IT has often been argued that the development of railways was the greatest achievement of Victorian times.

The 1840s were the decade of railway mania, when companies constructed lines all over the country. Railways would bring untold economic and social benefits. Many industrialists believed this ‘new fangled transport’ would stimulate the local economy, and eagerly backed attempts to bring the railway to their town or city.

One man who did as much as anyone to bring the railways to York was George Hudson, the so-called 'Railway King'.

He was a man who, later in his life, was tainted with accusations of fraud and deception. But during the course of a colourful life he also did a great deal for the city of which he was three times Lord Mayor.

Hudson was born in 1800 in Howsham in the Derwent Valley between York and Malton.

He was the youngest of five brothers, but when he was six his mother died, followed two years later by his father.

He was brought up by his older brothers, William and John. Aged 15 he fathered an illegitimate child, and left Howsham.

He became an apprentice to York drapers Nicholson and Bell, near York Minster. At age 21 he married Elizabeth Nicholson, daughter of one of the partners. When Bell retired George became a partner.

He boasted that he was one of York’s most successful businessmen. Not renowned for modesty, and considered coarse and pompous, he was also known for his flamboyant lifestyle.

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His wealth was boosted by a £30,000 inheritance from his great-uncle when he was 27. Some of his jealous competitors claimed he’d exerted influence on him in his dying days.

Hudson became a prominent, influential figure in York society. He was a member of the York Board of Health and when cholera broke out in 1832, he played a prominent role in handling the disease.

He visited the sick and was concerned about their welfare. A High Church Tory, he became treasurer of York Tory Party in 1832 and played a leading part in political campaigns.

In 1833 he was a founder of the York Union Bank. Around this time he became interested in the benefits of railways, and wished to bring a line to York. Elected to York City Council, he was Lord Mayor at the age of 37, a position he held three times.

He was dominant in the political and business life of York. Although the city was inhabited by wealthy classes in expensive houses, it had rundown areas, overcrowded and insanitary.

Hudson believed railways could be essential in the city’s economic development; he was involved in the construction of lines in and out of York.

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The York Railway Committee of which he was treasurer, became the York North Midland Railway in 1835, and Hudson was elected chairman. He was influential in linking London to York, and in 1845 the opening of a line to Scarborough, considered the first seaside resort in the country, enabled day visits by the working classes.

Towns such as Bradford, Keighley and Skipton were also to benefit from the arrival of the railway. It not only helped to expand business but also employment at a time of widespread poverty and unemployment.

Railways opened markets, transported raw materials, created demand for iron and steel, and labour, and reduced transport costs. They stimulated industry and agriculture and helped Britain out of economic depression.

People travelled more easily and more often. Foodstuffs were carried quicker with less decay and wastage. Newspapers, books and periodicals were read more, assisting in the spread of literacy.

The Royal Mail was established in 1840 and with the transporting of mail by rail, there was a massive increase in letter writing and postage. In 1838 there were 500 miles of railway: 10 years later 5,000 miles. During the boom years, around 200,000 navvies were employed.

There was opposition from landowners which meant the diversion of lines, or payment of large sums for land. Planning permission through Parliament was often long and expensive. Nevertheless, railways became popular - illustrated by the hordes of spectators who turned out at the opening of a new line.

The financing of railways, and speculation became a great issue. Hudson’s involvement was fascinating but disreputable. The first railways were financed by local people and though at first there was strong distrust, the public went ‘railway mad’.

Attracted by the prospect of high profits, promoters were eager to build railways all over the country.

Railway fever reached its height in 1846. Ordinary people invested small savings, encouraged by railway promoters. But thousands of miles of railway were built recklessly. Schemes were launched in places which were never viable or profitable. Some lines duplicated those already in existence. Thousands of small investors lost money, including the Brontes.

In 1849 it was discovered that many of Hudson’s dealings were fraudulent and his personal wealth had been built by dubious dealings in stocks and shares.

York Press: Cartoon published when Hudson's career began to go 'off the rail'Cartoon published when Hudson's career began to go 'off the rail' (Image: Dave Welbourne/Alamy)

His fall was as spectacular as his rise. His business rivals, including the Great Northern Railway and George Leeman, leader of York Council, rubbed their hands with glee as they heard that his unscrupulous business methods had involved deception and fraud. Hudson had manipulated accounts and cut corners, leading to bankruptcy and imprisonment. But railways were an integral part of Victorian society and economy.

Hudson had been elected Conservative MP for Sunderland in 1845. The electorate hoped he would revive the docks and railways.

But between 1857-1859 the Sunderland Dock Company foundered, and with it the town.

The people of Sunderland became disenchanted by their MP and in the 1859 election he was heavily defeated.

As an MP he’d been somewhat protected. Although bankrupt, he couldn’t be arrested for debt, but once he was no longer an MP he could be.

He fled to France to avoid his creditors but returned to England in 1864 for the funeral of his brother.

Whitby Conservatives asked him to stand in the 1865 election: he’d been involved in schemes to develop Whitby’s West Cliff and the York to Whitby railway line he’d built had been beneficial. But on his return for the election, he was arrested because of debts, and remanded in York prison.

He was a disgraced figure, in poor health and drinking heavily. He returned abroad, but was arrested again on returning to London in June, 1866, and spent three weeks in Whitecross Street Prison. When allowed out to see his lawyer he fled the country. A fund was raised by friends to provide him with some income to live on. When Parliament passed the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt Act, on January 1, 1870, Hudson returned to London and was reunited with his wife. It became obvious his creditors wouldn’t get their money, and charges were dropped.

On December 9, 1871, Hudson was taken ill while visiting York. He returned to London by train and five days later he died, aged 71. He requested to be buried at Scrayingham church, near where he was born, and the funeral was held there on December 21. It is said that when the hearse passed through the streets from York, many people turned out to pay their respects, and shopkeepers lowered their blinds in respect.

His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1886. He had four children; George was a barrister and inspector of factories; John was in the Army and was killed in the Indian Mutiny in 1857; William was a doctor, ironically killed by a train in 1876; Anne married a Polish count.

It took a long time for York to restore any reputation Hudson had. His portrait was removed from the Mansion House, and Hudson Street was renamed Railway Street. Later the portrait was returned and on the centenary of his death, Railway Street became George Hudson Street.

There is an opinion that other unscrupulous characters were also involved in underhand dealings, but it was Hudson who became the profile figure. He did so much for the city of York, and made it a railway centre, but this was overshadowed by his fraudulent activities.