IN 2013, a cast of hundreds brought Blood + Chocolate to the streets of York. It told the story of York's chocolate factories - and of what happened to the young men who worked there when they went off to fight in the First World War.

This summer's big community production - involving a cast of more than 200 - tackles another theme at the heart of York's recent history: the railways.

In Fog and Falling Snow - co-written by Mike Kenny, who wrote Blood + Chocolate - tells the story of the rise and fall of the 'Railway King', George Hudson.

It is set in the mid 1840s in - of course - York. "As George Hudson sets forth on his journey to build the great East Coast rail network at any cost, the people who build it, along with investors and passengers are caught up in the reckless extravagance of his great adventure," reads a blurb on the York Theatre Royal's website. "The cost is high for all involved."

It certainly was for Hudson - a farmer's son from Howsham who brought the railways to York and became one of the richest men in England before ending his life forlorn, disgraced and penniless.

So who was the real George Hudson? And how much of a debt does York owe to him?

Born in Howsham, 12 miles from York, Hudson was the fifth son of a farmer.

He began his working life as a draper's apprentice but rose to become Lord Mayor of York and a large share-holder in the construction of the new railway lines - convincing many other people to invest.

Hudson became chairman of the York & North Midland Railway Company, with George Stephenson as his engineer. As an MP, he outlined plans for 32 Parliamentary Bills for railway projects costing a total of £10 million.

York Press:

Colour print: The North Eastern Railway Station, York, c1900, with a vignette of George Hudson in the top left hand corner. The print shows Platform 4 of York Station

However, there was a dodgier side to this classic Victorian self-made man.

His suspicious business practises and lack of book-keeping were eventually exposed and a backlash against The Railway King began. Hudson was ordered to repay large sums of money and was arrested and imprisoned. Although he was eventually freed his career never reached his former heights and after he died in London, his coffin was taken by train to York and he was buried at St Peter & St Paul's Church, Scrayingham. The former millionaire left effects worth less than £200.

In Fog and falling Snow, a York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre co-production that will open at the National Railway Museum next Friday, tells the story of the rise and fall of this complex man through a series of vignettes that will be staged in the NRM's Great Hall and Station Hall before a second act in the 1,000 seat Signal Box Theatre.

The NRM's curator of archive and library collections, Tim Proctor, worked closely with the Theatre Royal to comb through the museum's vast archive collection in search of material that would shed light on Hudson.

So what does he make of the Railway King?

“Although there is a street named after him in the city of York, Hudson’s contribution to railway history is not feted in the same way as the other contemporary founding fathers of the railways such as Stephenson simply because he met such an ignominious end," Tim says.

“Mike Kenny and Bridget Foreman (the co-authors of In Fog and falling Snow) quickly realised that Hudson’s was a very exciting story, almost the ‘wolf of Wall Street’ of his day.

"In many ways the play asks the audience to make up their own minds about Hudson. Was he utterly corrupt, or should his reputation be restored as the true Railway King?”

You will no doubt decide for yourself once you've seen the play. But certainly people in the small North Yorkshire village of Scrayingham, where Hudson is buried, believe he is deserving of respect.

"Scrayingham is a very small village - it doesn't even have streetlights. And yet the man responsible for ensuring the London to Edinburgh railway line passed through York is buried here," says Sheena Flowers of the Friends of Scrayingham and Leppington. "Even though he may have died a disgraced man we feel his grace should be looked after."

York Theatre Royal's production of In Fog and Falling Snow opens at the National Railway Museum next Friday, June 26, and runs until July 11. Tickets from the box office: 01904 623568 or


George Hudson timeline

• Born in Howsham about 12 miles north-east of York in 1800.

• Hudson began his working life as an apprentice draper in York. By 1821 he had acquired shares in the business.

• In 1821 Hudson married Elizabeth Nicholson, the daughter of one of the partners in the firm.

• Already a wealthy man, Hudson received a £30,000 inheritance from his great uncle Matthew Bottrill.

York Press:

An 1845 lithograph of George Hudson entitled The Man Wot Knows How to Get up the Steam. It is a flattering portrait, produced before Hudson’s fall from grace

• In 1833 Hudson attended a meeting to discuss the construction of a railway line linking York to the Leeds to Selby line. He later bought 500 shares to become the largest shareholder and convinced George Stephenson to run the Newcastle to London line through York.

• Hudson joined the Tory party in 1832 and was elected to the York City council in 1835, later becoming Mayor of York.

• Between 1836-7 Hudson was elected Chairman of the York & North Midland Railway Company with Stephenson as his Engineer.

• By 1844 Hudson owned over 1,000 miles of railway and was known to many as "The Railway King".

• In 1846 Hudson proposed numerous railway projects to the Government totalling over £10 million and became Tory MP for Sunderland. His companies owned over a quarter of Britain's railways.

• In 1848, cracks began to appear. Some of Hudson's business decisions were exposed, most notably his decision to pay dividends with the business's capital. This created a backlash and shares in his business began to fall drastically.

• By 1849 Hudson had developed York as a major railway centre. However this was not enough to save him. He was expelled from the city council and his effigy was melted down at Madame Tussauds.

• Hudson resigned from many of his company's directorships and was forced to repay large sums of money for transactions that were deemed ill-spent.

• Hudson fled his creditors and lived in France, before returning to England in for the election of 1865 to fight for the seat in Whitby. Before to the election, however, he was imprisoned for three months in York.

• Upon being released, George Hudson's family, friends and admirers raised enough money for him to move to London and live comfortably with his wife. He died in 1871.


We don't give George Hudson the credit he's due, argues writer ROBERT BEAUMONT

It was William Shakespeare who wrote: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred in their bones”.

Shakespeare could have been speaking about George Hudson, the 19th century railway king. Hudson laid the foundations of York as a modern railway city but has often been cast as a pantomime villain, not least by the city he placed most firmly on the railway map.

Thrown out of his North Yorkshire village of Howsham, when he was only 15, for fathering an illegitimate child, he inherited £30,000 in dubious circumstances 12 years later. That enabled him to reinvent himself as the Railway King and become, at the height of his fame and fortune, one of the very richest men in England.

York Press:

Engraving of a portrait of George Hudson by Francis Grant

He made his money by forming his own railway companies and, in 1845, he was able to buy the Londesborough estate in East Yorkshire for £500,000. That was a huge amount of money in mid-Victorian Britain.

By 1848 he controlled nearly a third of Britain’s rail network and was a leading Conservative member in the House of Commons. He was three times Lord Mayor of York, and the city basked in his reflected glory as it became the leading railway centre in the north of England.

His fall was as spectacular as his rise – and he ended up first in a debtors’ prison and then in France, forlorn and penniless, dependent on his few remaining friends to keep him alive. He died a broken man and was buried only a couple of miles away from his birthplace. The wheel had turned a full circle, but within that circle is a journey of epic proportions.

York, busily rewriting history, has tried to remove all trace of the railway king from its civic annals. Our city, it appears, has conveniently forgotten that it owes its position as the railway capital of the north primarily to Hudson.

Today one of the city’s ugliest streets, a nasty little road which runs past a dingy bus station, carries his name, whilst a statue of his great enemy George Leeman dominates the station complex. That bears scant relation to the two men’s differing legacies to their city.

It is high time that George Hudson’s achievement of transforming York from a faded Georgian backwater, which was in danger of being consigned to the dustbin of history by the rise of the industrial West Riding, into a thriving Victorian railway city, is recognised. A statue would be the least the city could do.

In the meantime, the York Theatre Royal co-production of In Fog And Falling Snow will put George Hudson in the spotlight again. I can’t wait to see how the great man, played by one of my favourite actors George Costigan, is portrayed.

Robert Beaumont is the author of The Railway King, A Biography Of George Hudson (Headline Review, £7.99).