Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Peto, Samuel Morton

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PETO, Sir SAMUEL MORTON (1809–1889), contractor and politician, eldest son of William Peto of Cookham, Berkshire, who died on 12 Jan. 1849, by Sophia, daughter of Ralph Allowoy of Dorking, was born at Whitmoor House, parish of Woking, Surrey, on 4 Aug. 1809. While an apprentice to his uncle Henry Peto, a builder, at 31 Little Britain, city of London, he showed a talent for drawing, attended a technical school, and later on received lessons from a draughtsman, George Maddox of Furnival's Inn, and from Mr. Beazley, an architect. After spending three years in the carpenter's shop he went through the routine of bricklayer's work, and learnt to lay eight hundred bricks a day. His articles expired in 1830. In the same year Henry Peto died, and left his business to Samuel Morton and another nephew, Thomas Grissell (1801–1874). The firm of Grissell & Peto during their partnership, 1830–47, constructed many buildings of importance. The first was the Hungerford Market (1832–3)—after a public competition—for 42,400l.; there followed the Reform (1836), Conservative (1840), and Oxford and Cambridge (1830) club-houses, the Lyceum (1834), St. James's (1835), and Olympic (1849) theatres, the Nelson Column (1843), all the Great Western railway works between Hanwell and Langley (1840), a large part of the South Eastern railway (1844), and the Woolwich graving dock.

It was during the construction of the railway works that Grissell and Peto dissolved their partnership, on 2 March 1846, the former retaining the building contracts, including the contract for the houses of parliament, which had been commenced in 1840 by the firm, and the latter retaining the railway contracts. Among the works taken over by Peto was the construction of a large portion of the South-Eastern railway, that between Folkestone and Hythe, including the viaduct and tunnel and the martello towers. He also made a large portion of the Eastern Counties railway between Wymondham and Dereham, Ely and Peterborough, Chatteris and St. Ives, Norwich and Brandon; the sections between London and Cambridge, and Cambridge and Ely (1846), the Dorsetshire portion of the London and South-Western railway (1846), and the works in connection with the improvement of the Severn navigation under Sir William Cubitt.

Edward Ladd Betts (1815–1872), who had undertaken the construction of the South-Eastern railway between Reigate and Folkestone, entered, in 1846, into partnership with Peto, which lasted. The works undertaken by the firm of Peto & Betts between 1846 and 1872 embraced the loop line of the Great Northern railway from Peterborough through Lincolnshire to Doncaster; the East Lincolnshire line connecting Boston with Louth; the Oxford, Worcester, and Wolverhampton railway (1852); the first section of the Buenos Ayres Great Southern railway; the Dunaberg and Witepsk railway in Russia; the line between Blidah and Algiers, and the boulevards, with warehouses underneath, at the latter place; the Oxford and Birmingham railway; the Hereford, Ross, and Gloucester railway, 1852; the South London and Crystal Palace railway, 1853; the East Suffolk section of the Great Eastern railway; the Victoria Docks, London (1852–5), the Norwegian Grand Trunk railway between Christiania and Eidsvold; and the Thames graving docks.

In connection with Thomas Brassey [q. v.] and E. L. Betts, Peto executed lines of railway in Australia, 1858–63; the Grand Trunk railway of Canada, including the Victoria Bridge (opened October 1860); the Canada works at Birkenhead; the Jutland and Schleswig lines, 1852 (Illustr. London News, 11 Nov. 1854); the railway between Lyons and Avignon, 1852; and the London, Tilbury, and Southend railway, 1852.

Peto, Betts, and Thomas Russell Crampton were in partnership in carrying out the contracts of the Rustchuk and Varna railway, and the metropolitan extensions of the London, Chatham, and Dover railway, 1860; Peto and Betts constructed the portion between Strood and the Elephant and Castle (‘Memoir of E. L. Betts,’ in Min. of Proc. of Instit. Civil Engineers, 1873, xxxvi. 285–288). Peto's last railway contract was one for the construction of the Cornwall mineral railway in 1873.

Peto was a member of the baptist denomination, and a benefactor to it by providing the funds for the erection of Bloomsbury (1849) and Regent's Park chapels. But his tolerant disposition led him also to restore the parish church on his estate at Somerleyton, Suffolk. A staunch liberal in politics, he entered parliament as member for Norwich in August 1847, and sat for that constituency until December 1854. From 1859 to 1865 he represented Finsbury, and lastly he was member for Bristol from 1865 until his resignation on 22 April 1868. During his parliamentary career he was the means of passing Peto's Act, 1850, which rendered more simple the titles by which religious bodies hold property, and he advocated the Burials Bill in 1861, 1862, and 1863 (Peto's Burial Bill, by Anglicanus Presbyter, 1862).

On 26 Feb. 1839 Peto had been elected an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and on 1 Sept. 1851 he became deputy chairman of the metropolitan commissioners of sewers. He aided in starting the Great exhibition of 1851 by offering a guarantee of 50,000l., and was subsequently one of her majesty's commissioners. During the Crimean war he suggested to Lord Palmerston that he should construct a railway between Balaclava and the entrenchments. A line of thirty-nine miles in length was accordingly laid down by him in 1854–5, and proved of much service to the army before Sebastopol. Peto and Betts presented vouchers for every item of expenditure, and received payment without commission. The contract being under government, though without profit, obliged Peto to resign his seat in parliament, but for his services he was created a baronet on 14 Feb. 1855. He spent the autumn of 1865 in America, and published next year ‘The Resources and Prospects of America, ascertained during a Visit to the States.’

On 11 May 1866 Peto & Betts suspended payment, owing to the financial panic, with liabilities amounting to four millions and assets estimated at five millions. This disaster obliged Peto to resign his seat for Bristol in 1868, when Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone paid tributes to his character, the latter referring to him as ‘a man who has attained a high position in this country by the exercise of rare talents and who has adorned that position by his great virtues’ (Hansard, 27 March 1868 p. 359, 22 April p. 1067). He bore his reverse of fortune with great resignation. He for some time lived at Eastcote House, Pinner, and then at Blackhurst, Tunbridge Wells, where he died on 13 Nov. 1889. He was buried at Pembury.

He married, first, on 18 May 1831, Mary, eldest daughter of Thomas de la Garde Grissell, of Stockwell Common, Surrey; she died on 20 May 1842, leaving a son—Henry Peto (b. 1840), M.A., barrister-at-law—and three daughters. Peto married, secondly, on 12 July 1843, Sarah Ainsworth, eldest daughter of Henry Kelsall of Rochdale, by whom he had issue six sons and four daughters.

Peto published several pamphlets, including: 1. ‘Observations on the Report of the Defence Commissioners, with an Analysis of the Evidence,’ 1862; to which three replies were printed. 2. ‘Taxation, its Levy and Expenditure, Past and Future; being an Enquiry into our Financial Policy,’ 1863.

[Sir Morton Peto, a Memorial Sketch (1893), with two portraits; Record of the Proceedings connected with the Presentation of a Service of Plate to Sir S. M. Peto at Lowestoft, 18 July 1860, 1860; Minutes of Proceedings of Institution of Civil Engineers, 1890, xcix. 400–3; Foster's Baronetage (1883), pp. 504–5; Illustr. London News, 1851 xviii. 105–6, 1857 xxx. 24–6, 1860 xxxvii. 147; Helps's Life of Mr. Brassey, 1872, pp. 163–5, 184, 216; Freeman, 22 Nov. 1889, pp. 769, 773; Engineer, 22 Nov. 1889, p. 438; London Figaro, 23 Nov. 1889, p. 10, with portrait; Times, 12 May 1866 p. 9, 15 Nov. 1889 p. 10.]

G. C. B.