2015 seems to be popular for centenaries. We have Agincourt and waterloo to start with, but 1815 was also of some importance to Wolverton, for it was the year that James Edward McConnell was born.
He also contrived to enter this world at the very beginning of the year – January 1st.
He was born in Fermoy, County Cork in Ireland, where his father had a successful ironworks, so the young McConnell was born into this new industry. However he was not to grow up at his father’s right hand, so to speak, because he was left fatherless in 1819 at the age of four. He was then packed off to an uncle in Ayrshire.
He began his career with a Glasgow company, Girdwood and Co and in time progressed to become a foreman, and later superintendent at a Liverpool company, Vernon and Co. It was probably here that he came to the attention of Edward Bury, who proposed him as engineer for the Bristol and Birmingham Railway in 1842. Only five years later, in 1847, he succeeded his old mentor Edward Bury as locomotive Superintendent at Wolverton.
His career at Wolverton has become legendary. He was able to design stronger and faster locomotives than the rather primitive beasts of the 1830s and 1840s and one of his designs, the famous “Bloomer” captured national attention. For those who don’t know the story, the name Bloomer came from Amelia Bloomer, a lady who adopted, and made fashionable, shorter skirts, more suitable for an active woman than the heavy crinolines. McConnell’s “bloomers” likewise had the top half of the wheel covered by a “skirt.”
The real value of the engines lay not in their appearance but in their efficiency, and therefore their speed and strength,
McConnell wa superintendant at Wolverton for 15 years and oversaw a remarkable engine building program. In 1862 he had differences with Sir Richard Moon, the bustling new chairman of the LNWR and resigned. Locomotive building and design did not really survive McConnell. Wolverton largely returned to its original function as a maintenance depot for the next decade until the LNWR workshops were rationalised in the early 1870s. Wolverton henceforth became a carriage works, while locomotive building was concentrated at Crewe.
By coincidence, this year is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Moon, who was born in Liverpool on February 23rd.
McConnell lived at Wolverton Park House during his Wolverton years. After 1862 he moved to a large house in Great Missenden and continued his career as a consultant engineer for various domestic and foreign railways.
The Times reporter detailed many of the speeches at this event and it sounds as if they rambled on endlessly. Had we been present we may have found it boring, but 170 years later, we can find a lot of information in them about Victorian life and attitudes. Here are the main speakers:
James Edward McConnell. He was the Superintendent of Wolverton Works, succeeding Edward Bury in 1846. He was responsible for designing the faster and more powerful locomotives that once embellished Wolverton’s reputation before locomotive building was consolidated at Crewe.
George Carr Glyn was a leading figure in railway building, being first chairman of the L&BR and subsequently of the L&NWR. He was a banker and by the time he made this speech was an MP. He was later ennobled and took the title of Baron Wolverton.
Rev. Mr. Fremantle is, I think, William Robert Fremantle, second son of Sir Thomas Fremantle. The reporter introduces him as “of the new church built here by the company” but I think this may be a reporter error. The incumbent was, and had been from the beginning, George Weight, acknowledged in a later speech. This Fremantle may have been a curate, but I can’t think that he would be the one saying grace at such an important occasion while George Weight remained in the shadows. There were two Fremantles of this period who had church careers. W R Fremantle, mentioned above, and his nephew, William Henry Fremantle, who was not ordained until 1855. This leaves us with one candidate. William Robert Fremantle was a senior divine in the C of E and a respected writer and editor on theological subjects. He was probably present at the request of the directors to represent the Buckinghamshire interest. He easily outranked poor old George Weight who was merely Vicar of St. George’s. Weight is acknowledged in Glyn’s remarks but was clearly not important enough to sit at the top table.
Sir Harry Verney (1801-1894) was actually born into the Calvert family of Hertfordshire and changed his name to Verney on inheriting the Verney estates at Claydon. He was a long-serving and influential MP for Buckingham and was very active in promoting the railway interest in Buckinghamshire. verney Junction is named after him. He also married, as his second wife, Parthenope Nightingale, Florence’s sister. He is shown here in old age with Florence Nightingale.
William Lucy was Lord Mayor of Birmingham from 1849-50.
George Cruikshank was a very famous contemporary illustrator and at the time of this occasion at the peak of his fame. Even today he is remembered for his caricatures of the Regency period and his illutrations for several of Dickens’ novels. Exactly why he was asked to grace the top table is not evident. He was not, as far as we know associated with railways and the speech he gave on this occasion is not particularly entertaining. One might conclude that one of the directors invited him along. The sketch above is a self portrait of the artists in middle age. He was born in 1792 and close to 60 on this occasion.
Captain Mark Huish was the general manager of the L&NWR and is recognized as one of the great railway managers of that period. His speech might strike one today as very defensive. There were of course many railway accidents in those early years and the press gave them publicity and there was public concern, even alarm. Travel at speeds of 30 mph and above was a completely new experience for this generation and there was much trepidation. Huish, however, is responding in a manner which is common enough today – “Everyone is working very hard and doing their best in difficult circumstances.” The memorial above at Bonchurch in the Isle of Wight is from a photo taken by Kevin Quick of Leighton Buzzard. He has an excellent website about the history of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade.
Here follows The Times reporting of the speeches.
Mr. McConnell (the chairman) proceeded to observe, it was a most gratifying and cheering scene to look around and see the numerous and cordial friends assembled on that occasion.It was the first held to support a Railway Mechanics’ Institution, and it was at Wolverton such a meeting should properly be held; for it was there the first town of railway servants had ever been established. It was there, too, a mechanics’ institute might be expected to flourish, but he regretted that as compared to other places, they had not made the progress which might have been expected, and had not kept pace with similar institutions on other railways. But other times were coming, and the present attempt was proof of the spirit pervading the people at Wolverton. It might be said the town itself was altogether the offspring of the railway. There were employed there no less than 500 mechanics who were engaged on the work of 220 engines, running upwards of 3,000,000 miles in the course of the year, and conveying upwards of 1,000 tons per week. Such a working stock, it was evident, required a large amount of mechanical force to keep it in order and repair. Artisans of nearly every class were congregated together, and if Wolverton were transported tomorrow to the wilds of America there esisted within it all the elements of production necessary for the comforts of life. (Cheers.) Everyone acquainted with its history would admit that its population had been most exemplary in conduct, and that, considering the many districts and parts of the kingdom from which they came, it was really gratifying to find how few causes of there were complaint against them. (Cheers.) The people and workmen had, indeed, been orderly, respectable, and well-conducted throughout. (Loud cheers.) It must not be forgotten that the liberality of the directors had placed the means of education with the reach of all of them and had afforded them an opportunity of attending divine service in the church built for the purpose. All the orderly character to which he referred was due to the very efficient service of the clergymen appointed to superintend their secular and religious education. (Hear, hear.) He rejoiced at such a meeting as the present; independently of the laudable object they had met to serve, the social repast they had just enjoyed enabled them to cultivate kindly feelings with their brother workmen (cheers), and to do away with those little jealousies which must exist in all great establishments. The institute had been in existence since 1840, but unfortunately it had not been successful, owing to want of a proper mode of action among the men; but they were now more united, and the example of the large mechanics’ institutes in the manufacturing towns had had its effects. These remarks are telling. Although he does not specify the nature of the division, he does suggest that a lack of unity amongst the men had prevented the development of the Institute, and it is true that Institutes in other parts of the country, which had started later, had made more progress. In the end, despite even this Soiree, the Institute did not have its own building until 1864. The great Exhibition of Manufactures would no doubt stimulate mechanics to use their native talent, but they could never put forth their powers till they were enabled to do so by mechanics’ institutes. In conclusion, he might observe, that the London and North Western Company were among the first to encourage education among their working men, and the chairman was entitled to the highest praise for the uniform attention he had bestowed in increasing their comforts and enlightening their minds in every way he could by providing teachers and churches, and by seeing that teachers and churches fulfilled their ends. He had great pleasure in proposing for their consideration and applause “Prosperity to the London and North Western Railway Company, Chairman and Directors.” (Loud and continuous cheering.)
Mr. Glyn rose to return thanks for the enthusiastic manner in which they had received the sentiment conveyed by the chairman. It had been his good fortune, on more than one occasion, to be present at Wolverton during these interesting celebrations. He had witnessed the opening of the schools, and had assisted at the dedication of their church; but on no occasion had he ever felt such heartfelt gratification as the present. On those former occasions he and his colleagues had attended to discharge, as trustees of the company, those duties and responsibilities which their situation imposed upon them. The company had thought it right, considering the mixed assemblage collected at Wolverton, that the schools should be opened on such a principle as would allow the admission of children of parents of all religious denominations. (Cheers.) The non-denominational nature of the Wolverton Schools was progressive. Stony Stratford was still building separate schools even after this. date. They had also thought it right to meet the liberality of the Radcliffe Trustees, and take measures to support the church, and to extend those of their servants who were of the established church, and to the town and surrounding districts, the scriptural benefits to be derived from it. But he regarded the present ceremony with stronger feelings – and cold must be the heart who would not – because it appealed to the heart, and it conveyed to his mind corroborative testimony that those who were present appreciated the efforts of the company and that apart from those efforts had arisen that movement which they were now spontaneously carrying forward. (Hear, hear.) They were engaged in a great and noble work, but, although they were so engaged, he entreated them to reflect that after the provision of proper spiritual instruction, their highest duty as citizens and parents, was not the further education of themselves, but of their children. (Hear, hear.) Education was the groundwork of everything valuable in after life. This idea was quite progressive for the time. Universal schooling did not come into being until the Education Act of 1870. Let them conceive what a basis it lay down for the rising generation. Let them remember that they were living in a country where the lowest among them might, if properly educated, arise in the race of life to the highest rank – that in this happy country – blessed be to God for it! – no degree, no grade, no exclusion existed, which prevented the well-educated youth from taking up a high position, such as his father, not so well-educated, could never have arrived at. (Cheers.) He needed not to remind them of the instances of the truth of that assertion, but there was one whom he could not refrain from mentioning here, because it had been his lot to have been thrown much into contact with him – he alluded to the late George Stephenson. (Cheers.) He had his failings, which of them had not (cheers)? But he (Mr. Glyn) held that the rise, the life, and the position of that man had been an honour to himself and to the country to which he belonged. He had heard him often detailpassages in his interesting life – the privation which he had endured, and the industry with which he struggled against the anxiety of his early commencement; but what had struck him (Mr. Glyn) most, and had made the deepest impression on him, was when he recounted the zeal, the toil, and the privations he underwent to ensure the best education for his only son. (Cheers.) He appealed to them that if he (Mr. Stephenson) had not been repaid for that toil and for those privations? Had not that son repaid everything a father could have done? And did he noty now bear a European character and estimation? (Cheers.) Let them rely on it that the cost of education would be one which they would never regret to have paid. (Cheers.) But there was another cause of congratulation which he could not pass over. They had there, to celebrate the occasion on which they had met, gentlemen who would do honour to any assembly, and he confessed that, having with them those not so immediately connected with the railways as themselves, he was anxious to occupy a little of their time, and to bespeak their kinder consideration for those who held in their hands the administration of those great undertakings. They were assailed with cries on every side; and far be it for him in any assemblage to extenuate or deny that any deserved reproaches had been cast on those who ought, in the position they held, to have considered themselves the trustees and representatives of others, and not the mere promoters of their own selfish end. (Cheers.) But, while that was so, was it right or fair that all who had from the earliest date of railway enterprise had striven to mature the system and bring it to the present point of perfection should be mixed up in one indiscriminate torrent of abuse? (Cheers.) Notwithstanding all that had been done – that towns had been erected where hamlets had not existed before, and that arrangements had been made which enabled a gentleman to step from his carriage at Euston square, and to travel from one end of England to the other, to proceed from London to York, or Montrose, should they all be heaped up together in one torrent of abuse and be excluded from a fair participation in the encomiums which, in his opinion, they deserved? (Hear.) But in all these arrangements they had never asked for any assistance from Government. The railways never had had the slightest assistance from Government.(Hear, hear.) Government had only thought of taxing them. They never had to thank Parliament for the slightest aid – Parliament had only interfered to diminish their rates and tolls. (Cheers.) But he had – and he rejoiced to have an opportunity of saying it publicly to thank the gentlemen assembled for the consideration they had ever given their employers, and that in every proceeding they had commenced for the improvement of that understanding, from first to last, they had received that untiring co-operation of their servants, and whether he looked to those at Wolverton or to those whose avocations prevented their presence that night – the guards and drivers – he had to declare that the company had received the most unflinching co-operation, and that through the means of their servants their present system had been laid down – a system which Government interferences might mar, but which Government interference could not improve. (Loud cheers.) He could not sit down without doing justice to the Rev. Mr. Waite (sic) (George Weight), and expressing publicly the satisfaction he felt, and the thanks the company conceived due to him, fo r the way in which he had carried out the wishes of the directors. Although a minister of the Church of England, he had not hesitated, in his administration of the affairs of the schools, to open them to children of all denominations. (Hear, hear.) He (Mr. Glyn) had now presided over the London and North Western Company for many years. He knew not the course of events, or what might be coming to touch and affect railway interests, but whatever that course might be, or whatever might befall them, he should always feel it an honour to be connected to a company of which the employers and employees could meet in the way they had done that evening. (Tremendous cheering.)
Mr. Barron, in a few words, proposed the speedy operation of the Buckingham Railway, in connexion with the health of the county member.
Sir H. Verney acknowledged the compliment, and having expressed the gratification he felt at being present on so agreeable occasion, impressed on the audience the paramount importance of the holy Scriptures as the source of all real knowledge. (Loud cheers.)
Mr. Lucy (Mayor of Birmingham) proposed very briefly, “The Working Staff of the London and North Western Railway.” (Cheers.)
Captain Huish returned thanks, and in doing so enlarged on the varied and extensive duties of the department he superintended, and on the immense interests committed to the charge of the company. There were some present who might not be aware of the magnitude of the undertaking. The company employed rather more than 10,000 persons, and about 140,000 people travelled their line every week. Now, the public were not, generally speaking, very grateful. Every one of these people, on an average, had three parcels of some kind or another, or, in other words, there were about half a million of bandboxes, and carpet bags, and such articles conveyed by the line every week; and when it was considered that of their passengers a large proportion were ladies, who almost invariably left everything behind them (laughter), and when he told them that the board of the company had not to pay for one of those parcels oftener than once in three months, they might be deeply – they ought to be deeply – grateful to their 10,000 servants. From the commencement of the railway, 100,000,000 persons had travelled on it, and, with the exception of one melancholy event near that spot, he would ask them, could any conceivable invention of man have produced a greater amount of safety? (Cheers.) There were 900 policemen on the line, and the least neglect of duty of any one of them might cause the most fatal accident, and yet the amount of loss of life was almost inconceivably small. Having alluded to the practical lessons in order and regularity taught to the people by railways, he proceeded to urge on his audience the necessity of avoiding agitators and evil counsellors, and regarding the Bible as the sole study by which their advance in secular knowledge could be made peaceful or useful, and concluded by introducing to the meeting “Mr. George Cruikshank, the Hogarth of the 19th. Century.”
Mr. Cruikshank, who was received with loud applause, returned thanks for himself and the guests of the evening. As a working man himself he was glad to be present on such an occasion. He had worked hard himself, and he thanked God for it, and that he had been able to do so. The directors, he was sure, wished them well. They would give their workmen their due. (Cheers.) If anything would ever raise England it would be the cheap system. (Loud cheering.) “A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.” – that was the motto. (Great applause.) As an artist he could assure them he never saw a more beautiful picture than the present; he saw not only the front he saw the back of the canvass; and more especially glad he was to see so many women present, for they might be certain, that though it had been said that women were at the bottom of every mischief, there never yet was any great social movement in which a woman had not taken part. (Cheers.)
The Rev. Mr. Fremantle, in speaking to the same toast, vindicated the character of railway labourers, and declared there were no men he would sooner have to deal with.
After a few words from Dr. MacKay, who was introduced to the meeting by Mr. Cruikshank.
Captain Huish proposed the health of “The Press”. They might be of opinion that the press just now bore rather hard on the railway interest. When they were hard set for a leader, and Parliament was not sitting, they set to work to abuse the railways. (Cheers and laughter.) But still the daily press had done them good service. True, it was often made the means of intimidation. For instance, if any of the ladies, of whom he had spoken before, did not find her bandbox or bag forthcoming, she wrote to hi at once – “Sir, if my box is not returned in two days I’ll write to The Times.’ (loud laughter.) That was the panacea for all their evils. (Renewed laughter.) Some time ago a gentleman was smuggling a suckling pig in one of the carriages. One of the porters saw it, and said he must pay 6d. for it. “What! Am I to pay for a sucking pig, when you let children in arms go free?” (Laughter.) And if the money was not returned he supposed the next letter would be “I’ll write to The Times.” (Cheers and laughter.) Lost luggage was an unanticipated problem for the railways. In time most railway stations, particularly the termini, maintained Lost Property Offices.
Mr. Watkin, Assistant Secretary, and Mr. Henderson, one of the workmen, addressed the meeting, and other gentlemen were preparing to get on their legs, when we were obliged to get on ours to catch the last train; but their audience had greatly diminished, as the speeches were long, and could not be heard in the remoter parts of the hall, and a dance and supper elsewhere had powerful attractions. All the arrangements, which were under the management of Mrs. Hibbert, were very creditable to her taste and industry. A long programme of music was still undisposed of at half-past ten o’clock.
Mrs. Leonora Hibbert was the manager of the Refreshment Rooms, and from all accounts a formidable organizer. Catering for 1,500 people, especially in those times, must have been an enormous undertaking, and necessitated the hiring of a large number of temporary staff. Note that 14,000 cups and saucers had been prepared, according to the reporter. There would have been no time for washing up until after the event. I have written a brief life of Leonora Hibbert here.
In 1851 an American woman, Mrs Amelia Jenks Bloomer, caused a sensation by appearing in public dressed in a knee-length dress and ankle-length pants. Up to this date women wore yards of material down to their ankles and no woman was considered decently dressed unless their legs were invisible. Mrs Bloomer’s primary purpose was to devise clothing which would enable her to ride a bicycle rather than make a fashion statement; however the fame of this style of dress quickly spread and the word “bloomer” slipped into the language.
Meanwhile, in another country and entirely unconnected, engineers were designing locomotives under McConnell’s direction which had a partially covered driving wheel. I won’t go into the engineering reasons for this but the resulting appearance was different from any previously manufactured locomotive. They appeared when the Bloomer sensation was at its height and the partially covered wheels led some journalist to draw a parallel with Amelia Bloomer’s attire and the nickname stuck. There is no logical comparison: driving wheels were uncovered and then partially covered, whereas Mrs Bloomer’s legs were fully covered and then partially exposed. However, names don’t stick for logical reasons and these engines were called “Bloomers” long after the fashion disappeared.
This photograph was taken in 1861 of a “Bloomer” locomotive and tender at Wolverton. In the background you can see the back of the second station and refreshment rooms.
These new locomotives could reach speeds of 60 mph on their own and run at average speeds of 36 – 38mph with train loads. By the standards of the day they were very fast and the phrase “express train” entered the language. Not all of these engines were built at Wolverton but they were developed and built under McConnell’s regime at Wolverton and perhaps brought a little bit of glamour to Wolverton’s production history.
In 1985 a replica “Bloomer” was built and installed in Milton Keyne’s central plaza. Over the years it deteriorated and in 2006 was moved to Wolverton for restoration. I don’t know the status of the project.
Bury’s successor at Wolverton was James Edward McConnell.
James Edward McConnell was born on the 1st January 1815 at Fermoy, County Cork, of Quentin and Elizabeth McConnell, he Scottish born and she English. Quentin was a millwright. After Quentin’s early death in 1815 James was sent to Watshouse in Ayrshire into the care of an uncle. He was apprenticed to a Glasgow ironworks in 1828, Claud Girdwood & Co. in which a cousin had an interest. He then went to work at Bury’s Clarence Foundry in Liverpool in 1837.
McConnell was certainly a high flyer. In 1841, at the age of 26, he was appointed Foreman at the Bromsgrove workshops of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. A year later he became Locomotive Superintendent.
Captain C R Moorsom was a director of the B&G Railway and later a director of the L&NWR, and it is likely that it was his influence that secured McConnell the position of Locomotive Superintendent at Wolverton to succeed Edward Bury in 1847. And so, at the age of 32, he moved into Wolverton Park House with his family. He was paid £700 per annum, considerably less than Bury, but a very good annual income for the time – about the starting salary for a schoolteacher in 1970!
McConnell had his detractors:
Some of his new colleagues recorded their impressions of McConnell. David Stevenson, the Camden Goods Manager, described him as “a strong and determined man of the rough sort.” Robert Benson Dockray, the LNWR Engineer wrote in his diary: “There is no doubt of his being intellectually a very clever man, full of energy, but he has some sad moral blemishes which will always prevent his occupying the position he otherwise could do. He is cunning and wants straightforwardness.” Superintendent Bruyeres also said McConnell was not straighforward and “works for his own department as though it were not part of the general concern.” The anonymous writer in the railway papers of the 1840s who signed himself ‘Veritas Vincit’ had some very caustic things to say about McConnell: “this youthful superintendent has an immeasurable conceit of his own talents” (April 1843); his “usual flurried manner in giving directions” (April 1845); there “is not a locomotive superintendent in the kingdom who has wasted more money or failed in his attempts at improvement … pushing himself forward in the company of men of talent, hearing their opinions on scientific subjects, and advancing them in other quarters as his own. This is no secret, it is often alluded to.” He “knows nothing but what he copies, and what he does copy is usually fallacious” (February 1847). The last outburst was prompted by hearing about McConnell’s appointment to the LNWR, which had completely astonished ‘Veritas Vincit’. He thought the appointment had to be because of some private motive – “it cannot have been based on the qualifications of McConnell.” (Harry Jack. Locomotives of the LNWR Southern Division)
Nevertheless he was a young man full of energy and determined to make changes. He recommended the scrapping of a lot of older engines and proposed that Wolverton should manufacture rather than simply repair engine. The Board agreed.
McConnell’s energyand drive for efficiency created labour problems. In 1848 the footplatemen went on strike over reduced pay and McConnell replaced them with untrained blacklegs. He prevailed, but with a loss of goodwill and his deputy who publicly criticised him for his lack of concern about the safety hazards of employing unskilled drivers.
McConnell’s lasting legacy was the building of bigger and faster engines, including the “bloomers”, which I will discuss in the next post. He also presided over the locomotive building years – an activity which carried more glamour than the building of carriages, such as increasingly happened after he left. His nemesis was Richard Moon, who became Deputy Chairman after the death of McConnell’s patron, Admiral Moorsom in 1861. Moon was strongly in favour of rationalising workshop activities between Wolverton and Crewe, and eventually got his way. A report submitted to the Board in 1862 was very critical of McConnell and on February 20th 1862 he submitted his resignation.
He then moved with his family to Great Missenden and rented an office in Westminster, from where he worked as a consulting engineer, producing designs for a number of railway companies.
Despite his confrontational beginnings in Wolverton he appears to have developed into a respected citizen. He promoted education and was probably responsible for ensuring that the Science and Art Institute was completed. He also fostered a savings bank and encouraged sporting activities.
In 1883, at the age of 68, he fell ill and died on 11th June from heart failure and pneumonia. he was by now a well-to-do man. His personal estate, according to is will, was valued at £28,097 9s 7d – a large sum of money in 1883