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Great Northern Railway (Great Britain)

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Great Northern Railway (Great Britain)

Great Northern Railway Stirling "Single" 4-2-2 express locomotive at Peterborough North railway station. At their introduction in 1876, these were the fastest steam locomotives in the world.
The Bennerley Viaduct on the Awsworth Junction to Derby Branch in 2006

The Great Northern Railway (GNR) was a British railway company established by the Great Northern Railway Act of 1846.[1] On 1 January 1923 the company lost its identity, as a constituent of the newly formed London and North Eastern Railway.

The main line ran from London King's Cross via Hitchin, Peterborough, and Grantham, to York, with a loop line from Peterborough to Bawtry (south of Doncaster) via Boston and Lincoln, and branch lines to Sheffield and Wakefield. The main line became part of the East Coast Main Line.



The first prospectus of the Great Northern Railway (initially called the London and York Railway) was issued on 3 May 1844, and plans were deposited in that year's parliamentary session for the following lines:

The line passed its second reading in the commons despite fierce opposition from the London and Birmingham and the newly formed Midland Railway, who at that time had a monopoly of the London to Leeds and York traffic, and despite an adverse report from the Board of Trade.

In the 1845 session, the sheer number of railway projects plus opposition from established companies and from rival projects meant that the London and York bill, although not defeated, failed by running out of time.

The London and York bill finally received Royal assent on 26 June 1846 as The Great Northern Railway Act, 1846.[2] The Act granted powers to construct the main line and loop lines. Also in the 1846 session, powers were granted to various allied companies to make lines from Boston to Grimsby and Stamford to Spalding - which was never built - and also the Hitchin to Royston section only of a proposed Oxford and Cambridge Railway.

The Great Northern began construction first on the Peterborough to Gainsborough section of the loop line, as the ease of construction over the flat fens promised an earlier return on investment. Because a proposed branch from Bawtry to Sheffield had been rejected by parliament, it was thought better for the loop line to rejoin the towns line at Rossington instead, so no work was done on the loop north of Gainsborough. The GNR suffered a setback in 1848 when this deviation was rejected, but arrangements were soon made to use the MS&LR's authorized line from Sykes Junction (on the loop line north of Lincoln) to Retford and then via their own main line, and contracts for both of these lines were quickly let.

The first section of line was opened on 1 March 1848 and was the Louth to Grimsby section of the East Lincolnshire Railway, which although nominally independent, was leased to the GNR from the start. The first section of GNR proper to be opened was the 3 miles from Doncaster to Askern Junction, where an end on connection was made with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line from Knottingley.

The East Lincolnshire line opened from Louth to Boston on 1 October 1848, and on 17 October, the loop line opened between Werrington Junction and Lincoln, with GNR trains using the Midland line from Werrington Junction to Peterborough. The GNR and MS&LR lines allowing through running from Lincoln to Doncaster via Retford opened on 4 September 1849.[3]

The immediate targets in the north were Leeds and York. On 30 June 1847, the GNR obtained running powers over the LYR from Askern to Wakefield via Knottingley, and also from Knottingley to Methley on the Midland, and on 16 October the Midland agreed to allow the GNR to run from Methley to Leeds.

On 23 February 1849, the York and North Midland Railway agreed in principle to give the GNR running powers from Burton Salmon to York, and also over a new line to be built from Knottingley to Burton Salmon. This new line was opened in June 1850, at which time the agreement was formalised and in return the GNR agreed not to proceed with its own main line from Askern to York via Selby.

First 20 miles from London

During 1846 to 1849 William Cubitt for the London District of the Great Northern Railway. Turnbull oversaw the construction of the first 20 miles of line out of London, including bridges, multiple cuttings and the Copenhagen, Tottenham, South Barnet, North Barnet and South Mimms tunnels (he was particularly proud of the alignment of the tunnels). In December 1848 he was busy with the plans for King's Cross station and passing the line under the Regent's Canal. On 2 February 1849 the last capstone on Holloway Bridge was set in place. On 27 March the first brick for Copenhagen Tunnel was laid by Edward Purser. The first brick of the East Barnet tunnel was laid on 23 April. There was much trouble with the cement in Tottenham and South Mimms tunnels: Turnbull stopped the use of cement — blue lias was substituted (this was made by burning the blue clay from the tunnels and grinding it).[4][5] Another of the engineers working under Cubitt was James Moore, who went on to design the first commercial steam railway in Australia for the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company.[6]


The former GNR works at Boston, Lincolnshire

On 7 August 1850, the main line opened from a temporary station at Maiden Lane, London, to Peterborough. The remaining section between Peterborough and Retford opened in 1852, as did the new London terminus at King's Cross. Doncaster locomotive works opened in 1853, replacing temporary facilities at Boston.

On 1 August 1854, the Leeds, Bradford and Halifax Junction Railway opened between Leeds and Bowling Junction near Bradford. Because it had running powers over this line (the right to operate locomotives and trains) and a section of the LYR, the GNR obtained access to Bradford and Halifax. In 1857, the West Yorkshire Railway opened their direct line from Wakefield to Leeds via Ardsley. The GNR had running powers over this line and immediately began using it instead of the Midland line via Methley. Also in 1857, the previously mentioned LB&HJR opened a direct line from Ardsley to Laisterdyke, near Bradford. In 1851, by agreement with the MS&LR, the GNR began a London to Manchester via Retford service, and from 1859 GNR trans also ran to Huddersfield via Penistone.

Thus by the end of the 1850s, the GNR had gained access to most of West Yorkshire, although without at this time owning any lines beyond Askern Junction, a few miles north of Doncaster. The profits gained from the coal traffic from this area to London prompted the Great Eastern Railway and Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway to promote a bill for a trunk line from Doncaster through Lincolnshire, but this was rejected by Parliament in both 1865 and 1871.

Further south, a branch from Hitchin to Royston and on to Shepreth was opened in March 1850 and worked by the GNR. This line was meant to connect with a previously authorized GER line at Shepreth. The GER had not built this line but opposed GNR powers to extend from Shepreth to Cambridge themselves. An agreement was reached for the GER to build the Shepreth to Cambridge section and then work the whole line from Hitchin to Cambridge for 14 years, with the GER taking over the expensive guarantee that the GNR had given to the Hitchin & Royston company.

The Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston and Eastern Junction Railway opened from Colwick, near Nottingham, to Grantham in July 1850 (using a tempoarary station in Grantham pending completion of the towns line). In May 1852 the GNR agreed to work this line, but the agreement was opposed by the Midland, and it was not until 1861 that the GNR got formal possession. Midland obstruction of GNR through traffic in Nottingham led to the ANB&EJR seeking powers to build a parallel line from Colwick to its own station in Nottingham at London Road.

East of Grantham, the Boston, Sleaford and Midland Counties Railway opened from near Grantham to Sleaford in June 1857 and on to Boston in April 1859. Independent companies also built branches from Essendine to Stamford and Bourne and from Welwyn to Hertford and to Dunstable via Luton, all of which were worked by the GNR.

From 1858 the GNR line into London from Hitchin was also used by the Midland. This and the agreements with the MS&LR helped to undermine the "Euston Square Confederacy" established by the London and North Western Railway.

GNR agreements with the MS&LR also led to the GNR investing in lines between Manchester and Liverpool. The Midland also became involved, and an extensive joint line grew which became known as the Cheshire Lines Committee.[7]


The GNR's role in the establishment of an Anglo-Scottish East Coast route was confirmed by establishment of the East Coast Joint Stock in 1860, whereby a common pool of passenger vehicles was operated by the GNR, the North Eastern and the North British. The main express trains were the 10am departures from King's Cross and Edinburgh, which began running in June 1862. By the 1870s they were known as the Flying Scotsman.

The Welwyn & Hertford Railway opened in March 1858, and in 1860 it opened another line to Luton and Dunstable. In 1861, now called the Hertford, Luton & Dunstable, it was absorbed by the GNR. Also acquired in 1861 was the ANB&EJR line from Nottingham to Grantham.

On 1 October 1863, the GNR began a shuttle service from King's Cross to Farringdon Street via the city widened lines, but through suburban services did not use this line until 1 March 1868, and then were extended to Moorgate Street on 1 June 1869.

In 1864, the GNR acquired BS&MCR (Boston to Sleaford) and the Bourn and Essendine lines, leased the West Yorkshire (Wakefield to Leeds with branches to Batley and Ossett) and took a one third share in the Methley Joint (Castleford to Lofthouse & Outwood). In 1865 they acquired the Leeds, Bradford & Halifax and the previously mentioned West Yorkshire.

In 1866, at the end of the 14-year agreement with the GER, the GNR resumed working the Hitchin and Shepreth line and began running through to Cambridge.

On 1 August 1866, the GNR made an agreement with the Midland to jointly work the Eastern & Midland Railway, comprising a line from Bourne to King's Lynn via Spalding. The GNR gave the Midland running powers from Stamford to Bourne via Essendine in return for the Midland dropping a proposed line from Saxby to Bourne.

Three new lines opened in 1867 were March to Spalding on 1 April, Honington to Lincoln on 15 April and Gainsborough to Doncaster on 15 July. These lines were partly tactical, with a view to blocking repeated GER and LYR proposals for a new north - south line through the area. Also opened in 1867, on 22 August, was the Edgware & Highgate Railway from Severn Sisters Road to Edgware, which had been acquired by the GNR in June 1866.

North of Doncaster, it opened the West Riding and Grimsby Railway in February 1866, a joint venture with the MS&LR, giving the GNR a new direct express line to Wakefield and the West Yorkshire Railway's onward lines to Leeds, Bradford and Halifax, which it had bought out the previous year.

Seven Sisters Road station, a few miles north of King's Cross, had been opened on 1 July 1861. It was renamed Finsbury Park when a new public park of that name opened nearby in August 1868.


The GNR was most profitable in 1873, running a more intensive service of express trains than either the LNWR or the MR. Hauled by Patrick Stirling's single-driving-wheel locomotives, its trains were some of the fastest in the world.

However, in 1875, the increase in revenue was out-paced by investment, which included items such as block signalling systems and interlocking, and improvements to stations and goods sidings.

A number of branch lines were opened in the 1870s, including Bourne to Sleaford in 1870, Wood Green to Enfield in 1871, Finchley to High Barnet in 1872, Highgate to Alexandra Palace and Wainfleet to Skegness in 1873, Ossett to Dewsbury in 1874, Bradford to Shipley and Sedgebrook to Barkston in 1875, Newark to Bottesford and the Pudsey Greenside branch in 1878, and finally the Queensbury to Ovenden line in 1879, which completed a new route from Bradford to Halifax.

The increasing London suburban traffic caused problems in the King's Cross area, as there were only 2 tracks through the various tunnels, and also goods trains entering King's Cross goods yard had to cross the down line on the level. Pending doubling of the tunnels, a connection was made between Finsbury Park and the North London Railway at Canonbury, and some suburban traffic then ran into Broad Street. The Broad Street trains were operated by the NLR as the LNWR, part owners of Broad Street, blocked GNR attempts to gain access.

Also in the 1870s, the GNR participating in various extensions to the CLC network in Lancashire, thereby risking overextending itself on marginally profitable lines well outside its natural territory.

Much more promising was the development of the Derbyshire and Staffordshire extension, which promised good returns by tapping the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields. The Erewash valley line was in use for coal trains by 1875, and complete opening from Nottingham to Egginton Junction via Gedling, Daybrook and Derby Friargate came in April 1878. But in order to overcome local opposition, the GNR had had to agree to LNWR running powers from Burton-on-Trent, which somewhat dimished the value of the investment. The LNWR had even better access from December 1879 with the opening of the GN&LNWR joint line from Melton Mowbray to Market Harborough, the northern section having already opened on 30 June.


The early 1880s began badly for the GNR for a number of reasons: Coal strikes and poor harvests reduced income from goods traffic. Floods forced the complete closure of the Spalding to Bourn line from 9 October 1880 until 1 February 1881, this was a Midland & Eastern line worked by the GNR, and the GNR found themselves paying the lease on a line they could derive no revenue from; And worst of all, Sutton Bridge Docks opened on 14 May 1881, into which the GNR had invested £55,000, but within a few days the docks began to subside due to being built on unstable ground. The engineers could find no remedy and the investment was written off.

Better news was the excellent returns from the coal traffic over the Derbyshire extension line. To consolidate this, in the 1880 session the GNR introduced a bill for a branch from Bulwell to Newstead, and this opened for coal traffic in July 1881 and for passengers on 2 October 1882. In 1881 the GNR bought out the Stafford & Uttoxeter Railway, reached from the Derbyshire extension by running powers over the North Staffordshire Railway.

Meanwhile in Lincolnshire, the new Spalding to Lincoln direct line opened from Spalding via Sleaford to Ruskington on 6 March 1882 and on the Lincoln on 1 August, on which date the Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway came into being comprising in addition to the new Spalding - Lincoln line, the former GNR March to Spalding and Lincoln to Doncaster lines and the former GER Huntingdon to March line plus the Ramsey branch from Somersham. To the GER this was the line to the Yorkshire coal fields they had long been seeking, to the GNR it provided a new alternative line for freight from Huntingdon to Doncaster to relieve pressure on the main line. In the first five months of the joint line, the GNR lost £50,000 due to diverted traffic, but according to Lord Colville, chairman of the GNR, it was better to have half the receipts of a joint line than to have to compete with a new entirely foreign through line.

The Leicester branch from the GN&LNWR joint line at Marefield Junction opened on 1 January 1883, and in West Yorkshire, Thornton to Denholme opened on 1 January 1884 and on to Keighley on 1 November.

In 1888, the Midland & Eastern Railway obtained powers to build a new connection to the Midland from Bourn to Saxby, citing the difficulty of operating through traffic from Bourn to Stamford via Essendine. The act also gave the Midland powers to absorb the Bourn and Lynn and the Peterborough, Wisbeach and Sutton Bridge. This posed a menace to GNR interests, and as a result the GNR made an agreement with the Midland to jointly acquire the western section of the Eastern & Midland.


Widening of the London end of the main line was completed in the 1890s.


GNR designed stock built under the LNER in 1924

During World War I, various economies were made beginning on 22 February 1915 with a general reduction of train services. Trains tended to become fewer, but longer. An agreement was also reached with the GCR and GER regarding the common use of wagons. Further economies were made in 1916 when the Nottingham to Daybrook and Peterborough to Leicester services were withdrawn, never to be reinstated.


Under the 1923 Grouping, the Great Northern became part of the London and North Eastern Railway.

St Albans branch

In 1865 a branch line opened from Hatfield to St Albans Abbey via St Albans (London Road). It closed to passengers in 1951[8] and to freight in 1969.[9] The track was subsequently removed and the route turned into a 6.5-mile long cycle path called the Alban Way. Public transport links between Hatfield and St Albans are now provided by local bus operators such as Arriva Shires & Essex and Uno.

Stations on the branch were:

Remnants of many of the closed stations still exist alongside the Alban Way.

Leicester branch

The Leicester branch was a Great Northern branch line from the Great Northern and London and North Western Joint Railway at Marefield Junction. This had the following stations:

Between Humberstone and Belgrave Road the railway crossed the Midland Main Line, but there was no interchange. Services from Leicester commenced in 1882 and ran to Peterborough and Newark until 1916 and Grantham until 1953. Summer specials to Skegness continued until 1962.

Joint lines

The Great Northern was involved in a number of joint railways.

Cheshire Lines Committee

The Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) was formed in 1862 by the Great Northern and Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire. The Midland Railway became a partner in 1865. The system was the second largest in the country, comprising 143 miles of route, running from Manchester and Stockport to Liverpool, Chester and Southport.

Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway

The Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway was a line running from March to Doncaster and also from March to Huntingdon. The line gave the Great Eastern Railway much needed access to the Yorkshire coal fields.

Great Northern and London and North Western Joint Railway

The Great Northern and London and North Western Joint Railway was a system in east Leicestershire designed to give the GNR access to Leicester and the London and North Western Railway access to Nottingham and to allow the exploitation of ironstone deposits in the Melton Mowbray area.

Halifax and Ovenden Junction Railway

A 1913 Railway Clearing House Junction Diagram showing (lower left) the Halifax & Ovenden Joint Railway (blue & orange) and the Halifax High Level Railway (red). Some purely GNR lines are also shown (orange) on three of the four maps.

GNR and LYR. Holmfield to Halifax. Acts 30 June 1864 (incorporation), 12 August 1867, 1 August 1870 (vesting in GNR and LYR).[10] Later administered by the Halifax and Ovenden Joint Committee, as which it was transferred to the British Transport Commission Under the British Transport Act of 1947.[11]

Halifax High Level Railway

GNR and LYR. Holmfield to St. Paul's (Halifax). Acts 7 August 1884 (incorporation), 25 September 1886 (GNR), 5 July 1887 (GNR), 26 July 1889 (GNR), 20 June 1892, 3 July 1894 (GNR - vesting in GNR and LYR).[12]

Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway

The Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway comprised a main line ran from Peterborough to Great Yarmouth via South Lynn (with running powers to King's Lynn) and Melton Constable. Branches ran from Sutton Bridge to the Midland Railway near Little Bytham, from Melton Constable to Cromer, and from Melton Constable to Norwich.

In addition, the Norfolk and Suffolk Joint Railway was a joint line owned by the M&GNR and the Great Eastern Railway. This ran between Cromer and North Walsham and between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Methley Joint

GNR, LYR and NER. Lofthouse & Outwood to Castleford.

South Yorkshire Joint Railway

GNR, GCR, LYR, MR and NER. Doncaster through the Coalfields serving collieries in the area to Worksop

West Riding and Grimsby Joint Railway

Doncaster to Wakefield.

Train services

The GNR operated services from London, Kings Cross to York together with many secondary lines and branches. The Great Northern was a partner (with the North Eastern Railway and the North British Railway) in the East Coast Joint Stock operation from 1860.

Accidents and incidents

  • On 21 January 1876, an express passenger train is in a rear-end collision with a freight train at Abbots Ripton, Huntingdonshire due to signals being frozen in a clear position during a blizzard. Thirteen people are killed and 59 are injured.
  • On 14 April 1876, an express train is in a rear-end collision with a mail train at Corby, Northamptonshire due to signals being frozen in a clear position during a blizzard.[13]
  • On 23 December 1876, an express train overruns signals and is in collision with a number of wagons at Arlesley Sidings, Bedfordshire. Six people are killed.[13]
  • On 7 March 1896, a passenger train was derailed at Little Bytham, Northamptonshire due to the premature removal of a speed restriction after track renewal. Two people were killed.[14]
  • On 19 September 1906, a sleeping car train was derailed at Grantham, Lincolnshire due to excessive speed through the station after passing signals at danger. Fourteen people were killed and seventeen were injured.

See also


  1. ^ Great Northern Railway (1364309). PastScape. English Heritage. Retrieved 2013-03-20.
  2. ^ "The National Archives - Great Northern Railway Company: Records". 1845. Retrieved 26 December 2010. 
  3. ^ The History of the Great Northern Railway. George Unwin. Chapters 1-6
  4. ^ Diaries of George Turnbull (Chief Engineer, East Indian Railway Company) held at the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University, England
  5. ^ George Turnbull, C.E. 437-page memoirs published privately 1893, scanned copy held in the British Library, London on compact disk since 2007
  6. ^ "THE COURIER.".  
  7. ^ The History of the Great Northern Railway. George Unwin. Chap 1-6
  8. ^ "Subterranea Britannica: SB-Sites: St. Albans London Road". 23 March 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-28. 
  9. ^ "The Alban Way" (PDF). St Albans Cycle Campaign. 21 July 2005. p. 1. Retrieved 2007-02-28. 
  10. ^ Joy, David (1984). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain Volume VIII South and West Yorkshire. David St John Thomas. p. 258.  
  11. ^ "Railway Companies Transferred to the British Transport Commission Under the British Transport Act of 1947". Retrieved 4 January 2009. 
  12. ^ Joy, David (1984). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain Volume VIII South and West Yorkshire. David St John Thomas. p. 260.  
  13. ^ a b Hall, Stanley (1990). The Railway Detectives. London: Ian Allan. p. 48.  
  14. ^ Trevena, Arthur (1981). Trains in Trouble: Vol. 2. Redruth: Atlantic Books. p. 8.  

Further reading

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