Part 1: Stephens Fights
By the middle of the Edwardian era Stephens had begun to acquire a substantial collection of railways and managed them from Salford Terrace. This minimised costs whilst leaving local staff to deal with day to day issues. However at national level the voice of small railways’ was not apparent in such a efficient and collective way. He therefore began to attempt to assemble a collective voice with other small independents. The timing was propitious. The larger railways had their Railway Companies’ Association which had been in existence since the 1840s and had recently reorganised to be in a better position to present their case to the incoming Liberal government of 1906. They were proposing action that would adversely impact railways with proposals for significant legislation involving the railways, in particularly in recognition of trade unions by the railway companies in the aftermath of the landmark ‘Taff Vale’ case.
Stephens recognition of need for mutual support amongst the many small independent railways was one of the key tenets of his management philosophy throughout his life and he acted. The first indication we have found is a letter to the Festiniog Railway Secretary on 27th May 1907. Stephens explained that at a meeting on 26th April representatives of seven railways (unfortunately not specified but at least four would have been controlled by Stephens) had decided to form an association of such railways with the following objectives
(1) Mutual support generally.
(2) Combined representation to the Government, Board of Trade, and Light Railway Commission,
(3) Combined representation to the Main Line Companies.
(4) Combined action in Test cases,
(5) Information re Technical subjects.
(6) Scheme of combined General Insurance.
(7) Labour questions.
(8) Financial questions.
(9) Standardising general stores with the object of combined purchases if desirable.
(10) Rating and Taxation questions, combined action.
(11) Issue of a quarterly pamphlet giving information as to the proceedings of the Association, and notes on matters of interest to the smaller railways.
(12) Occasional Meetings for the purposes of discussion. Arrangements for the use of small club room in London.
Stephens further proposed that the Association be controlled by a Council consisting of a President, a Vice-president, and four Members who shall be nominated and elected year by year by means of postal Ballot. James Ward Burchell of the firm of Messrs. Burchell, a firm of solicitors in Westminster who had experience of light railway law was to act as Secretary for the first year with Stephens as hon. Organiser.
This Association, if indeed it ever emerged from its embryo at this date seems to have no impact on events and no trace of its activities have yet been found. However Stephens himself henceforth counted 1907 as its founding year. Perhaps the railways he was approaching like the Festiniog itself were fiercely proud of there independence and the thought of working with others even to save costs was seemingly distasteful to them . Light and small railways in the UK never came to terms with collective action or larger service companies such as were found abroad and were the poorer ( literally) for it .
The next foirm knoweledge we have of an association is, by Stephens own account, an initial meeting with several, unspecified, railway companies at some time by mid-1915 (one wonders whether in fact this was the 1907 meeting ) He then stes that this meeting had set up an ‘Association of Minor Railways’ with himself as honorary Secretary. At mid-1915 he approached the Exeter Railway, which was a short, GWR worked, line from Exeter to Ashton. It had the virtue of having a grievance against the GWR and a Chairman, Vincent W Yorke, who was a well-connected City man and Director of the Westminster Bank. It is through this company’s records that papers from this time have survived.
A document formally setting up the organisation was circulated in proof in June 1915 and restated the programme in the 1907 Festiniog letter with the key extra proviso to item 2 above
“…also protection of interests in the event of a scheme for the nationalization of Railways being brought forward: also questions arising during controlled period and on the cessation of the same.’’
This is of course Stephens trying to latch onto the concerns of the time in the same way as he did when he first proposed the Association Stephens was most anxious to get Yorke involved and wrote ‘I may tell you that the question of a subscription is immaterial’. This was an echo of the Festiniog letter. Influence was more important to Stephens than cash.
Stephens then used the final outcome of the Biddenden court case as a pretext to write around to many railways using the document as a recruiting flyer.
He also wrote to his close acquaintance, Sir Herbert Walker, at the time the acting Chairman of the Government’s Railway Executive Committee that ran all the railways of Britain in wartime, to alert him to the formation of the Association. On 31st August 1915 he wrote
‘’ My Dear Walker,
I also send you for your private information some particulars of the Association of Minor Railways which has been formed.
It is rather a job for me to work at it as I should like to as I am mobilised.
However it passes the time o’ nights.
Yours Very Truly
H F Stephens’’
In a letter to the Exeter Railway in October Stephens claimed that several companies had joined the Association but, possibly due to his military commitments, any trace of the Association now disappears for some months.
In May 1918 we can pick up the threads again when Stephens proposes a new recruitment letter and circular to be sent out to 83 British and Irish (Southern Ireland was of course not separated till 1922) independent Railways signed by the Chairman of 12 Companies (1). By June 1918 the Association had 15 members with F Ullmer of the Shropshire Railways (which were controlled by the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire which Stephens effectively owned) as its Secretary. Stephens and his associates were in the driving seat of the Association and were to remain so, although with important contributions from C E Drewett of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and W T D Grundy, the General Manager of the Derwent Valley Railway. Initially Yorke, and probably others, must have also been active till the events of 1920 (see below). By now the Association was renamed ‘The Association of Railways’
The underlying reason for the revitalisation of the Association was that although the War was still raging (indeed the last massive German offensive was only just being halted) eyes were turning to reorganising the railways after the War. The June circular stated
“It is felt that if the railways are ‘controlled’ the Board of Trade [soon to be Ministry of Transport –Ed] should be approached as to their position after the crisis, if they are not ‘controlled’ the government should be approached for assistance if necessary. It seems essential that assistance should be secured from the government in order that the companies might have reasonable protection after a termination of the present crisis.
‘’ The Railway Companies Association is engaged in looking after the interests of the larger companies which interests are not in all respects identical with those of the ‘lesser undertakings’, it is in direct touch with the government.
‘’It is most desirable that companies should band themselves together for defensive purposes, in the event of a proposal for Nationalisation, or even a form of Control, being brought forward by the government hereafter.”
Stephens’s precious independence was threatened.
With the Association now properly established it began to make some impact on Government. In summer 1918 a Parliamentary Select Committee had been formed to study transport. As early as August 1918 H Bonham Carter, at the Ministry of Reconstruction, had written to the Committee Chairman ‘few [light railways] are commercially successful concerns, although several are well worked, notably those by Colonel H F Stephens of Robertsbridge’. In November the Committee recommended that all the railways be brought into a unified control; although Light and other smaller Railways were not specifically mentioned. By Early 1919 the Government set out to implement change and introduced a Bill to set up a Ministry of Ways and Communications (soon changed to the simpler Transport) with the full power and structure to run the railways centrally itself. The authoritarian Sir Eric Geddes was appointed to run it. The Times later compared him to a ‘’pike in a carp pond stirring up all the little fishes [and] gobbling up a good deal [of them]’’ Light railways were to come specifically under his remit.
The Association got to work both behind the scenes and in Parliament .In the Commons debate on the Bill in March, Geddes was quite rude about the more primitive sort of light railway, proposing road transport to meet such needs. So on April 4 in the Bill Committee there were moves by several MPs (Messrs Green, Marshall Stephens and Joynson Hicks) to remove light railways from the new Ministry’s remit. A promise was made to review the situation and status of light railways. In those days such a commitment had meaning.
The battle was joined. Stephens had written to Yorke the previous day
“I have been asked to write to you and ascertain if you will agree to be co-opted on the Parliamentary Committee of this Association.
‘’Two members have responded owing to the fact that they do not reside in London it is desirable to have a member who is available for meetings in London without inconvenience.
‘’ I am glad to say that our efforts greatly assisted the fight to get Clause 4 of the Transport Bill (3) withdrawn by the government and Sir Eric Geddes has agreed to receive a deputation from the Association at an early date.”
Yorke accepted and in his thank you letter Stephens commented
‘’Geddes is quite unsympathetic with the minor lines and this means his people are putting all the things they can to oppose the claims of the smaller companies and to get hold of them at break-up prices.
‘’Your friends at Paddington are not the best of settlers in a purchase deal I fear.”
Behind the scenes Stephens was also at work. Can it be co-incidence that at this time the Eccentric Club, of which Stephens and his close associate Jeremiah MacVeigh were prominent Members, entertained the entire Railway Executive Committee at its premises in Ryder Street and the future of railways was reported as being discussed?
With the powers of the Ministry of Transport settled it got down to work. During the War the Board of Trade had established a Railways Advisory Panel in addition to the Railway Executive Committee. Although apparently superfluous, this Panel must have influenced the powers that be, for when the new Ministry was created it was required to establish advisory committees for all sectors of transport including one for Light Railways.
Stephens now wrote to Yorke on 20th September 1919
“Sir Eric Geddes has asked the committee [of the Association] to nominate some persons with practical knowledge of location and administration of secondary railways and it is suggested that Mr C E Drewitt [sic] of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and myself should be nominated to render any assistance that Sir Eric may require.
‘’Do you agree to this please?
‘’It is as well that the Association should be in close touch with the Ministry of Transport without doubt as otherwise we stand but little chance of getting any inside information. The Railway Companies Association will give us none of course.”
Yorke must have by this time become Chairman of the Association for Stephens to address him thus.
Geddes stated in Parliament in May 1920 that the Light Railways Committee had been appointed in March (arrangements had been finalised in January) but had not met. In the meantime its members had been asked to inquire into the operation of Light Railways (see below). In practice all the transport Advisory Committees seem to have been little used and I have been unable to locate any records of a formal meeting of the Light Railways Advisory Committee. It was of itself however already virtually irrelevant because of other moves behind the scenes.
Geddes, who was noted for his authoritarian, pushy nature was probably becoming irritated by the gnat bites of special interest pleading for light railways .He cut the Gordian knot by deciding, probably in November 1919, to exclude Light railways from the re-organisation that we now know as The Grouping. His Director General of Traffic (a typical Geddes title this!), Sir Philip Nash, after wide consultation within the senior officers of the Department, wrote to Stephens:
“There remains the question as to the organisation which will be necessary for the purposes of co-ordination of Light Railway systems, when or if a system of grouping the main railway companies is adopted as the solution of the railway problem at the end of two years. It is thought that in the event of the main line railways being grouped it will be found more convenient to exclude light railway undertakings from such groups, particularly in regard to ownership, although possibly for operation the group railway may conveniently undertake the same in certain instances. Under such conditions of exclusions it will be necessary for light railway interests as a whole to be co-ordinated, and the Light Railway Advisory Committee, which is now suggested, could then be enlarged to include all such Light Railway undertakings as are not covered by the main line groups.
‘’If the suggestions now made in regard to the formation of a Light Railway Advisory Committee to represent such Light Railway undertakings as are not now represented in the Railway Clearing House, appear to you as a suitable proposition, I would suggest that you should get to work and formulate definite proposals to that end to be placed before the Minister.”
The decision to exclude Light Railways was formalised when a clumsily titled and poorly written, but concise, four page Government White Paper came out in June 1920. Entitled ‘Outline of proposals as to the future organisation of transport undertakings in Great Britain and their relation to the state’ it set out the proposals for future groupings of the main line railways. It stated
“In each case the new group would absorb any independent broad [i.e. Standard -ed] gauge lines within its area, but railways which may be classified as ‘light’, whether existing or future, will be wholly excluded from this grouping arrangement…”
“… It is proposed to exclude Light Railways from the grouping arrangements. Light Railways must rely largely for their prosperity and development upon the goodwill and assistance of the main line companies… It is essential [however] that they should have no grounds for fearing competition from [Light Railway Companies]. It should therefore be provided that if the Light Railway is changing character and is in fact becoming an ordinary railway or is competing for main line traffic, the group company may absorb the Light Railway on fair terms…”
“The construction and management of Light Railways … should be in the hands of separate undertakings… The policy of grouping Light Railway systems so far as possible as a means of securing economy in management, maintenance, repairs etc is considered wise and experience has already shown that this can be done successfully.”
This must have been music to Stephens’ ears and the last sentence icing on the cake – direct praise for Stephens’ methods that he might have written himself.
Geddes was clearly closely engaged in writing this most personal White Paper and the direct reference strongly suggests that Stephens had been bending exalted ears. Stephens had certainly made friends in the Department itself. General Sir Philip Nash, the Director General of Traffic, was close enough to Stephens to send him a note of thanks for the pot of cream he had sent him! The Director of Finance and Statistics, Sir George Beharrell - a long term associate of Geddes - became a friend of Stephens and was his first choice luncheon companion . Working directly with Beharrell was one John Pike, later to be a director and chairman of several Stephens' lines
Unfortunately, soon after this victory, Stephens suffered a setback for his Association and his desire for a world filled with independent small railways. The crushing financial power of the big companies was beginning to be felt. Those small railways who were already worked by the bigger companies or who were financially weak saw a way out of their management and financial problems. These companies did not share Stephens’ enthusiasm for independence and foresaw that their future was to be absorbed by the Groups. By July 1920 several of these railways had formed what was effectively a breakaway ‘Association of Smaller Railways’. This was led by the likes of Sir Sam Fay of the Freshwater, Yarmouth & Newport (and at that time still GM of the Great Central and just out of a very senior War Office job) and Sidney Herbert of the Stratford on Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a noted financier who profited by turning round share prices of minor railways.
The new association focussed aggressively on financial matters in the run up to Grouping and met Geddes on several occasions. Stephens, with huge magnanimity, not to say generosity, suggested to the Exeter Railway that its best interest now lay with the new Association. It must have come very hard for Stephens after fighting the independent corner so successfully. Yorke and the Exeter Railway faded out of Stephens’ purview although they had before them a stiff and influential fight with the GWR before being absorbed.
Geddes had been clear about the need to exclude Light Railways that he considered as irrelevant to his wider purpose but there was still infighting in the industry and his officials had difficulty sorting out the sheep from the goats amongst minor railways. What was the definition of an independent light railway? As late as January 1921 the Ministry’s Traffic Department was trying to draw up categories and in frustration was suggesting that most should be included in the groups, or, in extremis, be operated as Light Railways Group. This confusion persisted in the first draft of subsequent legislation. Behind the scenes however each railway seemed to be finding its own salvation. For instance the prosperous Burry Port & Gwendreath Valley Railway, that Stephens had so successfully reconstructed, was told by the Ministry of Transport that it could remain independent but the GWR’s terms were too tempting.
Strangely a member of the founding group of the ‘Smaller Railways’, the Festiniog, ultimately remained ungrouped, whereas Stephens’ close ally, the Lynton and Barnstable, became part of the Southern after some behind the scenes deals with the London South Western Railway management. But that, as they say, is another tale. The new grouped companies subsequently absorbed most of this breakaway Association’s members so it had a short life and was last recorded in 1922.
Looking to the Future
Stephens’ Association had already achieved, in public, its primary objective and despite the Ministry’s internal qualms there was very little attempt by other interested parties to change the Governments mind and attempt to include Light Railways in the Groups. But there was still work to do. Stephens presented what was for him a long paper to Nash in the run up to the legislation, which was considered in depth. He now concentrated on more detailed financial questions like compensation for the period of Government control. It seems he and the rival Association together may well have been influential in securing what was a relatively good deal for the independents. He was also concerned about charging powers (and gave evidence in person to a government panel) in case it lessened light railways income, local authorities’ powers to lend to small railways and the powers of large companies to take over independents. Jeremiah MacVeagh, who was an MP, spoke for the light railway case during both the Second Reading and Report Stage of the Railways Act 1921 that implemented the White Paper proposals
Elsewhere Stephens and his Association continued to have influence on the new Ministry’s thinking. As will be recalled the members of the Light Railway Advisory Committee were asked to serve on a new committee that came to be called the Light Railways (Investigation) Committee to review light railways and their legislation. And they were an illustrious company Very senior Ministry people dominated the Committee. Sir Alexander Gibb, Director General of Civil Engineering and also head of one of the largest consulting engineers in the world; his deputy Mr Bradford Leslie previously an Indian railways engineer ;Sir John Aspinall the Ministry’s Consulting Engineer and one of the few locomotive engineers to rise to be GM and Director of a major railway (the Lancashire and Yorkshire) who had a long-standing interest in light railways; V M Barrington Ward the Director of Railway Operations Branch and later knighted after being a senior officer with the LNER and on the Board of the British Transport Commission (British Railways); Col. J W Pringle Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways and Col. J A S Gray an assistant director. Stephens had with him Messrs Drewett, Grundy and A H Loring (Chairman, East Kent Railways). The final member was a Mr E W Oakley, of the Saundersfoot Railway & Harbour Co
The Committee reviewed all the Light Railway companies in Great Britain and Ireland, and technical and financing aspects thereof, meeting regularly from April to July1920. It is clear from correspondence that Stephens was central to the operations of the Committee. He advised in several areas and wanted Light Railways to be defined (always a hazardous exercise) as Railways of Local Interest (heavily influenced here by the French term ‘Chemins de Fer Intérèt Local’), a term that would have stood the test of time. One of the findings of the Committee was that many Light Railways were often efficiently run but weighted down by heavy construction costs.
Unfortunately matters conspired against the effectiveness of the Committee. The Ministry was under heavy fire for being overbearing and officious and Geddes was to leave the political scene after the passing of the Railways Act. As we have seen, the Groups swept in many independents .The Irish independents went their own way to be grouped in the Great Southern Railways in 1925. Road transport was moving into the ascendant and 1922 was a catastrophic year for branch and light railways as traffic decamped to the roads. As Geddes had foreseen, the days of light railway expansion, and even need, were done.
In the whole Grouping saga Stephens had fought hard and won a major battle but he had lost the war. The Groups were not going to let any new independent railways become established if they could help it. Most of Stephens’ railways were either to fall under the influence of the Main Line companies or fail in the next twenty years. Even Stephens’ great projects of the 1920s, the ND&CJLR, the Gower Peninsular Light, the Worcester and Broome, the Newport and Four Ashes and the Southern Heights, were all designed to be worked by those companies. At the very end of his life Stephens was forced by circumstances to try to negotiate with the GWR and LMS to jointly or separately work the Festiniog and Welsh Highland railways. A complete reversal of the position taken 10 years before. Independence certainly had a price.
The Aftermath and Decline
Stephens Association still had life in it. Entries in the Railways Year Book commenced in 1921 when its influence was at its peak. According to the Year Book entries it ‘’… was formed in 1912 in the interests of the smaller railway companies not party to the Railway Companies Association, with the object of co-ordinating action and realising mutual support in the event of the nationalisation of railways. Also in regard to combined representation to the main line companies, schemes of combined insurance, standardisation of stores etc. In 1914 it was decided to extend the functions of the Association to include questions that had arisen during the period of Government control and with the cessation thereof, so far as the controlled undertakings represented in the membership of the association were concerned.’’
Stephens seems to have been elaborating for effect; if the Association existed in 1912 it was only in his own head.
In 1921 its Officers were listed as Chairman: A.H.Loring: Council: C.E.Drewett, W.T.D.Grundy, Lt Col H.F.Stephens, Hon Secretary R.Ullmer Address: 12 St Helens Place, Bishopsgate, London. The secretary later moved to 16, Devonshire Square E.C.2 situated in an unfashionable part of the city off ‘Petticoat Lane’. This personnel was largely unchanged till 1927 and even though the Lynton & Barnstable had lost its independence Drewett continued to serve in a personal capacity. Then H Montague Bates and Jeremiah MacVeagh, Stephens close associates, took over, as the council members and A Chick became secretary. By this time it was very much Stephens personal committee although 20 railways were claimed as members. In 1929 the ever interested Grundy came back, Stephens had finally taken the Chair and renamed the group with his now favoured title ‘The Association of Railways of Local Interest’. Over the next few years death took its harvest, and membership and the Secretariat then circulated amongst Stephens’ friends, heirs and employees.
Meaningful work was still being undertaken. We can see from surviving records that Stephens still had good relations with the Ministry with his projects and concerns. The last papers I have so far been able to trace that show active lobbying are from 1928 in connection with the Railways (Road Transport) Bill. There was probably a lot more activity but the papers now seem lost.
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