Writing the Biography of Edward Watkin
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Colin Divall originally asked me to talk about railway biography, albeit with particular reference to Watkin. I declined because I would be offering a false prospectus. I am not sufficiently versed in railway biography - if such a genre exists - to offer a comparative survey or to put forward general lessons. To attempt this from my experience of working on Watkin`s life (expected to be published in the autumn of 2000) would bedifficult as he was hardly a typical railway leader - indeed therein lies part of the fascination. My talk therefore concentrates on Watkin -though I trust some points will have a wider relevance. I shall deal with the following aspects:
1 Why Watkin?
2 The problems of railway biography and this one in particular.
3 What sort of a man was he?
4 The conventional wisdom on Watkin
5 His place in railway history.
1. Why Watkin?
I started this biography for a mix of reasons. Some things in my personal past provoked me: I cut my chin on the Watkin path having failed to remove my spectacles early enough in blinding rain; I became a Marylebone commuter and saw the dying days of the through Great Central route; as a member of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority I went down the old driftway at Shakespeare's Cliff and saw the start of the Beaumont tunnel which my engineering colleague assured me was still dry after a century or so. There is no full biography of Watkin. There are good studies of the pioneers in the heroic age of railways : Stephenson, Brunel, Hudson, but much less has been written about the lives of their successors, especially those on the managerial rather than the engineering and contracting side of railways. Watkin`s contemporaries Moon, Allport, and Forbes who ran some of the largest companies of their day all lack biographies, though studies are under way of Moon and Allport. Richard Holmes has pointed out that biography has arguably been the most successful, and intellectually stimulating literary form which had held a general readership in Britain since 1960. There has been little place for railway biography.
A brief recital of Watkin's varied life surely shows why the gap on the shelves ought to be filled. Watkin lived from 1819 to 1901. He spanned the railway age. As a boy he saw the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railway. Before he retired he instigated experiments with electric power on the Metropolitan and travelled on the first tube when it was being built. As an old man he was present in a wheel chair at the opening of Marylebone station, the last London terminus, the fruit of his own vision and drive. He was perhaps the best known railwayman in the last third of the nineteenth century when railways were a dominant force in the British economy and the country's social life. Others like Sir Richard Moon, the Chairman of the London and north Western Railway from 1861 to 1891, occupied single positions of greater weight, but Watkin was chairman of two of the leading railway companies in the United Kingdom from the mid-1860s to 1894 and of a third for over 20 years, as well as being closely involved in the management fother railways for shorter periods. His activities on many other fronts kept him in the public eye. Unusually for a chairman who reached his position through the ranks of professional railway managers, he had a long political career spanning the reign of Victoria, starting in Manchester asa youth with the Anti Corn Law League, becoming a Parliamentary candidate at 26 and later sitting as an MP for 25 years. In the 1860s he played a significant role in both railways and politics in Canada in the period leading up to the granting of dominion status. His interests were wide-ranging. In later life his politics, like those of his contemporary John Bright, became increasingly conservative, but despite his thorough grounding in railway management and considerable cost consciousness in operational matters, he was more and more attracted by novel investment projects the Channel Tunnel, the last main line to London, the Welsh Union and even the Wembley Tower.
2. The problems of railway biography and this one in particular.
With any biography of someone whose main claim to fame rests on achievements in the corporate sphere there is a problem of whether to put the emphasis on the man or on his company's achievements, and of assessing how far the latter are due to him. Railway history has perhaps been particularly prone to go for the company or the man.
One approach to British railway history sees the development of nineteenth-century railways as inevitably leading to their amalgamation into the big four companies in 1921. Another sees the shape of the railway system being determined by personal battles between leaders detached from the commercial and economic realities. The first was well described by Geoffrey Channon in the context of the Midland Railway`s extension to London - 'house' historians have tended to treat that investment decision as part of a process in which an unspecified individual or group steered the company towards the inevitable fulfilment of a manifest destiny and to ignore the constraints, incentives and goals which conditioned the attitudes and responses of those in positions of power. Others have tended to assume too great a role for individuals, e.g. that it was mainly the personal antagonism and sharp practices of Mark Huish, the General Manager of the LNWR which stood in the way of the destiny of the GWR to go north to Birmingham and Chester.
In my approach to Watkin I have attempted to describe the actions of an individual with drive and power, but who nevertheless operated within the institutional, political and economic frameworks of the day and who perhaps because he was attracted by unconventional projects came up against the limitations of individual action more sharply than many of his peers. Professor Coleman has pointed to the clash between the rational mind of the economist and the sceptical one of the historian: the world in which profit maximisation was tempered by idealism, snobbery, lust, laziness, ritualism, or mere blunderings or incompetence and in which the interplay of myth, ignorance, hysteria, and charismatic leadership has proved as potent as the rational mind in shaping the course of events.
With any biography there is also the problem of understanding the world in which your subject lived on two levels. First there is his personal world. John Vincent put this graphically in a different context when he pointed out that in contrast to Lord Acton most historians are not related to the foreign secretary - they are lower middle class professionals uncertain of themselves in the unfamiliar world of power, confidence and leisure responsibly used. No historian can ever really know, from his own experience what landed property involves. Second there is the enormous variety of subjects on which one needs to be expert or at the very least sure one is not writing nonsense about - Philip de Zuleta mentioned this as one of the foremost problems in writing biography. In Watkin's case apart from the wide variety of railway topics, it involved the relationship of the Anti Corn Law League to the Chartists, Anglo-American relations in Central America in the 1850s, the history of Canada leading up to 1867confederation , the 1866 crash, and the Channel Tunnel.
Any biographer is dependent on his sources. Unfortunately almost all Watkin's private papers were lost by the action of his brother's descendants after the Second World War who burnt his papers at the same time as the original of his father Absalom's diaries were destroyed. The main exceptions were the documents on Canada which were in the hands of Watkin`s granddaughter and were later placed in the National Archives of Canada. However selections from Absalom`s diaries had already been published and more had been copied and particularly in Magdalen Goffin's recent fuller version shed much light on Watkin`s childhood and youth. Watkin himself left memoirs, though his political life as a young man in Manchester, his trip to the US in 1851 and his Canadian and Indian experiences are the only aspects dealt with in a substantial manner.
This was hardly a basis for a full biography. I have relied on two main additional sources.
First and by far the most extensive were company documents. In the case of railways they are in abundant supply, but they often tell one little directly about the part played by the chairman or the general manager. Words may be put in their mouths in the board minutes, but how far were the words expressing the generally accepted company wisdom, or approving the work of others not credited with the ideas. What actually made the Board tick? Were the Chairman`s colleagues his friends or merely people with whom he had perforce to do business? What was their relationship with the General Manager and the other chief officers of the company? The formal nature of many documents and Victorian modes of address give few clues. Nevertheless even railway company records can be revealing of personality and relationships and fortunately for me the SER's much more so than the LCDR's and the MSLR's than the LNWR's. In Watkin's case the fact that he was involved with several companies over a long period means that while there is much to sift through, there are significant personal papers to be found. Watkin was like many Victorians in the age before the telephone a great letter writer, and many of his private letters to other chairmen survive in the minute books for, as he explained several times, nothing was private from his fellow board members. He was also more ready than most to dash off a letter on the matter of the hour in spirited terms and then to prolong the correspondence, often causing considerable irritation to the recipient. When Watkin asked whether there was point in continuing their correspondence about the Croydon up line, Laing replied 'It was begun by you and has not been conducted by you in a tone so pleasant that I would wish it to continue.' His obita dicta at railway meetings are often revealing. The absence of personal papers meant more reliance on piecemeal source, and so perhaps a risk of attaching too much importance to them but there are letters by Watkin and related documents to be found in archives in both in the places you would expect from a map of the Watkin companies and his political interests - Manchester, Grimsby and Lincoln, Folkestone and Maidstone, and elsewhere. I was also assisted by his great-granddaughter who had inherited a number of letters and also possessed a complete set of obituary notices including those from the then still flourishing provincial dailies.
Especially with a person like Watkin who simultaneously was active in a number of quite different fields there is a problem of the organisation of the narrative. Although I did the research by themes, in writing the biography I have adopted a broadly chronological approach.
3. What Sort of Man was He?
Watkin was a typical product of the nineteenth century. His was not a rags to riches story. His father was a merchant, modest by Manchester standards. Absalom was unusually widely read, took an increasing interest in politics and looked to by the Manchester reformers to draft their petitions. He was more interested in politics and literature than in making a fortune, but made sufficient to move south west out of the smoke to Rose Hill, Northenden, on the Mersey, and then in Cheshire, when Edward was 15. By this time Edward was working with his father. Surprisingly we know nothing of his schooling - he did not even mention it when presenting school prizes in later life.
If Watkin's childhood was relatively uneventful, his youth and early manhood were not. First there was tension in the family, particularly between his father and mother and between father and son. Absalom regarded his wife as not capable of playing the middle class role he thought right; she regarded him, probably wrongly, as a womaniser. In so far as his father`s attitude to his mother was driven by her failure to live up to his idea of how things should be done in a middle class household, it may have contributed to Edward`s snobbery in later life, though it did not affect his attitude to his own wife, nor his attitude to women in general which was more favourable to equality than that of most Victorians. He was one of 78 MPs who voted with John Stuart Mill to substitute person for man in the 1868 Reform Bill. Edward was often rebuked by his father for insolence and failure to attend to the business ,which his father threatened to close if his sons did not mend their ways. The tension in his father's life between the call of cotton merchant's business and literary and political life was replicated in Edward`s case in his early 20s as far as politics were concerned. He did not take to the part in the family business assigned to him by his father, at least not on his father's terms in the circumstances of the family background. Whatever distractions he indulged in by way of amusements, he found much to do in the broader civic and political life of Manchester, pleasing his father that he was playing a role in Manchester in keeping with his own, but making it more difficult to attend to the Watkin business at the warehouse and thus attracting criticism.
Nevertheless Edward did combine the family business with civic interests until he was 26. He gained a considerable reputation for running campaigns, primarily the Operatives Anti Corn Law Association of which he became Secretary at the age of 20, 'Our Edward' as George Wilson and J. B. Smith, Chairman and Treasurer of the Anti Corn Law League, called him. The Operatives were an organisation designed by Cobden to gain the support of the working classes for the repeal of the Corn laws and to counter the chartists. Part of the intention seems to have been to beat the Chartists at their own game and that involved Watkin in encouraging a degree of violence. Both in demonstrations in Stevenson Square and in later by-elections Watkin was a child of the first half of the nineteenth century. He was also secretary of the successful campaign to gain public parks for Manchester and played a major part in the campaign to obtain a Saturday half holiday for Manchester clerks. All this gave him a taste for political life and also at least acquaintance at various levels with political notables.
The turning point for Watkin came with the need to support a wife. Absalom was not one of rich men of Manchester like the Philips or the Potters who sent their sons to Oxbridge and provided a private income. He could not afford to support Edward, who wanted to marry the daughter of an Oldham cotton manufacturer who had made money in the previous generation. As one commentator later put it with perhaps some exaggeration she was a Lancashire Lady, while he was no more than a young man of commercial promise. He had to get a job and found one in the new field of railway administration, probably due directly to Edward Tootal, and indirectly to his reputation as an organiser with the Anti Corn Law League. He was appointed Secretary of the Trent Valley Railway and had arrived in the world in which he was to make his career.
A word now about his personality. He was definitely what these days would be called a workaholic. He had a very large appetite for work and for the associated travel. When Sir John Kelk, the contractor, retired Watkin, then 56, wrote 'I congratulate him upon his salutary leisure time. I wish I could add myself to the band of gentlemen at large, but I fear I shall have to die in business'. Much earlier overwork in connection with the sale of the Trent Valley to the LNWR led to a breakdown, signs of which had been evident in his relations with his father and the stress that showed at the time of his marriage when his future career was uncertain. His erratic behaviour at the Stafford by election, to which he never referred in later life, immediately preceded the breakdown which seems to have taken the form of an acute anxiety related disorder, leading to panic attacks which resulted in physical weakness and subsequently to depression, which later in the nineteenth century physicians would describe as neurasthenia. The illness recurred in acute form in 1851, but was there in the background during his years with the LNWR, and led to his first visit to the United States - a curious form of recuperation given the thousands of miles travelled in the relatively uncomfortable steamers and trains of this period. For the first two years with the LNWR his wife was in Cheadle and he was in London. Neither then in Canada in the 60s nor subsequently as chairman of companies in Manchester and London was he daunted by the need to travel . It was a simply an extension of work and he used the train as his office. In 1876 he claimed he had travelled 1,500,000 miles by train and 120,000 miles by sea. This was before he went across Canada and to India and Ceylon, or got in the habit of visiting Cannes in the winter.
His visit to the US was a success in that his illness never recurred in the same acute form, though there were times when he was clearly under strain. He only once admitted to having too much to do and that was in 1865 when, already chairman of the MSLR and the Grand Trunk, he became a director of the SER and faced his first election at Stockport having been elected unopposed the previous year. However he was in poor health in 1868 when he was taken seriously ill at the SER half yearly meeting. This followed a hard summer in which he had rejected amalgamation of the SER, the LBSCR and the LCDR on the only terms available from Parliament because of the expected adverse effect on the SER`s dividend. It coincided with a very difficult period on the Grand Trunk. He told their shareholders that though he had been able to improve the railway physically he had exhausted himself in a futile attempt to put the railway on its feet financially. That remains an apt epitaph on Watkin's period as president of that railway. His recuperation on that occasion, after losing his seat at the general election was to go to Greece to expedite the work of the Athens and Pireaus Railway in which he was successful. His visit to India came after the death of his wife in order to go a long way from home to get rid of his sad reflections and find a new interest and challenge. Her death was undoubtedly a great blow to him.
It was Mary who had planned and seen to the carrying out of a large extension and complete remodelling of Rose Hill and the grounds. Watkin himself said that she was essentially a woman of business, entering into and grasping the complicated problems of his daily work He largely attributed to her the creation of the Provident Savings Banks on the MSLR, SER and Metropolitan. Sir Robert Perks who knew the Watkins well said that Lady Watkin was a woman of remarkable business capacity who managed the family finances and kept the bank account . Watkin made it a rule to transfer a third of what money he earned from his railways to his wife, and a third to his son and a third to his daughter. 'Whatever befalls me, they are all right' was his explanation. Mary Watkin's money had however have been placed in a family trust. The absence of Watkin's personal papers makes difficult is any exact assessment of his wealth. He clearly started his career in the railways with very little, but before the death of his own father in 1861 when he inherited Rose Hill, and his brother Alfred the family business, he was writing that since 1854 he had grown somewhat richer and was not dependent on the labour of the day. This may have been his wife's family's money, but her father had died in 1849 and she was one of ten children. He later made money from the purchase and sale of the Hudson's Bay Company and held shares in his and other railway companies. By the 1880s Watkin and his family had substantial stakes in the companies of which he was chairman. In 1881 he told SER shareholders that his family circle had a good deal of their savings in the company, about £120,000 among them. In 1890 he was the second largest ordinary shareholder on the MSLR. In the mid 80s his earnings were thought to be comparable to those of Forbes who was said to earn £12 to 15,000 each year.
The family trusts must account for his surprisingly low estate of £17,300,even allowing for the cost of his final years. He had also been paying his son Alfred the very considerable sum of £2,000 a year, despite the failure of Alfred to follow in his father`s footsteps as a politician and railwayman, though his father tried hard at some cost to harmony on the SER board. Forbes who died three years later left £272,000. Boyd Dawkins, the geologist, commenting on a draft of Watkin's DNB entry said he did not care for money and died a poor man when he might have accumulated great wealth. But this seems to be a mistaken view. Care for wealth he did.
Watkin liked to be thought of as a politician with a turn for railway management. He seemed to have a promising future in politics. Despite his false start at Yarmouth, where he lost his seat for bribery - money he provided was used to buy votes, he became MP for Stockport when 44, unlike many northern businessmen who only entered Parliament late in life. He made an encouraging start in the House where he took the lead in criticising the government for its handling of the crash of 1866 following the Overend Gurney failure which hit the railways hard. This led to appointment as chairman of the Select Committee on Limited Liability and he was for a time regarded as the principal leader of the railway interest in Parliament. But , though the Liberals regained power in 1868, Watkin lost his seat, in part due to the Conservative orange tide in the North West, in part due to LNWR votes and his own injudicious actions. The development of his Parliamentary career was interrupted, for, as it turned out, for five years. It is unlikely that he would have become a major parliamentary figure or a member of a Liberal Government given his business preoccupations. But it is possible that if he had retained his seat at Stockport he would have remained in a more secure position in the Liberal party, more open to radical influence and less of a cross party figure, at least in the years before the Unionist split in 1886.Nevertheless his speeches in 1868 already showed he had little feel for party politics or for the House of Commons itself. His conduct at Yarmouth might have been just about tolerated in the rough and tumble of party politics in that era, but he combined this with a disregard for party loyalties. Even when MP for Stockport he schemed to keep the Grimsby seat for the MSLR and was prepared to cut across Liberal interests, a practice he continued until he retired - though later it was Unionist interests he put at risk. In 1874 he won at Hythe. His support for Disraeli`s foreign policy, though acceptable to his Hythe constituents, deprived him of wider support. In the House of Commons many of his interventions, however good his case, were not calculated to win friends, sometimes because they seemed to go against the conventions of the House. In his business life there were a number of episodes like the exchange of correspondence with Laing in 1888 where he was regarded as too pressing and left a feeling in the Victorian phrase adopted by Michael Robbins that he was seen as not quite a gentleman. This was also the view of many MPs, including leading politicians. He was very conscious of social position. When in 1867 the LNWR withdrew free passes from the directors of the MSLR, but not from Watkin as Chairman,.he returned his pass and told Moon that he could not possibly accept when gentlemen like Wharncliffe, Turner, Eden and Chapman whose social position and influence were greater than his own were excluded.
While outwardly assurance sat on him 'like a top hat on a Bradford millionaire', he protested much under attack. He was concerned about his standing, writing to the Lord Chamberlain's office to make sure he had not done the wrong thing at court, and could complain in the House that he stood no chance in comparative popularity with Lord Claud Hamilton because he had led a hard and laborious life, full of conflicts, and might therefore have made many enemies. Hamilton had moved in high circles, had charming manners, and influential friends and had neither lived long enough nor done anything sufficiently great to surround him with any animosities. On that occasion Watkin had an argument of substance and some support from fellow MPs - Hamilton did seem to have broken the conventions of the House on the handling of railway bills, but the effect was to confirm politicians' judgment of him.
Watkin was an outsider not just in politics as were many radical business men, partly because they lacked the aristocratic eases and assumptions once out of their own milieu, but even in the world of railways, as can be seen from his relationships with his fellow chairmen. His uncertainty about his own standing was replicated in his concern for his companies. None was in the first rank. That hurt and he wanted them to be in the same class as the LNWR - the aristocrats of the railway world. He saw the MSLR as carrying its traffic over short lengths of railways with a great many tunnels costly to construct and maintain and collecting a good deal of traffic from which other companies derived more than their due share of the benefit. Absorption, amalgamation or extension were the alternatives.
His political views were of importance in his railway businesses. He was a radical who remained true to reform in so far as it related to the suffrage and individual rights, but his attachment to laissez-faire if anything became greater as the years progressed, though he saw a place for public works. It was state interference with the rights of private property which was anathema to him. In particular like Richard Moon he believed in the convention that private statutes were to be regarded as private contracts immune from any retrospective legislation that imposed unprofitable or otherwise uncompensated burdens on a utility's property. It was not until the legislation of 1893 on hours of work and that on rates the following year that the notion that a utility had such a contract was finally destroyed. It was this that made him such an opponent of the Board of Trade, both on railway safety and on the Railway Passenger Duty. Long an opponent of this Duty which hit the Metropolitan particularly hard, he saw Chamberlain`s proposal to tie remission to conditions as a deliberate breach of faith with important interests. He pressed without success for a stronger Railway Companies Association and for a mass meeting of railway shareholders to press against Mundella's bill enabling the BOT to revise rates, although his colleagues complained that the habit had gained ground of regarding the railways as national institutions acting for the benefit of the public, not as commercial carriers struggling for a return on capital they would not go along with Watkin`s ideas for reforming the Association, or his proposal to hire the Albert Hall.
Watkin was however clear that the companies should do more to remove the grievance which existed in the public mind against the companies on differentials between home and imported produce. He also placed limitations on competition arguing against reduction of the Liverpool and Manchester rates, which would simply crowd the weaker companies out of the race. He thought railways were suffering from excessive train services but he could not be a party to offering less public accommodation. The trains were run for the benefit of customers who in difficult times were running about the country in a strenuous endeavour to obtain business which feeds our railways. He tried several times to rationalise the London to Manchester passenger services so that trains did not leave at the same time leaving along gap before the next. He failed and was only partially successful with the CLC Manchester- Liverpool interval service. He had to be content with an hourly rather than a half hourly service.
While sparing of praise or flattery of senior staff he generally attracted loyalty and devotion from them. Many worked closely with him for very long periods - Ross, the Secretary of the MSLR, was an outstanding example. Watkin on the whole chose his subordinates well and some went on to higher positions elsewhere - Hickson to the Grand Trunk and Scotter to be general manager of the LSWR.
He was a patriarchal employer. In 1892 the MSLR Board refused to met Edward Harford and James Kelly, leaders of two railway unions. They would meet with their own men with whom they alone had the relations of employer and employee. On the MSLR and the Metropolitan he saw that clerks and inspectors were given a Christmas present in the shape of a turkey, goose, or leg of mutton, according to grade. He was proud of the savings schemes. In 1887 he said it was most extraordinary that working men in London , in the City, who live to the age of 70 died in the workhouse. 'I think if I were to walk through a workhouse and see any employee of the MSLR dying there, I should not consider we had done our duty as Christian men and employers.' His SER charged high fares; his attitude to workmen's fares was ambivalent , he was slow to abolish second class and he was anxious that Folkestone should not become another Margate. However he could point proudly to Cleethorpes and believed that visiting it and eating oysters there had given pleasure to thousands of working men from Sheffield and other places. Watkin, who was very conscious that he lived in Northenden, while elsewhere there was a dense population, who had only one day upon which they could get out into the country to see God's sunlight, thought it a cruel thing to absolutely deny them access to those scenes which were only open to them on the day of rest. But his had to be balanced by the fact that the railwayman's only day of rest was also the Sabbath, so his policy was to put on trains for excursions on Sundays but to as small an extent as he possibly could. He also had in mind that the working classes would never improve if they were to be carried as separate classes and excluded from association from everybody else.
4. Conventional Wisdom
Watkin has been seen as Huish's pupil during his time with the LNWR. My detailed study of his work for the LNWR shows him to have been more than this, rather he was the key figure in the organisation of management information for the company. He analysed the commitments for expenditure on stations. When Moon's Committee of Investigation thought the numerous unused parcels of land held by the company required minute case by case investigation, they said the work should be given to Watkin who was well-qualified for the enquiry. He reformed the accounts for materials. and systematised the coke and repair costs for each description of engine employed . He played an important role in Huish's deterioration reports 'compiled with the valuable assistance of Mr Watkin.' He made a reputation in railway circles in leading the railway companies fight against the rating system. Watkin has been accused with not knowing about the operation of railways. This was not the case, either in his early days or later. He was a capable administrator who could master detail. In 1856 he sent a masterly letter, almost a management manual, to the new dockmaster at Grimsby. Palmerston told Panmure, then Secretary for War, that he had found him a first rate man (Watkin) for the head of the Commissariat in the Crimea, strongly recommended by Paxton and Robert Stephenson, though Panmure appointed someone else. He was also able to operate on an entirely different plain where the details seemed less important than the concept. This can be illustrated by three examples. He brought considerable improvement to the management and operation of the Grand Trunk, but at the same time pursued ambitious policies which though in the interests of Canada could only been of very long term benefit to the railway. He much improved the surface journey from London to Paris, but put great energy into the Channel Tunnel even after it had ceased to be a real possibility. His record with the MSLR was not outstanding but he kept a tight rein on operating expenditure and the holding and gaining of customers. He secured a not unreasonable return on its capital, though its capital structure meant that the ordinary shareholder hardly partook of this. But such success as the company had was put at risk by his dream of a new route to London.
He has been accused of failing to amalgamate companies. This is self-evidently true, in that the three main companies of which he was chairman remained separate until after his retirement. In each case there were many attempts, each of which had their own detailed reasons for failure. One of Watkin's last acts general manager of the MSLR was to negotiate a partnership agreement which was rejected by the GNR board because they would not guarantee complete preference to the preference shareholders. The GNR and Midland attempt to take over the MSLR in 1877 partly motivated by their difficulties with Watkin on the CLC, again fell down over the interests of the MSLR shareholders. How energetically Watkin tried to bring them into line is not clear. With justification thought that the GNR were trying to force the matter with undue haste, but he himself wanted better terms than were on offer and had an unduly rosy view of MSLR's prospects. There is a long catalogue of attempts at amalgamation between the SER and LCDR. There was no opportunity to pick the LCDR up for a song in 1866-7 -the SER had no powers to take over other companies no matter what difficulties they were in. In 1868 Watkin would not face a reduction in SER tariffs that the Lords thought necessary for a three way working union. He wrongly thought that there would be a better opportunity later.
Subsequent failures are usually seen as consequences of the Watkin-Forbes rivalry. There certainly was a personal element in this. Both men were obstacles to fusion at different times. If Watkin could be demanding and peremptory in his communications, Forbes was often very hard to pin down.'More flies are caught by sugar than by vinegar' he said. There were also chance factors such as the lateness of the amalgamation Bill in 1876and the land slip at Shakespeare's Cliff which altered the revenue ratios between the two companies making the terms of the Bill unacceptable to the LCDR shareholders when it was resubmitted the following year. More generally Watkin saw the LCDR and District as companies struggling to return to prosperity after their near bankruptcy in 1866. Soon after becoming chairman of the Metropolitan he told shareholders ' I am not going to tie your property which with all its unfortunate mistakes has some substance to it to a concern like the Metropolitan District, this beautiful lady without a dower'. He wanted terms to take account of a lower rate of return for the two amalgamated companies than for the SER or Metropolitan separately. Forbes on the other hand saw the LCDR and the District as improving lines and wanted the price to take account of his expectations, and Watkin would never agree to that. Given the descent to the abyss in 1866 the LCDR and District could of course only look upward and when the SER faltered in the 1880s Forbes reluctance to yield was greater as equality was nearer. Significantly Forbes always rejected offers of arbitration, probably because of concern lest insufficient account would be taken of future potential. Watkin was generally backed by his fellow directors. Morphett, an influential Metropolitan director, told Watkin in 1885 that he hoped he would never put such a favourable proposal to Forbes again. Though the SER-LCDR merger is always seen as a consequence of Watkin's departure, in fact in his last year the division of all competitive traffic though not fusion was agreed.
Watkin has been criticised for his attitude to safety. Some of his views were highly idiosyncratic and he was most reluctant to give passengers further opportunities to sue. However what we see today as unacceptable statements about safety on Watkin's part were often a reflection of his views about Government interference. He let his dislike of the Board of Trade appear to outweigh his willingness to attend to safety concerns and his generally sympathetic attitude to the victims of accident - he personally gave £350 to the victims of the Bullhouse accident which the Company was not empowered to do. The record of his companies varied. The Metropolitan in the days of steam never killed a passenger and the SER went 25 years without doing so, the achievement of which Watkin celebrated by buying more shares. But the record of the MSLR was poor exacerbated by their use of the Smith brake, though I am not convinced that Watkin's role in this should have attracted the opprobrium it has. He seems to have acted on advice from engineers and at the time there was no consensus between companies or with the government on which brake to use.
Harold Pollins in the context of the London extension commented that Watkin's statements often fail to reveal with any clarity his longer term plans and ambitions. This betrays a misunderstanding about the nature of visionary entrepreneurship. You have a gleam in your eye which in Watkin's case was to get the MSLR to London which he had clearly acted upon when the opportunity occurred in 1872 to link with the Midland at Rushden and possibly to go on from there. His chairmanship of the Metropolitan gave him an entree to London. That of the East London and the South Eastern gave him an incentive to do in London what he had failed to do in Manchester which was to build a through line - he did not favour terminal stations or taxi rides across the Metropolis if they could be avoided. He was quite opportunist about getting to London. If the Worcester and Broom came up he would make what he could of it. When nothing substantial came of it he decided to do it his own way.
These days this is regarded as the most controversial aspect of his career. My view is that it was always a very doubtful enterprise, made worse by the misjudgments of Watkin and Pollitt at the time and changed circumstances after Watkin`s departure. As Stephen Dutt put it 'If it represents in physical terms the climax of railway building, it represented its nadir in economic terms.' To which I would add the task of railway management is to succeed on both fronts. However opinion of the day was largely for it - particularly provincial opinion. Watkin saw a repetition of the Midland`s line to St Pancras necessary because of under capacity. He also seems to have seen the possibility of a line through rural Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire as leading to a growth in population, perhaps based on his American experience. But this did not happen and nor was a Scunthorpe founded. The period of great expansion of Nottingham and Leicester was over. Pollitt`s estimates of revenue were a nonsense simply based on an extrapolation of the revenue per mile earned by the existing MSLR. After the failure of the first bill the proposed site for Marylebone Station was moved from Boscabel Gardens to the Marylebone Road with much higher costs. The Mayor of Chesterfield was told that the number of people in London to be displaced by the new line was greater than his population of his town. Watkin seemed at one stage to want to bring about a union of his three companies, though it was deemed inadvisable to include this in the Bill and no more was heard of the idea. Watkin hardly assisted that process. Over the years he did something to bring about common membership of his three boards but least between the MSLR and the Metropolitan. On the latter board where there was no experienced MSLR director other than Watkin himself. He also did little to secure his own succession in any of his three companies, a want most felt in the case of the Metropolitan where he also seems to have he much misjudged Bell who quickly added substantially to the costs of the extension.
5. His Place in History
It is hard to reach a single judgment on a man who strode the railway stage for so long. Watkin was one of the pre-eminent railwaymen of the nineteenth century. On his death one railway obituarist grouped him with Stephenson, Ellis, Moon, Allport, Laing, Parkes, Hudson and Forbes, but concluded that in versatility, originality, aggressive force and individual daring Watkin surpassed them all. But these are only some of the virtues to be looked for in the chairman of a railway company, and his possession of them in part explains his higher reputation with the much of public than with his fellow railway chairman, who had more cause to be alienated by the rapidity of his actions, his often unorthodox ways, and the language in which he clothed them. With them he was often short and abrasive, with little idea of how to get them on his side. A need to get on with matter sat a rapid pace, coupled with an unusually high appreciation of the correctness of his judgments could lead him astray. Edwin Waterhouse regarded the energy with which Watkin dealt with the legacy of fraud at the Metropolitan as invigorating and helpful, as with all he took in hand though he did not exhibit the disinterested zeal and forgetfulness of self which distinguished Moon and others. To Perks, no fool in business matters he was one of the four men he had met for whom he had the greatest veneration.
All his companies were far from prosperous when he took them over: the MSLR was highly capitalised and in a poor way when he became its general manager. He was invited to the SER and Metropolitan, as he was to the Grand Trunk, to pull them round. He never had charge of a major company like the LNWR, or GNR which was financially secure and likely to remain so - though the SER was near that in the 1870`s on two occasions paying 6%. He stayed with three medium ranking British companies which in his last 25 years performed neither better nor worse than the average British railway company. I simply repeat Terry Gourvish's conclusion.
I regard his main failure as the SER. The company seems to have rested on its laurels in the 1880s while its rival caught up - for some years the SER did not invest sufficient in rolling stock, though by the 90s much of the older stock had been replaced. If the intention was to put the shareholders before the public that was hardly fulfilled. The competitive struggle with the LCDR diverted the energy of both companies. This was not so much because of the investment in competing branch lines, but a result of the competition engendered on main line, largely continental, traffic and in investment in duplicate steamboats. However it is questionable whether such services would have improved as much as they did without such competition, but the level of public dissatisfaction with the ordinary services of the SER was high, and it is hard to avoid the verdict that Watkin missed the opportunity to merge with the LCDR in 1868 when the gap between the financial position of the two companies was wide and the matter was within his control, and not dependent on Forbes' agreement.
He was criticised for his multiple chairmanships. Critics of the SER in particular wanted him to devote his full attention to that line. More generally he was charged with attempting too much - and that rather than the three chairmanships is a more serious charge. He was even an executive chairman of the SER from the death of Eborall in 1873 to Fenton's appointment in 1880, not unconnected I suspect with his difficulties with the SER board in this period. He himself thought, probably wrongly, that he would have succeeded with the Channel Tunnel project in 1882 had he given up all other work and spent £100,000 on persuading the public. Because he took on so much he made mistakes but they perhaps arose from poor judgment as much as from too much work. His ability to manage an up and running system did not extend to being sufficiently critical of the novel project. His temperament except when he was under severe strain was excessively sanguine and the fact that he could persuade people to support schemes by his mere personality led him into ventures which others would have left on one side. It also led him to err on the high side when issuing stock - the continually expected improvement in the company's fortunes would justify the rate of interest. He led others to believe in his optimism, and they were sometimes victims of his unsound judgment but he did not set out to deceive.
He had a greater openness to new developments, and was capable of taking a broader view than his peers - e.g. in his advice to the MSLR Board not to oppose the Manchester Ship Canal. If the people of Manchester wanted it it did not lie with them to oppose it. He misjudged potential passenger flows in the case of the East London Railway and the Inner Circle, but the completion of the latter for which he struggled hard was a public benefit. He made the MSLR a coast to coast line which helped ensure the success of Grimsby which he justifiably told a select committee he made, though the initial heavy investment was past the point of no return before he joined the MSLR. He ensured that the GNR and Midland paid their share of the MSLR's expansion in Lancashire and Cheshire. Because he had so many ideas he had many failures - among them the extraordinary attempt to develop across Channel service to Treport, and the Port Victoria experiment. The failure of the Channel Tunnel was at one level caused by an incompatibility between the British and French approaches to economic and railway enterprise, at another by Wolseley's inflammation of British public opinion, but at another by Watkin's tactics and temper. His misjudgment of the Chairman of the new Hudson's Bay Company which he had spent so much effort in successfully creating led to his not playing the major role in the development of trans-Canadian transportation that he might have achieved.
While he had a wider vision than most of his contemporaries in railway management in Britain and was ready to challenge some of their preconceptions, by the late 1880s and 1890s he no longer attended the railway Companies Association and rather abandoned any attempt to participate in general debates about the key issues then facing British railways - how they could increase levels of service in their competitive situation and how could they meet the challenge of the traders to railway rates at a time of declining prices and rising labour costs, and concentrated mainly on his own companies but also a range of other interests - Indian railways where he succeeded in eliminating a gauge break, his Welsh estate, Welsh railways, the Wembley tower.
His American and Canadian experiences probably influenced his thinking, but not generally in the direction of resolving these key issues or of improving the performance of his companies. His visit to Canada in 1886 may however have reinforced him in the view that a new line to London could win traffic in the empty districts it traversed. His penchant for special trains for himself and for VIPs was more in the style of an American railway boss than of his British contemporaries. He had something of a flair for publicity, and the SER ran advertising campaigns for its continental services not paralleled in the race to Scotland by the northern companies.
I do not think Watkin really was a tycoon in the sense that American railway moguls were. Functionally Glyn, a banker , though very different in character was nearer J. P. Morgan than was Watkin, but Watkin was a unique and idiosyncratic figure and something of a maverick. Only Watkin would work in a Turkish tarboosh specially woven in Lancashire. He was an outsider in the world of British railway management. They needed one. Whether Watkin was the right one is a matter for debate.
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1. Richard Holmes, Inventing the Truth, in The Art of Literary Biography, ed John Batchelor, 1995, 20
2. Geoffrey Channon, 'A nineteenth-century investment decision: the Midland Railway's London Extension', Economic History Review, (2) 25, 1972, 468
3. D. C. Coleman, History of the Economic Past, 1987, 133-4
4. J R Vincent, Disraeli, Derby and his Conservative Party : The Political Diaries of Lord Stanley, 1849-69, 1978, xiii
5. Magdalen Goffin, The Diaries of Absalom Watkin, A Manchester Man,1787-1861, 1993
6. PRO, RAIL 635/ 48, Laing to Watkin, 25th October 1883
7. Greater London Record Office, ACC1297/MET 1/6, Watkin to Aird, 4th December 1875
8. Sir Robert William Perks, Bart, 1934, 72-39
9. RAIL 635/12, 20th January 1881 and 463/24, 18th December 1890
10. 8th October 1885
11. Manchester Central Library, Boyd Dawkins to Charles W Sutton,17th July1911, commenting on Sutton's draft of the Watkin article in the DNB
12. M. Robbins, Points and Signals, 1967, 73
13. RAIL 463/9, 11th January 1867, letter to Moon, 5th January
14. Letter from the Lord Chamberlain`s Office to Watkin, 24th April 1872, in the possession of Miss Dorothea Worsley Taylor
15. Parliamentary Debates (3), 227, 6th March 1876, 1492
16. C. D. Foster, Privatisation, Public Ownership and the Regulation of Natural Monopoly, 1992, 53
17. PRO RAIL 463/20, 16th July 1886, and 6th October 1885
18. RAIL 463/77, 21st January 1887
19. House of Lords Record Office, L15, 1864, North Cheshire Water Bill, Watkin's evidence on 31st May; RAIL 463/77, 25th July 1883; Watkin's evidence to the Royal Commission on Working Class Housing, Parliamentary Papers 1884, 616, II, 351-65
20. PRO, ZLIB, 15/1/19, May 1849
21. e.g. P. R. Reynolds, 'Watkin's invasion of Wales', Transport History, 13,1980, 99, and Adrian Gray, History of the South Eastern Railway,1990, 304
22. George Douglas and George Dalhousie Ramsey (eds), The Panmure Papers,1908,1, 180 and 191, Palmerston to Panmure, 1st May 1855
23. GLRO, ACC 1297/Met 10/640, 15th October 1872
24. RAIL 1110/426, 23rd July 1890
25. Harold Pollins, 'The last main railway line to London', Journal of Transport History, 4, 1959, 85
26. Stephen L Dutt, Enterprise misled: the struggle of the MSLR to gain independent access to London, 1889-1899', MA thesis, University of Manchester, 1978
27. The Memoirs of Edwin Waterhouse, ed Edgar Jones, 1988, 109
28. Perks, 33