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The Great Central Railway



AN EXPRESS TRAIN on the Great Central Railway

THE Great Central, formerly the Manchester, Sheffield, & Lincolnshire, originated with the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne, & Manchester, the Act for which was obtained in 1837. The route of this, 40 miles long, was from Spital Fields, Sheffield, to a junction at Manchester with the Manchester & Birmingham, now part of the North Western.

The Sheffield line, as it was called for brevity, which enters Yorkshire through the Woodhead tunnel, proved a severe trial in many ways, financial and otherwise, to Joseph Locke, the engineer, his most troublesome endeavour being the piercing of the Pennine range. In doing this two tunnels side by side, a few yards over three miles long, had to be driven through the tough millstone grit. The first, begun in October 1838, was not finished until December 1845; five years were spent in making the second, which was begun in 1847; and much relieved were the proprietors, and their creditors, when the seemingly impossible was accomplished.



In 1846, the great amalgamating year, the Sheffield followed the fashion during the railway fever, and acquiring the Great Grimsby & Sheffield Junction, the Sheffield & Lincolnshire, and the Grimsby Haven Company, became the Manchester, Sheffield, & Lincolnshire. And it went on acquiring local line after local line until it became a system of some extent doing very good work, its particular business being the collection of traffic for the greater companies to run to London and elsewhere, favouring first one and then the other according to the terms obtainable. The policy was persisted in for years, until, being barely profitable, owing to the heavy load of the capital account, the company tired of it and resolved to come to London as the Midland had done.

The extension was all the more attractive to the shareholders as forming part of a great scheme for linking up the line with the Metropolitan, the Chatham & Dover, and the Channel Tunnel, Sir Edward Watkin being interested in the four companies; but that ambitious project had to be laid aside. There was much opposition from the companies with whom the M. S. & L. proposed to compete, but after many rebuffs it managed to get the Act for the southern extension in alliance with the Metropolitan, and promptly changed its familiar name, of which there was nothing to be ashamed, in the hope that its days of struggle were over.

It had lived and grown, but not thriven, on competition amongst others, and now the competition was to be direct and keen. As, however, the manager naively remarked, “we have taken every advantage of the experience of other railway companies”, and with a new line, new rolling stock, and the most intelligible of time-tables, there was a fair but distant prospect of success; but another era of amalgamations or friendly alliances is opening, and the burying of the hatchet in the interest of everybody, even the traders, has brought the Great Central to act in alliance with the Great Northern and Great Eastern, whether the working union be recognised officially or not.


MOTTRAM VIADUCT over the Etherow.

It has 726 miles of its own. By the terms of the Act its first station out of London has to be west of the River Brent. At Neasden the line forks, one branch going to Harrow, the other to Northolt, the Harrow branch being continued over the joint Great Central and Metropolitan to Quainton Road, where the joint ownership ends, the south branch continuing over the joint Great Central and Great Western through High Wycombe, and at Ashendon - where the new Great Western route to Birmingham goes off - running on to Great Central metals to join the other half of the loop at Grendon Underwood. Thence northwards, with the exception of an important branch to Banbury and Stratford-on-Avon, it runs right away, with no extension east or west, through Leicester and Nottingham to Heath, where a loop goes off to Chesterfield to join the direct line again and continue to its old territory.

At Godley it enters on the Cheshire Lines (a partnership of the Great Central, Midland, and Great Northern), which take it to Southport, Liverpool, and Chester. At Glazebrook it enters on a line of its own to Wigan and St. Helen’s, and through Chester it obtains admittance to the lines it bought in the Wirral peninsula. From Chesterfield a loop goes off to the east, taking it through Lincoln and Market Rasen to Barnetby and back by Frodingham and Doncaster to Mexborough; whence by short lines, and the Great Central and Great Northern Joint, it obtains access to Wakefield and Leeds. Within the loop are a few connecting lines. From Frodingham it reaches Barton-on-the-Humber, and through Barnetby it runs to New Holland, where in 1846 it bought the ferry-boat and became the first railway company to own a steamship; and farther east it continues to Grimsby, its own peculiar port.

Grimsby, recognisable from afar by its water-tower 300 ft high, which has a tank of 26,500 gallons giving the pressure of 100 lb to the square inch that works the dock gates, etc, is just within the Humber. From the gallery of the tower you can see it all. Below are the docks, over a hundred acres of water in them; the Fish Docks to the left, the Royal Dock in front, the Alexandra to the right with its elbow towards the town station. To the east is Cleethorpes, the terminus of the Great Central in these parts; to the west is the new dock at Immingham; to the north across the estuary is Spurn Head.

There have been fishermen at Grimsby ever since Havelok the Dane was a baby, for it was a Grimsby fisherman who found him adrift in a boat in the Humber, “ purposely exposed as it should seeme to the pittylesse of the wilde and wide ocean”, as Gervase Holies puts it; and at the Norman Conquest it was a borough of the Crown. It managed to exist for centuries in a very quiet way, and then, between 1796 and 1800, its first docks were built at a cost of £70,000, but the rate of progress proved disappointing until the present system of docks was begun by the M. S. & L. in 1852. Attracted by easy terms and efficient management, representatives of the fishing trade at other ports transferred their headquarters to so advantageous a position, and from the small beginning of 453 tons in 1854 Grimsby has become the largest fishing port in the world, its last year’s business amounting to no less than 173,735 tons.

Hawarden Swing Bridge over the Dee, Great Central Railway


It is more than a mere fishing port, for coal exports and timber imports also keep it busy, and the general shipping business is large. In and out with quick despatch is what a transhipment trade requires, and for that style of thing there could be no better training than the fish business as dealt with on the Grimsby pontoon.

This pontoon is the quay by the side of the Fish Docks, really a long, covered platform with the fishing craft on one side of it and the railway lines on the other. The boats come in during the four hours the tide serves, and are placed bow on to the quay, close up, with barely a foot between them. No matter what time they may arrive, there they wait side by side, with their bows in a line - half a mile of steamers worth, say, £5000 each - until five o’clock in the morning, when they start unloading for the sale which begins at eight.

Great Central Railway crest

Such a quantity of fish as the writer saw laid out when he visited Grimsby he had never seen before. Cod and halibut, skate and turbot arranged in rank and file so that every fish could be seen and quantities easily counted, and haddocks and smaller things coming ashore by the basketful to be piled up in the boxes the fishmongers receive with about half as much in them.

At eight o’clock all was clean and orderly. Then the bell rang and the salesmen took up their positions among the fish to sell those caught by the line by English auction, and those caught by the trawl by Dutch auction in which the auctioneer drops the prices, the lot going to the first of the crowd who speaks. Porters placed their feet between the lots to mark them off, and round them and the salesmen crowds quickly gathered.

Ring, ring went one bell; clang, clang went another. There were crowds all along the line. Louder and louder grew the uproar until it became tumultuous, and the busier the scene the dirtier it got. All the time the fish were coming ashore over the bows, quivering, gasping, writhing in barrels and baskets; and as they came out some of the ice came with them, to be gathered in nets and washed in the dock and taken in again; and other ice went in, crushed ice by the sackful and big blocks that went sliding across the pontoon from the carts on the land side, for the boats go out laden with ice and return laden with fish.

By noon the selling was over, and the pontoon gradually took on the appearance of an ordinary bank at a goods station, with packages of all sorts and sizes dumped around pillars with the names above of railway centres and railway routes. From the heaps the railway vans were loaded, and at 4.40 p.m. the first train left, to be followed by eight more, the last going out at a quarter to nine. As Billingsgate opens at five and Grimsby at eight, anything short in London can be ordered by wire to Grimsby, which can deliver to customers direct during the day if necessary. It is not, however, to London that Grimsby fish mainly goes, but to the Midlands and the North and West, even to Holland and Germany; and the fish comes from as far as the Faeroes and Iceland and the White Sea, some of the steamers going a thousand miles from home in its search.

Wire Extensions to Goods Trucks for Bulky Loads, Great Central Railway


The Great Central handles its other imports as smartly as it does the fish, and, in the Royal Dock and the Alexandra Dock, there is always plenty to do, for, as a nucleus of the shipping trade, it has a fleet of its own plying to the Continent. These and the Wilson boats and others bring in quantities of timber, barley for brewing, butter and eggs, cheese and margarine, onions and fruit and game (white Russian hares and Norwegian ptarmigan), and other miscellaneous things that are kept on the premises as short a time as possible. In the old days most of this got on to the Great Northern in the course of distribution, and it was in connection with that company that the M. S. & L. did its best work.

The Great Central joins the Great Northern at Retford, but the Manchester trains to King’s Cross were brought on by it to Grantham, farther south; and on this division of the journey the 561 miles are fairly easy. It was on this London to Manchester route that the two companies ran what was at the time the fastest train in England, as already noticed; a really good piece of work considering the gradients and impediments of the Sheffield to Manchester section. From Manchester to the eastern end of the Woodhead tunnel, which is about 1000 ft above sea-level, is 23 miles, the gradients varying from 1 in 100 to 1 in 200, say an average of 1 in 120 all the way; between the tunnel and Sheffield the down grades are mostly 1 in 120 and 1 in 130, and, on this side in particular, colliery and other junctions are numerous and the journey requires careful handling, the 41 miles of the original line being against fast running. The direct southern route from Sheffield is also unsuitable for rapid travelling as far as Annesley, to which it reached in 1892.

Starting from Annesley, the new line, which was opened for passenger traffic in March 1899, runs mostly at 1 in 176, cross-ing the Bulwell viadiict of 26 arches, continuing over sixty arches and bridges through Nottingham, and over arches and bridges at Leicester for a mile or more. Thence, by Rugby, where it crosses the North Western by a bridge more than 200 yards long, it goes over Charwelton, Culworth, and Helmden to Quainton Road, where it is at the same level as at Leicester. At Grendon Underwood, just before reaching Quainton Road, the alternative route goes off thro.ugh High Wycombe on the Great Western joint line to continue on Great Central metals from Northolt to the junction at Neasden. From Grendon Underwood the eastern line is practically level to Aylesbury, where it begins to rise for 14 miles, much of it at 1 in 117, to Amersham, whence it runs down to Rickmansworth at 1 in 105, then up to Northwood, down to Neasden and up to Willesden Green.

MARYLEBONE STATION, Great Central Railway


Just before reaching West Hampstead there is a gradient of 1 in 97 - a mere trifle to that on the Brymbo branch, which is 1 in 35 - and under the northern end of Lord’s cricket ground there are three tunnels. Of the other tunnels besides the Woodhead there should perhaps be mentioned the Catesby of 2997 yards, and the Bolsover, 2624 yards, now on the Great Central owing to the acquisition in 1907 of the shortlived Lancashire, Derbyshire, & East Coast. Speaking generally, the Great Central is a 1 in 176 line, just as the Great Northern is a 1 in 200 line.

The colours of the M. S. & L. engines were green with black bands and white lining, the passenger engines of the Great Central are green with brown frames and splashers, the goods engines being black with red lines. As a whole, they are a powerful, good-looking, interesting lot that should be noticed at greater length than space here permits, more especially those designed by the present locomotive superintendent, Mr. J. G. Robinson; but they were not all built at Gorton, for, amongst others, when “the Dukeries” was taken over in 1907 its 37 engines were added to the general stock and renumbered.

Railway letter stamp, Great central Railway

One of the most noteworthy of the newer engines is the 3-cylinder 0-8-4 tank, hauling trains of 960 tons up a gradient of 1 in 107 at Wath sorting sidings between Doncaster and Barnsley. The three cylinders of this are each 18-in by 26-in, the 8-coupled wheels are 4 ft 8-in, the bogie wheels are 3 ft 7-in; the boiler is 15 ft long and 5 ft in diameter, and the 221 2-in tubes are over 15 ft 4-in long, their heating surface being 1778 sq ft. The firebox has 153 sq ft, so that the total heating surface is 1931, the grate area being 26. Of this giant, the working pressure of which is 180, the tank holds 3000 gallons and the bunker 4 tons. The drawbar pull, up to ten miles an hour, is 13 tons. The weight, empty, is 74 tons 1 cwt, and when loaded that weight becomes 96 tons 11 cwt. The length over buffers is 45 ft and the wheel base is 30 ft 8-in.

Amongst the other tank engines mention should be made of No. 1120 and her sisters. These are 4-4-2’s for passenger work. They carry 1825 gallons of water and 4½ tons of coal, and weigh when loaded 71¾ tons. Another class of tanks began with No. 1055 - also 4-4- 2’s, with 18-in by 26-in cylinders, 3 ft 6-in bogie wheels, 5 ft 7-in drivers, and 3 ft 9-in radials; the boiler is 10 ft 10-in by 4 ft 2-in, there are 185 1¾-in tubes, their heating surface being 1030, that of the firebox being 110, and the grate area amounting to 19·85. These engines take 1450 gallons of water and 3½ tons of coal.

Of tender engines there is the 8E class of 3-cylinder compounds. These are 4-4-2’s, the cylinders being 19-in and 21-in by 26-in, the low-pressures being outside. The coupled wheels are 6 ft 9-in in diameter. The total heating surface is 1931 sq ft, of which 1778 are provided by the tubes; the grate area is 26, and the working pressure 180. The tank holds 4000 gallons, and the length of engine and tender over buffers is 61 ft 10-in. The engine weighs 72 tons 16 cwt, and with the tender the total weight is 116 tons 19 cwt. These are the engines on the Sheffield expresses. Among the goods engines are the 4-6-0’s, working at 180 lb. These have 19¼-in by 26-in cylinders, the coupled wheels being 5 ft 3-in. Their grate area is 234 sq ft, and the heating surface is 1909·5 sq ft. The total weight of engine and tender is 111 tons 11 cwt, the tank holding 4000 gallons. Notwithstanding the size of the tenders, it may be as well to say that the Great Central picks up its water from troughs like other companies, the troughs being of steel plate 14 ft 6-in in length, riveted together by butt strips, being 874 yards long and 16-in wide at the bottom, and along the full length runs a 1½-in steam-pipe to keep the water clear of ice in frosty weather.

Van for the Carriage of Cold Storage Goods, Great Central Railway

VAN FOR THE CARRIAGE of cold storage goods

The largest stations are at Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, and Leicester; these, like the Cheshire Lines terminus at Liverpool, being really central, and from the central positions of its stations the line is said to have taken its title. When it changed its name it changed its colours, the new, roomy, comfortable coaches having their upper panels painted light grey and their lower panels chocolate picked out with gold lines. Smart they looked, but perhaps too smart to be recognised, for the grey and brown have gone and the coaches are now back again in the plain varnished teak of the M. S. & L.

They are seen in many places, for the line’s cross-country services are its present distinguishing feature. You find them at Llandudno on the North Western; Aberystwith on the Cambrian; Swansea, Cardiff, and Torquay on the Great Western; Bournemouth and Southampton on the South Western; and at Hull, Scarborough, and Newcastle on the North Eastern; Halifax and Blackpool on the Lancashire & Yorkshire; and many other stations where least expected. In its 1500 coaches it carries 24 millions of passengers a year, and in its 35,000 wagons deals with 25¾ million tons of minerals and 5¼ million tons of merchandise, while the yearly mileage of its 1200 engines totals up to 16,645,000.

The Coal Drops—Grimsby Docks, Great Central Railway

THE COAL DROPS - Grimsby Docks

You can read more on the

“3.20 Down Manchester”,

“The North Country Continental” and

“The Romance of the LNER”

on this website.