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Great Central

The Great Central Railway and Sir Edward Watkin. . . . . . . .

When sitting down to write these posts, sometimes there is a dilemma about which direction the subject should take. I tend to start typing ad let the computer decide; not the best way to structure a story, though. Let’s take the case of the Great Central Railway (GCR) and, then, Sir Edward Watkin.

Image: Courtesy Great Central Railway website

I imagine most of us know about the creation of the GCR. Watkin was Chair of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR, ‘Money, Spent and Lost Railway’) who decided, long after the main UK railways had been built, that the MSLR should have a ‘London Extension’ from Sheffield to London. The very title was combative since most railways by then were presumed to have connected London with ’the provinces’. The GCR was the other way round and its first name rather reflected the combative and, at times, eccentric style of its creator.

Sir Edward Watkin (1803–1878) Folkestone Museum

Using some existing tracks at each end, Watkin conceived the London Extension as a mainly new line, as flat and as straight as possible. As Chairman of nine separate railway companies and with fingers in many pies, Watkin intended the GCR to continue south of London and across the Channel (building 2000 yards of the Channel tunnel until it was abandoned). The project that was built in the 1890s, the London Extension, later re-named the Great Central, was impressive, though. Built to a continental loading gauge, its straightness allowed for speed, with only a few kinks in the route to accommodate recalcitrant landowners. Its flatness meant the railway went largely under Nottingham and over the top of Leicester resulting in tunnels under the former and long viaducts accommodating many small businesses in the latter.

Watkin was not a man to argue with. You can see his likeness in a portrait in the NRM, looking every bit the last of the great Victorian railway engineers. He was born in 1819 in Salford, in the same year the Peterloo ‘massacre’ took place, perhaps a sign in itself. It’s said he would brook no argument over the GCR – and even the proposed Channel Tunnel, being referred to in the Houses of Parliament as ‘Lord Chunnel Tannel’, possibly the first use of the word ‘chunnel’.

The GCR was built primarily for freight and whilst we can debate its purpose, the fact is it was a civil engineering masterpiece but a financial disaster. It lasted almost 70 years before its controversial closure in the 1960’s. Watkin was ill at the time the line opened in 1900 and couldn’t attend the ceremony at Marylebone. He died in 1901. If you have a spare hour when in Manchester take a trip to St Wilfred’s, Northenden, where he lies buried.

But here’s a thing, readers. Stories like these drift between subjects like Watkin and the GCR but there’s always a back story. Back in the 1890’s, the Newtons, father Alfred and son, Sydney, ran a photographic business in Belvoir Street, Leicester. Sydney was photographer to Leicester Museum and, perhaps through this link, from 1894 he decided to photograph the building of the GCR line from start to finish. His photographs show many of the techniques used to build the line, by then in a semi-mechanised state compared to the earlier lines. He also took off on expeditions into the countryside to capture rural life in the last years of the nineteenth century, particularly in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, through which the new line passed.

Many of the photographs are a researcher’s delight but one always attracts my attention. It shows Lords cricket ground looking like a ploughed field as the GCR built its tracks beneath the ground using ‘cut and cover’ techniques. Grown men (and some women) gasp at this, cricketers swoon, but relax – the GCR ‘missed’ the central square and there’s no record of the wickets behaving badly in the year after construction was complete.

Sydney amassed some 3,926 glass plate negatives, an estimated two thirds of which are depictions of the building of the GCR. There’s a story – probably apocryphal – of Sydney in the 1950’s, then in his eighties, having tea with the Director of Leicester Museums. The Director was curious:

‘I was wondering what you have done with all your old glass plate negatives, Sydney?’

There was silence for a moment. ‘Well, I was going to take them to the tip but you can have them if you like.’

Sydney’s work is in safe keeping today but a source of some of his photographs is in ‘Railways and Rural Life: S W A Newton and the Great Central Railway’ (2007) by Gary Boyd-Hope and Andrew Sargent (English Heritage and Leicestershire CC). Take a look at Sir Edward in the NRM in a portrait by A H Fox. There is also The Watkin Society.

The GCR, of course, lives on as a heritage railway ( But it also lives on deep underground at Marylebone, where today’s tube station was once called ‘Great Central’; there’s still a name board there, hidden away.


John Swanwick

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