baronetcy came in February 1855 partially in recognition of his creation of the rail link to the Crystal Palace where The Great Exhibition of 1851 took place and for which Prince Albert was grateful for Peto's support.   Additionally, during the Crimean war and following a suggestion by Robert Stephenson, he proposed a rail link to carry badly needed supplies from Balaclava to the front at Sebastopol.  With his partners, Edward Ladd Betts and Thomas Brassey, the engineer, he undertook to bear the cost of the line and also the men and materials to run it.  The plan was agreed in 1854, and by April 1855, the line was in operation. By September of that year the Russian naval base at Sebastopol had fallen.

There are numerous examples of his philanthropy in building and providing money for schools, churches and institutions that today would fall to local or national government to implement with the burden of cost falling on the taxpayer.

He demonstrated his moral and spiritual concern for the men who worked for him by the provision of a Minister to attend them at the worksite and to visit those who fell sick.  His workers received good wages and he set up a sickness scheme, paying for funerals and providing funds for widows, though he did not tolerate drunkenness.

His legacy is national and worldwide, but to Lowestoft he left a thriving town and fishing industry at a time when at a time when it was in need of a saviour.


Revd. E.C.Brooks, Sir Samuel Morton Peto Bt. 1809-1889.  Victorian entrepreneur of East Anglia.

Kirsty Way

August 2007