The destination for history

The train event: The ‘Big Four’ railway companies


It is now 100 years since Great Britain’s railways were drawn together into four companies. They were known as the ‘Big Four’, but why?

In 1804 Richard Trevithick pioneered steam traction that was mobile on metal rails. Since the 1700s, wagonways had been used to feed mines and other industries using primitive, horse-drawn trucks on wooden rails, but Trevithick revolutionised this procedure with his steam-driven railway. Static steam boilers already existed to pump water and drive mills and coal mines, but with wheels and the ability to pull loaded wagons, here was a different use for the steam engine. Trevithick first used this new power on the Penydarren Tramroad in South Wales, and it worked. Steam-driven railway traction was born.

Trevithick’s idea was to open colliery railways in the north-east, and designers such as Timothy Hackworth and John Blenkinsop designed the steam engines to haul the colliery wagons. They were, however, still primitive, but onto the scene came George Stephenson, who was to become known as ‘the father of the railways’. Like the other engineers, he continued to work on locomotives for colliery use. He built the first line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR), to link collieries near Shildon with Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees in the north-east, and it officially opened on 27 September 1825. However, Stephenson wanted this new power source to go further. There was more to it than designing engines to haul industrial products. If it could do that, why could it not carry paying passengers? He built the first inter-city line from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830; before it fully opened, the Rainhill Trials took place in 1829 to test his argument that steam-powered locomotives would be the best form of transport to run along it.

Stephenson’s son, Robert, shared his father’s passion for steam and entered a locomotive design of his own that he called Rocket. It went on to win the race, travelling at 30mph, although some of the shine was taken off as Rocket was the only entrant to finish! Stephenson’s prize was worth £44,324 in today’s money.

On 15 September the following year, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) opened. There was a race to get to Manchester, but sadly, the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, was struck by Rocket. He had travelled in a train pulled by Northumbrian, built for the Duke of Wellington, the prime minister, and driven by George Stephenson. When the train stopped for water and coal at Parkside station, Huskisson got out onto the adjoining track. Rocket, being driven by George Stephenson’s assistant and future eminent railway engineer Joseph Locke, was travelling along that track and struck Huskisson, who later died of his injuries. There is a memorial to him at the accident site today; he was the first person to be killed in a railway accident.

Railway development moved quickly, from Trevithick in 1804, with his first high-pressure steam locomotive hauling a loaded train along a plateway in South Wales, to the Stephensons thirty years later, with their locomotives capable of hauling trains from Liverpool to Manchester. After this, Railway Mania started when vast profits could be made from investing in new railway companies. New lines spread like a spider’s web across the country and abroad. Passenger trains that originally carried people in open trucks advanced through to comfortable and not-so-comfortable carriages that could be booked depending on the traveller’s wealth. By 1846, 272 railway companies had received government approval. This included those at an early stage when shares were being sold to recoup the proposed cost of laying the tracks. It was a ‘feeding frenzy’ where the lucky ones could get fabulously wealthy, but some simply lost money.

Between 1845 and 1847, Parliament authorised the building of 8,000 miles of railway lines. Some worked, while some did not and were soon sucked into the larger companies, scrapped, or joined with others to form more successful business ventures, such as the L&MR’s amalgamation with the Grand Junction Railway (GJR). This then joined with the Manchester and Birmingham Railway (M&BR) and the London and Birmingham Railway (L&BR). Then followed the final offering before amalgamation, the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). There was little in the way of organisation: some companies simply ran from town to town; some travelled the same route. Larger companies emerged, such as the Great Western and many, many others.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the railway consisted of 20,000 miles of track owned by 120 companies. Going into the war, they were all controlled by the government and were worked hard. They came out battered and bruised, and soon it was decided that something had to be done. The country could not support so many diverse and, in some cases, overlapping companies. They would have to be brought together into a neat bundle of just four to cover England, Scotland and Wales and part of Northern Ireland.

The Railways Act 1921, also known as the Grouping Act, became law on 1 January 1923. After this, just four large companies, nicknamed the ‘Big Four’, came into being after incorporating all but a few of the small companies. This meant that 120 separate railways were combined to make just four.

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)

The LMS became the most significant commercial enterprise in the UK and second only to the Post Office in the number of people employed in Britain. It was also the biggest joint-stock company globally and the most extensive transport organisation in the world. Then there was the fact that it was also the most significant commercial enterprise in the British Empire. It was also the only member of the Big Four to operate in Northern Ireland, serving most of the province. The chief mechanical engineers (CMEs) were George Hughes (1923–25), Henry Fowler (1925–31), Ernest Lemon (1931–32), Sir William A. Stanier (1932–44) and Henry George Ivatt (1944–47).

The London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)

This was the second-largest operator after the LMS and owned 7,700 locomotives together with passenger and freight vehicles. It also held and inherited forty-two steam and turbine ferries, and river and lake steamboats, twenty-three hotels, eight canals, and twenty ports and harbours. The CMEs were Sir Nigel Gresley, who served from 1923 to his death in 1941, Edward Thompson, from 1941 to 1946, and Arthur Peppercorn from 1946 to nationalisation in 1948.

The Southern Railway (SR)

The Southern was the smallest of the Big Four, and its business catered more for passengers than freight. It became the first railway company to move extensively to electrification, including on the main lines. As time went on, it was the world’s most extensive railway system powered by electricity and was also the wealthiest. The company replaced most of the stock that it inherited and had two CMEs, Richard Maunsell (1923–37) and Oliver Bulleid (1937–48).

The Great Western Railway (GWR)

The GWR was the only one of the Big Four to retain its name, which dated back to 1833. (In this book, I have marked pre-1921 GWR as ‘original GWR’.) The company operated a series of bus routes and an airline, Railway Air Services. It also owned hotels and ports. There were just two CMEs under the Big Four, Charles Collett (1922–41) and Frederick Hawksworth (1941–47).

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books