A Brief History of the GCR

The original mainline of the MS&LR, as the name suggests, ran between Manchester and Sheffield through to Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, near the mouth of the Humber estuary and adjacent to the port of Grimsby. Mineral traffic was the staple trade.

To enable the MS&LR to survive, grow and become profitable, Sir Edward Watkin realised that something had to be done. Initially, schemes were drawn up for amalgamation with other railways, none of which came to fruition; he therefore saw expansion as a way forward. Watkin had great vision, probably way ahead of his time. He served on the boards of many railways including the Metropolitan (MetR) and the South Eastern. One of his visions was of a great trunk system linking the north of England with Europe through a Channel tunnel. With his influence in the above mentioned companies, all that remained was the missing link between the MS&LR and the MetR, and of course, a tunnel under the English Channel.

So through his manoeuvrings, a bill was successfully presented to Parliament for a line to be built from the southerly extent of the MS&LR, at Annesley, Notts to Quainton Road, near Aylesbury, where is would join the MetR line to London. A short spur was built from the MetR to the new terminus of Marylebone.

Watkin had relinquished his Chairman's position in 1894 and was not in the best of health, he took a diminishing role in his other interests; he lived to see the project through to fruition and resigned from the board in December 1900, dying a few months later.

From the opening of the GCR, it was apparent that there were problems with the MetR, mainly because of a clash of personalities between the GCR General Manager, Sir William Pollitt, and Chairman of the MetR, John Bell . This lead to an unreliable service in the early years. To alleviate the situation, the lines were quadrupled between Preston Road and Harrow South. In early 1901, when all the engineering work was complete, the MetR used the new set of double tracks and the GCR the originals, thus giving some respite from the bad relationship. In 1902, Pollitt resigned from his position as General Manager and was elevated to the board. After some thorough selection procedures, a replacement was found - Sam Fay. Fay had started his railway career with the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) as a junior clerk and gradually moved up the ranks. Unhappy with his promotion prospects, he joined the Midland & South Western Junction Railway (M&SWJR) in 1892 as Secretary and General Manager. At that time, the M&SWJR was in the hands of the Receiver and in an appalling state. Within a short time, he had pulled the business round and taken the railway out of insolvency. He returned to the LSWR in 1899 as Superintendent of the Line. So he was recruited to the GCR and proved to be an outstanding General Manager. He remained in that position until the Grouping, but even he did not turn the GCR into a successful business. One of his first moves was to introduce through services, either through carriages or whole trains on many routes and in partnership with a number of other railways. Another early development promoted by Fay was the creation of a Publicity Department, the first on any British railway. Yet another innovative development by the GCR, was the acquisition, in 1904, of a passenger agency called Dean & Dawson who had had a long association with the GCR and its predecessor. This company retained its name as a wholly owned subsidiary and operated many branches throughout England and Wales plus one each in Paris and Hamburg. The agency, together with the publicity department, helped the GCR to start operating excursions, some of which were extremely ambitious the like of which had never been attempted before in Britain. One example was an overnight excursion from Manchester to Plymouth in 1904. A Robinson Atlantic hauled the train the entire way; 374 miles, a record distance for one engine; returning the following night giving the passengers about 14 hours in Plymouth.

In 1904, the Wrexham, Mold & Connah's Quay Railway (WM&CQR) was in receivership and the GCR being the principle creditor, decided to buy the company out, giving the company a foothold in North Wales. The WM&CQR was in a terrible state, it had never been very good, the infrastructure was decrepit and the motive power in a similar state. The rails were lightly laid and there were exceptional gradients on some of its branch lines; 1 in 27 being the steepest. Another line taken over at the same time was the North Wales & Liverpool Railway which ran between Connah's Quay and Bidston on the Wirral peninsular. Both these railways were accessed by the GCR line from near Connah's Quay to Chester and thence to the rest of the system via the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) system. Yet another line in the same area was absorbed, the Buckley Railway which was operated (and leased) by the WM&CQR. The Buckley also served collieries in the Flintshire coalfield and a number of brick works. The Buckley line provided an alternative route to Connah's Quay from Buckley Junction but the Buckley route had worse gradients than the WM&CQR mainline.

In 1905, the company's registered address was moved from Manchester to Marylebone, the actual relocation of staff had taken place several years previously.

The problems with the MetR were resolved by 1904 and the following year a joint committee was set up. This was largely due to the change of personalities in both companies, with Sam Fay negotiating on behalf of the GCR.

Planned whilst relations with the MetR were strained, the alternative mainline route between Northolt Junction and Ashendon Junction was opened in 1905 for goods traffic and the following year for passengers. This was the Great Western & GC Joint line. On the new Joint line, some of the lines already existed; new construction linked everything together; it was managed by the GW & GC Joint Committee. Two new GC link lines were required; at the southern end, a line was built between Neasden Junction and Northolt Junction and at the northern end a line between Ashendon Junction and Grendon Underwood Junction. The new route was four and a half miles longer than the alternative MetR & GC line but had easier gradients. As soon as it was ready for passenger traffic, some of the express trains were re-routed over the new Joint line to help relieve congestion on the MetR & GC Joint. Signalling, track and stations were to Great Western Railway (GWR) standards.

In 1906 there were several significant acquisitions, the Wigan Junction Railway, the Liverpool, St Helens & South Lancashire Railway and the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway (LD&ECR). The GCR was already closely associated with the first two lines. The LD&ECR was a grandiose scheme which was planned to connect a dock on the Manchester Ship Canal at Warrington (Lancashire) with a new port on the east coast at Sutton-on-Sea. In practice, only the central section was built between Chesterfield (Derbyshire) and Lincoln. A northern branch headed from Langwith Junction to Killamarsh giving access to Sheffield over the GCR and alternatively over the Midland Railway (MR). The western end of the line and the northern branch served numerous collieries. Another 1906 development was the association with the North Lindsey Light Railway which served ironstone mines in north Lincolnshire and had wharves on the River Humber. The agreement was for the GCR to operate the line. This was a strategic move to prevent both the Lancashire & Yorkshire (L&YR) and North Eastern (NER) Railways from gaining access to the area.

Another area of expansion was in the maritime area, namely Immingham dock and infrastructure. Building of the new dock was started in 1906 in a location called Killingholme on the Humber Estuary near the village of Immingham and about six miles upstream from Grimsby. In association with the new dock, three lines were built from Immingham; one to Grimsby and two to the New Holland branch. One of these was to Ulceby and could take traffic coming in from the west. The other was to Goxhill and faced New Holland. As part of the developments, an electric tramway was opened, most of the route being alongside the line between the new dock and Grimsby.

In keeping with the company's progressive outlook, low pressure pneumatic signalling was installed, in conjunction with a widening project in the Manchester area. Fay had experience of this from his recent post on the LSWR, and it proved successful. The widening scheme and associated signalling was finished by early 1907. Also in 1907, Wath concentration yard opened. Really Wath consisted of two yards, each with its own hump, one for the reception and sorting of traffic from the west, the other dealing with traffic from the east. Each had 21 sidings for the sorted wagons. The combined operation could deal with about 5,000 wagons per day. The points were operated by compressed air. Wath was the first power operated gravitational marshalling yard in the UK.

The same year saw an attempted merger with the Great Northern Railway (GNR), this proposal was rejected by the Railway & Canal Commissioners and the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal. The following year, there was another attempt, this time as a tripartite working agreement with the GNR again and the Great Eastern Railway (GER). There were 52 objections to the proposal with the President of the Board of Trade leading the opposition; the President's name was Winston Churchill. The one factor of this proposal to survive was the joint cartage operation.

Immingham Dock was opened in 1912 by King George V. At the opening ceremony, apparently unplanned, the King knighted Sam Fay.

One of the last major engineering projects carried out by the GCR was the completion of the Scherzer rolling lift bridge and the necessary deviation lines over the River Trent at Keadby. The new bridge replaced an old swing bridge and in keeping with GCR tradition, outside financial help had been obtained from the local authorities; as a prerequisite, the bridge carried both rail and road traffic. Novel three position signalling was adopted on the new lines associated with the bridge. As well as the conventional horizontal position for 'Stop', these used 45° for 'Proceed with Caution', and 90° (vertical) for 'Proceed at full speed'.

In 1922, new lines and a station were built for the Wembley Exhibition Centre. Automatic three aspect colour light signalling was introduced over the new line, a very early British example of this form of signalling. Sometime earlier, 1915, the signal engineer, A.F. Bound, in association with the Chief (Locomotive) Draughtsman, introduced a form of automatic train control which they called "Reliostop". A number of Class 9N (LNER A5) 4-6-2T tank engines were equipped with the Reliostop apparatus and the Marylebone Wembley line was also appropriately equipped. The system was also extended on some of the suburban lines out of Marylebone. It was apparently a successful system but further development ceased after the Grouping.


Thank you to Richard Barron for the above information.