Plaques in York Station

Development of the railways in Victorian Britain would fuel the Industrial Revolution and revolutionise the social structure of the nation. From 1840 York was a major hub in the growing network and the surviving buildings and infrastructure are tangible reminders of the key role played by the city and some of its leading entrepreneurs in laying down the foundations of today’s railways.

Railway mania

Opened in 1825, the Stockton to Darlington railway was the first public railway to use steam locomotives and, in 1830, the Manchester to Liverpool Railway was the first to have double tracks throughout, a signalling system and a timetable of services. It soon became apparent that fortunes could be made by investing in this new technology and the success of the early lines launched a period of “railway mania” in the 1840s. The mania reached its peak in 1846 when 272 Acts of Parliament to establish new railway companies were passed; 9,500 miles of railways were proposed, a third of which were never built. In a boom and bust cycle which still dogs the UK economy, railway shares soon fell out of favour; constructing lines through challenging terrain led to escalating costs, profits proved elusive and the Bank of England raised interest rates in 1845 making other types of investment more attractive. However, when the bust came, although many ordinary citizens lost their life-savings, the country was left with an unrivalled railway network which would continue to grow, though many lines would never make a profit.

The Railway King

During the railway boom, there was no national network strategy, simply a range of uncoordinated groups who hoped to profit from the use of the new technology. However, there was one entrepreneur in York who did have a strategic vision: George Hudson, and he dominated the early history of Britain’s railways. By the mid-19th century, Hudson had built up an investment and controlling interest in more than one third of the companies seeking to build railways throughout the country. In July 1839 the first train left York from a temporary wooden platform on Queen Street to link with the Leeds to Selby railway at Normanton. By changing trains at Normanton, Derby and Birmingham, the journey to London Euston took 10 hours, one third of the time taken by stage coach.

The temporary platform soon proved insufficient and a decision had to be made where to site a new station. York was unusual in preserving its medieval city defences; in most major Victorian cities surviving walls were demolished as they limited expansion and development. There had been fierce local opposition to York Corporation’s plan in 1800 to demolish the walls. Controversially Hudson overruled George Stephenson, who preferred a new station outside the walls for operational reasons, and architect G.T. Andrews was commissioned to design the city’s first permanent station within the walls resulting in the loss of a large section of the defences. The new station, complete with integral hotel, opened in 1841. Subsequently there were rail services to Northallerton, Darlington and eventually to Edinburgh. Scarborough Bridge opened in 1845 and, by 1853, seven separate railway companies served York station. It was now possible to travel to London King’s Cross via Doncaster and Peterborough in five hours. However, Hudson’s financial irregularities were finally exposed by his political opponent, York lawyer George Leeman, and the railway mania bubble burst.

North Eastern Railway Company

The North Eastern Railway Company (NER) was formed in 1854 by an amalgamation of the York & North Midland Railway, the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway and Leeds Northern Railway with Sir Harry Meysey Thompson as chairman and George Leeman as deputy chairman. Through a succession of mergers, the NER became a monopoly provider of rail services in the North of England. Based in York, the NER also owned or controlled most of the East Coast coal shipping ports between Blyth and Hull and, in addition, a number of high-quality hotels throughout the North East. The company was run effectively and democratically. Directors were carefully selected; they were high-calibre, influential individuals from principal industries throughout the regions. Key business decisions came from the board subcommittees which met monthly in the York headquarters.

By the 1870s, York Railway Station was proving inadequate for the increased passenger traffic. Henry Tennant was appointed general manager in 1871 and immediately set out to tackle the shortcomings and operational difficulties arising from the restricted station facilities within the city walls. NER architect Thomas Prosser was commissioned to design the new railway station, this time outside the walls. Construction was to take six years; Prosser was succeeded by Benjamin Burleigh in 1874 and, in 1876, William Peachey took over the project. Although the exterior of the station is understated, the huge curving train shed is one of the most impressive monuments of the railway age. Peachey also designed the station hotel, now the Principal York, completed in 1878.

The NER solicitor, George Gibb, would emerge as another of England’s greatest transport administrators. Gibb became general manager in 1891 and initiated a transformation of the way the NER railway network was managed, assembling an impressive team of staff who would play a major part in keeping the nation’s railway network running through two world wars. His most impressive monument to posterity was the construction of the NER headquarters building completed in 1906. The structure was designed by NER architect William Bell with external embellishment and interiors in a rich Edwardian Baroque style by Horace Field. It is the physical expression of the company’s success; in 1906 it was the fourth largest private-sector company in the country employing more than 56,000 people. The lavish style of the building suits its new use as the five-star Grand Hotel & Spa.

However, in the year the new HQ was completed, Sir George Gibb left the NER to become managing director and deputy chairman of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, taking one of his most talented managers, Frank Pick, with him. Pick would be one of the key driving forces behind the creation of the London Underground and then London Transport in the interwar years, establishing a coordinated transport infrastructure for the capital. At NER HQ in York, Gibb was succeeded by Sir Alexander Kaye-Butterworth who managed the considerable contributions railways made during the First World War. The company’s personnel suffered large casualties both at the Front and at home and the 2,236 NER staff who were killed are commemorated in the impressive war memorial (1922-4), designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with its 16m-high obelisk.

Railway employees were, in general, highly valued and comparatively well looked after by the leading companies. In 1889, with the interests of the railway workers in mind, Henry Tennant established the York Railway Institute. Overindulgence in drink was a problem in Victorian Britain and the Institute was built on the former site of the Railway Tavern which was close to the locomotive and carriage works in Queen Street. Accommodation included a reading room, library, rooms for smoking and playing games, and a dining room seating 400. There were also three classrooms where workers could improve their education. In the 1920s, part of the old locomotive erecting shop was converted into a gymnasium. The Institute is still in existence in its original building.

Homes fit for heroes

Acknowledging the contribution that men and women returning from the front had made to winning the war, Prime Minister The Rt Hon Lloyd George promised to build ‘homes fit for heroes’ and the Housing Act of 1919 provided money for local councils to build the first “council houses”. Match-funded by a donation of £10,000 in memory of Dr Tempest Anderson, the NER set up the North Eastern Cottage Homes & Benefits Society to provide rented accommodation in York and in other areas where the company operated. The company would also make a significant gift to the city of York; at the final board meeting of the NER in December 1922, the directors agreed to donate an area of land on the banks of the River Ouse, once used for the loading of coal from rail to boats, for the creation of a public park, now named Memorial Park.

During the First World War, the railways were taken under state control and this continued until 1921. One consequence of this was that the authorities saw how the national network could be run more cost effectively. Although nationalisation was considered, this did not take place until after the end of the Second World War. A former NER executive, Eric Campbell Geddes, as Minister for Transport, prepared a white paper which proposed merging the 120 railway companies to create up to seven regional companies. The Railway Act was passed in August 1921 and, from 1 January 1923, Britain’s railways were owned and managed by four companies: Great Western Railway, Southern Railway, London Midland & Scottish and the London & North Eastern Railway. The LNER operated on the east side of the country from London to Aberdeen and Inverness. York retained responsibility for the management of the North East Area from Doncaster to Berwick but the company board was based in London. The highlight of the LNER years was the increasing performance of trains such as the Flying Scotsman and Silver Jubilee on the East Coast main line, culminating in the world speed record for steam of 126mph by Mallard in 1938.

The endurance of the country and the railway network was to be tested once more in the Second World War. Advances in the design of aeroplanes would mean that there was a new deadly threat of intensive bombing raids. These reached a peak with the so-called Baedeker Raids of 1942. Retaliating to the blanket bombing of German historic cities, the Luftwaffe mounted raids on five cities in England including York. York Station and engine sheds sustained severe bomb damage.

British Railways

When the war ended in 1945, the country had suffered major damage to its infrastructure. As part of the Government’s restructuring plan, the railways were nationalised under the Transport Act of 1947 which came into effect on 1 January 1948. All transport assets became state owned to be managed by the British Transport Commission. The Railway Executive was created and the management and operation of Britain’s railways was devolved to six geographic regions. The North Eastern Region York Headquarters covered the lines north of Doncaster to Berwick-upon-Tweed. In 1968 it merged with the Eastern Region and York became responsible for the management of all railway activities on the east side of the UK between London and Scotland.

New office accommodation was required for the increased number of staff, some of whom were relocated to York from London. Modern buildings were also required to suit the rapidly-changing workplace, although the introduction of desktop computers would not be until the 1970s. Built in a brutalist style using prefabricated concrete panels in 1969, Hudson House in Toft Green is to be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development. The earlier Holgate Villa, built in 1958-60, has fared better. Now renamed The Walk, the former office block was converted into 50 flats in 2016.

New technology was also having an impact on the speed of rail travel. First built in 1961, the Deltic diesel locomotive was specifically designed for the East Coast Main Line. Speeds in excess of 100mph were soon being achieved. Journey times were cut even further by the introduction of the InterCity 125 in 1978. A journey time of less than two hours to London made commuting from York a realistic possibility. Electrification, completed from London to Edinburgh in 1991, was the last big investment by the nationalised railway to benefit York.

The Beeching Report

Mainly due to the uncoordinated initial development of the railways which had resulted in several competing lines, combined with increasing competition from motor vehicles, the railways were making huge losses in the 1950s. Richard Beeching was seconded from the board of ICI and appointed as chairman of British Railways in 1961 with the task of making the network profitable. In 1963, he published his strategic plan, The Reshaping of British Railways, which proposed a drastic slimming-down of the network. During the eight years from 1962 to 1970, the national rail network was reduced from 22,000 to 10,300 miles and more than 2,000 stations were closed. At the same time a wide range of changes were initiated nationally to make railways more cost-effective. There was also a concentration on passenger traffic along with a reduction in the amount of freight carried on the railways.

The report has been criticised for not taking into account the social impact on fragile communities of the closure of a vital service and some believe that nonprofitable lines could have been returned to profit through more effective management. Several vital links across Yorkshire were lost. A number of these, if they were still in operation, could have eased traffic congestion in the county’s cities, but there were some benefits for York. Although the city lost a large number of railway jobs, land previously used for rail activities was released for development. Closure of branch lines into Layerthorpe in 1984 enabled the retail and light industrial development at Foss Islands and rationalisation of the freight marshalling yards at Dringhouses allowed for the construction of private housing.

Another benefit to York contained in the Beeching Report was the recommendation that British Railways should stop running museums. In 1975, the National Railway Museum was established in the former York North Locomotive Depot taking over the British Railways collection previously housed in Clapham, south London, and the York Railway Museum which was located off Queen Street. The NER had taken the initiative in collecting historic railway artefacts and the LNER opened the York Railway Museum in 1928 so York was a fitting location for the national collection.

Rail privatisation

From the late 20th century, to maximise investment in the railway network, successive governments have pursued a policy of the sale of railway assets. York’s Royal Station Hotel was sold in 1984 and has since then had a succession of owners. In 1989 the York Carriage Works was bought by a Swedish/Swiss consortium, Asea Brown Boveri, which ran it for five years before closure in 1994. By 1996 all British Rail assets had been sold to more than 100 separate privately-owned companies. Several different train operating companies continue to serve York and currently the primary train operator in the North of England, Northern, locates its headquarters staff in York. Northern is part of Arriva which is owned by the German regional railway company Deutsche Bahn. Until recently Virgin Trains East Coast ran the main line services from London to Scotland but, due to the termination of Virgin’s contract, the service will be run by the Department for Transport and will operate under the historic name LNER until 2020. Virgin headquarters staff based in York will transfer to the new company. In 2008 the NER HQ was sold to create York’s first five-star hotel and the original 1841 station was bought by the City of York for the new Council Offices following a York Civic Trust campaign to find a suitable new use for the building.

Railway infrastructure

As the centre of the railway network along the east coast, York played a major role in the management and development of Britain’s railway network. This had an impact on the built environment of York; the railway facilities covered a large area of the city. For more than 120 years, York was the base for the construction and servicing of steam locomotives and rolling stock. Daily maintenance was carried out at a mix of round house and straight engine sheds owned by individual railway companies. Rationalisation and changing technologies significantly reduced this need and, since 1975, some of the remaining buildings have become part of the National Railway Museum.

Steam locomotives required large quantities of coal and water. Coal from Britain’s collieries came in 16-ton wagons and was originally loaded into the tenders of the locomotives by hand. The spectacular demolition of the last mechanical coal-loading plant in 1970 removed a railway feature which was a very distinctive part of the York skyline. Water was pumped from the River Ouse through a building (now demolished) located on the approach to Scarborough Bridge and circulated to water columns located strategically throughout the area. The original 1839 water tank, a Grade II-listed building and no longer operational, is located in the Queen Street complex. Originally part of York Locomotive works which closed in 1905, some of the redundant buildings housed the first York Railway Museum established by the LNER in 1928. The buildings remaining in this area are mainly associated with the York Railway Institute.

In 1867 the NER established a wagon building and repair works on a 17-acre site with road access from Holgate Road. Then, in 1882, a 45-acre site between Holgate Road and the avoiding line was developed as York Carriage Works. Initially it built new passenger coaches for the East Coast train services between London and Aberdeen operated by the Great Northern/North Eastern/North British railway companies. It expanded and the passenger vehicles for the 1904 Newcastle electrified railway were built in York. At its peak the carriage works employed more than 3,000 people and built passenger rolling stock for several foreign railways. It was privatised in the early 1980s and closed in 1994.

The safe operation of railways has always been a top priority and railway signalling systems have evolved to minimise the scope for human error. There would have been upwards of 20 signal boxes controlling the operations in the complex York area. The sole remaining signal box structure is now a Costa coffee shop on the footbridge of York station. Track and signalling is now owned by Network Rail which has invested in a building at the south end of York Station which will eventually control all train operations between London and Scotland.

© York Civic Trust

Photographs: Rachel Semlyen

For more information: National Railway Museum, York