Monday, 17 January 2011

the curse of the midland railway

The Midland Railway was in 1923 the only railway company running into London that didn’t have its head office in the capital, and before Britain’s railways were consolidated into just four companies in that year, it was the third largest in the country. It connected London with the cities of the East Midlands and Yorkshire, finally terminating in the small border city of Carlisle.

Although it offered a route to Scotland, it couldn’t compete with the London and North Western Railway’s alternative, which merely skirted Birmingham and split the difference between Manchester and Liverpool on its way to Carlisle. Nor could it match the Great Northern Railway, with its partner the North Eastern Railway, whose combined line reached the south bank of the River Tyne before encountering the largest population centre en route to its eventual destination, Newcastle, on the north bank of the same river.

The Midland, by contrast, served six major cities—Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford—in addition to several important industrial towns. Because of the delays that serving so many large population centres entails, the Midland’s main line carried a negligible share of the Scotland traffic. However, the company did have a huge market in short-range intercity transport. It also had a monopoly on traffic from the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields, which was bound to cause problems as business expanded, because mineral trains are heavy and therefore very slow, and the Midland developed an abysmal reputation for punctuality. It was rumoured that engine crews sometimes spent an entire shift waiting at a stop signal, and a journey from London’s St Pancras station to Carlisle might take two or three days instead of the scheduled eight hours.

The Midland’s great competitor was the Great Central Railway, which was based in Manchester. It had previously been known as the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR), or Money Sunk and Lost Railway by the locals, a name later taken up by the popular press. Its original Manchester–Sheffield main line through the Woodhead Tunnel was the most arduous of the trans-Pennine routes, with nominal gradients of 1 in 40, although some sections were actually steeper, the result of subsidence caused by mining.

In the 1890s, the MS&LR, which had built docks at Grimsby and Immingham to facilitate the export of coal from south Yorkshire, started to extend its operations into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to tap into the lucrative coal traffic from this region. Then, in 1895, it began to build its own line into London, motivated perhaps by the delusions of grandeur of its directors, who had decided to rename the company to better reflect its image. The vainglory of these people is amply demonstrated by noting that in 1913 they commissioned a new class of express passenger locomotives, the so-called ‘Director’ class, each of which was named after a member of this clique.

Unfortunately, by this time all the ‘easy’ routes had been taken, and although it served Nottingham and Leicester, the bulk of the route passed through sparsely populated rural areas and small market towns on its way to Marylebone station in London. It was not, in other words, a sound business decision. Shareholders saw little return on their investment, which was reflected in a new sobriquet: the Gone Completely Railway.

Needless to say, the citizens of Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester preferred the more direct and thus cheaper Midland Railway route to London, so the GCR’s so-called ‘London extension’ operated at a loss almost from the start. The company’s directors, who had by this time voted to move their head office from Manchester to London, could come up with no ideas to stem this severe drain on its coffers (more money sunk and lost). In desperation, they decided to call for suggestions from the railway’s workforce, and many were forthcoming, but not one was both practical and easy to implement.

The most bizarre of these suggestions came from Duncan Drummond, nephew of the Caledonian Railway’s former chief mechanical engineer Dugald Drummond and a foreman in the GCR’s Gorton locomotive works in east Manchester. The younger Drummond was well known in the company as ‘Drunken Duncan’, for obvious reasons, so his contribution was dismissed by the board without a formal debate. It consisted of a single quatrain, which Duncan said had been composed by his grandmother, who lived in Ballachulish in the Scottish Highlands and was believed by her neighbours to be a witch. According to Duncan, it had once, many years ago, taken her more than three days to get from London to Carlisle, most of the time not moving at all. Some things never change.

The original paper on which the quatrain was scrawled has not survived, but the quatrain itself remained part of the folklore at Gorton until the locomotive works closed in 1963. I heard about it during a tour of the works in 1961, and although there is no guarantee that the version I heard was a verbatim rendition of the original, I believe it to be substantially accurate. I made a note of it at the time because it seemed so strange, and also because nobody knew what it meant:
The six citadels have raised regiments of foot,
and all will count amongst the most renowned,
but in final judgement shall they be cast down
and the bounty of the sky will be lost for ever.
I have shown this to adherents of the mountebank Nostradamus, but none of the interpretations I received were even remotely convincing (much like the so-called prophecies of their hero). However, in the past few years, I have finally succeeded in deciphering this apparent gibberish.

The ‘six citadels’ are the six cities connected to London by the Midland Railway—Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford—and the ‘regiments of foot’ are those cities’ football clubs. In the modern era, ‘the most renowned’ must refer to membership of the English Premier League, and it is the case that Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Leeds United and Bradford City have all spent more than one season in this exalted company. The Nottingham, Derby and Leeds clubs all topped the old First Division in my lifetime, while Forest were actually champions of Europe in 1979 and 1980, so there is some illustrious history there. Unfortunately, all have since been relegated, and several have even dropped into the third tier of English professional football (‘shall they be cast down’).

If you’ve been following so far, you will probably have deduced that ‘the bounty of the sky’ is a reference to the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, known colloquially as ‘Sky’, given its responsibility for the obscene amounts of cash sloshing around the Premier League nowadays.

An intriguing tale. I’m not sure if I believe it myself. Do you? Do you believe in prophecy? Was the precipitous decline of these once famous clubs foretold more than a century ago by an old crone with a grudge? Or are they in the wilderness because their football teams are crap?


  1. Now that is interesting!! It's interesting to consider the relationship between the prosperity of an area and the success of the football clubs. Obviously a lot of revenue is generated locally, allowing greater investment in teams. However more money seems to be coming in from overseas these days and it does not always translate into results. When you consider the heights to which those clubs did once rise, it's also interesting to consider whether they would have believed they could fall so far. Maybe it is a curse? If so, can someone put one on United?!

  2. A fascinating story, Dennis. Yes, sometimes I think I do. After all there is more etc. etc.

  3. eh, interesting. could it have something to do with "time machine"? who knows.


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