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Ernest Marples (ePub)

The Shadow Behind Beeching

Transport Politics P&S History 20th Century Biographies

By David Brandon, Martin Upham
Imprint: Pen & Sword Transport
File Size: 25.9 MB (.epub)
ISBN: 9781526760197
eBook Released: 30th January 2022


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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.

Article featured in

Islington Tribune

As featured in:

Westminster Journal

Article: 'Axe of Desperation'

Camden New Journal

As featured in


Part political biography, part railway history this is the first book to examine the life of the man who appointed Doctor Richard Beeching to make recommendations on the future of British Railways. As such it is a valuable work and surprising that no-one has attempted a biography of this controversial politician before.

A book for those interested in the politics behind railways this forms a balanced and well researched life of a man whose promise was never quite fulfilled.

Friends of the NRM


Steam World - March 2022

Book Competition as featured in:


Brandon and Upham’s fresh review shows all sides of a complex man who might well have been a politician before his time. They give the pros, the cons and enough evidence for readers to make up their own minds. Their fine work redresses the imbalance in our history that has focused on Beeching alone for too long.

Rail Magazine - February 2022

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The importance of being Ernest? Well over forty years after his death in 1978, post-war Tory Transport minister, Ernest Marples remains a deeply controversial figure.. Emerging initially as a relatively dynamic, young thrusting politician in the comparatively placid world of 1950s Conservative politics, today there are more than a few clouds over his character namely the apparent conflict of interest between his pro-car transport reforms and personal business interests, his tax exile and his penchant for being whipped while wearing women's clothes.
But these aren't even the most controversial things about him as he is strongly associated with Lord Beeching whose 'reforms' devastated the British railway industry. in the 1960s. David Brandon and Martin Upham's extremely thorough biography covers both the details of Marples' own life while also thoroughly exploring the history of the transport network and providing a context for Marple's controversial decisions.

NetGalley, Chris Hallam

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?

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
- postcodes

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.

Colin Edwards

About David Brandon

David Brandon was educated at Manchester University and worked in Adult Education at Further Education Colleges and Universities and later for a major national trade union. Researching and writing since 1997 he has had forty titles published of which he regards the 'flagship' to be a collaborative work published by the National Archives, using their resources to examine the transportation of felons to Australia and other penal colonies. His publications reflect his wide interests which include railways, political and social history, London history, topography, local history and the history of crime.

About Martin Upham

Martin Upham is the author of Britain Explained (2017, revised 2020), editor of A Visitor’s Britain (2000) and numerous reference books including Trades Unions of the World (1993). He holds degrees from Manchester, Bristol and Hull universities. While in Hull he contributed to early volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. He was director of AHA International (London campus of the University of Oregon, now GEO London), 2004-14. During 1975-88 he was Research Officer of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and a member of the OECD iron and steel working party.

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