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Sunday, 18 March 2012

An Early Railway Manager - A Perpetual Failure

Cornelius Stovin is not a familiar name in railway history circles. To my surprise, he is not even well known amongst those who study the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), the company for which he worked as its first Traffic Manager from 1839. My interest in him stems from the fact he left the company suddenly in 1852 when it was found that his accounts were seriously in disarray. However, no research has been done on Stovin before he came to the railway, and, therefore, I resolved to find out more. What was discovered was that Stovin was a perpetual failure.

Cornelius Stovin was born in Birmingham in 1802 to John and Elizabeth Stovin, and was christened at St’ Martins Church on 2 June. [1] According to Chapman’s Birmingham Directory for 1801, John was a druggist who also dispensed oil, soap, candles and glue at the Bullring.[2] He was obviously considerably wealthy, as he was able to send Cornelius to Magdalen Hall at Oxford University, which he entered on the 18 March 1820, aged nineteen.[3]On graduation Cornelius moved into Mosley Street, Birmingham[4] and went into business with John Heycott Jervis as brass founders. This would be Cornelius’ first failure in business, and for unknown reasons the partnership was dissolved in August 1826.[5]

Yet, At some point before then he had met Jane Waddell, who he married on 2 November 1824 at St Phillips Cathedral in the city.[6] Jane was the daughter of William Waddell,[7]  who had taken over the ‘Hen and Chickens Inn’ at 130 New Street in 1802. While keeping the inn he also established himself as a coach proprietor there[8] and turned the business into one of the Midland’s most extensive coaching establishments by the 1830s.[9] Clearly, John Stovin and William Waddell were friends, as William named one of his sons John Stovin Waddell.[10] Thus, it is it is very possible that some point after 1826 Cornelius joined  Waddell’s growing business.

On the death of William in 1837[11] Jane, received £5000, which would have passed to Cornelius because of wives’ property rights in the period.[12] I am not one hundred per cent sure what happened next, however, my best theory is that in late 1837 Cornelius set up a coaching business on his own, probably using this money. [13] However, he did not inherit any of William’s business directly, as most of it was taken over by his son, Thomas.[14] Yet, he clearly had some use of the Hen and Chickens Inn site, as shown by the following advert from The Liverpool Mercury on 7 December; ‘Royal Mails and Fast Post Coaches leave the above Establishment (Hen and Chickens Coach Office, New Street Birmingham), to all parts of the Kingdom, immediately upon the arrival of the different Railway Trains.’ The advert was signed ‘Cornelius Stovin and Co. Proprietors.’[15]

For the second time in his life, Cornelius’ business was unsuccessful, and he was declared bankrupt on the 26 February 1839. Indeed, one of the petitioning creditors was John Stovin Waddell,[16] who by then was a coach builder in his own right.[17] Stovin made a poor business decision by setting up as a coach proprietor in Birmingham in 1837, as the railways arrived there that year.  On 4 July 1837 the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Liverpool opened[18] and on 17 September 1838 the London to Birmingham started operating.[19] Furthermore, the Manchester and Birmingham Railway was under construction.[20] Therefore, given I presume the main routes of the Birmingham coaching industry were to London, Liverpool and Manchester, it is logical to suggest that in this period much traffic was being lost to the railways, which would have hit Cornelius hard.

However, three days before Cornelius’ bankruptcy, the London and Southampton Railway’s (later L&SWR) Traffic and General Purposes committee minuted that ‘Mr Cornelius Stovin to be Superintendent of the Traffic Department at salary not exceeding £250 a year.’[21] Stovin accepted the post on the 28 February.[22] Later, in 1840, he was made the company’s Traffic Manager.[23] It is quite possible he got the job through being in contact with an influential L&SWR director, William Chaplin,  who had  also been in the coaching business previously. Indeed, Stovin had the support of Chaplin throughout his at the L&SWR, and this had allowed him to increase his power within the company, despite his temper.

Yet, closer scrutiny of Stovin’s past may have avoided the problems that occurred in March 1852. It is clear that Stovin kept the Traffic Department’s accounts poorly. Like most railways of the period considerable traffic was brought to it by independent carriers. The arrangement at the L&SWR was that these carriers were allowed a rebate from the charges they collected for carriage and credit was allowed for three months. However, in August 1851 the directors’ attention was drawn to the poor state of these accounts, particularly those of a West of England carrier named Ford. Ford owed the company a considerable amount, and immediately after the directors expressed their concern Stovin managed to reduce his outstanding debit to £5000.

But things were going sour for Stovin and his operations were coming under more scrutiny. Thus, in early 1852 he took sick leave and then absconded to the United States in March. Initially, the press reported that there were ‘no known deficiencies affecting the railway company.’[24] However, an investigation, which lasted until July, found that Stovin had been hiding a shortage in the Traffic Department’s accounts of £2921 11s 8d. Chaplin offer to pay Stovin’s return fare so that he could explain himself to the board. But the ex-Traffic Manager stayed in New York.[25] Indeed, on the 19 May his wife Jane and seven children arrived in by the ship London to join him.[26] Finally, the whole family moved to Canada, where Stovin again became a railway manager.

Stovin was clearly an unsuccessful businessman three times over. Firstly, his foundry business failed in 1826, then the foray into the stagecoach industry collapsed, and, lastly, he arranged the L&SWR finances very poorly, costing the company money. Yet, he reached his lofty position by receiving help from individuals who were much more astute businessmen than he, for example William Waddell and William Chaplin.

Ultimately, the Stovin case raises some broader issues surrounding the nature of early railway managers. This was an era when the idea of the professional railway officer was far from established and the ‘Stovin affair’ highlights that the early railways took into their ranks a mixed bag of individuals that could not always be relied upon. However, Stovin was just one example amongst thousands in the period, and more research needs to be done on the backgrounds of other early railway managers to truly find out what their experiences were before coming to the job.


[2] Chapman, T, Chapman's Birmingham Directory, (Birmingham, 1801)
[3] Oxford University Alumni, 1715-1886, Volume VI, p.122
[4] Berrow's Worcester Journal, Thursday, November 18, 1824; Issue 6359
[5] The Observer, 28 Aug 1826, p.1
[7] Berrow's Worcester Journal, Thursday, November 18, 1824; Issue 6359
[8] Hanson, Harry, This Coaching Life, (Manchester, 1983), p.149
[9] Harman, Thomas T. and Showell, Walter, Showell's Dictionary of Birmingham, (Birmingham, 2006), p.125
[11] Death index Oct-Nov-Dec, 1837
[12] The National Archives [TNA], PROB 11/1873, Will of William Waddell, Innholder of Birmingham , Warwickshire, 24 February 1837
[13] Liverpool Mercury etc, Friday, December 7, 1838; Issue 1439
[14] Hanson, This Coaching Life, p.149
[15] Liverpool Mercury etc, Friday, December 7, 1838; Issue 1439
[16] The law journal for the year 1832-1949: comprising reports of cases in the courts of Chancery, King's Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer of Pleas, and Exchequer of Chamber…, p.13
[17] 1835 Pigot's Directory for Warwickshire, Birmingham, p.543
[21] TNA, RAIL 412/3, Traffic and General Purposes, and Traffic Police and Goods committees, 23 February 1839
[22] TNA, RAIL 412/3, Traffic and General Purposes, and Traffic Police and Goods committees, 2 March 1839
[23] TNA, RAIL 412/1, Court of Directors Minute Book, Minute No. 1307, 30 October 1840
[24] Reynolds's Newspaper, Sunday, April 18, 1852; Issue 88.
[25] Williams, R.A., The London and South Western Railway: Volume 1 – The Formative Years, (Newton Abbott, 1968), p.219-220
[26] National Archives (US), New York Incoming Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,

1 comment:

  1. I'm in Canada, doing some work on the Department of Indian Affairs letterbooks in the 1870s. There is a letter I've come across written to a Cornelius Stovin, General Superintendent of the Dominion of Canada Oil Refinery Company, which was based in Sarnia, Ontario. I'm guessing it's probably the same guy!


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