(The Great Central Railway’s Coat of Arms)
In the early 20th century, 2 railway companies battled it out for passengers between London and the Midlands. The first, the erstwhile Midland Railway, was much more established, had created a lavish terminus in London, and made handsome profits running trains not just to the Midlands, but to Scotland and even as far south as Bristol.
The second, the newly renamed Great Central, was a rather different affair. Lead by the visionary Sir Edward Watkin, the company had grown out of the old Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR). MSLR trains were famed neither for comfort nor speed. Neither were the financial results of the railway particularly impressive, though Watkin managed to keep their heads above water. The main traffic was coal from the South Yorkshire coal fields, unglamourous but money-making work.
Watkin, the son of a cotton merchant, had started work in his father’s business, but was far more interested in politics. When he sought to marry his first wife, Mary Mellor, who was richer than him, he had got involved in railways, as a way of making money, and soon rose up the ranks, being head-hunted by the MSLR in 1854. The cotton merchant’s son soon gained a reputation for rescuing the finances of struggling railways, along the way earning a knighthood.
Watkin, far from being the stuffy chairman of a second-rate railway, was a hugely ambitious man. He saw the possibility of running trains to continental Europe via a Channel tunnel, and even set up a company, the interestingly named Anglo-French Submarine Railway Company, to explore options for the route of such a venture. This was not as ridiculous as it sounded – Watkin was on the board of the MSLR, the Metropolitan Railway, the South Eastern Railway, and Chemin de Fer du Nord, a French railway company, and would have linked all of them beautifully.
Unfortunately, it was not the difficult engineering that killed off the idea – the government feared that a French army might use the tunnel to invade the UK, and so the work never really got going. This notion was even more ridiculous than the concept itself (where better to trap an army than a narrow tunnel?) but carried weight with a nationalistic public.
Undeterred, Watkin sought to expand the MSLR. To truly count itself among the best railways, it was going to need to go to London, and attract the great and the good of the day. Watkin, however, would not be satisfied with any old railway. The London Extension, as it was then called, was to be built wider, in the continental style, flatter, and straighter, to enable fast running. Structures were to be built, not of whatever was to hand, but from handsome blue engineer’s brick.
And indeed it was a very well engineered railway, though not a cheap one. Labour costs had risen dramatically since most other railways had been built, thanks to newer legislation written in the 19th century, pushing up the overall cost. It was no surprise that at the end of the line, the London terminus, Marylebone, was less spectacular than most. Budget cuts had meant that it had a mere 4 platforms, and was designed by a housebuilder, rather than an architect. Marylebone proved handsome, but unspectacular. In 1899, Watkin, now aged 80, attended the opening ceremony in a bath chair, 5 years after his retirement. He would be dead 2 years later.
While all this had been going on, the Midland Railway had been expanding its way across the country. Under the brilliant management of James Allport, the company had built its own London extension, culminating in the magnificent St. Pancras station, featuring what was at the time the largest single span in the world. This new line would cost Allport 10 years of hard work, but by 1867, the Midland could boast a new 4 track mainline, with plenty of space for slow freight and fast passenger trains.
Not content with this, the Midland sought to capitalise on Scottish traffic, following the fashion Queen Victoria had started for Scottish holidays. In order to do this, they would have to build a line to Carlisle, to connect with the Glasgow & South Western Railway. Unfortunately, this would be no mean feat, as it meant building a line across the freezing, isolated Blea Moor, and constructing several bridges and tunnels. This line, christened the Settle & Carlisle, is one of the world’s best scenic railways to this day, and opened in 1875.
Allport was also something of a publicity genius. Realising that the long, winding Midland route to Scotland would never be able to compete on journey times with its competitors, he instead decided to focus on passenger comfort. There was a substantial number of 3rd class passengers wanting to travel long distances, which other companies had largely ignored, even going so far as to remove 3rd class carriages from their trains. Allport decided instead to institute 3rd class on all trains, and bring 3rd class up to 2nd class standard. 2nd class would be upgraded to 1st class standards, and then abolished. To cater for the luxury market, Pullman coaches, famed for their comfort, would be brought in, and inserted into Anglo-Scottish trains.
The results were dramatic – the upstart Midland earned the ire of the North Eastern, and more importantly the London & North Western Railway (at that time the largest commercial enterprise in the British Empire). The Midland’s place in railway history had been sealed. Work finished, Allport retired from the post of General Manager in 1880. He died in 1892.
The work of these 2 great men – Watkin and Allport – had, at least in theory, set the scene of a showdown between the railways. In the red corner, the slow but luxurious Midland, with its great experience and capacity. In the green corner, the new kid on the block, the fast, new Great Central, with their enterprise and pluck.
But, at least initially, the showdown did not happen. This was because the Great Central was simply not pulling in the punters. Even by 1910, the GC was pulling in 2s 2d per mile on their express services, against expenses of 3s 6d. Meanwhile, on the Midland, it was business as usual. Round 1 to the Midland Railway, it might seem.
Clearly, the Great Central needed another great man. In 1902, they brought in a man from the London & South Western Railway (LSWR), Sam Fay, as the new General Manager. Fay had extensive experience of railway management, having joined the LSWR aged just 15, and having saved the Midland & South Western Junction Railway from insolvency by 1897. He had in fact left an up-market education to join the LSWR because he was simply fascinated by railways. Clearly then, the man for the job.
Fay immediately set to work fixing the finances of the with Great Central, by focusing on alternative markets. He realised that, while fast express services were the flagships of the line, they would never be money makers, so, while he kept them, he also brought in a raft of other trains.
Firstly, the Great Central struck a deal with the neighbouring Metropolitan Railway, on running suburban trains via Rickmansworth and Aylesbury, with services being run by both companies. Far better rolling stock was also introduced, to attract wealthier passengers commuting into London from the new suburbs. A deal was also struck with the Great Western, with trains running via High Wycombe and Princes Risborough.
At the other end of the line, in Manchester, timings were improved on Cheshire Lines Committee trains connecting with Great Central expresses. Connections with other lines were exploited, with cross country services being introduced on what seem today bizarre routes, such as Liverpool – Cromer, all with excellent catering that became a Great Central trademark. Freight, too, would get an upgrade, with express services operating from most points of the Central system. The central position of the line was easy to exploit, as it gave a faster route for cross country freight.
Backing up all of this was a flair for publicity unmatched at the time. Huge numbers of posters were produced, promoting GC services both large and small, all designed to grab the public’s attention. One poster, advertising excursion trains, even correctly predicted the outcome of the 1904 FA Cup final. Fay did not stop there though – the Great Central acquired the travel agents Dean & Dawson, to promote the GC’s services.
In 1912, after many years of work, Fay opened the GC owned dock complex at Immingham, which handled coal, fish, and a variety of other traffics. The complex covered 1000 acres of land, contained 150 miles of sidings for goods wagons, and could berth the largest vessels at any state of the tide. This new facility was so impressive that, at the grand opening, King George V knighted Fay on the spot.
So who would win round 2 of this epic contest, with the Great Central no longer a financial disaster? In truth, round 2 would also go to the Midland. You see, while there had been no great change in the Midland’s main business, people are nothing if not creatures of habit. Most long distance passengers had already picked their favourite line before the Great Central had arrived and saw no need to change. Indeed, there were few populous places on the Great Central’s London extension that were not already served by the Midland or London & North Western.
Tragically, there would not be a round 3. In 1914, following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Europe, and ultimately the world, was plunged into the most terrible war yet seen. Britain, answering the plight of Belgium, went to war against Germany, sending the British Expeditionary Force, with high hopes of repulsing the German advance.
Following the Battle of the Marne, the war, in the West at least, soon descended into stalemate. Battles now lasted days or even weeks, not hours. Barbed wire, shells, guns, bombs, aircraft and a huge number of machines were required for the new age of industrial warfare. All would be required in substantial quantities for even the smallest of gains, along with countless millions of troops, who would fight, and die, for the next 4 years.
Such an environment placed crushing strain on the railway network, which, for the first time, would be controlled centrally by the new Railway Executive Committee. Lines would be pushed to carry as many trains of munitions and war supplies as they possibly could. Some light railways had their trackwork pushed beyond its limits with heavy trains, requiring a complete rebuild following the war.
This was made worse by many of the railway workers volunteering for military service. Manpower shortages were something almost all railways of the time would have to struggle with, and led to a radical social change – for the first time, women would work in large numbers on the railway. Unfortunately, after the war, many of the women were let go, as the surviving men returned.
Suffice to say, the Midland and Great Central emerged from the war in absolutely no position to compete with one another. The maintenance backlog would simply prove too great. Besides, the Railway Executive Committee would not cede power back to the old companies until August 1921, by which time the government was quietly slipping out of promises to reimburse the railway firms. It is doubtful if any of them were ever paid back in full.
The end of the war had brought with it a new political climate too. Heady, Edwardian optimism was now replaced with austerity and caution. On the railway question, some favoured nationalisation, particularly the newly emboldened socialists, but instead, it was decided to amalgamate more than 120 railway companies into 4 regional ones, with some exceptions. The Railways Act came into force on the 19th August 1921, and companies had until June 1923 to amalgamate.
The Great Central became part of the London North Eastern Railway (LNER, a name which has reappeared recently), a company with far too much on its plate as it was. The LNER, always a financial basket case, would go on to create some of the most iconic trains, including many streamliners, culminating in the record breaking “Mallard”. Regrettable, management would concentrate on the East Coast Mainline. Secondary lines, as the GC was considered, were not prioritised.
The Midland Railway became part of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), which became immediately embroiled in power struggles as the powerful constituents struggled to get along. It would not be until the arrival of a certain William Stanier much later that the LMS really got its act together. The LMS would compete with the LNER, but it would be a competition based on the West and East Coast Mainlines, and the Midland Mainline would prove something of a Cinderella – never being invited to the ball.
By 1948, following yet another terrible world war, the railways were again reorganised. The big four, as they had been known, and the other small railway companies, were absorbed into British Railways (BR), the new nationalised system. Again, the GC and the Midland would find themselves at the bottom of the pile, while BR’s new regions concentrated on lines elsewhere.
Worse was to come. In an attempt to stem catastrophic financial losses on BR, Dr Richard Beeching had been brought in from chemical firm ICI. Dr Beeching immediately set to work, trying to find the source of the money wastage. He pointed out what seems obvious to us now – having 2 routes that served much of the same area was inefficient, and that, to save money, one would have to go.
Here Beeching faced a difficult choice. If he chose the Great Central, he would sacrifice the faster line, and reduce the connections between, say, Rugby and Nottingham. If he chose the Midland, he would sacrifice the line with more capacity, and potentially cut off important marshalling yards and parts of the Nottinghamshire coal fields. Calculations were made, figures watched. Eventually a decision was reached, and it appeared in his report.
The Midland, that well-established favourite of the Victorian public, the scenic route, the 4 track mainline, was to be spared the axe. The Great Central was to be killed off. Though many people protested, some very vocally, there was little choice – Beeching had to go with the line that most people were using, and, over 60 years after its creation, it still wasn’t the Great Central. The Midland Mainline, as it was now called, was far from perfect, and still was yet to receive modern signalling. Even so, with some investments, it survives as a main line.
By 1969, the last service train had run on the Great Central, and it was a rather disappointing stopping train, and only over a short section. It would not even run to the main Nottingham Victoria station of the Great Central, this being almost completely demolished.
Fortunately, a group of enthusiasts clubbed together to try to save some of the Great Central. They found most of the stations were demolished quickly, but some remained, albeit in very poor condition, which they set about restoring. Eventually, through their hard work, a short section was opened from Loughborough Central, to Leicester North, which is on the site of the former Belgrave & Birstall station. Another section was also opened, though not as fully restored, from Ruddington to Loughborough, though not connected.
You can visit these railways today, and both run heritage trains. I would particularly recommend the section from Loughborough Central to Leicester North, called simply the Great Central Railway. While Leicester North is not prototypical, the other stations on the line have been beautifully restored, as they would have been in various eras. Rothley, a fairly minor station in the lines’ heyday, has been restored to its original condition, and gives something of a feel for the era.
But there we are, I have been waffling on for far too long at this point, and shall wish you an excellent day.
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