THERE’S no statue of George Hudson in York, just a marble bust of him in the warehouse area of the National Railway Museum.

York Press: Marble bust to George HudsonMarble bust to George Hudson

There’s an oil painting of him in the Mansion House which was relegated to the basement for many years.

And there used to be a pub named after him in George Hudson Street, but it’s given way to Popworld, a contemporary disco bar. And until 1971, his presence had even been erased from the street named after him in 1849.

York Press: The pub named after Hudson became disco PopworldThe pub named after Hudson became disco Popworld

He was gaoled for a time in both York and London and had to leave York and spend time on the continent of Europe. So, what had this ambitious citizen of York done to become such an anti-hero? The short answer is that he was a failed entrepreneur and politician. He brought financial ruin and Victorian social shame on himself through dubious practices in his business and political life.

A plaque outside his York home, George Hudson House at 44 Monkgate, reminds us he was twice elected Conservative MP for Sunderland and three times Lord Mayor of York. Yet he started life in modest circumstances. Born in 1800 in the village of Howsham, he moved to York and was apprenticed to Bell and Nicholson, drapers in College Street York, now the National Trust shop. He married Nicholson’s daughter Elizabeth and was given a share in the business.

York Press: Plaque to George Hudson in YorkPlaque to George Hudson in York

In 1827, Hudson inherited the sizeable fortune of £30,000 and this allowed him to advance his political and financial interests. He took a leading part in the establishment of the York Union Banking Company. Hudson also became chairman of the York and North Midland Railway (YNMR) which opened several lines in the north of England, and he encouraged investment in the company. He went on to build a sizeable business empire, controlling more than 1,000 miles of railway. At the height of his fame, the writer, wit and Anglican cleric Revd Sydney Smith nicknamed him The Railway King and he lived up to the name by owning grand country houses, a property in central London and by mixing in high society.

York Press: Image of Hudson, one of the city's most controversial figuresImage of Hudson, one of the city's most controversial figures

Hudson worked for a time with well-known contemporaries such as George Stephenson and the Duke of Wellington. But he kept irregular financial records and paid out unsustainable dividends which his enemies claimed were made from the capital rather than the revenue. And he borrowed money at high rates of interest to keep his various companies solvent. The bubble eventually burst, and falling revenues coupled with a turn-down in the economy meant that Hudson was unable to meet the demands of his creditors. It was also suggested that shares in one of Hudson’s companies had been sold at a value far in excess of what they were worth. Hudson was accused of sharp financial practices and even bribery of MPs and others, and was eventually taken to court where judgements were given against him. On losing his parliamentary seat in 1859, he fled abroad to France but was later arrested by the Sheriff of York when he returned for his brother’s funeral in Whitby. He was then committed to the debtors’ prison in York.

York Press: Railway Street becomes George Hudson Street in 1971Railway Street becomes George Hudson Street in 1971

But back in the 1830s, as a member of the local Health Board, he had worked tirelessly to visit cholera victims and track the progress of the epidemic in the city. Although he made many enemies, he also had friends in York and elsewhere who stood by him. He spent the last part of his life trying to pay back some of the money he owed. And in 1865, a friend paid off at least one of the debts that ensured his release as an old man in poor health. Once again, he went into exile. Other friends in Sunderland, Hull and Whitby started a subscription fund to give him a pension.

In his final, year Hudson was able to return to London and live with his wife Elizabeth. He paid one last visit to York on December 9, 1871 and five days later he died on his return to London aged 71.

Many people paid their last respects as his hearse drove through the streets of York, and it is said that shop owners lowered their blinds as a sign of respect. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Scrayingham close to where he was born.

In 2017, the Friends of Scrayingham and Lappington set up an appeal to raise funds for the refurbishment of George Hudson’s grave. The work on the family grave was finished in the summer of 2019.

York Press: Old photo of the Co-op on corner of George Hudson Street and MicklegateOld photo of the Co-op on corner of George Hudson Street and Micklegate

Fraudster though he may have been and exiled more than once to avoid imprisonment, Hudson invested heavily in important infrastructure projects such as the Sunderland docks. But his most valuable legacy was to ensure that York was included in a network of railways that eventually developed into the East Coast line linking London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

In his day, he gave York citizens their first taste of easier mobility out of the city, and he was a key figure in establishing and expanding much-needed long-distance communications with towns and cities across the north and Midlands.

This was to secure the future prosperity of York. And for that we Yorkies and our visitors owe him a debt of gratitude.