The story of the plaque celebrating Peter Bruff’s life began about ten or more years ago when I bought a book in a second-hand bookshop in Southwold. It was entitled; East Anglia’s First Railways. I thumbed through it and thought that it looked very interesting. I had never heard of the Peter Bruff, who was mentioned on numerous occasions within its pages.

I became fascinated by the story of how this man had been trained by a legend of the early railway world, Joseph Locke, on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) in the 1830‘s. Locke had been influential in getting him an appointment working directly for John Braithwaite on the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) in 1840. They were building a line from London to Norwich. Unfortunately, they ran out of money by the time the line reached Colchester. Bruff, having been sacked by the ECR, had surveyed an alternative, cheaper route to Ipswich and eventually on to Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. To do this the Eastern Union and Ipswich and Bury Railways were formed with Bruff as engineer in charge. These later became part of the Great Eastern Railway (GER) in 1862.

I could not understand at first how I had missed Bruff’s name when I had been a GER enthusiast for sixty years. The reason was that few of the significant recorders of Great Eastern Railway history had ever given him more than a passing mention.

Peter Bruff in middle age (reproduced with kind permission of Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich branch, HD2816/1/1/42)

There he sat in a photograph in the book, a man in middle age – a typical picture of the successful Victorian – confident and in charge of his life. A man who had walked the same streets as I had, a century and a half before me.

Returning to the book: the author, Hugh Moffat, was recorded as living at Clopton in Suffolk. On the cover was the reproduction of a painting by a fellow member of the Ipswich and District Historical Transport Society, Ken Leighton. I rang Ken and he told me that Hugh had also been a founder member of the society and had moved to Felixstowe.

Hugh filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge concerning Peter Bruff’s life. He also asked me to find a home for his collection of railway related slides. They are now on permanent loan to the Suffolk Records Office. They include many of the photographs appearing in Hugh’s book.

I wrote a piece on Bruff’s life for the Ipswich Society Newsletter and eventually constructed a talk describing the story of the building of the line from Colchester to Bury St Edmunds. I have given this talk some thirty times over the last six or seven years and began to feel that I had grown to know this man known as ‘The Brunel of the East’. I read with interest Ruth Serjeant’s work uncovering the private life and family of this busy man. It was clear from Ruth’s article that he and his wife had their worries concerning their large family and their antics.

I talked to John Blatchly and Doug Harper about him and they gave me some A1 size drawings of the opening of the Eastern Union Railway. They were drawn by Fred Russel, a well-known Ipswich-based artist of the early to mid-nineteenth century, showing a scene at the first Ipswich Station in Croft Street on that June day in 1846. Peter Bruff is shown standing with the man who had helped him to gain support for the line, John Chevallier Cobbold.

I began to think about a blue plaque to celebrate Bruff’s life in 2011 and I expressed the thought in a letter to Neil Salmon – then responsible for plaque installation for The Ipswich Society committee. Neil was positive about this but there were problems which I mulled over with Neil’s successor, Tony Marsden. Where were we going to install it? Handford Lodge in Handford Road, where Bruff lived for fifty years, had been demolished ninety years before and the current Ipswich Station might present practical difficulties.

I had hopes when a new block of flats was constructed by McCarthy and Stone on the site near where the entrance gates to Handford Lodge had once stood. I suggested that the building might be named Bruff Lodge. It was decided, however, that a more logical name would be Booth Court since Handford Lodge had been the home of William Henry Booth after Bruff had died. Booth was a coal merchant who had donated his substantial art collection to Ipswich Corporation.

Tony was hoping to install the Bruff plaque on the building but ultimately it was decided that the railway station in Burrell Road was a more appropriate location particularly as it was about to undergo a major facelift.

Tony Robson took over as officer-commanding-plaques in the mid-2010s. He asked me to make contact with Abellio Greater Anglia with a view to installing the plaque on a wall at the entrance to the station. A simple instruction – but, as it transpired, not an easy one to action. Greater Anglia are easily contacted if one wants timetable information but anything else isalmost impossible.

Eventually I rang Councillor  Mandy Gaylard and she suggested that Cllr. Phil Smart might be able to help with supplying a contact name. Phil has a special interest in transport matters and was a key person in getting the new roads in the Stoke area named after such railway luminaries as Peppercorn, Gresley and our hero; Peter Bruff. He gave me the name and contact details of Paul Oxley, Greater Anglia Public Affairs Manager, stationed in their London office. The latter was very helpful and keen that the project should go ahead. Having made contact, Tony Robson continued further negotiations with Greater Anglia.

It was agreed that the most appropriate location for the plaque would be on a wall at the entrance to the station above a Victorian post box. Eventual installation of the plaque was delayed somewhat – one of the reasons being that Paul Oxley moved on to pastures new. Alan Neville soon took up the baton on behalf of Greater Anglia and the plaque was eventually installed in March 2019 by a contractor.

I began to think about the unveiling ceremony and who we could invite to carry out the task. It would be very appropriate if we could find a descendant of Bruff – but how to do that? It is very easy now, with the advent of the internet, to trace ancestors but the tracing of descendants is another matter.

Mrs Ginnie Jani with her daughters Nisha and Maya with Mr Peter Bruff beneath the unveiled plaque.

I had one clue. Bruff’s daughter; Elizabeth Kate (born 1840/41) had married a Newson Garrett. This was one of the famous Garrett family of Snape and Leiston. I decided to ring the Longshop Museum at Leiston to see if they had any genealogical information which would help in the task. The man I spoke to there helped me make contact with a lady who was an expert on Garrett family history, Margaret Young.

She had the contact details of a lady who is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Kate and great great granddaughter of Peter Schuyler Bruff. Mrs Virginia Jani lives in Shepherd’s Bush in London. It was arranged for her and her two daughters (3 times granddaughters of Bruff) to come to the unveiling of the plaque on 17 June.

At the eleventh hour; Mike Cook was contacted by a man in Leeds named Peter Bruff. His grandfather was Peter John Bruff (born 1845) who emigrated to Norway and he himself was brought up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (formerly Northern Rhodesia). The family had moved there in about 1910. The Leeds-based Peter Bruff was therefore the great grandson of our Peter Schuyler. The former had seen mention of his ancestor on the Ipswich Society website and, of course, he and his wife were also invited to the unveiling.

On the morning of Monday 17 June 2019 a large group of people assembled at Ipswich Station. Our guests of honour, the descendants of Mr Bruff ,were present. After a short introduction by John Norman and myself, the plaque was unveiled by Mrs Jani and Mr Peter Bruff. Photographs were taken and an interview was conducted with Mrs Jani by Radio Suffolk. We all then adjourned to the Railway Hotel opposite for a finger buffet and drinks: the end of a successful blue plaque adventure.

My sincere thanks to Tony Marsden and especially Tony Robson for all their efforts in bringing this project to fruition.

Merv Russen