The story of Sir Edward Watkin's life work: The Great Central: rise and fall

The story of Sir Edward Watkin’s life work: The Great Central: rise and fall

Yesterday was a proud day for our veteran railroad diplomatist, Sir Edward Watkin, since it saw the curtain raised on the first act of an enterprise which has taken him nearly half a century to plan, build up, and execute. Yesterday, in fact, there duly occurred the opening to goods traffic of what is commonly termed the “fifth line to London”, a phrase which ignores the Great Western and does not take into account the railway companies south of the Thames. The prologue, however, has been long and tiring enough in all conscience. There are not many men who would have had the dogged courage to persevere in the teeth of the fierce opposition, the personal attacks, to which both the projector and the scheme itself have been subjected. Many persons think that the idea of what was formerly the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company having an independent access to London originated only some twenty years ago. This is wrong, for from the time when Sir – then Mr Edward – Watkin, as a precociously young railroad manager, first became connected with the company in the early “fifties” it would appear that he deliberately set himself down to scheme for its ultimate independence by such means. In certain quarters – mainly prejudiced ones – his efforts in this direction have been aspersed by charges of breach of faith, and underhand dealings etc. These, however, only furnish a typical instance of the pot calling the kettle black, for it was proved before the Committee of 1891 that the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire policy had been but a repetition of that which its opponents had not hesitated to use in their own early struggles.

A bowstring girder bridge carried the line into Nottingham, seen here in 1989 before its subsequent demolition.
Photo: Tony Fisher (Flickr)

The story of the Great Central is a long-drawn-out one. To commence with, it will be necessary to go back as far as 1857, the year which saw the ratification of the famous “fifty years’ agreement” between the Great Northern and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Companies. This arrangement primarily concerned with the conveyance of traffic between London and Lancashire by an alliance between the two companies enumerated, came about as follows. Up till that year the North-Western, besides possessing the monopoly of the Manchester traffic, was to all practical purposes the dictator of all companies serving the North Midland counties, the Sheffield and Midland playing subsidiary parts. The one spark of opposition the Euston autocrats encountered was towards the east, where the Great Northern steadily refused to fall down and worship. In the spring of 1857, however, the North-Western adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards its distant rival, and through its manager, Captain Huish, issued a feeler, suggesting a combine, which would have the effect of parcelling out the great commercial centres of the Kingdom to the exclusion of all rivals.

Looking north towards the south portal of Weekday Cross Tunnel.
Photo: Tony Fisher (Flickr)

An alliance in self defence

Such an alliance carried on the face of it extinction to the Sheffield Company, and an almost hopeless struggle for existence on the part of the Midland, and the former company was alarmed beyond measure at seeing its death warrant dangling before its eyes. But almost simultaneously with the receipt of the Euston proposal a brilliant idea had entered into the brain of the Great Northern directorate. Since 1851 Great Northern trains had been running to Sheffield via Retford Junction. Why, then, should not the Sheffield Company be induced to shift its allegiance and continue the connection to Manchester, thus penetrating into the very heart of the North-Western territory? Accordingly, the Great Northern directors temporized with Captain Huish while they quietly made overtures to the Sheffield people with this object. A fish-dinner at Grimsby, where Mr Edward Watkin was introduced to his future partners, clinched the matter. It was arranged that a joint service to Manchester for a term of fifty years should be started by this route, the Sheffield company to be given a bonus mileage on the division of the through London traffic, the instigators guaranteeing that the same in gross should never fall below £10,000 per week. This joint service was inaugurated on August 1st, 1857, and though the distance from King’s Cross to Manchester was twenty miles longer than the North-Western route, the Great Northern trains were scheduled to accomplish the journey in the same time. Nothing could exceed the fury of the North-Western management when it discovered how it had been outwitted, and that too by the agency of the despised corporation which only a few weeks before had been at its beck and call. As the Sheffield company’s Manchester terminus was owned jointly with the North-Western, Captain Huish, in the madness of his wrath, gave orders that all passengers arriving there from King’s Cross were to be arrested as trespassers, and this was actually done, until the officials caught a tartar in a lawyer who successfully prosecuted them for illegal detention.

The Rushton-St Pancras plot

The Great Central was in tunnel through much of Nottingham.
Photo: Tony Fisher (Flickr)

Although the Great Northern-Sheffield amalgamation proved a great success, the partners in the same were not so well-agreed as appearances warranted. The Great Northern from the outset looked upon the Sheffield company as a flirt, always ready for a fresh liaison, while the latter in turn refused to place much reliance on its patron’s good faith. That the Great Northern Company’s suspicious were not ill-founded is proved from the fact that early in the “Sixties” a Sheffield-Midland intrigue – executed, it should be added, without Mr Watkin’s approval – resulted in the latter company gaining access to Lancashire via Buxton and New Mills. This intrigue, however, was nothing as compared to that which occurred in 1872-73, and which opened the eyes of the Great Northern to the fact that its Manchester partner was a very slippery customer indeed. At that period a great coal rate war was in progress, and the Sheffield Company, giving as their excuse that the Great Northern was not running sufficient mineral trains to London in connection with their own from the South Yorkshire coalfields, approached the Midland authorities with a scheme by which their trains might effect a junction at Rushton and reach London by the use of the new terminus at St Pancras. As a matter of fact, the Great Northern Company was not to blame; the coal-masters themselves had limited their output to keep up the prices, hence the scarcity was not due to a defective train service. This plot culminated in a thirty days’ fight before Committee, the result being that the Midland-Sheffield project was rejected. After this, however, the Great Northern slept with one eye open. It should be noticed, though, that the chief importance of this, which is in reality too complicated a struggle to give in detail, lies in the fact of the Sheffield Company openly proclaiming that the Lancashire traffic was no longer the beginning and ending of things. The next attack opened in another direction.

A skilful feint

Another substantial girder bridge remained intact in 1989.
Photo: Tony Fisher (Flickr)

Early in the Eighties the Metropolitan Railway gained parliamentary permission to extend its Harrow branch to Aylesbury, and in 1889 the Sheffield Company, in depositing a bill for the construction of a line from its station at Beighton, near Sheffield, to Annesley, in Nottinghamshire (to which the Great Northern already had a branch from Nottingham), informed its partner that the object was a twofold one – namely, to gain access to the North Derbyshire coalfields, and to affect a convenient junction with the Great Northern Company’s rather isolated branch. “It would then be possible”, added Sir Edward Watkin, “for my trains to use your Leen Valley line to Nottingham, and you, in your turn, could run from Nottingham to Sheffield by a new and direct route.” But the Great Northern people were not to be hoodwinked. They detected a suspicious relationship between Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln and Metropolitan activity. Accordingly, their answer was as follows: We agree to the arrangement provided you give us running powers from Retford to Manchester, and further, bind your company not to promote any southern extension of your own or of any other company beyond Nottingham. The Sheffield Company declared that such stipulations were unreasonable, and succeeded in carrying the Annesley Bill through the Commons. The Great Northern, invoking the aid of the Midland, appealed to the Lords. The result was a compromise, the Sheffield Company declaring it would not use its running powers over the Annesley-Nottingham line as a means of going further south. Accordingly, opposition was withdrawn, and the bill passed. In the meantime, Sir Edward had met with defeat in a scheme for extending the Metropolitan system to Worcester; and this failure led him to throw off the mask and declare openly for a new line to London, for the construction and working of which he invited the amicable co-operation of the Great Northern. To avoid a breach of faith under the 1889 compromise, this line was to be an entirely new one, from Annesley to Nottingham, thence to run via Loughborough, Leicester, Rugby and Brackley, until it made a junction with the Metropolitan extension at Quainton Road. The bill for this line, ninety-two miles in length, was deposited in the autumn of 1890, and immediately denounced by Lord Colville, the Great Northern chairman, as “a measure subversive of all good faith towards a friendly company.” The great fight before Committee commenced in April, 1891, and if the flowers of rhetoric employed by counsel on either side did not quite come up to the standard of  “King” Hudson’s period, some of them were sufficiently amusing. The preamble of the bill was decided as not proved, and for a few brief weeks there was great rejoicing in the camp of the hostile triumvirate, consisting of the Great Northern, the Midland and North-Western companies. Sir Edward, however, refused to accept the defeat as such, and so indomitable was his attitude that in the following autumn negotiations were opened between Sir Henry Oakley and Mr Pollitt. The result was another compromise, and this time a final one. The terms of the agreement by which the Great Northern consented to withdraw their opposition were as follows: The Great Northern to have full access to its joint property in Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire; to have running powers over all the MS&L lines west of Sheffield and north of Nottingham; to have a half-share in the central station to be built at Nottingham, and to construct a junction line to the latter, thus furnishing an alternative route, via Grantham and Colwick, through Nottingham to Sheffield and Manchester. In its turn, the MS&L obtained running powers over all the Great Northern lines north of Doncaster.

Reasons for the railway

The remains of Carrington Station.
Photo: Tony Fisher (Flickr)

Accordingly, the bill for the new line to London was reintroduced in 1892 when it successfully passed, but owing to the dissolution of Parliament did not obtain the Royal assent until the beginning of 1893. On November 13, 1894 the first sod was turned by the Countess of Wharncliffe in the garden of a house in Alpha Road, St John’s Wood, a ceremony which was immediately followed by the turning loose of 40,000 men upon the works, who have continued uninterruptedly ever since. With the exception of the London “cut-and-cover” tunnels and the long one just south of Rugby, the new line has presented no engineering works of any difficulty or magnitude. By it, Manchester will be 202 miles distant from Baker Street, as against 183½ miles from Euston, 185 miles from St Pancras, and 203½ miles from King’s Cross via Retford. It will be seen, consequently, that the new line to London is not, as is frequently supposed, a short cut to a district already liberally served. What, then, is its object, its raison d’être? The answer is that the Great Central, unlike the generality of new lines, appears on the scene with its traffic created. The company up to the present transfers 66 per cent of its traffic, or about two million tons annually, to be transported to London by other companies, Grimsby alone accounting for 80,000 tons of fish. This, it is urged, is an injustice; the company responsible for the creation and growth of this commercial activity should have the opportunity of seeing it through to its destination. Moreover, there can be little doubt that the new line is tapping an important and hitherto insufficiently exploited area of coalfields in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Besides, the existing lines cannot furnish a train service suitable to the requirements of increasing prosperity and population in those neighbourhoods; and the system of “poulticing” the former is wrong in principle, and an unjust restraint upon a perfectly legitimate enterprise seeking its natural outlet. And that the Great Central has proved its case will be the opinion of most persons who have studied the matter. The change of name took place in the spring of 1897. The original idea was for the title to be “Central Railway” but this was abandoned, as it was feared that the initials “CR” on locomotives and rolling stock might cause confusion with the Caledonian and Cambrian Railways.

From the Pall Mall Gazette (26th July 1898)