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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Unlocking the Early Railway Manager - Pt 3 - Three Engineers (again) and Some Soldiers

This is the third part of the ‘Turnip Rail Project’ that I hope will determine the nature of early railway manager. For those of you who are unaware of the process I am undertaking, I will, on my blog, be doing some new and original research. Simply put, our knowledge of early railway managers is minimal. There are some historians who have made broad statements about their backgrounds and work, however, more actual statistical research needs to be done. If you would like more information please see the first Blog post in the series (here) and the follow-up (here) where I presented my first findings and preliminary thoughts.

Principally, the 1848 Railway Officials Directory showed that three engineers, Joseph Locke, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, dominated the engineering activities in the early British railway industry. However, my good friend Kevin was good enough to point out that many of these engineers may have been appointed for ornamental reasons so as to lend integrity to the company and allow them to attract potential investment.

I thought I would look a bit further into this. I found that of the 51 companies that had Locke, Brunel and Stephenson involved, in only 23 cases was their engineering role shared with one or more other engineer. Thus, the possibility of their appointments having ‘ornamental’ status was increased in these cases.

This left 28 of the cases where Locke, Brunel and Stephenson were the sole engineer listed, and while the actual day-to-day engineering of these lines may have been under the charge of men in their employ, the whole of the engineering side of their businesses would have been under their ultimate control. The 28 lines on which they had charge of engineering totalled 1396.16 miles, or 33.17% of the 4208.85 miles that the three men were involved with in some way. The 28 concerns were mostly small or medium sized railways, and the only large one was the Great Western Railway over which Brunel had complete control of its engineering affairs. Thus, as they were only engineers involved their appointments were more than just being ‘ornamental.’

Conversely, the 23 companies that had multiple engineers, but were under the three men’s partial charge, constituted 2812.6875 miles, or 66.82% of the total. Indeed, in many of these cases the railways were some of the largest concerns in the land, such as the London and North Western, London and South Western, Midland, York, Newcastle and Berwick and South Eastern Railways. Thus, it could be argued that the sheer size of the companies meant that the work involved in engineering was simply beyond the scope of one engineer.

This said, only six of the 23 railway companies were over 100 miles long, leaving 15 railways that were short in length but with multiple engineers engaged on them. The total length of these 15 railways was 679.58 miles (16.15%). Subsequently, these companies were the best candidates for being railways where the involvement of one of the engineering luminaries was for the purposes of attracting investors. Lastly, in only five cases, all of which involved Stephenson, was there any hint of him taking an ‘ornamental’ position as he adopted the title of ‘Consulting Engineer.’

Thus, there seems to be three tiers of these engineers’ involvement in the companies. Firstly, there were those companies where they had sole control, and while they may have been originally appointed for ‘ornamental’ reasons to attract investors, they had practical responsibilities. Secondly, there were cases where they did share control of engineering within a company with another individual, but the size of the company may have precluded sole control being possible given their other commitments. Indeed, these companies were some of the largest and, therefore, were most unlikely to have appointed them for ornamental reasons as the companies didn’t need that type of support to gain investment. Lastly, there were a handful of companies where they were most likely appointed for ornamental reasons because they shared the engineering title within small railway companies that possibly didn’t need two engineers. Therefore, the proportion of engineering appointments of these three engineers that were purely ornamental was seemingly small.

I also want to talk about the ‘military’ aspect of management. One of the principal claims by railway historians has been that ex-military officers were brought in to manage the early railways as they were some of the few individuals who had experience at administering large bodies of men. As stated in the last blog, the the 130 in the sample had 322 management posts. These were held by 226 individuals. If I am to believe Bonavia’s assessment of the senior management within the early railways, military men should feature prominently among the senior managers, especially in the administrative positions.

Unfortunately for Bonavia the evidence doesn’t support his argument. In the 1848 sample only 8 of the 226 (3.54%) men involved in managing Britain’s railways were listed as having a military title. Of these, seven were ex-army captains and one had been a member of the Royal Navy. Of the eight, three, Jee, McClean and Moorsom, were engineers; four, Badham, Hartnoll, O’Brien and Charlewood, were secretaries; and one, Mark Huish, was ‘manager.’ Of course, there may have been more military men within the 226 listed managers that didn’t cite their military titles, so there may have been more that I am missing. Furthermore, there may have been more ex-military men employed further down in the companies’ hierarchies that were not shown as the directory covered only senior managers. Yet, on this information alone it could be tentatively said that, amongst the senior managers of Britain’s railways in 1848, the number of military men was smaller far than Bonavia supposed. In reality I have been a bit bold with this statement. But, hopefully, the level of involvement by ex-military men may become clearer when I look at the other railway official’s directories from 1841 and 1847.


  1. An interesting post. I've often read of about the number of military personell involved in the early railways, and said to myself "of course that makes sense" - but you've come up with evidence to disprove this.

    Michale Bonavia is sometimes regarded as a cast iron authority, so its interesting that you are digging into some of these statements - thats the way great reasearch is done, and I look forward to seeing mroe of it.

  2. Another good post, and its good to see my comment taken so seriously :-). I guess my ornamentalism idea might have been a little wide of the mark for many of these situations. Do you have any feel for how the world 'engineer' was interpreted in the 1830s-40s? I'd still have some suspicion that the title might have been used loosely. I guess you'd need to see the original plans etc. to see if the 'big three' actually did sign off everything they were supposed to be involved with.

    I like the debunking of the miltary myth - again, my experience suggests that Victorian businessmen would emphasize their military credentials at the slightest opportunity.

    Keep it up!


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