George Hudson was born on 10 March 1800 at Howsham, 12 miles north-east of York, the fifth son of farmer John Hudson and his wife Elizabeth (née Ruston). Elizabeth died when George was six and his father two years later. The older brothers inherited the family farms and brought up George until, at the age of 14 or 15, he was sent to York to become an apprentice at drapers Bell & Nicholson.
Trading from premises on the corner of College Street and Goodramgate, now occupied by the National Trust, Bell & Nicholson was to become one of York’s largest businesses and, in the twentieth century, was acquired by Courtaulds. George completed his apprenticeship in 1820 and, in 1821, he married Nicholson’s daughter, Elizabeth, and was given a share in the company. When Bell retired, George replaced him and the firm became Nicholson & Hudson. Elizabeth and George had four children and, throughout the ups and downs of his career, Elizabeth always stood by her husband, although members of society rather looked down on her because she came from a family “in trade” and her manners were considered somewhat uncouth. All four children did well in later life. George Jnr was called to the bar; John joined the army and was killed in the Indian Mutiny; William became a doctor; and Anne married Polish Count Suminski.
A large inheritance
As a partner in York’s most successful business, George was already a wealthy man when, in 1827, he inherited £5,000 from his great-uncle, Matthew Bottrill. Towards the end of Matthew’s life, George, who lived nearby, was a frequent visitor. There is some speculation that George may have influenced the writing of Matthew’s will, drafted shortly before his death; in the final section, George is named as residuary legatee and executor. The £5,000 legacy did not include land values and it is thought that George, in fact, inherited nearer to £30,000, equivalent to around £3 million today.
George was now one of the richest men in York and he moved into his great-uncle’s fine Georgian townhouse at 44 Monkgate. He became treasurer of the local Tory party at the election following the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and, in the following year, he played a leading part in the establishment of the York Union Banking Company, in which he was the largest shareholder. In 1833 he had also joined a scheme to prepare plans for a possible York to Leeds railway. This rail consortium appointed John Rennie, a well-known engineer, to survey possible routes. George often accompanied him on these trips, in the process learning much about the railway business. In 1835 he was elected councillor for Monk Ward; the following year he became an alderman and then Lord Mayor of York in 1837. This was the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria and, to celebrate her birthday, George held a grand parade and dinner for 14,000 York people. His generous hosting of balls and dances continued over several years and the Hudsons entertained many members of the aristocracy at their Knightsbridge home in London in the 1840s.
In 1839 George became Lord Mayor again in time for the opening of his railway between York and Leeds. Although, in terms of miles, this was only a small railway, it was an important cross-link with other lines which eventually merged to form the York & North Midland Railway with George as its chairman and George Stephenson, already a celebrated builder of locomotives, as his engineer. The year before he had also gained control of eight small rail companies to form the Darlington to York line.
By 1844 George Hudson controlled more than 1,000 miles of railway and, in partnership with George Stephenson, he was also investing in mines, quarries and ironworks. Although he controlled the City of York Council, he could not control the parliamentary constituency which was held by the Liberals. However, he managed to secure a parliamentary seat for Sunderland which he retained until 1859. He invested heavily in the constituency, building the railway station at Monkwearmouth and carrying out substantial improvements to Sunderland docks for which the city remained grateful even when George’s reputation had taken a plunge.
In 1845 York Corporation debated a proposal for a London to York railway to run through St Neots and Peterborough but Hudson was quick to oppose it. Although the route would reduce journey times, he saw that it would undercut his own existing lines. However, he did support other projects which would benefit York. On his election for a third term as Lord Mayor in 1846, he set out to persuade the Council to invest in the building of Lendal Bridge which he would organise. Many thought this was an extravagance at a cost of £20-30,000 and the Liberal MP for York, George Leeman, led the opposition, saying it would only benefit Hudson’s railway station. However, the bridge was built and now forms a vital part of the city’s transport infrastructure.
In the mid-nineteenth century the Government, particularly William Gladstone as President of the Board of Trade, became concerned about the extent of railway speculation. In 1845, 800 companies had tried to get bills through Parliament to build new lines and George Stephenson began to suspect that George Hudson’s financial affairs may not be as they should be. Towards the end of 1845 Gladstone wrote: Hudson has become too great a man for me now. … I am not at all satisfied at the way the Newcastle and Berwick line has been carried on and I do not intend to take any more active part in it. I have made Hudson a rich man but he will very soon care for nobody except he can get money by them.
Irregular financial manipulation, often involving electoral bribery and illegal share dealing, was a common practice during this period, and George became caught up in these questionable practices. He was certainly a very wealthy man. In 1845, he bought the 12,000-acre Londesborough estate, near Market Weighton, from the Duke of Devonshire for £470,000, partly hoping to block a competitor from opening a line between York and Hull. A private railway station, Londesborough Park, was built on the York to Beverley line for Hudson’s personal use. In the same year, he bought Newby Park near Thirsk from Earl de Grey which he remodelled and renamed Baldersby Park – now home to Queen Mary’s School – and a new London townhouse, Albert Gate in Knightsbridge, close to one of the entrances to Hyde Park which is now the French Embassy. Even though his fortunes had plunged by this time, the 1851 census shows that, at Albert Gate, he still kept a domestic staff of 15.
It was becoming clear that the Hudson railways could no longer compete with the commercial need for through, fast routes. Unable to stop the direct London to York route being built, he tried to put together a parallel line by extending the Eastern Counties Railway but this was an uncompetitive option. By now dividends and share prices in railway stock were falling but, ignoring the reality, Hudson continued to buy or lease new routes. He began to pay dividends out of share capital and, as a last resort, sold his own shares and also land he did not own to the York, Newcastle & Berwick Company. Committees of enquiry were set up by the boards of his various companies and he was called to appear before Parliament. However, as a sitting MP, he could not be prosecuted for debt. Although, on paper, he owned a quarter of the country’s rail network, he was forced to relinquish all of his chairmanships during the spring of 1849. Having occasionally been one of his greatest critics, The Times nevertheless was quick to point out that the system itself was to blame, not George Hudson himself: a system without rule, without order, without even a definite morality…. He had to do everything out of his own head, and among lesser problems to discover the ethics of railway speculation and management … Mr. Hudson’s position was not only new to himself, but absolutely a new thing in the world altogether.
Although George sold most of his assets to pay some of his debts, during Parliamentary recess he was forced to travel to France to escape his creditors. Elizabeth attempted to arrange for him to pay off his debts by instalments but very little was repaid in this way. He lost the Sunderland parliamentary seat in the 1859 election and then lived abroad permanently until he was tempted back to stand for Whitby in the election of 1865. A few days before the election, his enemies had him arrested for fraud. He was tried in York and served three months in prison. When released, he retired to Topcliffe and friends subscribed to buy him an annuity of £600 a year. He now lived with his loyal wife at Churton Street in Pimlico which is where he died in 1871. He was buried at Scrayingham, a few miles south of his birthplace of Howsham.
In a reassessment of George Hudson’s life, his biographer, Robert Beaumont, writes: He is greatly misunderstood. Whilst his financial practices were dubious, to say the least, his legacy was Britain’s great rail network, which he almost single-handedly created in ten absolutely fantastic years. He had amazing energy and vision. At his height, he was the richest man in England, and the Times estimated that thousands upon thousands of jobs were dependent on him.
Michael Reed, ‘Hudson, George [the Railway King] (1800-1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2004; online edn, January 2008, accessed 22 August 2017)
Robert Beaumont, The Railway King, A biography of George Hudson, railway pioneer and fraudster (London, 2002)
Michael Hopkinson, Six Yorkshire Legacies, (York, 2012)
© Dinah Tyszka