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Saturday, 27 October 2012

'It is impossible to manage a [pre-1914] railway by theory" ... or is it?

In the early 1900s the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) was one of five British railway companies that began sending its clerks to the London School of Economics (LSE) to undertake classes in 'railway administration.' The aim of this move was to augment the skills and knowledge of its clerical staff, the company's future managers, in a period when the quality of the railway industry's management was being questioned and it was being challenged by high material and labour costs, competition from trams on suburban routes, increased government intervention and stagnating traffic growth. Indeed, this caused a severe drop in company profitability from the late 1890s onwards.

However, before the First World War the idea of railway employees attending universities to receive management training was not universally accepted within many companies'. Furthermore, this attitude was not restricted to the railways and Amdam argued that historians have almost unanimously concluded that within British industry generally there was a ‘skepticism towards business education within the both the academic and business community’.[1]

This scepticism towards was expressed frequently by LSWR clerks in the company's staff magazine, The South Western Gazette, which was largely written and edited by them. When Hilditch, the Waterloo Station Superintendent, retired in 1905, the piece announcing this stated that he had had ‘a good plain practical education, but he possessed, in addition, what universities have not yet been able to provide, namely, a shrewdness and capacity for sound common sense, a cool head and clear intellectual grasp.'[2] The anti-university feeling was reiterated in 1909 when another clerk, writing on the matter staff education, stated that ' I will dismiss the question of the London School of Economics by saying that “it is impossible to manage a railway by theory.” Indeed, he preferred an institute where individuals could learn 'practical' railway skills.[3]

The problem with this attitude was that it was what had created many of the problems railway management faced immediately after the late 1890s. Indeed, because many senior officials felt that good railway managers were born within the industry, not made outside it, and thus recruited the vast majority internally, companies' decision-makers were highly institutionalised within the practices and norms of the railways that employed them and the industry as a whole.  Consequently, railways were unable to respond adequately to the challenges they faced as there was severe lack of innovation within them and few new ideas were being generated. This is what my PhD shows in the LSWR's case.


[1]Amdam, Rolv Petter, ‘Business Education’, in Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Robert (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Business History, (Oxford, 2007), p.586 
[2] South Western Gazette, September 1905, p.9 
[3] South Western Gazette, December 1909, p.10


  1. Wasn't the biggest challenge/s to LSWR (passenger) traffic receipts in the early 1900s the rapid growth of (cheap) electric trams (LUT) , and the rise of the adjoining underground group railway networks. Something that was not addressed until the electrification of its own London suburban routes.

    1. Absolutely, I just missed it out when I wrote the post (now amended). Indeed, on the Hounslow route the LSWR lost 76% of its passenger traffic to the tram network.

      I am not sure to what extent the London Underground network was a major concern. Indeed, the LSWR was on amicable terms with the District Railway, even paying for the installation of electrical equipment on the routes to Richmond and Wimbledon. I am not saying it did not affect the LSWR's fortunes, but it is just never mentioned in the company's files in such a way.

      However, what I would say is that the company's management class, particularly in the institutionalised Traffic Department, did lack innovation and a sense of forward thinking. Indeed, many of the company's responses to the tram threat between 1900 and 1911 were simply re-hashes of old ideas, such as timetable and ticket alterations, steam railcars, and improved carriages. Electrification is talked about as early as 1902 within the Engineering Department, but within Traffic Department, which was highly influential over the company's overall policy, it is seemingly rejected because of a high degree of conservatism and a lack of forward thinking.

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