York Railway Station

Location of plaque: York Railay Station

SOMETIMES modesty just doesn’t cut it: and that’s certainly true when it comes to York’s iconic railway station. “One of the great buildings of Victorian England,” says a rectangular plaque put up by York Civic Trust in 1977. And so it is.

The railway station we know today was built between 1873 and 1877, to an original design by Thomas Prosser. And when it was opened on June 25, 1877, it was said to be the largest railway station in the world. For all that, from the outside it looked a relatively understated building. It was only on the inside that the true magic began. The huge, curving train shed with its latticed roof is one of the most impressive monuments of the railway age. The station is very much the product of that age.

It was the railways of Victorian Britain which fuelled the Industrial Revolution. From 1840 onwards, York was a major railway centre. The buildings which survive from that time are tangible reminders of the key role played by the city and its entrepreneurs in laying the foundations of today’s railways.

The first public railway to use steam locomotives was the Stockton to Darlington railway, opened in 1825. In 1830, the Manchester to Liverpool Railway was the first to have double tracks throughout, a signalling system and a timetable.

It soon became clear to entrepreneurs that fortunes could be made from this new form of transport, and by the 1840s, the country found itself in the grip of a full-blown ‘railway mania’. This reached its peak in 1846 when 272 Acts of Parliament were passed to establish new railway companies and a staggering 9,500 miles of railways were proposed.

During this railway boom, there was no national network strategy, simply uncoordinated groups each hoping to profit from the new technology. However, there was one entrepreneur in York who did have a strategic vision: George Hudson. He dominated the early history of Britain’s railways, and by the mid-19th century had built up a controlling interest in more than one third of the companies seeking to build railways throughout the country.

In July 1839 the first train left York from a temporary wooden platform on Queen Street to link with the Leeds to Selby railway at Normanton. By changing trains at Normanton, Derby and Birmingham, the journey to London Euston took 10 hours, one third of the time taken by stage coach.

The temporary platform soon proved inadequate and a decision had to be made where to site a new station. York was unusual in having preserved its medieval city walls; most major Victorian cities had demolished these as they limited development. Not York.

Controversially Hudson overruled George Stephenson, who wanted York’s new railway station to be outside the city walls, and architect G.T. Andrews was commissioned to design a station within the walls. Part of the city wall had to be removed to allow railway lines to enter the city. The new station opened in 1841.

Where there’s a boom, it is almost inevitable followed by a bust. That’s what happened with the railways. Building railway lines through difficult terrain was expensive. Share values fell, profits proved elusive. Hudson’s financial irregularities were exposed by his political opponent, York lawyer George Leeman, and the railway mania bubble burst.

York’s railway story was only beginning, however. The North Eastern Railway Company (NER) was formed in 1854 by an amalgamation of the York & North Midland, the York, Newcastle & Berwick and Leeds Northern railways. Through a succession of mergers, the NER - based in York - became a monopoly provider of rail services in the North of England.

By the 1870s, York Railway Station was proving inadequate for the increased passenger traffic. NER architect Thomas Prosser was commissioned to design a new railway station, this time outside the walls. Construction took six years; Prosser was succeeded by Benjamin Burleigh in 1874 and, in 1876, William Peachey took over. But the station they designed, which opened in 1877, proved one of the great buildings of the age. The wonderful, curving canopy for which it is rightly famed has the power to strike awe into any heart to this day.

Stephen Lewis

For the story behind other York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk/