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British Industrial History

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Edward William Watkin

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Picture published in 1894.

Sir Edward William Watkin (1819-1901) was a railway manager and chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway; Chairman of the South Eastern Railway and the Metropolitan Railway

Watkin was famous for building "Watkin's Folly" on what is now the site of Wembley Stadium. The "Folly" was a tower intended to exceed the Eiffel Tower in height. Work started early in the 1890s but never progressed above the first landing. It was demolished and the steelwork sold to Italy as scrap early in the twentieth century [1]

1819 Born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of wealthy cotton merchant Absalom Watkin, who was noted for his involvement in the Anti-corn Law League.

After a private education, he went to work in his father's mill business.

1845 Founded the Manchester Examiner, by which time he had become a partner in his father's business.

1845 September 3rd. Married(1) Mary Briggs Mellor (1823-1888) at Oldham

He lived at Rose Hill, Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, in a house bought by his father in 1832.

1845 He took on the secretaryship of the Trent Valley Railway, which was sold the following year to the London and Birmingham and Grand Junction railways (which were about to amalgamate to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR)), for £438,000.

1846 Birth of son Alfred Mellor Watkin (1846-1914)

1850 Birth of daughter Harriet Sayer Watkin (1850-1913)

He then became assistant to Captain Mark Huish, General Manager of the LNWR.

He visited USA and Canada and in 1852 he published a book about the railways in these countries.

Back in Great Britain he was appointed secretary of the Worcester and Hereford Railway.

He then left the LNWR and became the general manager of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR). He held this position from 1854 to 1862 and was chairman of the company from 1864 to 1894. He was knighted in 1868 and made a baronet in 1880.

Abroad, he encouraged the uniting of the Canadian provinces by the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also helped to build the railway between Athens and Piraeus, advised on the Indian railways and organised transport in the Belgian Congo.

1861 Living at Primrose Hill, Northenden: Absalom Watkin (age 74 born London), Gentleman and Magistrate for Lancashire and for the City of Manchester. With his wife Elizabeth Watkin (age 70 born Bolton) and their son Edward W. Watkin (age 41 born Salford), Railway Manager and Magistrate for the City of Manchester; and his wife Mary B. Watkin (age 38 born Oldham). Three servants.[2]

1866 Became a director of the Great Western Railway and later the Great Eastern Railway.

By 1881 he was a director of nine railways and trustee of a tenth. These included the Cheshire Lines, the East London, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire, the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham, the Metropolitan, the Oldham, Ashton & Guide Bridge, the Sheffield and Midland Joint, the South Eastern, the Wigan Junction and the New York, Lake Erie and Western railways.

1891 Living at Rose Hill, Northenden: Edward W. Watkin (age 71 born Salford), Railway Director and Widower. Five servants.[3]

1893 Married (2) to Ann Little (1812-1896)

He is perhaps best known for being responsible for the building of the MS&LR's 'London Extension' during the 1890s. Watkin saw an independent route to London as crucial for the long-term survival and development of the MS&LR, and as part of a grander scheme. His chairmanships of the South Eastern Railway, the Metropolitan Railway and the MS&LR meant that he controlled railways from England's south coast ports, through London and (with the London Extension) through the Midlands to the industrial cities of the North.

He was also on the board of the Chemin de Fer du Nord, the French railway company from Calais. His vision was for a Channel Tunnel coupled to a new main line to the north of England providing Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds with a railway to the Continent. The MS&LR changed its name to the Great Central Railway in 1892, and construction of the London Extension was completed by 1899. However, his plans for a Channel Tunnel ground to a halt soon after early excavations started due to both financial and political problems.

Watkin was Liberal Member of Parliament for the constituencies of Great Yarmouth (1857–1858) Stockport (1864–1868) and Hythe in Kent (1874–1895). He was High Sheriff of Cheshire in 1874.

He was responsible for the partially completed Watkin's Tower and an abortive attempt in the 1880s to create a new south-coast resort and deep-water port at Dungeness in Kent.

Watkin's son Alfred Mellor Watkin was locomotive superintendent of the South Eastern Railway in 1876 and Member of Parliament for Great Grimsby (UK Parliament constituency) in 1877.

His nephew Edward Watkin was general manager of the Hull and Barnsley Railway.

He is buried in St Wilfrid's churchyard in Northenden, where a memorial plaque commemorates his life.


Obituary 1901 [4]

"...Edward Watkin occurred last Saturday at his residence at Northenden, near Manchester, thereby severing another link in the history of the railways of this country. Sir Edward Watkin was born in Manchester in 1819, and early in life showed himself to be a man of large mind and conspicuous ability. His name- then Edward William Watkin - soon became prominent in connection with railway enterprise, for in "the forties" he was appointed secretary to a small syndicate or Manchester men who constructed the Trent Valley Railway, which was afterwards purchased by the London and North Western Railway Company. This company evidently recognised the ability of Mr. Watkin, for it secured his services.

In 1854 be became general manager of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire-now the Great Central- Railway, an office he occupied until 1861, when he retired owing to a difference with the directors regarding the concession or running powers to the Midland Company. He then became president or the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, but in about two years he returned to the Sheffield Company, being first appointed director and afterwards chairman, a position he occupied for many years, concurrently....."


1901 Obituary [5]



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