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Sunday, 17 April 2011

Unlocking the Early Railway Manager - Pt 4 - The Ex-Soldier Myth

I have come to a revelation. One of Britain’s most noted railway historians of the last 50 years, Michael R. Bonavia, was just plain wrong in his 1971 book, The organisation of British Railways when he claimed that ex-military men, such as Morrsom and Huish, played a large role in the early railway industry. His theory stated that as ex-officers they were some of the only individuals around at the time that had experience of marshalling large bodies of men in hierarchical organisations, that directors chose them to command their embryonic railway companies.[1]

As I showed in my last blog post on this topic (here), the evidence from the 1848 railway officials directly simply didn’t support this as only 3.54% of railway managers listed had military titles. But one study wouldn’t be enough to disprove an argument. My initial thought when encountering this was that perhaps the 1848 directory was published too late in the industry’s development to adequately reflect the ex-military influence. So I moved to catalogue the 1841 railway officials’ directory in my possession.

This directory listed the officials of 26 of Britain’s railways, which between them employed 84 men in 96 senior management positions. Naturally, this sample left out some the country’s railways. Yet, given the small size of the industry at the time, the 26 constituted a good sample of industry’s management class. Of the 84 managers, only 2 (2.38%) were listed as having military titles. These were Colonel Landman of the London and Greenwich Railway, and Captain William S. Moorsom, of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. Both were employed by the company in an engineering capacity.

Although, the sample vexed me as I knew that in 1841 Captain Mark Huish, who would later become the first General Manager of the London and North Western Railway, was Secretary of the Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock Railway at the time.[2] Therefore, I was worried that many railways were left out and the contribution of some military men may have been overlooked. But this was a minor concern. Overall, this research backed up the evidence from the 1848 directory that military men did not play a major role in railway management in the early railway industry.

Finally, I looked at the 1847 directory. This would be even more helpful at confirming the extent to which ex-officers were involved in the industry, as it detailed far more information about companies’ management class than the other directories. They only listed those individuals who were the top managers within the railways, such as the engineers or secretaries. Yet, the 1847 directory showed, particularly within the larger companies, the names of individuals serving in other senior management capacities, such as Locomotive Superintendents, Accountants and Treasurers. Thus, it would allay my fear that I was missing in the other samples military officials who had not taken up positions at the very head of companies, but which were fulfilling senior administrative roles.

The 1847 railway official’s directory contained the names of 167 individuals who were serving 82 railways in 219 positions. Of these only 3 were military men (1.80%). These were Captain Moosom, working as engineer for the Southampton and Dorchester Railway, Captain Huish, working as General Manager for the L&NWR, and Captain F.A. Griffiths, who was Secretary of the Southampton and Dorchester Railway. Thus, while this differs from the percentage of military men listed in the 1848 directory (3.54%), which probably reveals that the 1847 directory wasn’t as accurate or as wide-ranging as I initially thought, overall it confirms the minimal involvement of ex-military men in the management of the early railway industry.

Thus, over the three samples I have been able to show, without a shadow of doubt, that the notion that military men were the driving force in early railway management is erroneous. Indeed, while some military men may have not listed their titles in the directories and may have been missed, this is an almost insignificant fact against the tiny percentage of individuals that did list their titles. Indeed, there is nothing here to suggest that ex-military officers had a central role at all. Furthermore, it seems that this myth, as it now can rightfully be called, may have originated from the legend of one Captain Mark Huish. He was an innovator in railway management, while being notorious for his hard-headedness, and thus he looms large in the history of the early railways.[3] But, consider this: he was the only ex-military man who went down in history, but if they were truly prolific in the industry, wouldn’t we have heard of more?

[1] Bonavia, Michael, The Organisation of British Railways, (Shpperton, 1971) p.9-26
[3] Gourvish, Terry, Mark Huish and the London and North Western Railway, (Newton Abbott, 1972), p.255-267

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