[Sir] Eric Campbell Geddes
Mullay begins his survey of Ministers of Transport with Geddes and includes a portrait with a remarkable similarity to that of Donald Trump! (Backtrack, 2017, 31, 537-41). D.H. Aldcroft contributed a concise biography to the Oxford Companion. He was born in Agra, India, on 26 September1875 being the son of a Scottish civil engineer and died in 1937.He was educated at Merchistion Castle School in Edinburgh and at Oxford Military College where he played rugby. After adventures on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and in India he joined the North Eastern Railway in 1904 as a traffic apprentice and rose to become its General Manager in 1914. He was co-opted into Government service during WW1 and rose to the rank of Major General under Haig and was responsible for all aspects of traffic flow. He eventually became Minister of Transport. He was awarded the KCB in 1917. He was the architect of the 1923 Grouping through the 1921 Railways Act. In 1922 he joined Dunlop Rubber and became its Chairman. He also became Chairman of Imperial Airways. He was also responsible for the policy of economic retribution against Germany and for ensuring that essential supplies and services were maintained during the 1926 General Strike. It is clear that his severance with the NER and his subsequent activity caused great disquiet from the Board of the LNER. He died at his Sussex home on 22 June 1937. Keith Grieves covers all aspeccts of this colourful life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Wragg also does a good job and notes the 'Geddes Axe
Bonavia (A History of the
LNER: the early years) gives a highly succinct account of Geddes
and the railway amalgamation:
It was left to the Government to choose one or other of these alternatives [which included nationalisation]; and this certainly had not been achieved by December 1918 when Winston Churchill made his famous reference in a speech at Dundee to railway nationalisation being possibly desirable. The first step was to create a Ministry to plan the strategy, which was done under the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919. The first Minister was a remarkable figure, Sir Eric Carnpbell Geddes, who already had behind him two careers that can only be described as meteoric. On the North Eastern Railway he had risen from the rather minor office of Claims Agent (with a salary of £500 a year) to be Deputy General Manager (with a salary of £3,000 rising to £5,000) in the seven years between 1904 and 1911. It had been the intention of the NER Board that he should succeed Sir A. Kaye Butterworth as General Manager, when war broke out and Geddes was released for Government service, thus embarking upon his second astonishing rise from Deputy Director-Gcneral of Munitions Production (May 1915) to Director-General, Military Railways (October 1916) and Inspcctor-General of Transportation (France), with the rank of Major-General: then to First Lord of the Admiralty, with the rank of Vice-Admiral (May 1917). At the Armistice, Geddes was put in charge of the 'Co-ordination of Demobilisation' section of the War Cabinet.
A former NER colleague, Robert Bell, wrote in his short history of that railway between 1898 and 1922, that 'the exuberant vitality, which distinguished Geddes in his prime, is rare enough and is seldom accompanied by acute mental activity and clear judgment, as it was in his case. His energy and power of concentrating on important matters, to the exclusion ofuncssentials, marked him out as an ideal executive for big business ... he was a sort of elemental force, possessing physical courage and fondness for outdoor pursuits, owing nothing to books, but blessed with the knack of assembling the relevant facts about any problem and then deciding firmly the action to be taken'.
The new Department. which Geddes took over had originally been planned
(and so named in the Bill) as the Ministry of Ways and Communications. But
in Parliament there had been sufficient opposition to this grandiose concept
for the Government to re-christen it the Ministry of Transport. Under that
title it came into being, initially as an amalgamation of the former Roads
Board and the Railway Division of the Board of Trade. But Geddes soon expanded
it, in order to discharge his remit to re-organise the railways in accordance
with Government policy. Throughout the war Geddes had been assisted by several
able men whom he had drawn from the NER - R.F.
Dunnell (later Sir Francis Dunnell), Secretary and Solicitor to the
railway; The parent of the Four Great Railways: Sir Eric Geddes.
J.G. Beharell (later Sir George Beharcll,
Chairman of the Dunlop Rubber Company); and
S.T. Burgoyne. This team he now strengthened
to help him run the new Ministry, bringing in men likc
William Valentine Wood (a future President of
the LMS), from the Midland Railway.
He set up an organisation within the Ministry that looked rather like that of a super-railway company. Under Director-Generals there were sections for:
Secretarial and Legal
Development and Civil Engineering
Finance and Statistics
Traffic and Mechanical Engineering
Public Safety and general purposes (largely the former Railway Department of the Board of Trade)
Roads (formerly Roads Board)
In addition there were subsidiary sections, i.e.
Light Railway Cornmission
Rates Advisory Committee
Electrification of Railways Advisory Cornmittee
Railway Advisory Committee (successor to the wartime Railway Executive Committee)
But when the Ministry started drafting legislation, the Government's attitude was already hardening against nationalisation and moving in favour of the Select Committee's first alternative of grouping under continued private ownership. There was also a retreat from the proposal put forward in 1920 to appoint representatives of workers and managers to the future railway Boards. This was opposed not merely by the directors through the Railway Companies Association, but also by the trade unions who felt that minority participation in Board decisions would weaken rather than strengthen their negotiating position. Another retreat was from an early intention to set up a separate railway company for Scotland: this was opposed in Scotland because the new national standard wage rates would, it was feared, raise the costs of a Scottish Company disproportionately. It was felt that if costs were to be raised to English levels, then the support of English traffic receipts must be ensured through a financial link with the railways south of the Border. Eventually the Railways Act 1921 was passed, setting up the four amalgamated companies, named in the Act as 'North Western, Midland and West Scottish; North Eastern, Eastern and East Scottish; Western; and Southern.' The underlying principle and expectation was that greater size should bring greater efficiency, and that the financially weaker units would be assisted by merging with stronger companies. In the case of the LNER, the North Eastern was expected to be the main financial prop it was the only 'constituent company' to rank in size with the London & North Western, the Great Western and the Midland. Its problem child would be the Great Central, always struggling and weighed down by the cost of its London Extension. In all, the 'constituents' of the future LNER comprised one first-rank company, the NER; four (the GNR, GER, GCR and NBR) in the second rank; and two minor railways, the Great North of Scotland and the Hull and Barnsley, the latter amalgamating with the NER voluntarily in April 1922 and thereafter not ranking as a separate constituent. The subsidiary companies numbered twenty-seven, but most were not operating railways. Some were historical survivals like the London and Blackwall Railway Company. Others com- prised joint lines or stations which now came under single ownership. The name 'London and North Eastern' was only adopted shortly before the new company came into existence on 1 January 1923. The choice was not altogether easy; some had favoured 'Great North Railway Company' or 'North East Railway ·Company'. No reference to the Scottish constituents akin to that on the LMS....