He is the doyen of York historians, yet at school he disliked history so much he failed his school cert in the subject. STEPHEN LEWIS speaks to Hugh Murray, who has recently turned 80

MOST of us, on retiring after 35 years working for the same employer, would feel entitled to celebrate a little. A presentation in the office, perhaps, followed by drinks after work.

No such humdrum ceremony for Hugh Murray. His last day as a railway engineer was April 23, 1988, he notes with his customary fastidiousness over dates and facts, and he spent it standing on the Great Wall of China.

He was with a group travelling to Hong Kong for a conference of the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers and he knew that by the time he got there he would officially be retired. After taking the Trans Siberian Express to Beijing, they decided they had to see a bit more of China, hence that trip out to the Great Wall on what just happened to be Hugh’s last official day of employment.

It was strange, but exhilarating – “It was St George’s Day, and there I was, after 35 years of employment, in a foreign country on the opposite side of the world.” He and his companions climbed along the wall far past the neatly restored sections usually visited by tourists, and he had a photograph taken of himself standing on one of the watch towers.

He also remembers taking a tram journey through Beijing. The tram ground to a halt at a crossroads, whereupon the driver asked the male passengers to get out and push the tram so it would start.

They did so. “And then off went the tram, leaving all these men standing in the road.”

Over the past quarter century or so, Mr Murray has developed a reputation as York’s history man. He is the person you go to if you want to check the name of a Lord Mayor of York in 1859, or find out how a street got its name, or when the city’s electric trams finally stopped running.

He has amassed a private library of several thousand books and tens of thousands of photographs, all dedicated to the history of York and Yorkshire. Browse the bookshelves at his home near York Hospital and you’ll come across Allen’s three-volume History of York; the eight-volume Place Names in the West Riding; Kelly’s Directory of the North and East Ridings of York (with maps); and eight volumes of York Civic Records published by the York Archaeological society, among countless others. He has a seemingly inexhaustible fund of knowledge – and if he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he knows exactly where to go to in his library to find it.

Not that this library is catalogued, exactly, he admits. “But there is a sort of system to the way they are arranged.” He moved to his present house from Burton Stone Lane 11 years ago, when he married his wife Jill – and brought the ‘system’ with him. “The books here are in the same positions as they were there.”

One of the many contradictions about the man who has become the doyen of York local historians is that at school, he disliked history so much that he failed his school cert.

He was at St Peter’s at the time and the war was still on. The school found it hard to attract qualified teachers, because many had been called up – so he was ‘taught badly’, he says. “She dictated her notebook to us. There was no feel for the subject.”

When he went to Jesus College, Oxford, therefore, it wasn’t history he studied, but physics. And when he graduated he took a graduate apprenticeship with British Rail – becoming the fifth generation of his family to join the railways.

Born in 1932, he grew up in Hull, where his father Donald was then fish stock superintendent for the London and North East Railway. “He provided wagons for the fish trade,” Mr Murray says. In 1939, on the outbreak of war, the young Hugh – like countless other schoolchildren – was evacuated to the countryside. In his case, that meant going to live with his grandfather, John – the assistant chief general superintendent of the London, Midland and South (LMS) railway – on the Welsh borders near Brecon.

In 1943 he came to York, where his father was by then LNER’s assistant goods and passenger manager, and went first to St Olave’s and then St Peter’s School.

His own railway career began in the signal engineering department at King’s Cross Station with what was, by then, British Rail. After a couple of years, however, he had to do national service. He joined the RAF as a Flying Officer – a Flying Officer who never flew, he points out.

He didn’t like aeroplanes, and was very much ground-based, in the station workshop at RAF Honington. He became an expert on the repair of heating boilers, he says. “I repaired them for married quarters.”

National Service over, he rejoined the railways as an engineer, working on signals in London before moving to Norwich as a divisional signal engineer. He loved the city and stayed there seven years. “It was my first graveyard of ambition. I didn’t want to leave.”

In 1970, however, he was persuaded to move, to become a divisional signal engineer in Leeds. In 1974 he made his way back to York, as assistant signal engineer for British Rail’s entire Eastern region. York was his second graveyard of ambition.

He spent 13 years in the job at York – marking his retirement in 1988 by standing on the Great Wall of China.

That ‘retirement’ marked the beginning of a whole new life as a historian.

Despite his early dislike of history, he’s always been interested in the origin of things, he says.

While living in Norwich, he had bought a book of photographs of buildings in the city – showing what they looked like with their ground floors cut away. But Norwich was too big a city. York he felt was just the right size for him to be able get a “tolerable grasp of its history”.

He began collecting books and old photographs, lecturing on different aspects of York’s history and writing about 20 books – his first, published in 1980, was a history of the horse tramways of York; his most recent, published in 2007, an account of the connection between the civil engineering (and now newspaper) firm S Pearson, and Leeds Metropolitan University.

Somewhere along the way, late in life, he found time to get married. His wife, Jill, is a granddaughter of John Ward Knowles, the famed stained glass manufacturer who had a workshop in Stonegate.

Now aged 80, his historian’s instincts are as finely honed as ever. He once bought an album of photographs taken by visitors to York long ago – and his description of how he dated it is a joy.

Some of the street scenes showed cars. He took a magnifying glass, and used it to read the registration number of one car. He then contacted Swansea, and managed to find the date the car was registered – 1929. He knew then that the album couldn’t possibly be older than that. The clincher was another photograph showing an old York picture house, the Electric Theatre. A poster for a film – Phantom Express – was posted up outside. And the first time that film was ever screened? 1932.

Which was, incidentally, the year Mr Murray was born.


Some York myths Hugh is happy to debunk...

Hugh Murray has the true historian’s concern with accuracy. One of his bugbears is historical myths – plausible-sounding historical stories that happen to be untrue. York has many.

"Queen Victoria only ever visited York once"

One is the myth that Queen Victoria only ever visited York once – in September 1854 – and was so insulted by complaints over the cost of entertaining her that she vowed never to return.

Actually, that first visit – as Queen: Victoria had already been to the city as a princess – was in 1849, not in 1854, Mr Murray writes. And she often passed subsequently through York on the train while on her way north afterwards, frequently stopping to get out and stretch her legs in the city.

The origins of that myth about her disapproval seems to have been the luncheon with which she was entertained by the Lord Mayor, James Meek, in the banqueting rooms at the railway station (the old station, now in the process of being converted into a new council headquarters) on her first visit as Queen in 1849. The Queen and her retinue took half an hour over the meal, before returning to the train.

Had the Lord Mayor invited Victoria to the Mansion House, wrote Mr Murray in an article written for the York Historian magazine, he would have been able to hide the cost of her lunch in his normal entertainment expenses.

As it was, Henry Wilberforce, a grocer and tea merchant and one of the auditors of the city’s annual accounts, took exception to the cost of the Queen’s lunch and refused to sanction a payment of £90. He was commended for his behaviour by a Congregationalist and three city Quakers: James Parsons, Samuel and JH Tuke – and a certain Joseph Rowntree.

It was confidently expected, as a result of this matter, that the Queen would decline to make any further visits to York.

“But happily the Sovereign was above such petty squabbles,” Mr Murray wrote. She passed through York on 18 other occasions, never leaving the station but getting out of the train ten times.

"The statue of George Leeman was originally a statue of George Hudson"

Another recurring myth with which he has done battle is the legend that the statue of George Leeman in Station Avenue was originally a statue of George Hudson, but that following the railway king’s public fall from grace, it was reshaped as Leeman.

Not true, says Mr Murray. There is very clear evidence – including details of a public competition – that the statue was designed and commissioned from the outset to be of Leeman.

"Crichton Avenue is named after Annie Crichton"

Then there is the belief that Crichton Avenue is named after York’s first woman Lord Mayor, Annie Crichton, who took over the office in 1942.

It is a natural enough belief, but it happens not to be true, Mr Murray says. The street is actually named after her husband, David Sprunt Crichton, who was for many years the welfare officer at the Rowntree cocoa works. We know this because Crichton Avenue was built in 1929/1930, before Annie Crichton had come to prominence.