Sixes and Sevens: the Big Four and its Alternatives

by Ray Fisher

There was nothing inevitable in the creation of the Big Four. The only certainty after the centralised control of the First World War, with its benefits from the elimination of competition, was that there could be no return to the previous setup. There was less agreement on what should replace it. One option, already mooted before 1914, was outright nationalisation, supported by many in political circles, including a certain Liberal MP, one Winston Churchill. But the Select Committee formed in 1918 merely reported that "unification of the railway system is desirable under certain safeguards, whether the ownership be in public or private hands." By 1920 the coalition government had swung away from nationalisation in favour of some form of consolidation under private ownership.

Responsibility for drawing up a plan fell mainly on the shoulders of the former deputy general manager of the North Eastern Rly, Sir Eric Geddes, who, newly appointed as Britain’s first Minister of Transport, was charged with drafting the Railways Bill. In this he was assisted by the Railway Advisory Committee, with a membership including twelve general managers and four trade union general secretaries. Although wider in scope than the Grouping itself, the Bill's centrepiece was the new structure of the railways, where various options were considered.

Some early proposals

The ideal structure was envisaged as a set of local monopolies, with competition between the groups eliminated as far as possible. Understandably, competition was then perceived as confined within the industry rather than between road and rail. The existing North Eastern Rly, especially after its impending absorption of the Hull & Barnsley, best represented the model to be perpetuated elsewhere, with a dozen or so groups being formed in all. But there was a problem with such a solution: some of the existing companies, notably the LNWR (about to be merged with the L&YR) and the Midland, would have to be broken up, a process that would have prolonged any restructuring for some years. The Committee therefore looked for more immediate solutions built on the existing companies, though, as the Government stated in its 1920 discussion paper, they hoped the new groups would exchange lines "which project from the territory of one group into that of another", adding that "at a later stage it may become necessary to require them to do so." Whatever form it was to take, the Grouping was thus seen as an interim measure to be improved by future adjustments, whether voluntary or imposed. So, you could argue, it proved to be, though neither the arrival of nationalisation nor the circumstances that gave rise to it were foreseen.

At one extreme grouping might have been confined to a tidying-up exercise where the twelve or so largest existing railways absorbed the minor ones, no new companies being created. Although the number of separate companies would have been greatly reduced, only about 7% of the locomotive stock might have changed ownership. This was soon dropped in favour of more radical schemes.

The constraint on breaking up existing undertakings already effectively guaranteed the survival of the Great Western. And, unless a separate South Wales group was formed that excluded the GWR, its expansion was also inevitable as it increased its loco stock by almost 30% through absorption of the many smaller companies in its area.

Another constant element in the various plans soon emerged - the formation of a Southern group based on the merger of the three principal companies. Although barely half the size of what we could call the Greater Western Railway as measured by locomotives or route mileage, the Southern was of course much closer to the GWR in terms of assets and turnover.

Elsewhere plans were more fluid. One interesting scheme envisaged seven groups in all: Western, Southern, two groups in Scotland (east and west), an enlarged LNWR that took in the Furness and North Staffs as well as the L&YR, an Eastern group comprising the NER, GNR and GER, and a Midland/GCR group. The LNW group would have had 23% of the loco stock, the Eastern group 20%, the Midland 18%, the Western 17%, Southern 9%, West Scotland 7% and East Scotland 5%. A six-group variant of the plan combined the two Scottish groups.

These proposals raise some interesting questions: would the Great Central have returned to its Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire origins, its London extension run down by the Midland rather than by BR after Beeching? And on the LNW, would Crewe or Horwich have dominated locomotive affairs? I suspect the latter. Above all, with the Eastern group confined to three London termini(*), what station would have replaced Marylebone on the Monopoly board?

(*) including Fenchurch Street, which, despite the presence of the LTSR, was actually owned by the GER.

The (not so Big) Seven

The proposal that finally emerged in the Government’s discussion paper also had seven groups, but was quite different from the earlier scheme. The two Scottish groups were now merged while south of the border the Midland and Great Central were separated, with the Midland now joining the enlarged LNWR to form an LMS group without the "S" and the GCR merging with the other two "Greats", the GNR and GER. The NER was now hived off to form its own separate group, adding only the Hull & Barnsley, about to be absorbed by the NER before the Grouping itself.

Among these six groups, the North Western would now have 35% of the loco stock, the Eastern group 17%, the Scottish 12% and the North Eastern 9%, the GWR and SR still having 17% and 9% respectively.

London and the Grouping

The other big change in the new proposal was the addition of London as the seventh group. Intended to cover local railways, it would have included the North London, had its operations not been taken over by the LNWR in 1909, as well as, probably, the London, Tilbury & Southend if it hadn't been cheekily snatched by the Midland in 1912. Without these, the new group would have been limited to the lines already known as the "Underground" - the tubes plus the two sub-surface lines. Here much of the grouping had already been done, for a holding company (a novelty this side of the Atlantic), the Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd (UER), had by 1913 already absorbed or taken control of all but the two shortest tube lines, along with the District Rly (or Metropolitan District Rly, to give its full and confusing title). The short tube lines omitted were the Waterloo & City Rly, taken over by the LSWR soon after completion, and the Great Northern & City Rly, a tube built to full loading gauge from Moorgate to Finsbury Park that had been grabbed by the Metropolitan Rly after being jilted by the Great Northern.

So essentially only two companies needed to be merged to create the London group. But one of them was the Metropolitan, as fiercely proud and independent as any of the larger undertakings. Indeed, with a line that stretched over 50 miles from Baker Street until finally reaching Verney Junction, near Bletchley on the LNW's Oxford to Cambridge line, it saw itself as a main line railway. Even so, a merger with the District might have occurred had the latter not become associated via the UER with the toy trains scurrying deep below London’s streets. Resistance from the Metropolitan won the day: by the time the Railways Bill itself was published, the proposal for a London group had been dropped.

A plan ahead of its time?

If the Grouping as finally implemented had substantial departures from the seven-group plan envisaged in the 1920 discussion paper, the discarded scheme may still look familiar. First, just 10 years after the Grouping a London group was indeed created, though not as a private company but in the form of the London Passenger Transport Board. Then, another 15 years on, the new British Railways created six regions that almost exactly replicated the 1920 scheme, with its separate Scottish and North Eastern Regions. Apart from the joint lines, omitted from the Grouping plans but not from nationalisation, there was just one departure from the 1920 plan: the LMS lines in South Wales were placed under the Western Region and not the London Midland.

But the effective revival of the 1920 proposal was short-lived as subsequent regional boundary adjustments progressively departed from it, one early change being the transfer of the LTS lines to the Eastern Region. Later the North Eastern Region itself disappeared, merged with the Eastern.

The Big Four Solution

Why wasn't the discussion paper's seven-group plan implemented? We have already noted the hesitancy over London and its eventual omission from the Grouping. But this would not have prevented implementation of a six-group version had there not also been concern over the financial viability of the Scottish group, where the Caledonian would have to support the weaker North British. Instead it was decided to link the NBR with its English neighbour, the North Eastern, one of the most profitable of all the pre-war companies. In turn this meant the western group, headed by the Caledonian, would now join the north-western group that already comprised two giants, the LNWR and Midland. The LMS was born, though the new company had yet to be named.

Now with 43% of the loco stock, the LMS threatened to dominate the other groups without an east coast counterpart. The three "Greats" would therefore have to combine with the NER/NBR group to form the future LNER, with just over 30% of the stock.

The Big Four had emerged, though some were bigger than others. On the map the new scheme perhaps looked a little messy in places, with former Midland and GC lines entangling with each other in central England, echoed by similar complexities in the Scottish lowlands. Potential competition remained on many routes, such as London to Plymouth, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Edinburgh, while routes now to be served by a single company were often, though not always, similarly placed before the Grouping, such as London to Southampton, Bristol, South Wales and York. But at least the Grouping minimised inter-company workings, including Anglo-Scottish services. Whether the arrangements were the best way of ensuring viability of each of the groups is another matter: the onset of the depression hit the North Eastern’s territory as hard as any, and the new LNER had to contend with the financial legacy of the Great Central’s London extension as well as support the North British.

We might wonder at this point whether a "Big Five" solution with the Midland and Great Central in a separate group was a possible runner, perhaps with the inclusion of the GSWR, a solution that would have avoided the conflicts north and south of the border in the new LMS as well as improving the LNER’s finances, now relieved of the GC. But this plan would have departed further from the original principle of local monopolies, widening the scope for potential competition.

That issue aside, one way in which the map could have been tidied a little would have been to assign the Great North of Scotland to the LMS, thereby removing its five interfaces with the Highland and simplifying matters in and around Aberdeen by confining LNER involvement to running powers north of Kinnaber Junction. But it would have meant a four-one split of the five Scottish companies, though making little difference to the share of assets.

The ones that got away

Local Lines

The Metropolitan might have considered it had a lucky escape from the Grouping. Other local lines seem never to have been considered, notably the Glasgow Subway (the 4ft tube line then cable-operated), and two Merseyside railways, the Liverpool Overhead and the Mersey Rly (though its neighbour, the Wirral, was included).

Joint Lines

Just as the Grouping itself avoided the breakup of existing companies so arrangements on joint railways were passed on intact to the new companies. In many cases, such as the March-Doncaster GN/GE joint line, this effectively ended their joint status, but not on the three biggest. The Midland & Great Northern and the Somerset & Dorset both kept their separate loco stocks, while on the Cheshire Lines the LNER inherited motive power responsibilities from the Great Central.

Narrow Gauge Lines

Another category generally excluded from the Grouping were narrow-gauge lines, unless they were part of larger concerns. Thus the Vale of Rheidol, absorbed by the Cambrian in 1913, was included, as were the Welshpool & Llanfair and Leek & Manifold, operated by the Cambrian and North Staffs respectively, though nominally independent. The most prominent of the excluded narrow gauge railways was probably the Festiniog; unlike smaller concerns such as the Talyllyn, it had come under the aegis of the Railway Executive Committee in 1914 and so its exclusion from the Grouping may not have been a foregone conclusion.

Light Railways

There seemed no consistent approach to the small independent railways, most built and operated under the Light Railway Act 1896, which reduced construction costs by lowering standards while imposing speed and weight restrictions. While many were absorbed by the new companies, some escaped their clutches, including the North Sunderland (Seahouses to Chathill), the Weston, Clevedon, & Portishead, the East Kent and the Kent & East Sussex. All but the first of these were managed by Lt-Col Stephens, a prominent figure in this somewhat specialised world of light railways.

Now, some of us collect engine numbers (I’ve got two), some whole locomotives, though our wives rarely allow them in the house, but Lt-Col Stephens went right up to the buffers and collected whole railways, some of them built himself. Of course, he didn't actually own them but as locomotive superintendent or managing director or whatever (he was a civil engineer) he seems to have acted as if he did. Managing some 16 railways from an unostentatious office in Tonbridge, he was undoubtedly instrumental in protecting some of them from the Grouping (including, perhaps, the Festiniog) and so ensuring the Big Four weren’t quite as big as they might have been.

This article first appeared in Between the Lines, the periodical of the Huddersfield Railway Circle.

References and Further Reading

Mullay, Grouping Britain’s Railways, Pendragon 2018

Bonavia, The Four Great Railways, David & Charles 1980

Simmons & Biddle (ed), The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, OUP 1997

Awdry, Encyclopedia of British Railway Companies, Guild Publishing 1990