Sir Samuel Morton Peto was an English entrepreneur, civil engineer and railway developer. He was just 31 when he was awarded the contract for building the replacement Houses of Parliament. This was after fire destroyed the former building in 1834.
He began his civil engineering career at an early age. He was apprenticed as a bricklayer in his uncle’s building company. In 1830, after his uncle died, he went into partnership with his cousin. The firm of Grissell and Peto managed construction firms that built many major buildings and monuments in London. These included The Reform Club, The Lyceum Theatre, Nelson’s Column and the new Houses of Parliament. It was this last contract that made Morton Peto a millionaire.
Morton Peto then became interested in the building of the rapidly expanding railways of the time. In 1846/47 he formed a new partnership of Peto and Betts. With this partnership he was responsible for building the Corkscrew Railway.
He went on to build many of the English railways constructed at the time. He also built railways abroad in Denmark, Germany, Algeria and Canada. In 1854 he built the railway in Crimea used to transport supplies to the British army fighting in the Crimean War. In 1855 he was knighted for his war work.
Peto built everything from railways, docks, and harbours to factory towns, dormitory towns, Baptist chapels, dance halls and holiday resorts. He helped to finance the Great Exhibition of 1851, backing Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
Morton Peto was known as a good employer in his day. He was a devout Methodist. He campaigned for the reform of the Truck Acts where wages were given to employees in the form of vouchers that could only be spent in company shops. Morton Peto was a Member of Parliament for 20 years until his business collapsed in the 1860s.
The end of Railway Mania affected Morton Peto’s business. He became bankrupt in 1866 and went in to exile in 1868 to Budapest in Hungary. While living there he promoted railway construction in both Hungary and Russia.
One of his many children was Harold Peto, the celebrated landscape architect. Harold Peto designed many influential gardens of the late 19th and early 20th century in England and France. Harold Peto often worked in collaboration with Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.