North British Railway: early locomotive superintendents

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John Thomas's North British Railway is the prime source for these, mainly unfortunate gentlemen, many of whom were competent engineers, but who had a tendency to be dismissed for what the Board judged to have been dishonest conduct. Sometimes this may have been excessive zeal on the part of the Board to minimize costs: the North British was a mean concern: Thomas's opening Chapter is entitled A bad, bad railway (and that was at its start). Although some questions have been raised about Drummond's financial activities, he and his successors (Holmes and Reid are excluded from this unhappy survey).

The first locomotives were ordered from R.&W. Hawthorn of Newcastle under the authority of the Civil Engineer, John Miller: see page on NBR locomotive development.

Robert Thornton

Robert Thornton, who had been in charge of the Haymarket depot of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway was appointed as the first locomotive superintendent under the recommendation of John Miller in January 1846. Unfortunately, the Hawthorn locomotives were poorly constructed with weak frames and this made life difficult  for Thornton in spite of him being trained at Hawthorn's. Thornton/Hawthorn contributions to NBR express motive power is considered in the section on locomotive development.

As well as problems with the locomotives there were labour problems with the footplate crews and on 31 October 1851 Thornton threw his resignation verbally at the chairman and walked out. Later that same day Learmonth sent him a letter in which he summed up Thornton's worth to the North British Railway.

As you this morning intimated to me officially your resignation as manager of the locomotive department of the North British Railway I cannot help expressing my regret that any circumstances should have taken place to have led to your leaving a position which you have filled since the establishment of this company, and during which long period I am aware you have had severe and anxious duties to perform.

It is therefore painful for me to have to accept that resignation, as I now do; and as you have also intimated your desire to be freed from all further responsibility and to leave the house forthwith I have given instructions for your being paid a full quarter's salary beyond this period as an expression of our feelings, trusting that the board will approve of my having taken this on me. In the event of your being within a reasonable distance, and your advice being required, I feel assured you will give it readily until your successor shall have been appointed. Wishing you success in your future career.

I remain,
Dear Sir,
Yours faithfully,
John Learmonth


William Smith

Out of fifty-three applicants for Thornton's job the board's choice fell on William Smith, a testy arrogant Londoner with a gift for upsetting everybody from the chairman to the St Margarets' mechanics. He took over his duties on 28 November 1851, convinced that he was the right man to tame the recalcitrant Hawthorns. Just over two years later he left the North British, defeated —but not in his own estimation. Writing of Smith's handling of No 57 D.K. Clark said, that he was 'oblivious of the causes of the dislocation and therefore unacquainted with the proper remedy, added a few more bolts at the loose points and merely gave the engine a little more to do before reducing the frame to its wonted condition'.

Smith made his first report on the rolling stock position on 28 March 1852. He stated that heavy repairs were necessary to put the stock in proper working order and expressed confidence that when the repairs had been completed all would be well. But Smith never solved the North British mechanical troubles. The accumulation of disabled engines in and around St Margarets never grew less. The resulting chronic delays to trains and massive loss of traffic were laid by the board at the St Margarets' door. And the board did not help matters by imposing unimportant and some times unnecessary tasks on the overburdened department. As an economy measure Smith was told to remove the cushions from second-class carriages, and he had to alter a coupe to a second class. At that time the North British guards had no whistles, and though they could be bought for a few pence, Smith was told to procure some deer's horn and make one or two whistles as samples.

The source of company's locomotive troubles perhaps was to be found as much in the account books as in the locomotive superintendent's mechanical shortcomings. The amount allocated for rolling stock maintenance was beggarly—£54 per half year per engine compared with £124 allowed by the company's southern partner, the York, Newcastle & Berwick. The North British was spending 16s 6d per wagon whereas a comparable company in England was spending 63s .

The North British was in debt everywhere. Even the last batch of engines had not been paid for, and relations between the North British and Hawthorn were strained.

Smith found himself involved in several 'incidents' one of which took place on 30 August 1853. The locomotive superintendent was on the footplate of Edinburgh & Glasgow engine No 19 passing through the Edinburgh station in transit to St Margarets when the train starter at the east end of the station exhibited a red signal. Smith told Turboyne the driver to ignore the signal and proceed, with the result that the light engine came on in the face of a conflicting movement. News of the incident reached Rowbotham who sent a letter to Smith which he chose to ignore. Smith's conduct was considered at a board meeting on 13 September when the directors decided that 'Mr Smith had no right to pass the red signal in question. Such conduct they consider as giving a very bad example to all the other servants under him, and also as tending to diminish the authority of the manager, a course of conduct they cannot for a moment allow'. The secretary was authorised to have an extract of this minute forwarded to Smith.

The locomotive superintendent ignored the reprimand, though he wrote to the board demanding the refund of the cost of fitting his company-owned house with gas lamps. At the next meeting of the board, on 28 September, the directors, finding that no reply had been received from Smith, instructed the secretary to inform him that the board 'expect to be informed in answer to the communication that he has to conform himself to the minute transmitted'. Smith replied that nobody obeyed the starter's red light signal!

Smith refused to punish driver Turboyne—he could hardly do otherwise—a circumstance which greatly annoyed the management.

Smith's least attractive trait was his inability to get on with his men, and this in the end led to his own dismissal. Some weeks before the pilot engine incident Smith had dismissed, for alleged insubordination, a St Margarets' foreman, John Steven. Steven was a good concientious worker. An appeal to the Board could not lead to Steven's reinstatement, but it did assist with the removal of Smith whom the Board judged to be incompetent.

Edmund George Petre

The next incumbent of the St Margarets' chair arrived in Edinburgh with a reference from the Shrewsbury & Birmingham as imposing as the one supplied by the North British to Smith—and as worthless. The S & B extolled the new superintendent's 'uniform attention to the interests of this company and the close attention to his duty as locomotive superintendent'.

Immediately on the resignation of Smith, William Hurst had offered himself for the post but, in spite of some string-pulling on Rowbotham's part on behalf of his friend, the board decided to advertise the post. With forty-five applicants to choose from the board made the disastrous choice of the Hon Edmund George Petre. Petre was a very young man—a North British director called him 'a mere boy'—with very limited experience. It may have been that the board, following their experience with Smith, thought that a young man would be more amenable to discipline. Certainly, on his arrival in Edinburgh to take up his appointment on 17 March 1855 he was given a homily by the manager on what his attitude should be towards the board: he was told to attend the head office once a week to report on the work of his department, that the board would expect any request for a special meeting to be complied with immediately, that he must be careful about staff relations, and that every case of dismissal had to be reported to the board.

Petre tried to get off on the right foot by taking his men on a social outing at his own expense. The company charged him 6d a mile for the special train which conveyed his party to Dunbar. He sought and obtained permission to raise the wages of the St Margarets' mechanics to the same level as those employed by the Edinburgh & Glasgow. He thought he had found a palatable solution to the perennial problem of 'detention on the line' by offering his drivers 2d a minute for making up lost time, but the directors took fright at the idea and refused to sanction it. They told him to consider changing the existing engines, but they said nothing about providing money for this expensive task.

Like his predecessors Petre had to make the best of the Hawthorns. He thought he could cure the defective framing by taking out the inside bearings altogether, but the frames simply disintegrated and within two months five crank axles had broken. During the summer of 1855 more and more engines had to be taken out of service and those still running were unreliable. St Margarets could not nearly cope with the work, and the North British found itself in a worse plight than ever.

Petre was ordered to find workshops capable of repairing the motive power and found help on the Great Northern which arranged for about twenty engines to be repaired. The Great Northern also offered to hire engines to the North British and six subsequently were obtained.

Petre returned to Edinburgh late in November to find that  the Board had heard accounts of his intoxication on duty and he was dismissed. His troubles did not end there for on 15 March 1855 he was jointly accused of the culpable homicide of a passenger in an accident that had occurred seven days after Petre's dismissal. This was the Calton tunnel accident of 9 December 1854. The North British convened an Urgency Committee to assist Rowbotham and Jeffries during the trial, but Petre was left to his own devices, but fortunately was acquitted. Ellis described Petre's career was "brief and dim as a minor meteorite."

For the second time within a year the post of locomotive superintendent was advertised. Among the applicants were Thomas Lancaster of Dundalk, Mr Budge of the London Division of the Great Northern, and D. K. Clark of the Great North of Scotland. D. K. Clark's great work, Railway Machinery, was then in course of publication, and the book was to make his name. If it had been published a year earlier it might have won him the job of North British locomotive superintendent for Railway Machinery showed that its author understood Hawthorns. In the event, William Hurst got the job.

William Hurst

Marshall states that William Hurst was born in Markinch on 5 January 1810. Trained as an engineer at Liverpool Docks. In 1845 he became the Locomotive Superintendent of the Manchester & Bolton Railway at Salford. This railway was absorbed by the Manchester & Leeds Railway in 1846 which became the L&YR in July 1847. He remained at Salford until October 1849 when he was moved to the combined works at Miles Platting.

John Thomas notes that the Daily Telegraph christened Richard Hodgson of Carham Hall, Coldstream, 'King Richard'; and as chairman of the North British Railway he certainly upheld the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Directors and shareholders alike were putty in his hands. Hodgson had two able lieutenants in his general manager, Thomas Rowbotham, and his locomotive superintendent, William Hurst. Under the aegis of this accomplished triumvirate the railway took the road to recovery. By sheer managerial efficiency, and in some departments without an extra penny being spent, spectacular improvements were wrought. In a single half-year (ending 30 October 1856) the mileage of shunting engines was cut by 19,783.

According to Marshall he became Locomotive Superintendent at St Margaret's Works of the NBR in January 1867. Here he managed to construct 22 locomotives in the cramped premises. Two further locomotives were constructed at Burntisland. Middlemass describes Hurst as a "talented and energetic man", but it seems that the takeover of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway with Cowlairs Works, with S.W. Johnson thereat, was too much for him. Nevertheleses, Hurst was earning £1200 per annum as against Johnson's £550. But these difficulties were dwarfed by a financial scandal which involved not only himself, but also T.K. Rowbotham, the General Manager, and the Chairman, Richard Hodgson, all of whom were forced to resign and left in January 1867. Thomas describes this fraudulent practice in some detail. The Scottish Wagon Company had been established to supply rolling stock to the NBR on a hire-purchase basis. Unfortunately, the major players in the Wagon Company were Hodgson, Rowbotham and Hurst who were lining their pockets at the expense of the NBR (it would have sounded unbelievable until the railways were privatized, when such behaviour became the norm, again).

Hurst returned to the L&YR in several lesser posts until swept out by William Barton Wright in October 1875 when he retired to Liverpool until his death on 22 December 1890. He had married Ann Calder in Liverpool on 8 June 1838. He is buried in Warriston cemetry in Edinburgh.

Thomas Wheatley

According to Marshall Thomas Wheatley was born at Micklefield, near Leeds in 1821 and was apprenticed on the Leeds & Selby Railway. He then worked for the Midland Railway and for the MSLR for seventeen years until becoming in charge of motive power on the Southern Division of the LNWR in the early 1860s. Despite a conviction for manslaughter received in 1845 when he drove an engine into the back of a mail train, Wheatley in 1866 became the first full Locomotive Superintendent of the new North British Railway. During his period in office he introduced the inside-cylinder, inside frame 4-4-0, which would be developed by so many subsequent British engineers. He was dismissed from the NBR in October 1874 for financial irregularities at Cowlairs, mainly through the investigations by one of the Directors, John Montieth Douglas. From the end of July 1875 he was appointed to manage the Wigtownshire Railway where he died on 13 March 1883. Lowe records a Thomas Wheatley of Grimsby constructing an 0-4-0ST Perseverance in 1858.

See: C. Highet, Scottish Locomotive History 1831-1923 (1970).
Middlemass, Tom: The Scottish 4-4-0

Other Locomotive Superintendents

Marshall tended to ignore the other constituents of the North British Railway, and one has to turn to Ellis.

Paton, William

He was the first locomotive superintendent of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway and was responsible for ordering ten Bury type 2-2-0 and 0-4-0 type for passenger and freight, and ten 2-2-2 and 2-4-0 locomotives from R. and W. Hawthorn. The latter were similar to the NBR acquistions. In 1845 there was an accident near Gogar, partly due to the decrepid state of one of the Bury's that led to Paton being tried for culpable homicide (manslaughter in England) on 3 April 1845 when he was found guilty and sent to prison for twelve months and just escaped transportation. Following this he returned to design banking engines for Cowlairs incline and an express locomotive.

Nicholson, Robert

Locomotive superintendent of the Edinburgh, Perth & Dundee Railway with works at Buntisland (Edinburgh was reached by ferry to Granton; Dundee by ferry from Tayport). Locomotives came from R. & W. Hawthorn and were similar to those suffered at St Margarets, but with Nicholson's modifications.

Updated 2004-10-09