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The development of the steam engine in the late 18th and through the 19th century was the precursor to one of the largest industrial undertakings in Britain, the construction of the rail network throughout the country. Initially, though, once steam engines were able to drive wheels and became locomotives they were used to pull coal trucks from the collieries to rivers for onward transportation by sailing barge. Designs by Blenkinsop, Hedley, Hackworth and Stephenson were prominent during the early days.


Far left Agenora 1829

Leftand right The Rocket (Replica)1829


Early railway installations were built to move goods over relatively short distances and in the beginning the railway lines to do this were constructed piecemeal between industrial sites and waterways or centres of population but without any thought of what might be termed a national network.

Situated mid way between London and Edinburgh the city of York had long been a staging post for riders and horse drawn coaches on the journey between the two Capitals. As the railway train slowly replaced the horse, and also much of the river travel, it could have been expected that York would continue as an important location on the network. The rise in importance of Leeds, Bradford and other towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire during the Industrial Revolution and the fact that the revolution did not extend to York in any serious way might, however, have turned the city into a pleasant backwater rather than the hub of the rail network in the North.

That York became the centre of the railway universe in the 19th century is down to the entrepreneurial zeal of one man, George Hudson and the engineering ability of another, George Stephenson.

In 1827 George Hudson, then a draper with a shop College Street, came in to an inheritance of £30,000 and the money allowed him to become a prominent citizen in York. By 1833 Hudson was a member of the York Railway Committee which had been set up to develop plans for railway line to link York to the West Riding of Yorkshire to bring cheap coal in to the city. The line was completed in 1839 originally with a temporary station outside the city walls. The first permanent station was situated in the Toft Green/Tanner Row area with the walls being breached to allow the tracks through. Little remains of this station although the frontage can still be seen from Tanner Row together with some ironwork and remains of platforms to the rear.


Above left a portrait of George Hudson (Photo courtesy of Monkwearmouth Station Museum). Hudson's drapers shop is now a National Trust property. Centre is the front door of George Hudson's prestigious home in Monkgate. Finally a bust of Hudson and a photo of another portrait which hangs in the Mansion House.  

By 1840 one of Hudson's companies, the York and North Midland Railway, had a line from London to York via Derby. A line from York to Newcastle was completed in 1844 and by 1845 the line had reached Edinburgh. Hudson's rail empire continued to grow but many of his dealings were questionable although he was not likely to have been alone given the boom in railways at that time. In1865 he was imprisoned for debt. Although vilified at the time and subsequently without Hudson York would not have become the important city it is today. Where Hudson provided the commercial and parliamentary skills to establish the lines his friend in the early years, George Stephenson, and Stephenson's son Robert were the men who provided the practical engineering skills to implement Hudson's plans. Throughout the period of Hudson's reign one of his principal business adversaries was George Leeman. Leeman as a young solicitor in 1839 had lead attacks on Hudson and in 1841 lead the opposition to Hudson's proposal to build a new bridge at Lendal. George Leeman continued as Hudson's greatest enemy and it is mainly down to Leeman that Hudson finally came to grief. The City fathers erected the statue of Leeman shown below. No such epitaph for George Hudson exists but there are a number of portraits two of which are shown above.


George Leeman

The North Eastern Railway Company was formed in 1854. It was an amalgamation of a number of smaller companies but kept its headquarters in York. The subsequent HQ building is shown below.

By the 1870's York had become the hub of the railway system in the North. The original 'terminus' type station had become impractical as through trains could not be accommodated without being reversed out and this, together with other considerations, prompted plans to be drawn up for a new station in 1873.


George Stephenson


Former Headquarters of the North Eastern Railway and main door of the building to the right. The plaque above the door reads 'North Eastern Railway - Head Office'. Right, buildings of the old station in Toft Green.


Above left the uninspiring porte-cohere of York Station with the Royal York hotel in the background. Also views of the long curved platforms and iron roofs of the station, at the time of completion the largest in the world.

By the late 19th century the railways had become a major employer in York. By 1880 the railway engineering and carriage works in Holgate Road employed around five and a half thousand staff.

The railways brought increased affluence to York and aided the development of the confectionary industries in the city allowing Rowntrees and Terry's to become internationally known brands, sadly no longer trading as such. It is fitting that York should be home to the National Railway Museum and a small selection of the vast array of locomotives, carriages and other railway artefacts is shown at the top of the page and below.

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