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Sunday, 3 April 2011

Unlocking the Early Railway Manager - A Project to Follow

One of the main areas of research that has yet to be covered by railway and business historians is the nature of the early British railway manager. Of course, some historians have commented on this topic before, however, few have done any real in-depth research on it. Bonavia in his 1971 book on the organisation of British railways gave little time to how railways were managed before 1923. Subsequently, he only gave broad statements as to who became the first senior managers in British railway companies. In his estimation ex-military officers were prominent in railway management after lines had opened, as they had experience at coordinating and marshalling large bodies of men. Also heavily involved were the ‘secretaries’ of companies, although, he did not comment on their backgrounds. Lastly, involved were the engineers, men such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Joseph Locke and William Cubitt, who, while they built the railways, they also played a role in the administration of them. [1]

Overall, Bonavia’s history did not give a full picture of railway management within early British railways (which I classify as being before 1860) and there remains a large gap of knowledge amongst historians. I acknowledge that all three groups of individuals, the ex-military men, the engineers and the secretaries, all played a role, but to what extent did individuals from each of these actually get involved in the industry? Which group dominated? Therefore, what is needed is a statistical survey of the management class in the formative years of the British railway industry

In the next few posts I hope to answer a these questions. But I start from a position of not knowing the answer. I sit here with no conclusions and with a blank canvas to fill. I do, however, have on my desktop three directories of railway officials in pdf format from 1841, 1847 and 1848. In the next few weeks I will be researching them and my findings, as they come, will be posted on the blog. But this will be an on-going process that I hope you follow and as such I will not hold back from posting my thoughts, erroneous conclusions, premature ideas and mistakes as the research moves forward. I will also detail my research processes and how they change (which they predictably will). Hopefully, this will make for interesting, and entertaining reading.

I will first be looking at the 1848 directory as it seems to have a lot more information in it on early railway managers from a larger number of railways than the other directories. It was also created at a point where the railways are just starting to come into their own as an industry. Thus, it would provide information on managers when the industry was starting to demand large numbers of men to administer the railways. So, on with the show, I’ll report back soon.

P.S. Oh, I will be using a hash-tag as the research goes on - #TurnipRailProject - Please use it!!

[1] Bonavia, Michael, The Organisation of British Railways, (Shpperton, 1971) p.9-26


  1. What an interesting idea. Sort of like a twitter based railway history Time Team!

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