Social Responsibility in the Victorian Age

By the time of the opening of the new recreation grounds in 1885 (Wolverton Park) the L&NWR had a good reputation as a benevolent, if paternalistic employer. It did not start out this way. The London and Birmingham Railway Company understandably concentrated their efforts on getting the railway enterprise working efficiently and profitably. The creation of a new town was a necessary by product and not one which was given a great deal of thought. Even before the first terraced cottages were built around the new engine shed concerns were expressed, not about the quality of the housing but whether these houses would interfere with the window light for the workshop. Those first cottages on Garnett Street, Cooke Street and Walker Street were very basic and by the 1850s it was difficult to rent them to working families. They were demolished.

The fact is that nobody really understood the relationship between the worker’s well-being and their productivity. The lessons were eventually learned but the initiative for social improvement did not start in the Boardroom.

These initiatives came mostly from the Radcliffe Trustees who were by and large well-to-do 18th century gentlemen who saw it as their duty to take care of the people living on the Manor. Later history has tended to overlook their role and attribute most of these improvements to the railway company. Even after St George’s was opened The Times attributed everything to the railway company and the Secretary to the Trust, George Bramwell, had to write a stiffly worded letter of correction.

The new town had grown very quickly. Once the workshop and houses had been built on the original 8 acre site the trust sold a further 13 1/2 acres to the south for more housing and the second railway station. Within the space of two years a town had appeared which was approaching the population of Stony Stratford. There were a few shops and a pub but no other amenities.

During the bargaining for the additional land George Carr Glyn, the Chairman of the L&BR agreed to build a school on the one acre that the Trust provided on the corner of Creed Street. It was given on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent.

The negotiations for the church proved to be more difficult. There was a church at Old Wolverton but it was not adequate for such a large population. In addition, Henry Quartley, the vicar, was hostile to the new railway people. The Trust was initially willing to provide 2 1/2 acres for a church, vicarage and burial ground and endow a stipend for the incumbent with the expectation that the railway company would cover the cost of construction. In June 1841 Glyn offered £1,000 towards the cost of construction with the assumption that the Radcliffe Trust would pay for everything else. There was no agreement on this and as a temporary measure Glyn agreed to convert one of the schoolrooms into a temporary chapel and pay £50 a year towards the minister’s stipend. The Trust put up £100 for this purpose and the Reverend George Weight was hired immediately.

Matters drifted. The Railway Company considered the issue resolved and paid no further attention. However, the Trustees were keen to push towards a permanent solution and they met on 11th June 1842 to try to resolve things. The strongly worded minute reproduced below fairly states the case from their point of view.

The Radcliffe Trust
Minute of the meeting of 11th Jun 1842
            The Trustees again directed their attention to the peculiarly distressing state of the large assemblage of persons who are attracted to the Wolverton Station by the extensive commercial operations of the London & Birming­ham Railway Company but are unhappily destitute of the means of receiv­ing adequate spiritual instruction in consequence of there not having been as yet provided any sufficient place of worship.
            This circumstance having led the Trustees to revert to the subject regard­ing the erection of a church or episcopal chapel and a minister’s residence, on a site contiguous to the railway, they feel it a duty incumbent upon them to make a renewed representation to the Directors of the Railway Company and to refer to the resolutions of the Trustees dated r8th June r 840, a copy of which were at that time transmitted to the Directors, by which the Trustees declared their willingness to provide a site for a chapel, for a Minister’s residence and for a burying ground, as well as a permanent endowment for a Minister, and moreover to defray hereafter the expense of repairing the chapel and Minister’s House.
            To this offer the Trustees added the expression of their hope that the costs of erecting the Chapel and a Minister’s House would be provided for by the London & Birmingham Railway Company out of their funds or by voluntary contributions.
            The Trustees observe with regret that little has yet been done to meet the wants of the 1,500 persons at present representing the population of the Station at Wolverton.
            It appears that since the meeting of the Trustees in June 1841 and in consequence of the Resolutions then entered into, the Revd. George Weight has been nominated and licensed by the Bishop of Lincoln as the Chaplain of the Station.
            That a School Room capable of holding 250 persons has been there fitted up as a temporary place for the performance of divine service, but it is found to be very inconvenient and quite inadequate for the purpose.
            It is manifest therefore to the Trustees that every effort ought to be made to remove the evil by providing a becoming and suitable place of worship to be effected by building a plain but substantial chapel capable of holding 600 persons with a burial ground attached thereto and a house for the residence of the Minister.
            The Trustees cannot but entertain the belief as well as hope that the Railway Company will participate in this sentiment and will feel that inde­pendently of religious considerations, it would be even in a merely secular point of view most advantageous that the population which have settled at the Station should have afforded to them the comforts of religious con­solation and the benefit of receiving such spiritual instruction as is deemed to be essential even in the smallest and least populous parishes.
            The Trustees have therefore determined to make a proposal to the Direc­tors of the Railway, the acceptance of which will enable them with greater confidence to apply to the Court of Chancery for permission to devote a proportion of their Trust Funds to the accomplishment of so great and necessary an object.
            The Trustees calculate that the sum of £4,000 will be sufficient to build the Chapel, the Minister’s House, and the wall surrounding the burying ground.
            In addition therefore to what the Trustees expressed their willingness to do towards the attainment of these purposes …. they now propose to appropriate £2,000 out of the Trust Funds towards a Building Fund, and earnestly invite the Railway Company out of their Corporate Funds or by private subscriptions to contribute a similar sum with the assurance that as soon as the Railway Company are prepared to lodge in the hands of a Banker £2,000 the Trustees will immediately make an application. 

Presented with this resolution the L&BR agreed to put up £2,000. This money was paid to the Trust and work began in 1843 on the new church and vicarage. It was completed in May 1844.

The other feature of this side of Wolverton’s early life was the construction of the Reading Room which also doubled as a chapel for the Wesleyans. This building was erected beside the canal at the Railway Company’s expense.

Within a few years of the birth of the new town there were three buildings dedicated to the social, moral and intellectual improvement of the new population. Notice, however, the absence of government. Early Victorian governments were happy to pass Acts of Parliament which gave assent to various enterprises but would have no part in the funding or management of them. Such amenities as Wolverton had came from the paternalistic benificence of two private organizations.