W.W. Tomlinson

North Eastern Railway

For at least half a century, and probably even longer, Tomlinson's history1 has been recognized as a towering achievement: Hoole reiterates this in his brief introduction to the so-called 1967 edition of the work: "In railway circles Tomlinson is remembered mainly for his monumental work on the N.E.R." The Hoole "edition" is no more than a brief introduction to a facsimile reprint. Hoole was only able to record three minor errata in the original text. It took Tomlinson about fifteen years to write and it is sad to note that the author died shortly after its completion. He had worked in the Accounts Office of the North Eastern and the history was written during the period 1900 to 1914 with the official blessing of his employer. Thus it was an official history – the North Eastern was proud of its heritage, and without this corporate dignity, as exemplified by the national collection of locomotives at York and through this book, the serious record of railway history would be vastly poorer.

Hoole notes: "The history is extremely detailed and in many cases Tomlinson resorted to newspaper files for background details to supplement the bare resolutions in the Minute Books of the various companies forming the North Eastern Railway." In his own Preface, Tomlinson, when noting the significance of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, stated: "It is a fortunate circumstance that, though this railway is the oldest in the world, its records are practically complete, and from many a mildewed and discoloured document facts have been recovered which throw fresh light on railway history." As anyone who has attempted to delve into newspapers and minute books will know such work is labourious and slow and the mass of information which Tomlinson had to handle must have been awesome. Simmons2 somewhat sharply noted that Tomlinson is incomplete, but the author, himself, clearly observed that he had concentrated on the first fifty (highly significant) years. In fact, the time division is very skew: the first 688 pages cover the period to 1879; and the period 1880 to 1904 is limited to 72 pages.

The promotion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link showed that opposition to railway construction can be vociferous: moreover those who are affected usually expect excessively generous compensation. For days on end television was dominated by the grief of householders whose property values would be diminished. The noise of Eurostar trains was compared with Concorde at low altitude, despite them now slipping through the centre of Welwyn Garden City more quietly than any other train.

The Great North of England Railway Bill encountered similar opposition and similar forms of restitution. On page 285 it is noted that Mr Thomas Cookson, of the Hermitage, forced the company to purchase his estate as the new railway would spoil his view. Objectors could be unscrupulous as is shown on the following page: "Mr Thomas Sopwith, one of the surveyors for the Company was sent down to the north by the mail to get correct levels. Arriving at 2 a.m., he accomplished his task between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and travelled post-haste back to Westminster where, on the 2nd of May, he gave "strong evidence on the manifest intention of the ‘erroneous section' to deceive the committee", thus completing the discomfiture of the opponents of the Bill." In this case Tomlinson was able to cite a published source3.

On page 280, Tomlinson shows the vast forward vision of the early railway pioneers: "The promoters of the railway, while intending to lay down at first a double line, contemplated purchasing land for a quadruple line, realising with Joseph Pease that the time might come when goods would be carried at a rate of 30 miles an hour and when passengers would not be content with travelling less than 60." This cited a speech made in Newcastle on 17 November1835 and quoted in the Tyne Mercury one week later (24 November 1835). In its way this was comparable with the later American inspiration which was to take man into space: Pease, brought up to regard the horse as the fastest form of travel, was capable of envisaging the high speed trains which now run along the route, at only twice the speed then envisaged.

It is worth noting at this stage, and long before the significance of Professor Jack Simmons' great contribution can be considered, that Simmons was fundamentally incorrect to isolate Scotland from some of his major deliberations2. The Great North of England clearly had traffic to Scotland as its objective. Railways north of York and Lancaster had ambitions outwith the confines of England. Similarly, it is difficult to isolate Irish railways, which despite their different gauges shared much with those of Great Britain. Further evidence for the coherent nature of railways in Great Britain is found on page 617: "In furtherance of their policy of improving the East Coast Route, the North Eastern Company were now applying for powers to complete the connection between the authorised Team Valley line and the main line north of Ferryhill. They were watching very closely the issue of a struggle between the Caledonian and North British Companies for the North of Scotland traffic..."

Tomlinson's account gains by placing railway development within the context of the industries which they served. For instance on page 289 it is noted that: "The case for the South Durham Railway was a strong one. It would open out an extensive coal-field, connect Weardale with Hartlepool and Stockton, and put new life into the Hartlepool and Clarence Railway Companies. It was well supported, among the supporters being men of repute like George H. Wilkinson, of Harperley Park, Cuthbert Rippon of Stanhope Castle..." It also records the people involved: a total of seven individuals were listed, George Hudson being the seventh. Furthermore, all are listed in the index: this might be of interest to those whose name is Rippon, for instance. In this respect Tomlinson contributes to the overall history of the area and the period.

Although an official history, this did not inhibit the author: "King Hudson was at the height of his power, extending his dominions and securing them from invasion." (page 453) Similarly, Tomlinson was not afraid to record the discomforts of early rail travel: "On the Brandling Junction Railway this [pitching] motion was "precisely similar to that of a boat in a somewhat troubled sea," on the York and North Midland Railway it was "almost like the rolling of a ship at sea and went far to produce a similar climax." On the Durham and Sunderland Railway passengers "were shaken while taken." Of course, the North Eastern had become one of the best railways by the time the book was being prepared: its express trains were amongst the fastest in Britain, it had electrified suburban railways in the Newcastle area (as is recorded by Tomlinson) and it served its freight and passenger customers well in spite of being a monopoly. This is a fact that had clearly failed to register in the "minds" of those who Balkanized the railways at the end of the same century.

Some have been critical of the relatively small amount of the book dedicated to mechanical engineering, but it should be noted that others have filled this "gap", notably Maclean4, and that Tomlinson is very alert to the general engineering requirements whether during construction, or in operation, as the following quotations demonstrate. During the construction of the Whitby & Pickering the services of George Stephenson were placed under considerable pressure as is shown by Tomlinson: "For nearly a year, George Stephenson, as the engineer-in-chief of the Company, had directed the execution of the works, but in July, 1834, it was arranged that his assistant, Frederick Swanwick, should have the entire superintendence of the line, except in case of emergency, when George Stephenson would proceed at once to Whitby and relieve him of the responsibility." The precise source for this observation is recorded in a footnote, namely the Company Minutes of 10 July 1834. It is helpful to note that Swanwick was a mere 22 years old.

It is now easy to forget that inclined planes formed an integral part of railway working in the North East: indeed it was still possible to see these relics from an earlier days well into the days of British Railways. Tomlinson writes at some length on this topic, and the following extract hopefully illustrates his competence to write on technical matters. On page 376 he noted: "Looking at the machinery of transport, we find certain forms of it almost peculiar to the North of England. Especially curious and interesting were self-acting inclines, some of which, unaltered in design, though worked by steel instead of hempen ropes, are still in active service, forwarding on their way to the places of shipment over a million of tons of coals a year at a comparatively small cost per ton per mile. There were 17 of these self-acting inclines in 1841, with a total length of 13 miles..." These are all listed.

Sources are quoted in footnotes, but these are always concise, and do not impinge upon comprehending the text as a whole. The index extends to forty pages and was prepared by Mr E.M. Bywell. It must still be one of the best indexes in any book about railways. Tomlinson noted that Mr Randall Davies assisted with the last chapter. There are many portraits amongst the illustrations: history is greatly influenced by people. There are also many maps, and diagrams. The illustrations based upon contemporary portrayals of events are especially illuminating.

The original high quality publication cost 21 shillings in 1919. Copies of the original edition now command rare book prices, although some may be available for inspection in major regional reference libraries. Unfortunately, the facsimile reprint is only of moderate quality and lacks the original title page. All the text, including the original illustrations, is present, however, and that is vital and is lacking in some later editions of other significant historical works.

Hoole's introduction lists some of the "more scholarly and valuable works" including MacDermot's history of the Great Western5 and Dendy Marshall's of the Southern6, both of which were official histories published by the respective companies. Simmons2 used abbreviations for a number of significant works: this included the three official works considered so far. Official histories remain relatively uncommon: one of the most recent is Barker and Robbins' magnus opus on transport in London7 which was sponsored by the London Transport Executive. The long gap between the publication of the two volumes is indicative of the vast task which faces the authors of major historical works. Furthermore, the authors had to redefine their objectives, and their individual contributions during the ten-year gap.

1. Tomlinson, W.W. Tomlinson's North Eastern Railway: its rise and development; new edition with introduction by K. Hoole. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1967. 820pp.+40 plates.
2. Simmons, J. The railway in England and Wales, 1830-1914. Volume 1. The system and working. Leicester University Press, 1978. 295p.
3. Richardson, R.W. Life of Thomas Sopwith, London: Longmans, Green, 1891, page109.
4. Maclean, J.S. The locomotives of the North Eastern Railway. Newcastle: Robinson, [1923]. 120p.
5. MacDermot, E.T. History of the Great Western Railway. London: G.W.R., 1927/31. 2v.
6. Marshall, C.F.D. A history of the Southern Railway, London: S.R., 1936. 708p. + plates.
7. Barker, T.C. and Robbins, Michael. A history of London Transport: passenger travel and development of the Metropolis.London: Allen & Unwin, 1963/74. 2v.

Jack Simmons (Oxford Companion) notes that William Weaver Tomlinson was born in 1858 and died in 1916. His father was a secretary of the Hull & Selby Railway. William joined the North Eastern Railway at Newcastle in 1873 and produced a topographical guide Comprehensive guide to Northumberland in 1888. He began work on the history of the North Eastern in about 1900.

Kevin P. Jones