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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Did the Management Ever Control Britain's 19th Century Railways?

Alfred Chandler
The rise of what Alfred Chandler called the ‘visible hand’ of management has dominated the business history literature for forty years. Simply put, Chandler argued that managers came to dominate American business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As technology was introduced to companies and markets expanded, their processes of distribution and then coordination became more complex as they increased in size. Consequently, this generated a need for better administrative control of the organisations’ activities, leading to the rise of the ‘visible hand’ of management. Indeed, as managers grew in number within firms, they increasingly steered their destinies, wrestling control of corporate strategy from companies’ shareholders, financiers and directors. Chandler called this ‘managerial capitalism.’[1]

In the United States this process occurred first in the railroads. When faced with challenges such as safety concerns, then the increasing volume, speed and complexity of traffic on the line, companies quickly developed hierarchies of railway managers to coordinate their activities, leading to the rise of the ‘visible hand.’ Ward argued that a situation had developed on the Pennsylvania Railroad by 1873 where ‘paramount executive authority had emerged’, directors were by then ‘pliant acceders,’ and shareholders were virtually impotent.[2] Indeed, there is no doubt that Chandler admired railroads, such as the Pennsylvania, where managers had seized control of the organisation, arguing they were the best managed and innovative. They adopted high-level strategic direction, with considerable authority delegated to operating units and complex administrative practices were developed.[3] Indeed, Zunz also argued similar of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which he considered an exemplar of good management practice because it was controlled by the company’s management class.[4]

The question, therefore, is to what extent this process was replicated in the British context? How much control did British railway managers have over their companies’ directors and shareholders in the nineteenth century, and, ultimately, their destinies? Chandler argued that because of the nation’s smaller size British railway managers were challenged less than their American counterparts to develop new and innovative management techniques.[5] Therefore, this possibly implies that British railway managers did not secure the same level of control as some American managers. However, Channon countered this by arguing that British railway managers were challenged in different ways because of the country’s high-density, expensive and intensive network, which was, unlike in the United States, complete in its operating and physical details in a much shorter time period after the industry’s establishment.[6] Therefore, while not ruling out a rise of the ‘visible hand’ of management, this may suggest that a different pattern of managerial development occurred within British railways. Nevertheless, neither of these perspectives really answered the question of whether there was a rise in the ‘visible hand’ of management in the British railway industry in the nineteenth century.

No comprehensive history of British railway management before 1914 has been written. Therefore, I have had to compile what I know about the rise of the ‘visible hand’ from case studies. However, some historians have broadly attempted to assess when the railways’ management class, particularly within larger companies, came to dominate the industry’s direction. Cain argued that General Managers, who were usually at the top of railway companies’ hierarchies, were the most important decision-makers in the industry by 1870.[7]  Channon made a similar claim, stating that before 1870 managerial ascendency ‘cannot be assumed.’[8] I believe both were wrong, and using a number of case studies I will suggest that management cannot be said to have ascended into a position of control before the 1900s.

Richard Moon
Terry Gourvish’s book on Mark Huish, the London and North Western Railway’s General Manager between the company’s formation in 1846 and 1858, is an enthralling text. It relates the story of a railway manager who during his administration and after his death was considered ‘unscrupulous, dictatorial and Machiavellian’; controlling the companies' policies. At face value this would suggest he was the first ‘managerial capitalist’ in Britain’s railway industry. Yet, Gourvish’s research showed the reverse. He argued that while Huish had more control of the company’s policies than his contemporaries, he did not possess the ‘dictatorial’ influence in decision-making often ascribed to him.’ Indeed, his resignation was forced on him 1858 as he did not satisfy the board’s requirements regarding inter-company diplomacy.[9]

Archibald Scott
Indeed, it was the career of the man who instigated  Huish’s resignation, LNWR director Richard Moon, that truly shows that the ‘visible hand’ of management did not really control policy on the British railway network until long after it had on many American railroads. Moon was appointed chairman of the company in 1861 and stayed in the post for thirty years. Before his ascendency becoming chairman, he had a reputation for taking a highly detailed interest in most of the company’s operational affairs, even when they were beyond his remit. Indeed, most railways’ boards met twice monthly, with directors meeting in committees the day before. Yet, Moon would be active in the company’s affairs every day of the week. Thus, when made chairman his controlling instincts were let loose. His biographer, Peter Braine, described him as being ‘not only a managing director, but also effectively his own General Manager,’ throughout his chairmanship. [10] Indeed, the company’s General Manager between 1858 and 1875, William Cawkwell, was very much under his and the board’s control.[11]

But directors having control of companies’ strategic direction was not unusual in the period. Lord Salisbury, chairman of the Great Eastern Railway between 1868 and 1871, looms large in the company’s history. On his appointment the GER was in chancery. Yet, he successfully turned it around and it began paying dividends again in the 1870s.[12] On the London and South Western Railway, as I will explain in my thesis, policy was dominated by directors until the 1881 when they gave the General Manager, Archibald Scott, more ‘general control’ over the concern’s affairs.[13] However, even then he was still under their control and did not have a decisive role in corporate decision-making. Lastly, on the Great Northern Railway in the 1850s, 60s and 70s it had directors who ‘thought they knew more about the business than the company’s senior officers.’[14] Therefore, this would suggest that the dominance of company boards was still present in the industry as late as the 1870s.

Indeed, from the 1860s there also appeared controlling positions within companies which would now be described as managing directorships. In most cases the individuals taking these positions were ex-managers, who on retirement became controlling directors. The most prominent examples of this were Edward Watkin and James Staats Forbes. They were fierce rivals, with Watkin chairing the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire (1864-1894), South Eastern (1866-1894) and Metropolitan Railways (1872-1894); while Forbes was chairman of the London, Chatham and Dover (1873-1898) and Metropolitan District Railways (1872-1901). Both men had served as railwaymen and then had moved onto railways’ boards where they dominated policy.[15] The other example of this was the managing directorship of the Daniel Gooch on the Great Western Railway. Gooch had been the company’s Locomotive Superintendent between 1837 and 1864, and when he resigned took up a position on the board. He then became the company’s chairman, and had a position akin to a managing director between 1865 and his death in 1889.[16] Furthermore, James Ramsden on the Furness railway also was in such a position between 1866 and 1883.[17]
Myles Fenton

But by the late 1880s the dominant power of railway managers was coming through more widely within the British Railway industry. Between 1885 and 1897, as my thesis will show, Charles Scotter was the dominant General Manager of the London and South Western Railway, controlling almost all aspects of policy, large and small. Cornelius Lundie, General Manager and Superintendent of the Line of the Rhymney Railway between 1858 and 1904, ran the railway as he wished with little or no reference to the board’s interests.[18] Even Watkin  relied on the General Managers at each of his companies for their safe and efficient operation. They were the SER’s Myles Fenton, William Pollitt at the MSLR and John Bell at the Metropolitan.[19] Indeed, Hodgkins argued that because Pollitt and Bell were rivals a proposed link between the MSLR and Metropolitan in the 1890s would have been difficult to arrange. Therefore, this suggests that despite Watkin’s domineering chairmanship of his companies, his chief executives still heavily influenced their railways’ policies.[20]

George Gibb
These cases were, however, only the start of a shift of towards the absolute control of the ‘visible hand’ of management within Britain’s railways. In 1891 George Gibb was appointed General Manager of the North Eastern Railway. Gibb reformed the company’s operations and, through dominating the company’s board and staff, dragged it into a position where experts acknowledged it was a model of good management practice.[21] But Gibb was just the first of a new breed of railway executives. Indeed, as a crisis hit the industry around 1900, as passenger, goods and revenue growth stalled, the cost of fuel and materials increased, and railway securities became less favoured as investment opportunities, the role of reversing  the industry’s financial situation fell onto the shoulders of executives.

After 1900 a raft of new and innovative managers came to the fore within British railways. Sam Fay, an ex-LSWR employee, became the Great Central Railway’s General Manager in 1902, and through his dynamic leadership transformed it from being a poorly performing to concern into one that, while never rich, made great advances and innovations in operational practice.[22] On the Midland Railway Cecil Paget, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, devised a whole new method of train control that added greatly to the company’s operating efficiency,[23] reducing delays to freight trains from 21,869 hours in 1907 to 7,749 hours in 1913.[24] Lastly, in 1912 Herbert Walker became the LSWR’s General Manager. Through dominating the company’s directorate he reformed its management and introduced electric traction onto its ailing suburban network.[25]

Of course, not all railways had General Managers that were as dynamic as these three. However, generally by the early twentieth century executives controlled the strategic direction of most of the largest companies within the British railway industry. Furthermore, the process of the rise of the ‘visible hand’ was also helped, as my thesis will relate and as Channon discussed,[26] by directors having less time to dedicate to the companies they served. Before 1900 the many took an active interest in their railway companies as they had little else to occupy their time. However, from around 1900, as the British corporate economy grew, they took on other external responsibilities, such other directorships. Thus, large numbers of directors were occupied by these activities, leaving vacuum of control into which railway executives could step.
Herbert Walker

Therefore, it is not surprising that on the formation in 1912 of the Railway Executive Committee, established to organise Britain’s railways in wartime, all its members were General Managers of the country’s largest companies. Indeed, the diminished role of the railway directors in the administration of the industry by that time was reflected by the fact that not one was present on the REC. Consequently, Britain’s railways in World War One was completely managed by the ‘visible hand’ of management,[27] the final proof that it had secured strategic control of the industry by 1914.

Overall, this survey [tentatively] disproves Channon and Cain’s claims that railway managers were universally important to British railways’ policies by 1870, and there was much variance in who controlled their direction. Overall, in the contrast with experience of the American railroads, the rise of the ‘Visible Hand’ of management occurred relatively late in the British context; only truly emerging after 1900. But why this was so?

I think that Chandler was correct to some extent in arguing that British railway managers were challenged less than their American counterparts because of the country’s smaller size. Despite the dramatic traffic growth throughout the century, the smaller size of British railway companies meant that there was never a point until after the 1890s when the internal administrative control required by them was beyond the ability of one director or their boards to organise. Indeed, the highly centralised management structures of British railway companies throughout the period, where decisions could be made by a small group of directors or managers at the top of the hierarchy,[28]  meant that dynamic and knowledgeable individuals, irrespective of whether they were directors or a managers, had the possibility of controlling their railways. Thus, this is why it is unclear before 1900 if management had 'ascended' within the industry. Indeed, one factor in an individual controlling a railway in the period was his personality; and all of the men mentioned were certainly characters. 


[1] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940: Studies in Economic and Business History, (Aldershot, 2001), p.5
[2] Ward, James A., ‘Power and Accountability on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846-1878’, Business History Review, XLIX (1975), p.58
[3] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.5
[4] Zunz, Oliver, Making America Corporate: 1870-1920, (Chicago, 1990), p.47
[5] Chandler, Alfred D., Scale and Scope: the Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, (London, 1990) p.253
[6] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.29
[7] Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: the maturity of the private system,’ in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.) Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988), p.112
[8] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.44
[9] Gourvish, T.R. Mark Huish and the London & North Western Railway, (Leicester, 1972), p.167-182
[10] Braine, Peter, The Railway Moon – A Man and His Railway: Sir Richard Moon and the L&NWR, (Taunton, 2012), p.477
[11] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.44
[12] Barker, T.C., 'Lord Salisbury, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway 1868-1872' in Marriner, S., Business and Businessmen: Studies in Business, Economic and Accounting History, (Liverpool, 1972)
[13] The South Western Gazette, December 1881, p.2
[14] Simmons, Jack, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, (Leicester, 1978), p.247
[15] Gourvish, T.R., ‘The Performance of British Railway Management after 1860: The Railways of Watkin and Forbes’, Business History, 20 (1978), p.198
[16] Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: The maturity of the private system’, in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.) Transport in Victorian Britain (Manchester, 1988), p.113
[17] Simmons, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, p.247
[18] Simmons, The Railway in England and Wales 1830-1914, p.247
[19] Gourvish, ‘The performance of British railway management after 1860’, p.188-191
[20] Hodgkins, David, The Second Railway King: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Watkin, (Melton Priory, 2002), p.609
[21] Irving , R.J., The North Eastern Railway Company: An Economic History, 1870-1914,  (Leicester, 1976)  p.261-264
[22] Dow, Andrew, ‘Great Central Railway,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (1997, Oxford), p.191-192
[23] Burtt, Philip, Control on the Railways, (London, 1926), p.144-151
[24] Edwards, Roy, ‘Divisional train control and the emergence of dynamic capabilities: The experience of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, c.1923-c.1939, Management and Organisational History, 6 (2011), p.398
[25] Klapper, C.F., Sir Herbert Walker’s Southern Railway, (London, 1973), p.33-76
[26] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940, p.187-188
[27] Pratt, Edwin A., British Railways and the Great War: Organisation, Efforts, Difficulties and Achievements – Vol. 1, (London, 1921), p.40-50
[28] Bonavia, The Organisation of British Railways, p.17-18


  1. Interesting paper. I have also read Gourvish's book on Huish and some of his other books on BR. I was looking for literature of how the loss of railway expertise would affect a railway's performance. I wanted to see if I could show that privatisation led to a reduction in performance because of the sacking of large numbers of railway managers. I'm not sure if the case is proven but there's a lot of anecdotal evidence. It's easy to say, "Things went bad because I left".

    Anyway, I would put Albert Stanley of the Underground Electric Railways of London as another manager in the modern sense.

  2. Hilarious history and the peoples are showing in this blog remarkable in their jobs, They contributed their life to this category.


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