Great Eastern Railway

Great Eastern Railway
Great Eastern Railway Shield.jpg
Dates of operation1862–1922
PredecessorEastern Counties Railway
Eastern Union Railway
and others
SuccessorLondon and North Eastern Railway

The Great Eastern Railway (GER) was a pre-grouping British railway company, whose main line linked London Liverpool Street to Norwich and which had other lines through East Anglia. The company was grouped into the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.

Formed in 1862 after the amalgamation of the Eastern Counties Railway and several other smaller railway companies the GER served Cambridge, Chelmsford, Colchester, Great Yarmouth, Ipswich, King's Lynn, Lowestoft, Norwich, Southend-on-Sea (opened by the GER in 1889), and East Anglian seaside resorts such as Hunstanton (whose prosperity was largely a result of the GER's line being built) and Cromer.[1] It also served a suburban area, including Enfield, Chingford, Loughton and Ilford. This suburban network was, in the early 20th century, the busiest steam-hauled commuter system in the world.

The majority of the Great Eastern's locomotives and rolling stock were built at Stratford Works, part of which was on the site of today's Stratford International station and the rest was adjacent to Stratford Regional station. The GER owned 1,200 miles (1,931 km) of line and had a near-monopoly in East Anglia until the opening of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway in 1893 although there were a number of minor lines, such as the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway that stayed resolutely independent until after the grouping in 1923.



Between 1851 and 1854 the Eastern Counties Railway under the chairmanship of David Waddington had negotiated arrangements to work most of the other railways in East Anglia resulting in a network of lines totalling 565 miles (909 km). Whilst Parliament favoured competition it was also aware that the ECR was constantly at war with its neighbours and whilst these working arrangements were approved there was a condition that a bill for full amalgamation was presented by 1861.

Waddington departed under a cloud in 1856 and was replaced by Horatio Love. By 1860 many shareholders were unhappy listing several grievances they saw as getting in the way of their dividend payments. These included continual conflict over working of other lines, suspicion and distrust of the joint committee, inadequate services to and from London, on-going litigation and law costs and a lack of progress on amalgamation.

By February 1862 the bill had its second reading and was then followed by a lengthy committee process where various parties petitioned against the bill. On 7 August 1862 the bill passed and the Great Eastern Railway was formed by the amalgamation of the Eastern Counties Railway and a number of smaller railways.[2]

Early years (1862-1869)

Unsurprisingly the first GER board had a strong Eastern Counties flavour with Horatio Love in the chair and James Goodson the deputy chair. The board consisted of six former ECR directors with two Eastern Union Railway, two Norfolk Railway and one each from the Northern and Eastern Railway (still an independent body at this point) and East Anglian Railway.[3]

Operational costs were high on the new railway and new sources of revenue needed quickly. Work at improving suburban services was put in hand and trains from London to Norwich speeded up to give businessmen and merchants more time to conduct their business. A new suburban line to Enfield Town via Seven Sisters was proposed as well as a new London terminus to replace an inadequate Bishopsgate. By August 1863 receipts were increasing and many of the pre-amalgamation disputes were being settled.[4]

The GER and Great Northern Railway each submitted bills for a line from March to Spalding and although the GNR was successful the GER was awarded running rights over the new line which would later become part of the Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway. Steamboat services were also seen as a new source of revenue with services running from Harwich to Rotterdam, Flushing and Antwerp.

A change of leadership also occurred with Horatio Love being replaced by James Goodson as Chairman with Captain Henry Jervis-White-Jervis as his deputy. Love was considered too cautious and some on the board still resented his role prior to amalgamation at the ECR. Various directors were allocated specific responsibilities (generally running these through committees) leaving Goodson free to develop new schemes and represent the GER on lines where they had a financial interest.[5]

Following an accident at North Wootton in early August 1863, where the deaths of five passengers was partially attributed to the poor state of the rolling stock, a large rolling stock order was placed.

By December 1863 the financial picture was looking better and in early 1864 the GER started looking a new railway to move coal from South Yorkshire to London via Spalding and the GN link from Spalding to March. The Great Eastern was clearly in an expansionist phase with further locomotives (forming the basis of standardisation over its disparate inherited fleet), carriages and wagons under construction. More ships were being ordered for Antwerp and Rotterdam traffic and proposals for 28 miles of new metropolitan lines and a new city terminus.

In March 1864, a joint committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords approved the East London Line which would link the North London, Great Eastern and London and Blackwall railways. The parliamentary bill for the new freight line failed although other bills including the construction of a new London terminus were approved. Later that year the GER was in talks about expansion northwards with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) which lead to the deposition of a bill in early 1865.[6]

The board meeting of February 1865 saw passenger receipts outstripping goods receipts. Fish traffic from Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth was growing and money was being spent on stations, replacing wooden bridges and upgrading the track. However, a number of shareholders voiced concern. The following month the House of Commons rejected the joint GER/L&YR bill forcing the GER to restart negotiations with the Great Northern Railway. The chairman of the parliamentary committee suggested to the board that the next bill should include a direct Spalding to Lincoln link.[7]

Board unity was about to be shattered when a short paragraph in The Times reported serious differences of opinions existed between the directors.[8] In August 1865 deputy chairman Jervis-White-Jervis issued an appeal raising concerns about the management of the railway. This prompted an internal investigation and in a board meeting at the end of the month, an absent Jervis-White-Jervis was replaced by William Shaw as deputy chairman.[9] The internal investigation concluded that many of Jervis-White-Jervis's concerns were relevant including borrowing more money than authorised and the poor deal the GER got on leasing the London and Blackwell Railway. In a meeting in January the following year many of the directors were duly replaced (by members of the investigating committee) and at the following board meeting in February, Charles Turner was elected as the new chairman.[10]

The new board, facing a financial crisis, had identified a number of issues including the provision of a new terminus station at Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate (the existing terminus) was to be converted to a goods terminal and a new coal depot to be built in Whitechapel. The financial environment was still proving difficult with losses on the London and Blackwell line and a cattle plague seriously affecting that traffic. By March the board was meeting most days in an effort to keep the railway running.[11]

The financial crisis of 1866 saw loan interest rates rise to 10% on 12 May. On 8 June the board approached Parliament for the right to borrow more money and raise additional money through new shares to fund the expansion programme outlined above. This was confirmed on 4 July. By this time there was little money available for dividends and the company looked very carefully at their expansion programme and unprofitable branch lines. By December 1866 little interest was being shown in the new shares, so the board went unsuccessfully to the Bank of England and Union Bank for further loans. The GER did, however, manage to agree running rights via the Great Northern Railway as far as Wakefield and with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway to interchange traffic at Lincoln and Retford.[12]

The crisis continued into 1867 and by March it was apparent that the preference share payments due in April could not be paid. The board also received a letter from the drivers seeking improved working conditions. Additionally The Times suggested the GER may be about to appoint a receiver. Early April saw daily negotiations with the Union Bank although agreement was reached with the drivers by the middle of that month.

May saw the company trying to raise further funds via a parliamentary bill. However, by June 25, the House of Lords had rejected the bill and the board took steps to protect the company's property from its creditors. Matters were hardly helped when deputy chairman Samuel Laing resigned to become the chairman of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway on July 1. On July 2 a suit was bought before vice-chancellor Sir Richard Malins and the GER was placed into chancery.[13]

Regrouping after this, the board pursued Edward Watkin, an MP with many other railway interests, as chairman. He did advise that the board that it needed to reconstitute itself in order to rebuild confidence in order to acquire new capital. Some existing members of the board were not pleased with this and it was not until 3 January 1868 that a reduced board of eleven members met with six new members including Watkin and Viscount Cranbourne MP who was elected as the new chairman.[14]

The new directors were all allocated specific roles and a number of changes were made to reduce costs and improve profitability. Cranbourne also approached the London & North Western Railway to report on the state of the permanent way and rolling stock. By August 1868 the tide was turning with increased receipts and some debts being paid off. The GER had done a deal with the Midland Railway to route their coal traffic via their lines and a new coal depot at Whitechapel opened in December further improving profitability.[15]

By August 1869 the financial position had improved enough to restore a divided and this was whilst the Walthamstow line (now the Chingford branch line) was under construction. In the same month, Deputy Chairman Charles Turner resigned due to suspected fraud which was to lead to his bankruptcy later in the year. Although proceedings were initiated no prosecution resulted.[16]

1870-1879 A new London terminus

The original London terminus was opened at Shoreditch in east London by the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) on 1 July 1840 when the railway was extended westwards from an earlier temporary terminus in Devonshire Street, near Mile End.[17] The station was renamed Bishopsgate on 27 July 1847.

The Great Eastern attempted to obtain a West End terminus, alongside the one in east London, via the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction Railway, formed by an Act of Parliament of 28 July 1862.[18] Plans to extend the western end of this line via a proposed 'London Main Trunk Railway', underneath Hampstead Road, the Metropolitan Railway (modern Circle line) and Tottenham Court Road, to Charing Cross, were rejected by Parliament in 1864.[19]

A new London terminus at Liverpool Street was opened to traffic on 2 February 1874, and was completely operational from 1 November 1875. From this date the original terminus at Bishopsgate closed to passengers, although it reopened as a goods station in 1881.[Note 1]


In 1902 the Northern and Eastern Railway was finally absorbed by the GER, although it had been worked by the Eastern Counties Railway under a 999-year lease taken on 1 January 1844 whereby the Eastern Counties Railway would work the Northern and Eastern Railway in return for an annual rent and division of the profits.

Despite several half-hearted attempts by the GER during the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was the Midland Railway (MR) that finally bought the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) in 1912 with the MR offering a better deal for the LT&SR shareholders than the GER ever had. The agreement was ratified by the LT&SR shareholders on 26 June 1911. During the following parliamentary session, the official parliamentary bill allowing the takeover by the MR was passed on 7 August 1912 although it was legally backdated to 1 January 1912. At the time of the sale the LT&SR was one of the most prosperous railways in the UK but too small to fund the changes it needed to make.[20]

In 1914 The GER became the first UK railway company to employ a General Manager from overseas, Henry Worth Thornton. He had previously worked as the General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad in the USA.[21]

During the First World War 1914-1918

The Railway Executive Committee was set up in 1912 after an incident between France and Germany in the Moroccan Port of Agadir and would take directions from the military and liaise with the railway companies. As it adjoined the North Sea the GER undertook a significant role in the war.

Had there been an invasion then the railways had evacuation plans for the civilian populations. The GER did require some upgrading to deal with the increased levels of traffic – lines were doubled, additional passing loops provided, platforms extended and watering facilities improved (for both the iron and more conventional horses). A number of link lines were provided including the link between the Tottenham and Hampstead at Gospel Oak to the Midland Railway and between the T&H and Great Northern Railway at Crouch Hill, Both links remain part of the national network in 2019.

When the war started several jobs fell to the railway – reserve troops and naval personnel had to be returned to their units and this saw an upsurge in usage of normal services. Various units were moved to the coast for defensive purposes and at the same time the government had started buying horses throughout the area leading to additional trains. There were also then the units that were being moved to the front line. The Royal Navy was using coal as its primary source of propulsion and additional coal trains would have been operated through the area as well.[22]

In August 1914 the Germans disguised a passenger steamer (the Königin Luise) in GER colours and deployed it as a minelayer. This ruse was spotted on 5 August 1914 and the ship sunk by the British light cruiser HMS Amphion and destroyers HMS Landrail and HMS Lance.[23]

The GER employed significant numbers of women during this period as many men had joined the army.

By 1916 unnecessary travel was being discouraged to conserve coal supplies.

The company set up a section dedicated to the movement of military traffic and between 1914 and 1918 nearly 10.5 million men were moved on GER services as well as significant numbers of horses and supplies. Specific military traffic was generated at Brimsdown, Ponders End and Stowmarket. Because of attacks on east coast shipping, traffic previously moved by sea was also carried on the GER (and more specifically the Great Eastern and Great Northern Joint Railway).

The GER also suffered from a number of Zeppelin attacks with, amongst others, the dormitory at Stratford engine shed and the royal shelter at King's Lynn both being hit.[24]

After World War 1 (1918-1923)

Memorial at Liverpool Street station to GER staff who died during the First World War, unveiled in 1922 by Sir Henry Wilson, who was assassinated by Irish Republican Army gunmen on his way home from the unveiling ceremony.

In 1922, a large marble memorial was installed at Liverpool Street station commemorating GER staff who had answered the call of duty to fight but died in action in the First World War. The memorial was unveiled by Sir Henry Wilson, who was assassinated by two Irish Republican Army gunmen on his way home from the unveiling ceremony. A smaller memorial to Wilson was later placed adjacent to the GER memorial, alongside one to Charles Fryatt, a British mariner who was executed by the Germans for attempting to ram a U-boat in 1915.

The Great Eastern name has survived, being used both for the Great Eastern Main Line route between London and Norwich, and also for the First Great Eastern train operating company which served much of the old GER route between 1997 and 2004.