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All Posts, Transport

Author Guest Post: Matthew Wells

George Hudson – The Railway King

Hudson’s fall from grace in early 1849 followed the bursting of the great Railway Mania bubble of the mid-1840s. Shrewd investors who sold their railway shares at the peak of the Mania walked away from the crash with huge profits. Unfortunately, there were many who were less astute who lost most if not all their money because, having been caught up by the Mania, they had invested in schemes never likely to succeed or, worse still, that never laid a rail. Those who had made a fortune kept quiet, but those who had lost money, or not made as much as they thought they should, wanted someone to blame and who better than George Hudson, the Railway King, who was seen at the time as the very embodiment of what was wrong with the headlong rush into railway shares during the Railway Mania.

However hard Hudson tried to explain his actions, his critics only ever heard his explanations as excuses and not reasons for the decisions he made. As a result, his side of the story has become obscured in the fog of using him as a scapegoat for the national shame felt at the time for the pursuance of easy profits during the Railway Mania years. But, as John Francis put it in 1851, in his book A History of the English Railway George Hudson was ‘not a tyrant because others were sycophants’.

When he fell from grace, Hudson showed no outward signs of bitterness towards those who opposed him and who assisted in his downfall. There were many prominent members of society who benefitted from his time as the Railway King, but he never blamed anyone but himself for his misfortune. In later life he remained humble about his achievements. Recalling the old days, Hudson said his greatest misfortune was receiving a large inheritance from a distant uncle and using it to invest in railways. He would often reflect that he should he have stayed behind the counter of his York drapery shop and how, had he done so, he would have had a much less troubled life. But without Hudson, York would not have become the great railway city it became, nor would the east coast mainline have developed into one of Britain’s premier railway routes.

George Hudson’s success was due as much as anything to solid hard work. Being chairman of the Midland Railway, the YNM, the YNB and the ECR, involved him in a prodigious amount of work as he planned and promoted each of the companies’ various extensions and branch lines through Parliament. In 1844 he was responsible for guiding five railway bills through parliament and for opening three new lines; in 1845 these figures rose to twelve bills and eight openings; in 1846, thirty-nine bills and five openings; in 1847, twenty bills and eleven openings and in 1848, six bills and thirteen openings. All this, to say nothing of his parliamentary work as MP for Sunderland between 1845 and 1859.

With the enormous burden of work which he set himself, it is not surprising that George Hudson would lose focus when conducting some of the arrangements necessary to ensure the success and profitability of his railway companies. In an open letter to YNB shareholders published in January 1850, he admitted that some of his transactions were to be regretted but that shareholders should look at those transactions taking into account the excited period in which they occurred (the years of Railway Mania), and the multiplicity of concerns that he was superintending and directing at the time and the brief opportunities he had to think and reflect on the decisions he was making. In October 1845 the Nairnshire Mirror observed that Hudson had said

l am not connected, and never will be connected, with any line that I don’t believe to be for the public advantage; and I would be ashamed of myself, and would not deserve or receive so much confidence as is placed in me by the proprietors of the various lines with which I am connected, if I were so selfish to forget the public good in my desire for private gain.

Hudson was foremost an entrepreneurial businessman. Nevertheless, his pursuance of profits and high dividends has often been derided by his critics, especially by those who, when the Railway Mania bubble burst, held him single-handedly responsible for society’s worship of Mammon. But without profits there would be no future investment and no dividends; without profits there would be liquidations and closures. None of Hudson’s companies failed as a result of his tenure, either at the time of his fall or afterwards. Hudson’s foresight and judgment in the railway schemes that he promoted is evidenced today by the fact that the vast majority of them are still in operation, despite the ravages of road competition and the impact of Dr Beeching. The only lines of note that have closed are the YNM routes between York and Market Weighton and between Selby and Market Weighton. The line between Malton and Grosmont closed in March 1965, but much of that line is now part of the North Yorkshire Moors heritage railway. On the Eastern Counties Railway, the lines from March to Wisbech, March to St Ives, St Ives to Cambridge and Maldon to Witham have closed, whilst the line between Wymondham and Dereham is now part of the Mid-Norfolk heritage railway. The Nottingham to Mansfield line was closed in October 1964 but, as if to vindicate Hudson’s original judgment, was re-opened by British Rail in November 1995.

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