“It was NOT a race”- Lord Stalbridge, Chairman, London & North Western Railway
Named for the junction south of Aberdeen, where the East and West Coast routes converged, and therefore the “winning post” in the competition to reach the Granite City first, this is one of THE classic railway books of the Victorian/Edwardian period. The typical railway enthusiast then (or “Railwayac” as they sometimes called themselves), was not a schoolboy jotting down loco numbers. He was more likely to be a professional man in early to late middle age, with a strong, if not always well-informed interest in locomotive performance and time keeping. A surprising number were clergymen, like Scott, a prominent Anglo-Catholic, Incumbent of St. Saviors, Sunbury Common, Middlesex, but there was a fair sprinkling of lawyers, academics doctors and journalists also. These gentlemen belonged to the same clubs, and moved in the same social circles as Chief Railway Officers, and therefore had sources of information denied to ordinary mortals. Access to the journals compiled by train guards, for example, which recorded the actual running times of trains, and reasons for delays. Scott was also a welcome visitor at the homes of some of the crack loco drivers of the day. He was particularly favoured at Kings Cross, where he had close friendships with F.P Cockshott, Superintendent of the Line, and his deputy, J. Alexander. This last personality can be identified with the Great Northern officer setting out for an East Coast Conference at York, whom Scott describes as having “a gleam in his gold pince-nez which betokened his having war in his heart”. The little privileged group to which Scott belonged included Norman Doran Macdonald, a Scots Writer to the Signet, journalist and a close friend of David Deuchars, Superintendent of the line, North British Railway. With him from Edinburgh was W.M. Gilbert, of “The Scotsman”. The London contingent apart from Scott, were W.M. Ackworth, railway economist, Charles Rous-Marten, journalist (later to achieve fame for “clocking” City of Truro doing over 100 miles an hour in 1904) and Percy Caldecot noted locomotive photographer, although there would not be much scope for his talents, during the night!
It has to be said that some of these gentlemen were a little eccentric. Scott, Ackworth and Rous-Marten all carried fifth of a second stop watches – Rous-Marten no less than four of them, one in each hand, and one in each trouser pocket. With only one pair of hands it is not clear how this last pair was operated… On occasion he had been known to leap from the East Coast train at Aberdeen before it had stopped moving, running across the platform to dive aboard the just departing train for the south, as the only way he could be sure of being in London in time for the next run. Macdonald refused to eat properly while timing a run, in case he missed a mile post. Instead he sustained himself from the hands full of raisins stuffed in his jacket pockets.
The East Coast were generous with free passes to this group, and on the night of 19 August 1895 placed a sleeping saloon with attendant at their disposal not that anyone was likely to sleep during what Scott described as a “long drawn out night of excitement”. However, the free passes only covered the East Coast Route as far as Kinnaber, and the intrepid “Railwayacs” had to pay full fare over the Caledonian to Aberdeen.
It has to be acknowledged that the whole business was wasteful and potentially dangerous. What began as a sensible plan to give passengers from the south a better chance of making connecting trains at Aberdeen got out of hand because the West Coast companies ran a relief train to collect passengers who had missed the Aberdeen train earlier than advertised, rather than publicise accelerations which might not be achieved. The gradually faster times were achieved, but at totally uneconomic cost. The relief train, the special itself having seats for only 20 passengers, putting two locomotives on the train on some stretches, two firemen on some locomotives, and it is believed, on occasions “double blocking” by the Caledonian, in that their train was offered to Kinnaber when it was still two block sections away. All so that a handful of passengers were decanted onto the platform at Aberdeen long before refreshment rooms or hotels were open, or connecting trains were leaving for anywhere. On the East Coast, except at the very end, their schedules were advertised and adhered to, but there were instances of speed restrictions being ignored with potentially disastrous results with not only the well reported incident on the reverse curves at Portobello. I once had a conversation with North Eastern Region Chief Loco Inspector Anderson. As a young man, he had been fireman to Driver Tom Blades, who in turn had been fireman to Driver Bob Nicholson in 1895. “Blades told me that Nicholson was a ruthless, stop-at-nothing bugger, who frightened the life out of him. When he suggested that they were taking the curves at Morpeth a bit fast Nicholson said that Mr. Raven (NER Loco-Running Supt.) had told him not to worry about Morpeth, a permanent way gang was on duty to slew the track back, and repack ballast, after the train went through. Thank God for the Westinghouse!”
It is worth considering some of the personalities involved for the light which this information casts upon what happened. George Neale, the 70 year old Supt. of the Line, LNWR, had held the post for 33 years, and was highly respected throughout the industry. He was due to retire on 31 July 1895, to be replaced by his deputy 43 year old Robert Turnbull, who had been in Neales shadow for some time. Neale highly prized his position as Officer in Charge of the Royal Train, on most occasions when Queen Victoria travelled by rail. So jealous was he of this honour that his resentment when the General Manager sometimes decided to do the job himself was barely concealed. Turnbull was not allowed near the Royal Train, or negotiations with the Royal Household, until the very last journey for which Neale was responsible in May 1895. Neale sanctioned the modest acceleration of the Aberdeen train, and then for the rest of the month was occupied with a round of farewell visits meetings, a cruise to the Scilly Isles as a guest of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Directors, and various lunches, dinners and presentations, leaving Turnbull in charge. It is likely that Turnbull seized the opportunity to show what he could achieve once the “Old Man” had gone. On the West Coast the Scottish partner, the Caledonian Railway, and its Supt., Irvine Kempt, more or less did what they were told.
At Kings Cross, we have already encountered Francis Cockshott and his deputy, Alexander. Cockshott, and the General Manager, Sir Henry Oakley had vivid memories of vicious competition in the 50s and 60s, when the LNWR and allies had tried to strangle the GNR at birth. They were ever on the look-out for more shady tactics from Euston, and ready to counter them. However, Cockshott was not in good health. He was booked to retire on 31 December 1895, and in fact died early in 1896. Increasingly he had to leave more to Alexander, including the tiring, down to York and back the same day journey to attend East Coast Conferences There is some suggestion that Cockshott may have had a failure of nerve as the pace hotted up, because efforts were made to keep him from speaking to the GNR driver at Kings Cross, urging caution… The other key GNR figure Loco. Supt. Patrick Stirling, 75, was also in poor health ( he died in November 1895), and during the competition period was undergoing convalescence in the majestic Grand hotel at Scarborough, but he kept abreast of events. “The West Coast have announced their intention of reaching Aberdeen before us. This of course we cannot permit. Please put your men on their mettle”, he wrote to one of his divisional officers. Lord Stalbridge may have thought it was not a race – others obviously did!
The largest and wealthiest of the East Coast partners was the North Eastern Railway, due to a quirk in railway history, responsible for working East Coast trains through to Edinburgh over the North British line from Berwick on Tweed. During the part of the contest General Manager George Gibb, was on a golfing holiday as a guest of the Highland Railway at their Dornoch hotel. Chief Mechanical Engineer Wilson Worsdell, a master delegator was away angling in Norway for part of the period, but in any case left locomotive running matters to his chief assistant, 36 year old Vincent Raven. Supt of the Line John Welburn, was elderly, very experienced and blessed – or cursed, with a very energetic assistant, Philip Burtt, 33 years old, who was always “pushing” or “pulling” his reluctant boss..
The North British Railway at this time can only be described as dysfunctional, Loco. Supt Matthew Holmes provided well-designed, if rather small engines, but the Board of Directors, some of whom were involved in dealings which if not actually criminal were certainly questionable, was split into factions. One, the “shady” faction was at loggerheads with John Conacher, General Manager, and would eventually secure his departure. Throughout the contest, Conacher was looking over his shoulder, anticipating board criticism. He sought guarantees of compensation for extra costs incurred, from the NER and The GNR. The key North British figure was Supt. of the Line, David Deuchars, 50 years old. He had held the post since 1892, when he was moved from the position of Assistant General Manager This was almost certainly a “sideways” appointment, if not an actual demotion. His role in 1895 did him no harm at all, being awarded a 25% salary increase in February 1896, but he was never promoted again.
Robert Turnbull eventually became LNWR General Manager. Alexander succeeded Cockshott, at the Great Northern, where the Directors, aware of Stirlings ill health had already settled upon H.A. Ivatt as his successor. Philip Burtt succeeded John Welburn in 1897, and went on to become Deputy General Manager of the NER, but Vincent Raven had to wait until 1910 before Wilson Worsdell left to spend more time with his fishing rods. In the interim he expanded his skills and knowledge of engineering production to the extent that he was appointed Director of Woolwich Arsenal during the ammunition crisis of WW I
The “Race to the North” had little to do with improving services to passengers, it was more a question of elderly gentlemen in poor health anxious about their professional legacies, and younger men seizing an opportunity to come out of the shade cast by their superiors, and show what they were capable of.
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