Ernest Marples (Kindle)
The Shadow Behind Beeching
Ernest Marples revolutionised three UK government departments. At Transport (1959-1964) he appointed Dr Beeching chairman of British Railways and commissioned him to produce his infamous report, inaugurated motorways and introduced significant regulations for motorists. At Housing (1951-1954) he delivered 300,000 new houses annually and as Postmaster General (1957-1959), he reformed Post Office accounting systems and launched postcodes and Subscriber Trunk Dialling. This first biography of Marples uses newly-available archives to examine public and private transport policy, the growing power of the pro-road lobby and the identification of personal freedom with driving. Railway sentimentalism was no match for these.
Marples was lucky not to be implicated in the Profumo Affair which rocked the Conservative Party but his political career was over soon afterwards. Questionable business practices caused his 1975 flight to Monaco hotly pursued by the Inland Revenue. Beeching, unhappy under a Labour government, returned to private industry although he later chaired a Royal Commission. Labour, despite promises, proved little friendlier to the railways but a more positive approach to loss-making passenger services eventually emerged under Barbara Castle.
This book should appeal to those interested in Britain's railways and in mid-Twentieth Century British politics.
Everyone interested in railways has heard of Dr Richard Beeching, whose 1963 report, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, recommended the closure of a significant proportion of the UK’s rail network. Any discussion of the report can arouse strong emotions: was Beeching a villain who took away the train-set (that nobody used) or a hero who forced British Rail to think about profitability?Colin Edwards
The Transport Minister who employed Beeching and set his remit was Ernest Marples. It’s worth emphasising that Beeching did not close any lines or any stations. As he was asked to do, he Identified which railway activities were profitable; which were unprofitable; and what actions would stem BR’s losses. It was the minister who made the decisions: initially Marples and then, after the Labour party won the 1964 general election, Tom Fraser (for 14 months) and Barbara Castle. Astonishingly, there has been no biography of Ernest Marples until now, yet Marples introduced measures that still affect us today, in his role as Transport Minister and his earlier positions as Postmaster General and junior Housing Minister under Harold McMillan:
- The reduction of Britain’s railway network
- Traffic wardens
- The breathalyser
- 70mph speed limit
- Premium Bonds
- Post Office savings accounts
- STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) phone calls
Although this portion of this book by Martin Upham and David Brandon draws heavily (and unsurprisingly) upon Terry Gourvish’s and Charles Loft’s earlier work, it has a highly readable and succinct explanation of events. It’s very much a book by two authors with different styles: the first six chapters cover Marples’ life and career prior to his promotion to Transport Minister in 1959. While the material is sound, the style is frustrating: I lost count of how many times we’re given a digressive preview of the future, e.g. early in a discussion of housing 1951-1954, we’re told about Marples’ successor in 1959 and a triumvirate in power during the 1960s before reverting to events of 1951; and in 1958, “While the longed-for Post Office Tower would not be built on his watch, […]”
The next block of ten chapters explains why road and rail transport both required change by the late 1950s; how Beeching addressed these issues; and the consequential impact upon Britain’s transport system. This section is excellent and far from dry. It quotes an MP, “[…] use Dr Beeching’s face cream because it removes lines.” It shows that Beeching’s recommendations were a logical response to the financial situation and based upon evidence, although the methodology for gathering that evidence may have been questionable. As the authors state, Beeching’s proposals continued a series of closures that started many years before his appointment: between 1950 and 1962, over 300 branch lines had already closed and 174,000 railway jobs had gone. “While large numbers of people had a sentimental attachment to the railways, this did not necessarily extend to using them.”
A final chapter covers Marples’ life from his poor relationship with McMillan’s successor, Ted Heath, until his death in 1978.
If you want to understand why our railway system was transformed in the 1960s, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.