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Strange Morning at Marylebone

The opening of Marylebone station and the history of the Great Central Hotel. . . . . .

Oasis of luxury: The Landmark London with its iconic atrium featuring towering palm trees is one of the most Instagrammed hotels in the capital. One photo shows the eight-storey atrium, which remains the centre of the hotel, with its stunning glass ceiling and ornate architecture.

Then and now: The historic images of the glamorous hotel, located in Marylebone, were all shot at the end of the 19th century shortly after the hotel opened in 1899. Pictured (here) is a vintage photo of the grand atrium and how it looks today (bottom)

‘Good morning, sir.’ He said it as he touched the brim of his black top hat, edged with gold to go with his overcoat. Over the top, I thought.

‘Morning,’ I replied and went in through the wood and brass doors of the Great Central Hotel in Marylebone. I fancy past residents of 222 Marylebone Road didn’t get the same treatment. Originally a luxury hotel, but known far and wide to railwaymen as ‘The Kremlin’, this was the headquarters of the British Railways Board after the LNER sold it off. Eventually, it became a luxury hotel again and very impressive inside. I slide into a comfy chair and drank my coffee (with biscuits), admiring the original atrium, from the 1890’s, and then wandering around to the staircase to look at the GCR coat of arms in stained glass. Someone reading this might care to let me know if this was, indeed, what the Kremlin looked like inside.

As the new luxury hotel built for Sir Edward Watkin’s GCR in 1899 it was here for the first train into Marylebone that year. As the years progressed, its history became even more fascinating. In March, 1908 it put on a ‘Welcome Back from Prison’ breakfast for the suffragettes on the day Emmeline Pankhurst was released from Holloway. What would Watkin have thought? During World War II it was the shady headquarters of British Intelligence. When the Kremlin succumbed to a railway version of glasnost, it took from 1988 to 1993 to make it a smart hotel again, much as it is today.

Sufragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst fought for women's right to vote. Pankhurst founded two women's suffrage organisations, the Women's Franchise League, which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections and more notably the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Ultimately, the Suffragettes achieved their goal of enfranchisement for women and the movement has rightfully gone down in history as one of the strongest and most successful women's rights groups. Today, the battle for women's enfranchisement has been all but won, but equality still hovers just out of reach. Picture: courtesy Daily Record online

Fortified by my coffee I passed the doorman again and went into Marylebone itself. Chiltern trains were busy with comings and goings but, passing by all the activity, I found some old battered photos on a side wall showing a little of the history of the GCR and the station. A middle aged woman with purple hair, dressed ‘urban warrior’ style, came up to me.

‘Excuse me. I can see you’re taking notes. Is it right that the hero of Marylebone was John Betjeman? There’s a blue plaque on the wall about him.’’

‘In think the real hero was Sir Edward Watkin, who built this place.’

She was a trainee guide to the London streets and we swapped notes about Watkin and the railway, on which she was a novice. To illustrate my thoughts, I added a commentary on some of the photos.

‘This one shows 750 people sitting down to lunch on the occasion of the first train from Manchester, 9th March 1899. Next is this one showing the train itself.’ (GCR Class 11A 4-4-0 861, though I don’t think she was much interested in that). ‘They might have enjoyed their lunch but tell that to the 3000 people displaced by the building of the railway and their 500 homes demolished.’ Watkin had even overcome the resistance of the members at Lords, as his railway performed a messy cut and cover job through the wicket (next photo alongside).

Pictures: courtesy Mail online

‘See the man speaking?’ A faded shape appeared in the middle of the shot. ‘That’s Charles Ritchie, President of the Board of Trade. He is saying it is ‘improbable that we should ever again witness a scene like this, commemorating the entrance of any great trunk line into the metropolis….’ And look, can you see that man in a bath chair to his right? That’s Sir Edward Watkin, the man who built the Great Central.’

As Ritchie explained, it was, indeed, an auspicious day. Watkin had achieved an ambition of many years standing. Born in Manchester in 1819, just 7 weeks after the Peterloo riots, the young Watkin had declined to enter his father, Absolom’s textile business and, instead had focused on a number of causes covering everything from Reform to the repeal of the Corn Laws. From there he moved into railways and politics, gradually building an impressive reputation. He helped restored the fortunes of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada, (for which he was knighted) and started on a channel tunnel in the 1880’s before objections from the establishment shut it down.

Years of overwork took its toll. In May1896 his second wife, Ann, died. He was too ill to attend the funeral of his friend, Gladstone, in May 1898 but he did just make that day at Marylebone in 1899. Watkin’s time was passing and he knew it. ‘My work is done, but I am thankful I have lived to see this day,’ he is reported as saying. Victoria’s reign, begun when there were no significant London railway termini, was coming to an end, just as Watkin’s was. She died in January, 1901, Watkin on the afternoon of 13th April, 1901, at his home in Northenden, Manchester. The death certificate gave the cause as ‘exhaustion’.

Time to say goodbye to the startled guide and head back to my seat in the hotel. From my armchair I can imagine what 1899 must have been like. All sorts of people contemplating the turn of a century that had seen massive change, not least the coming of the railways. I can also imagine Watkin thinking what would come next. How could he know? World Wars, upheaval on a global scale, the rise and fall, in 1969, of ‘his railway’, its memory lingering on in the heritage railway movement. And what of Chiltern Trains, HS2 and Azumas, Sir Edward? What of ‘levelling up’ and Channel Tunnels? I think he might smile and say ‘told you so…..’ And then there was ‘the Kremlin’. What would Sir Edward have made of that?


Watkin’s story is told in ‘The Second Railway King; the Life and Times of Sir Edward Watkin 1819 -1901’ David Hodgkins (2002).

A recently published book adds more personal detail: ‘Victoria’s Railway King’ Geoff Scargill (2021).

Find out more information here

John Swanwick

About the author: John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.

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