The Southern Railway and the influence of the Second World War on railway nationalisation, by James Allen

From The Brighton Toy and Model Index
The Southern Railway and the influence of the Second World War on railway nationalisation
by James Allen


This dissertation questions the common viewpoint regarding the nationalisation of the railways after the Second World War. Numerous commentators have constructed a narrative description of the process towards nationalisation, which stemmed from inherent flaws in the private market model. For example, Richard Toye has outlined a progressive account of how nationalisation first received attention in the First World War, and then grew in popularity from the Great Depression before becoming truly implemented through wartime sentiment.[1] Similarly, economic historian Terence Gourvish has opined that the grounds for a nationalised railway network were set after 1920, when rail traction began to struggle in the competition against road transport.[2] This dissertation seeks to challenge these views, by demonstrating that the process was neither fluid nor inevitable, and that a private monopoly system could easily have developed had the War never occurred. The change in national sentiment, which warranted the implementation of Government control, only came about during the Second World War, and was a direct result of the conflict.

After the end of the Second World War, the four main railway companies of Britain were nationalised under the Transport Act of 1947. Due to the poor position of most of the country's infrastructure, this has largely been seen as a sound decision. But Gerald Crompton has observed that in 1947, one of these four companies was making higher revenue than it had in 1929. That company was the Southern Railway.[3]

Before the War, this small company enjoyed a monopoly of close commuter services to London, and provided boat trains across the channel. It clearly held a potential for profit. However, the War hit the Southern particularly hard. This Railway's position in the south-eastern corner of Britain made it an easy target for German attacks. Yet, despite suffering disproportionate damage, the Southern took a lead role in the organisation of railway services, and manufacturing for the war effort.

Secondary literature has often overlooked the exceptional contribution that the Southern Railway made as a private company. Most of the current historiography tends to focus on the economical and political debates of public ownership during and after the war. David Edgerton and Richard Toye have written particularly interesting commentaries on the change in national mindset regarding state control. This dissertation will mainly examine the Southern Railway's wartime record, in the context of the pre-war national mindset. The works of Rixon Bucknall and the "Southern Way" magazines have been particularly helpful in this regard.

The first chapter will demonstrate the strength of the Southern as a company, and the weakness of public support for nationalisation in the interwar years. It will focus on how the Southern adapted to wartime, and why its prowess in the evacuation of children from southern cities, and the Dunkirk operation are examples of its success as an individual company. Next, the Railway's wartime activities will be outlined in terms of the hardship it would face from bomb damage, and additional financial and administrative obligations. The fact that this one company was equipped to endure such conditions will be shown to contradict the recent assessment that the private company model had ceased to function prior to the War's outbreak. Finally, the last chapter will examine the Railway's contribution to the War Effort, and the growth of state control. It will argue that the influence of state control was dependant on wartime conditions, and not predetermined by developing pre-war sentiment, as some commentators suggest. It will refer to the commanding position that the Southern held over its competitors, both before and during the War, and show how this private company left a lasting legacy in the running of British Railways when the War ended.

This dissertation argues that the Southern Railway proves that company-controlled transport was still very much an option in the early Twentieth Century, and that the triumph of state planning as an ideal owes its existence entirely to the Second World War. It is based on research obtained through a study of government papers, personal accounts and publications of the Southern Railway itself, complimented with the opinions of prior historians.

Chapter 1: How the Southern Railway adapted to the Outbreak and Conditions of War

The Southern Railway was formed as part of the Railways Act of 1921. The hundreds of private rail companies in Britain were grouped into four regional companies: the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London Midland and Scottish railway (LMS), and the Southern Railway. Of these four, the Southern covered the smallest geographical area. But a monopoly over the South Eastern corner of Britain, including links to ports and commuter routes to London, allowed it to prosper.[4] The extent of this prosperity is the first factor to consider in the issue of nationalisation and the War.

A common revisionist approach is that the nationalisation of the railways was the culmination of a long process of decline following the poverty of the inter-war years. This is certainly the case that Richard Toye puts forward. He has concluded that the experience of state direction during the First World War had proven that railways could work under public control, and that the inclination towards total nationalisation had grown steadily ever since.[5] Furthermore, Gerald Crompton also suggested that the grouping of this "Big Four" was designed to appease the socialist support for nationalisation after 1918.[6] If this were the case, then the formation of these "Big Four" could be seen as one step in a gradual process towards state control. Labour MP Herbert Morrison put forward this argument in 1933. He observed that rail stock had improved since the multiple companies were amalgamated and theorised that this was due to the reduced competition.[7] Therefore, according to Morrison, a total removal of competition would permit greater improvement. Morrison presented a firm case for the complete abolition of competing companies. Many believed that steam traction needed to be replaced with electrified units to make rail travel cleaner and more efficient. Morrison argued that competition was an impediment to such progress. He cited the case of the LNER, which was unable to raise the money to electrify in its current financial position. He surmised that while the companies were competing, they would have to reduce services and increase fares to afford infrastructure improvements like electrification.[8]

Morrison's case may appear to make logical sense, but it fails to take an important point into account. The Southern Railway was already making the improvements he claimed to be unachievable without state intervention. As early as 1923, the Railway had focused its Ashford Works on the construction of Electric Multiple Units.[9] Throughout the interwar years it succeeded in electrifying more of its routes than any of its rivals, and according to K.G. Fenelon, had the largest suburban electric rail system in the world by 1932.[10] Towards the end of the decade, the Railway was preparing for total electrification, a plan that was only interrupted by the outbreak of War.[11] The significance of electrification can be seen in a report from the Ministry of Transport, conducted from 1929 to 1931. This report estimated that the railways would have saved millions of pounds if all four companies had achieved total electrification for the duration of the three years.[12] The fact that the Southern alone had already made such progress in electrification implies that it was in an extremely strong financial position.

In addition, it obtained an additional source of revenue from the use of boat trains. The Southern owned a fleet of ferries, which it used to transport passengers on to France as part of a travel deal. By 1929, the Southern had built the steamer Canterbury II specifically to ferry passengers from its Golden Arrow service to the continent, through a contract with Wagons-Lits.[13] The other companies were unable to exploit similar enterprises to the same degree.

The company was also diversifying into road transport. A commemorative document, commissioned by the Southern in 1936, reveals that it was issuing contracts to collaborate, rather than compete, with lorry companies.[14] In fact, K.G. Fenelon reveals that the Railway Road Powers Act of 1928 had granted the railways the ability to pursue extensive road cooperation to their own advantage.[15] This brings into question Morrison's assessment that the railways had underestimated the potential of road competition. Even Morrison, while adamant that none of the companies could match automobiles on their own, was forced to admit that the Southern had created the most successful public image. He cited improved lighting, cleanliness and speed of renovations as examples.[16] This evidence shows that the Southern had obtained a competitive advantage over the other railway companies, through diversification, shrewd investment and geographical position. Had it not been for the outbreak of War, it could have been poised for further expansion.

Furthermore, there is wider evidence to contradict the notion that all of the railways were naturally headed for nationalisation before the War. Publicly owned transport was a Labour Party policy in the 1935 General Election. But, as Richard Toye has observed, Labour suffered a defeat, and would only get another chance to implement it after the transformative experience of total war.[17] Conservative Governments held power throughout this period and the Labour Party could not yet muster the support to oppose Conservative ideals.

Public indifference to nationalisation seems to have prevailed even when the War was imminent. A Mass Observation study in 1939 charted people's reactions to a campaign for a "Square Deal" between road and rail goods contracts. A mere twelve percent of those asked felt that the railways should be nationalised before a deal was reached.[18]

More importantly, it appears the railway unions also had extreme doubts about the competence of the state to manage the railways at the start of the War. Mass Observation reported that in 1940, only three percent of the National Union of Railwaymen trusted the Government with control of services.[19] So at this stage the chances of the Southern falling under state control were rather slim. In 1921, Reuben Kelf-Cohen described how successive Nineteenth Century Governments had refused to amalgamate the multiple railway companies through fear that the change would actually lead to private monopolies.[20] The Southern Railway's example in the interwar years seems to lend credibility to the fears of these Governments. Factoring out the Second World War, it seems that the Southern was poised only to make further gains.

To clearly see the Railway's potential at this time, one need only look at its performance in the first year of the War. After the declaration of hostilities in 1939, thousands of children and mothers were evacuated from southern cities to perceived areas of safety. Such an undertaking inevitably required a great deal of planning. Fortunately, the Southern Railway had drafted an evacuation timetable in 1938, detailing routes, destinations and projected numbers of passengers.[21] These measures cannot be attributed to state-intervention, because the Government was unable to set up an executive committee to manage the railways in wartime in 1939, let alone a year before.[22] The Southern alone planned this mass exodus.

Not only did the Southern largely plan the evacuation, but it also took a large share of the practical responsibility for associated services. Receptions were set up in county-based locations to receive children and relocate them as they arrived. Six of the most active reception destinations, including the busiest in East Sussex, were all to be serviced by the Southern Railway.[23] On September 1st 1939, the Southern moved 345 812 passengers, excluding the passage of troops to France; Bernard Darwin concludes that the plan “went like clockwork.”[24] Again, this plan could not have been carried out had the Southern not been sufficiently prepared for such exertion before the outbreak of war. The evacuation succeeded through the efforts of the Southern staff, without help from the offices of state.

The Southern's response to spontaneous emergencies proved that it was not only capable of planning, but incredibly well stocked. The 1939 evacuation would appear an impressive enough achievement with its one-year head start of planning. But the response to the second mass movement of the population in 1940 was astounding. The fear of imminent invasion after the defeat at Dunkirk led to another wave of evacuation, which had not been contemplated in advance, as had the previous one. 170 extra trains moved 156 000 additional people between May and June. One of these carried 449 people to Cornwall and managed to load and clear Vauxhall station in less than three minutes.[25] Such efficiency is hard enough to replicate in the present day, let alone by 1940s standards and wartime conditions.

But the most potent example of the Southern Railway's latent strength can be seen in the transportation of troops from Dunkirk. According to Bernard Darwin's summary of the War, commissioned by the Southern itself, all four companies sent trains to aid in the operation. However, while the GWR sent forty trains, and the LMS and LNER sent forty-four and forty-seven respectively, the Southern outnumbered them all with fifty-five services.[26] This was not the only area in which the Southern played a vital role either. Angus Calder assessed that the Railway's Channel ferries played the greatest role in the sea crossing as well.[27] In fact, the Admiralty chartered fifteen of these steamers as military transports and hospital carriers in anticipation of the operation.[28] So it could be argued that a single private company was actually filling the deficiencies of the state in this case.

The efficiency of the Southern Railway at Dunkirk cannot be denied. According to David J. Knowles, it was told to only expect ten percent of the actual number of troops requiring transport. Also, chosen destinations were subject to change at the last minute. Even so, the Southern had anticipated this, and prepared surplus trains, thus avoiding serious problems.[29]

Bernard Darwin recorded the details of the Southern's actions at Dunkirk in great detail. Trains were dispatched less than 24 hours after 'Operation Dynamo' was drafted. As soon as the boats landed at any one of the seven ports on the Coast, freight trains would reload them to cross the Channel again, and the survivors were loaded onto passenger trains to Redhill in Surrey. From there, locomotives were coaled up and re-coupled, and troops were placed on connecting trains to London and their hometowns. This process took no more than four minutes, and was completed in two minutes and thirty-five seconds on one occasion. An Army officer is reported to have wished that the Army “could operate with as few written instructions as the Southern Railway does.”[30]

What is more, this plan succeeded despite unavoidable complications. One soldier recounted his experience of being ferried from Dunkirk back home to Cornwall. He recalls that German squadrons followed the boats back, and then bombed the railway lines to London in several places. While this caused understandable delay, the train still got him and the other troops to London on a series of alternate routes.[31] There was also the fact that many of the troops were in need of food and medicine. In response, staff at Headcorn Station worked eight-hour shifts for over a week to feed 145 000 troops as the trains stopped. Then buses were contracted to take the wounded to hospitals from Farnborough and Orpington.[32] It is hard to imagine rail services enduring this much hardship and responding so well, even in the present day.

But few accounts have offered a reason as to exactly why the Southern performed so well, both at Dunkirk and during the evacuations. Bernard Darwin observed that the Southern already had considerable experience in directing large volumes of traffic, in preparation for events like the Derby or the Schneider Trophy.[33] Yet the actions at Dunkirk challenged the entire stretch of the line, and required command over many more trains than the management was ever used to; and it still worked better than the preparations for most sports events. David J. Knowles has put forward an unconventional theory. He suggests that the Dunkirk operation succeeded because it was not actually planned. Instead, the superintendents and operations department simply reacted and improvised as the situation progressed, spreading instructions by telephone and word of mouth.[34] There is merit in this theory, as this chapter has established that there were more than enough trains available for such spontaneous organisation. It also raises issues with the notion that state control would have improved efficiency.

The Southern was prepared to not only undertake such an operation, but to manage a large amount of stock from other companies. It was also in a position to cooperate with boats and road traction. Rixon Bucknall was correct in his assessment that it was a “triumph of administrative genius,” to have devised such an operation.[35] This is significant because at this stage in the War Effort, the Government had not yet taken full control of the railway companies. So the Southern was able to undertake and lead these operations based entirely on its pre-existing strength as a private company, with little intervention or planning from the state. Therefore, besides modern rolling stock and investment in road and sea traffic, the Southern also benefited from an extremely resourceful management team. The value of such a capable management to a private company should not be underestimated.

Ultimately, this demonstrates that the Southern Railway was proving itself as a working example of a successful private railway company, at a time when many dismissed the model as outdated. Even as other companies like the LNER struggled, the Southern had made unrivalled progress in electrification and contracts with other modes of transport. Its record in the first year of the Second World War demonstrates that it was capable of taking a lead role over its rivals and managing larger scale operations to an unprecedented degree of efficiency. This lead apparently owed less to state intervention at this time, and more to the effective management and sound investments, which had given the Southern an advantage throughout the interwar years.

The implication of this is that had the War not broken out, the Southern would not have been on a course for nationalisation. In fact, given its growing prosperity and capability of command, it may well have been on a course to monopolise control of rail travel over its rivals. In fact, in 1932, K.G. Fenelon debated the possibility of successful railways like the Southern absorbing less successful ones whilst keeping prosperous routes competitive.[36] This was certainly possible in the Southern Railway's 1939 condition. Nationalisation lacked the public support necessary for a Government mandate at this time. Besides, the Southern was far less in need of consolidation than its rivals, over which it held an economic and infrastructural advantage. Therefore, if one company stood to gain from the weaknesses of the struggling railway companies, it was the Southern Railway. However, before this hypothesis can be extended, the extent of the War's impact on the Railway must also be considered.

Chapter 2: The Cost of War on the Southern Railway

When the Second World War erupted, the Southern Railway was to suffer severe damage, disproportionate to that of its three rivals. From July 1940 to March 1945, the LNER suffered 1737 incidents of enemy damage; the LMS experienced 1939 and the GWR fell victim to 1202. But in the same time the Southern Railway, covering a much smaller route mileage than the others, recorded 3637 incidents of damage through enemy action. This amounts to 170 incidents per 100 miles.[37] The financial strain of reparation, restraint of innovation and loss of morale must also be factored into the cost besides bomb damage. Such disproportionate damage would inevitably reduce some of the strategic and economic advantage that the Southern held over its competitors. But this chapter will illustrate how the Southern responded to the attacks and continued to function, despite the severity of the damage suffered. It will argue that the resilience of the Southern Railway throughout the War reflects its inherent strength, and potential as a private company in a time of peace.

Before the conflict had begun, the management of the Southern was aware that wartime conditions would seriously affect the Railway. In anticipation of this, all manufacturing development was halted and investment was instead directed towards preparing for a long-term war.[38] This would have been a difficult process in the early months, due to the 'Phoney War' period, when there was very little military action. So there was little way of knowing what to expect from enemy attacks.

One issue that was foreseeable from the start was diminishing staff morale. To prevent this, the Southern Railway commissioned a new wartime newspaper called Southern On Service. This paper featured coverage of the War Effort and highlighted the achievements of some of the staff.[39] Members of staff also formed a brass band in order to entertain fitters and engineers employed at the Railway's works.[40] The Southern also demonstrated significant command of public relations by making propaganda films with the Ministry of Information. One of these, Shunter Black's Night Off, highlighted the dangers faced by “wagon chasers” in a marshalling yard.[41] This would have been an interesting departure from the glamorous image of fast expresses, which railways usually adopted for self-promotion. Instead, the Southern highlighted the value of its everyday staff as a demonstration of the Railway's strength. It is easy to see how these measures contributed to maintaining staff morale when the Railway received its most vicious bombardments.

Even so, very little could be done to counteract the true severity of the War's damage. The lines of the Southern Railway were bombed 1080 times from September 1940 to August 1941 alone, and raids would continue right throughout the War.[42] One journal estimates that it took 465 000 cubic yards of filling material, 1904 tons of girders, 650 tons of steel and 109 600 feet of timber to repair all of the destroyed tracks and bridges.[43] Simultaneously, the shelling and bombing of Dover throughout 1940 left the boat train routes damaged in many places.[44] To have one of the most vital rail links damaged would have impaired efforts to transport workers to repair other problems. To make matters worse, a Government document reveals that the Southern faced a far graver threat from V1 flying bombs than any of the other three companies; it cites an example of one such V1 destroying a girder bridge, which a Kent-bound express later collided with, causing eight deaths.[45] This is a clear example of how such weapons could lead to greater disruption of operations for the Railway than the actual damage done by their impact.

There were further setbacks to make the situation even worse. Angus Calder observed that by the summer of 1943, 100 000 railwaymen had been called up into the Armed Forces.[46] While the mass recruitment of women workers could replace many of these men, the loss in numbers and need to train new workers en masse was still substantial enough to make dealing with bomb damage more difficult. However, a more pressing problem was that bombs often fell on vital locations of command and manufacturing. Immediately after Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe launched 'reconnaissance in force' and bombed the Robertsbridge permanent way depot on 20th June 1940.[47] Permanent way facilities dealt with track maintenance, so this loss would have impeded repairs to further damage. The goods yard at Nine Elms was attacked thirteen times during the Blitz, due to its unfortunate location adjacent to a river, which bombers followed to navigate to London. One of these attacks resulted in an overturned locomotive blocking the shed off and killing two crewmen.[48] On one occasion, the viaduct outside Brighton Station was directly hit.[49] Given that one of the Railway's works depots was located in Brighton, this would have resulted in limited access to new train stock along the South Coast. Worse still, a fire raid in December 1940 destroyed the Brighton side of London Bridge Station. Days later, the former London and South Western Railway offices were also burnt down, taking with them the General Manager's office and a great deal of historical archives.[50]

So it is clear that disproportionate bomb damage presented a significant challenge for the Southern Railway. However, unexploded bombs were an even greater cause of disruption. J.N. Faulkner recalled, in his personal experience of the Blitz, that at least bomb damage could be repaired. Unexploded bombs (UXBs), on the other hand, meant a delay in services until authorities could arrive to defuse them. Often these would turn out to be false alarms anyway. He cites an incident in September 1940, when no trains at all could run to Windsor due to UXBs and prior damage.[51] Therefore even if there was no detonation, UXBs undermined the Railway's punctuality and services.

Problems like this may have resulted in a further negative effect on the Railway: a reduced ability to provide a satisfactory service to passengers. Angus Calder concludes that 1500 trains a week were cancelled throughout the winter of 1942, and that fares had tripled whilst levels of comfort had diminished.[52] Similarly, all Pullman services were apparently halted for the duration of the war.[53] Given that Pullman trains were luxury services, and therefore highly priced, one can deduce that this would have led to another loss of revenue for the Railway.

The Railway was also losing revenue for the simple reason that fewer people were using public transport. J.N. Faulkner made the assessment that the number of air raids resulted in less activity in the areas surrounding London, due to the fear of bombing. This meant that there was less need for suburban trains to operate after dark, when the bombers were anticipated.[54] To cause disruption, attacks only needed to be threatened, rather than actually take place. For instance, the town of Medway was not badly affected by bombing, but Nazi sympathiser William 'Lord Haw Haw' Joyce repeatedly threatened the destruction of its railway bridge in his radio broadcasts.[55] Naturally this would have demanded additional precautions from Southern staff and deterred potential passengers from using the Railway.

With such losses in revenue, loss of infrastructure and stock, and the high cost of repairs, it would not have been surprising if the Southern Railway had ceased to function at all during the War. However, this was not the case. Faulkner documented some extraordinary examples of resilience to such difficulties, in his recollections of commuting in the War. He writes about a driver whose train was caught in the blast radius of a bomb during the Battle of Britain. After surviving the explosion, the man claimed he was “ready for the next round.” Faulkner provides evidence to show that this attitude extended beyond simple rhetoric. When Portsmouth was bombed on 12th August 1940, destroying 4 trains and much of the station, services were back running merely a week later. Similarly on 14th August, a bomb left a large crater in the line from Waterloo, causing a derailment. The line was reopened on the 15th, just one day later. Perhaps the most audacious example of all comes from how Faulkner claims the Southern came to deal with unexploded bombs. The Railway's management were aware that waiting for the disarming of UXBs was causing most delays. So in response, railway volunteers were trained to test for them and clear the area themselves. Not only this, but while they waited for engineers to arrive, crews shunted rakes of coal trucks alongside the bombs, to shield passengers on nearby trains, and slowly drove past the bombs before they were actually disarmed.[56]

Given that the Southern Railway was losing money as well as stock, the fact that it was able to deal with such disruption so efficiently is astonishing. Jack Simmons and Gordon Biddle have suggested that one reason for this was the Railway's established advantage in electrified routes.[57] There may be some truth in this assessment. Electric Multiple Units would not have needed to be turned around at the ends of journeys, thus saving time and planning around damaged stations. Also, Faulkner recalls that third rail power allowed for the electrical current to simply be switched off for repairs and restored as soon as they were finished.[58] After the end of the War, the Chief Mechanical Engineers from each of the four railway companies met to discuss the conditions of their regions. The Southern's Chief Designer, Oliver Bulleid, noted that the Southern had been forced to use electric trains far more in wartime, after a general consensus that older locomotives had been struggling across all four companies even before 1939.[59]

The fact that there was a general deficiency of stock is significant when taking into account how much more wartime damage the Southern sustained than its rivals. The previous chapter established that the Southern had held a financial and operational advantage over the other three companies before the War and this may well explain how it overcame some of the difficulties of wartime operation. Yet the cost was still disproportionate to the other companies. Very few events in history could have had such a drastic impact on the railways as the damage from the Second World War. Even so, the Southern was still operating competently by the end of the War. Furthermore, Rixon Bucknall proclaimed it “indisputable” that the Southern retained the smartest and best cared-for stock in the country even then.[60]

There is no question that the Southern Railway was weakened as a result of the Second World War. H.P. White has observed that it struggled to find money for maintenance in 1945, due to the reduction in profits from inflation.[61] The Southern Railway's lead over its rivals was reduced by disproportionate damage. Its misfortune did not result from any inherent weakness in the company. On the contrary, its resilience to such setbacks demonstrates its exceptional strength.

But there was one additional cost of the War that did not arise from enemy action. This was the disproportionate financial restraint imposed by the National Government. In 1941, John Maynard Keynes's budget recommendations prohibited private companies from making excess profit from wartime conditions. However, the railways would ultimately make £412.6 million in the following five years, equal to a decade of pre-war profits, which had potential to solve the problems of the struggling companies. T.R. Gourvish argues that the Government's choice to take £195.3 million for the Treasury, nearly forty-seven percent of profits, was excessively harsh on the industry. He also notes the criticism the Government received for freezing charges for all railway companies, which would have made their financial position even harder.[62]

The precarious financial position of the railways after the War increased the need for state control. But the Southern Railway was the most profitable company at the start of the War, so these policies punished the Railway most harshly. If the Government subsidised struggling lines whilst punitively taxing profitable ones, it would have resulted in a distorted perception of the market, which would not have favoured the Southern, when the War ended. The next chapter will examine the Railway's wartime relationship with the state in greater detail.

Chapter 3: Control of the Southern Railway and the War Effort

When a nation is engaged in total war, it is virtually a requirement for the state to have an extent of control over all aspects of production and services. The Second World War was no different in this regard. All industries were under de facto state control, one way or another. But the extent of this control over the Southern Railway is interesting in the wider context of the subsequent nationalisation of the railways.

The nationalisation of inland public transport was one of the Labour Party's headline policies when it won the General Election in 1945. The party manifesto highlights that warfare had proven the efficiency of state control, and that unification was necessary for better coordination of transport. It also theorised that if unification did not come through public ownership, it would come through private monopoly, which it claimed would be “a menace,” to the industry.[63] This clause shares some similarities with a prediction of K.G. Fenelon's in 1932. He too had anticipated that the future of inland transport lay in the coordination of road, rail and other modes of transport.[64] However, as outlined in the first chapter, the Southern Railway had already managed this without any intervention from the state. The Labour Party's concern over monopolies was likely in response to the example of companies like the Southern.

Some historians have argued that the decision to nationalise the railways was an inevitable result of an ideology, the development of which can be traced back to the First World War. It is true that the Government commissioned Ashford Works, at the time owned by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (SE&CR), to build locomotives to meet national needs throughout the First World War. However, the SE&CR was amalgamated into the Southern Railway when the War ended, and nationalisation was not pursued. So control of the works and new locomotives passed to the Southern instead of the state.[65] Gerald Crompton claims that the debate on railway nationalisation had persisted since 1918, and the Labour Party's election victory at the end of the Second World War merely completed the change in mindset.[66] Richard Toye points to the fact that there were several representatives of the National Union of Railwaymen at John Maynard Keynes's presentations in which he professed his ideas on state intervention.[67] H.P. White has also argued that the nationalisation of British Railways was largely motivated by Government ideology.[68]

David Edgerton agrees that there was an ideological basis behind the nationalisation. However, he maintains that the Second World War in particular made Britain more “economically and ideologically national,” through the requirements of the state's war effort; he also observes that Labour's 1935 manifesto never invoked the concept of the 'nation' at all.[69] Furthermore, while nationalisation was brought up in Parliament during the War, no decision was actually reached until Labour's victory was assured.[70] In fact, Stephen Brooke has found that Labour Minister Ernest Bevin encouraged total nationalisation during the War, only to be overruled by the Minister of War Transport.[71] Apparently something of the pre-war indifference to state control extended into wartime.

In reality, state control arose as much from the practical necessity of wartime as ideological motivation. There was a desperate need to manufacture weapons and vehicles for the War. Edgerton estimates that Britain produced more artillery, small arms and anti-aircraft guns than even the USA.[72] In order to accomplish such a feat of engineering, the British Government needed to prevent all industrial companies from pursuing their own individual interests and force them to fulfil the state's requirements. A good example of the tension between national and company interests can be found in the case of Oliver Bulleid, the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway. Recruited for his radical designs, Bulleid was responsible for the creation of the 'Merchant Navy' class towards the end of the war. A very large locomotive, of the 4-6-2 'Pacific' wheel arrangement, the 'Merchant Navy' was as powerful as the express locomotives that ran the London to Scotland services for the other companies. Bulleid himself insisted that the 'Merchant Navies' served to boost morale within his own company, giving “direction and pride and comradeship to the whole of the railway staff.”[73] But in reality, railway workers expressed concern that the construction of the new 'Pacifics' was something of a waste.[74] The Southern covered a smaller area than the other companies and therefore required smaller locomotives. So to divert a considerable amount of labour and expense to a new design, that was bigger and more powerful than currently necessary, was potentially needless and detrimental to the War Effort in general. So in a way, this incident put the Railway's interest at odds with those of the state, and did not fully succeed in its original intention to restore staff morale. This illustrates the Labour Party's reason for concern over the control of private companies.

However, the separate railway companies did still fulfil many of the Government's requirements. A Government document, released after the War, reveals that the four of them dedicated 20 000 staff to the manufacture of armaments.[75] It also details how the work was distributed across the country. The LNER and the Southern Railway shared the construction of 250 rocket launchers, while the Southern cooperated with the GWR to manufacture 'pom-pom' anti aircraft guns.[76] These examples of shared labour and cooperation amongst the competing companies indicate the new level of state control introduced in wartime.

Yet the document also reveals some interesting points about the Southern Railway in particular. Firstly, it mentions that the Southern manufactured 258 Mathilda Tanks independently.[77] Given the size and mechanism of a tank compared to simple arms, this was a more productive result than most of the cooperative ventures with the other companies. The Southern was still outperforming its rivals, despite their shared labour under the state. The Southern manufactured 1475 parts to secretly convert Bristol Blenheim aircraft into heavy fighters in 1938, a year before the Government pursued further control of the railways.[78] This is especially significant because the Government was unable to pursue further control of the railways before 1939. So the Southern was engaged in secret construction for the War Effort while it still operated as a private railway company.

It is apparent that the Southern was trusted with a very central role in the manufacturing process for the rest of the War. In 1941, the Government ordered the construction of new types of 'Austerity' locomotives, specifically for use by the War Department. A commemorative Southern Railway document reveals that thirty-five of these locomotives were constructed at its own Ashford Works, and Oliver Bulleid designed several of them himself.[79] Regardless of their design origins, these 'Austerity' locomotives were to be used across the country, which means that the Southern was providing for many of its former rivals as well as itself. Similarly, Ashford Works would be used to manufacture wagons for Persia in 1942. The depot built 1600 twelve-ton wagons in twelve weeks, by completing one wagon per hour on average.[80] This operation is particularly notable because it made Ashford the centre of a nationwide process. All four of the railway companies supplied parts and components for the 600 workers at this one depot, in a “truly cooperative job.”[81] So in this sense, the Southern took a literal lead over its former rivals in the manufacturing process.

The Railway also contributed to the military operations. As well as manufacturing for the Army and Royal Air Force, it built weaponry for its own use. One of its constructions included eighty-six 'Howitzer' guns that were mounted on rail wagons for mobility.[82] In fact, Ashford Works was the first depot to have an anti-aircraft gun permanently mounted for protection.[83] This is perhaps an indicator that the Government understood the valuable contribution made by this particular depot.

These investments did not merely aid the defence of the Railway, but the defence of the country as well. The Dover & Martin Mill Light Railway, operated by the Southern, ran rail-mounted guns across the White Cliffs of Dover, in anticipation of German bomber attacks.[84] Similarly, four armoured trains were posted across the Railway from 1940 to 1943. These carried anti-aircraft guns, anti-grenade nets and gun carriers to rearm troops, and were crewed by servicemen who had worked on the line before being called up.[85] This demonstrates that the Southern was as capable of cooperating with the Armed Forces as it was with road and boat services.

There is also evidence of fluid cooperation between the Southern Railway and the new volunteer services that were introduced during the War. The Air Raid Precautions wardens specifically commissioned a train for their own use. This was equipped to douse fires and enforce blackouts, and it displayed safety warnings across its coaches for commuters.[86] The Southern also directly contributed to the Home Guard. Staff received training in shooting, army drills and guard duties to form a specialised Railway detachment of the Home Guard.[87] Angus Calder estimated that this detachment patrolled four times as many points of track as the British Army.[88]

This was not the only time that the Southern would directly complement the Armed Forces. The Railway played a large role in the D-Day landings of 1944. Although all the railway companies contributed war materials for the invasion, filling over 6000 wagons in total, it was the Southern Railway's responsibility to ensure that they were all loaded onto the boats.[89] In preparation, the railway sidings were extended to hold 2500 wagons across fourteen miles, with four locomotives to shunt them. Near to Southampton, a 'Woolworth depot' was set up, with 1000 ft of sheds and seventeen marshalling sidings, designed to hold everything needed overseas from nuts and bolts to complete locomotives.[90] The works at Eastleigh were also converted to build fast landing craft, planes and tanks for the invasion.[91] Simultaneously, workers laid a ramp between the quayside and pier at Southampton Docks, so that locomotives and wagons could actually be loaded directly onto the boats.[92] When the operation began, wagons were transported to Southampton, cleared and shunted constantly for forty-eight hours, and 496 trains would transport supplies to the Army from June to August alone.[93]

As with Dunkirk, the Southern also contributed to the Channel crossing with boats from its own fleet. The Railway's Invicta III mail boat was used as an assault craft, and the Twickenham ferry was used to carry an ambulance train, with nurses on board to aid soldiers from the beach landings.[94][95]

Even after the landings succeeded, Ashford Works continued to supply breakdown trains and wagons to transport the American Army's tanks and armour for the European theatre.[96]

The Southern Railway's actions at D Day were comparable to Dunkirk, as both operations required the management and workforce to prepare and receive disproportionately large volumes of traffic. Given the amount of damage the Railway suffered, as outlined in the second chapter, it is surprising that it was able to repeat such a feat. However, one thing that had changed was its relationship with the Government. Angus Calder found that in February 1940, the Conservative Government had granted an annual investment of forty million pounds to the railways, but did not press for greater control, so little really changed. But by 1941, transport had suffered from the Blitz, and the National Government, with a greater Labour influence, was now in power. The investment was increased to forty-three million pounds annually, but the new Ministry of War Transport would take full control of the railways for the duration of the War.[97] While this was only intended to be a temporary condition, a Government document from 1945 expresses doubt that the old company system could be restored. It observes that many locomotives had been either sold to the Government or lost in the War, and that much of the rolling stock had become obsolete through the lack of new development. The shortage of manpower after years of conflict also made any resolution difficult.[98]

With a situation like this, the need for state intervention is apparent. But even despite the full effects of the War, the Southern Railway still seems to have maintained a competitive edge until its nationalisation. In early 1947 the Southern had begun improving its passenger stock, replacing old compartment coaches with full corridor services. A Mass Observation report reveals that sixty percent of those interviewed approved of the change, with many expressing preference for the Southern over other companies like the LNER.[99]

So, it would appear that even the full extent of the Second World War did not completely eliminate the Southern Railway's competitive advantage over its rivals. This may well explain why it was the only railway company still making a profit when the Transport Act was passed. Yet it is possible that the Southern may have held a lasting legacy despite its absorption into British Railways. This chapter has noted how often the Southern took a command position when the railways were called upon for service in the War Effort. Despite the overall control of the Ministry of War Transport, it was still the Southern that marshalled the other railways' stock at D Day, gave the designs for many War Department locomotives and became the centre of manufacture for supplying troops abroad. Many of the Railway's key wartime tasks, such as converting fighters, evacuating families and its management of the Dunkirk operation, were undertaken before the Railway came under Government control, even planned before the outbreak of the War in some cases. Therefore, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that British Railways' first Chairman of the Railway Executive was Sir Eustace Missenden, the General Manager of the Southern Railway.[100]

Reuben Kelf-Cohen assessed that a nationalisation process can best avoid problems if the ownership is changed but the management is not, and credited the early years of BR's Railway Executive as an example of this policy in action.[101] On this basis, it would seem that the 1945 Labour Government intended the nationalised British Railways to follow an example from the most successful railway management it could find. The Southern Railway fulfilled this requirement.

The management of the Southern Railway throughout the War proved effective enough for the Government to take it as an example in peacetime. So the Railway's commanding influence over its rivals during the years of competition translated into the Government's running of all the railways during the period of nationalisation. In a way, even the radical restructuring of inland transport and transformation of public ideology did not remove the Railway's advantage. This is, in part, the legacy of its role in the War Effort.


This dissertation has shown how the Southern Railway succeeded in prospering while all its rivals struggled in the interwar years. Its early investment in electricity and infrastructure allowed it to improve conditions for its passengers in a way that the other companies could not. Also, its control of boat services across the English Channel and contracts with lorry companies demonstrate a greater influence in other modes of transport. It is difficult to dispute that the Southern Railway was the most influential and successful railway company in Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War. The case for railway nationalisation lacked the public support to be accepted as an alternative model before the outbreak of the Second World War. Even when the War broke out, the concept only came into practice once the Labour Party's victory was assured. The evidence does not suggest that railway nationalisation was inevitable before the War.

The Second World War proved the full extent of the Railway's strength in many different areas. The amount of war machines built and new stock designed shows the high level of manufacturing that the Government entrusted to the Railway. Despite suffering severe bomb damage, disproportionate to that of its three rivals, the Southern still remained in operation and even retained some of its superior reputation among passengers. Its central role in events such as the evacuation of civilians, Dunkirk operation and D Day landings also demonstrate astonishing efficiency and ingenuity on the part of the Railway's managers. Many of the Southern Railway's designs and plans were put into effect before the Ministry of War Transport could take control, a few even before the War started. Therefore, such feats could only be attributed to the Railway's existing strength and potential, rather than interference from the state.

It cannot be denied that the severity of the damage and implementation of state control in the Second World War ultimately led to the complete nationalisation of public transport, including the railways. However, the evidence does not support the accounts of Gerald Crompton and Richard Toye, who suggest that the nationalisation of the railways was a necessary course of action before the Second World War took its toll. In fact, events could have taken a very different course, especially in the case of the Southern Railway.

This research has demonstrated that the Southern Railway was not simply well stocked, well managed and aided by strong infrastructure. It was also capable of exercising command over its three rivals. This can be seen in the Railway's management of over 100 additional trains from the other companies at Dunkirk, and its direction of all the traffic for the D Day landings. While elements of the D Day operation may be attributed to greater state intervention, this cannot be said of the Southern at Dunkirk, where it acted autonomously and outside of any Government design. None of the other companies could have received and directed so much excess traffic, given that they struggled to raise money to update their own stock. While the other companies were at financial risk, the Southern was not. The fact that the Southern still made money and held its reputation despite the disproportionate cost of war only further proves its strength in the 1930s. Therefore, had the War never occurred at all, given the Railway's economic superiority, managerial capability and manufacturing strength, it can be argued that it was actually poised to take control of its rivals.

The weakness of nationalisation as a concept in the interwar years meant that there was very little stopping the prosperity of the Southern Railway before the war. It was already planning to fully electrify its own routes, had the most aesthetically pleasing rolling stock and full control of the commuter routes and services to Europe. If the other companies had failed, and nationalisation was not a popular option, then the logical alternative would have been for the Southern to absorb its less successful competitors, as Fenelon predicted. The ease with which the Southern supplied its rivals in wartime, and organised most cooperative operations, proves that it could have served as a centre of operations for a larger railway network. Nineteenth Century politicians saw the amalgamation of the four railway companies as a possible route towards a private monopoly, rather than an inevitable step towards nationalisation, as Herbert Morrison and Richard Toye suggested. It could very well have enabled the Southern Railway to dominate inland transport, had the Second World War never taken place. In this sense, Gerald Crompton's assessment, that the Second World War was the conclusion of a nationalising process that began in the First World War, is flawed. The Second World War can actually be seen as a discontinuity from the interwar years, which favoured the growth of a private monopoly from the Southern Railway.

This issue brings to light some of the problems of historicism. As Karl Popper famously observed, there is a potential for historians to reduce the process of history to cyclical events, leading to unwarranted confidence in their predictions of the future.[102] Many historians have made such a misstep, in their assumptions that state ownership is part of an inevitable cycle, in which private companies always fail and become nationalised. This dissertation warns against a more general tendency to enforce a pattern of logical progression onto past events. It has shown how the likes of Richard Toye, Gerald Crompton and T.R. Gourvish have reduced the issue of railway nationalisation to a simple chronology, which seamlessly links the two World Wars and interprets nationalisation as the logical outcome. In reality, the evidence contradicts this notion. The full nationalisation of the railways was dependent on the Second World War, which in turn was dependent on many other variables. It was only through a variety of decisions and circumstances, during the war, that the Southern Railway failed to monopolise the railway industry, and came under state control, and this is something that many historians often forget. This is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from a study of the Southern Railway in the Second World War.


  1. R. Toye, The Labour Party and the Planned Economy, 1931-1951 (Rochester, 2003), p.63.
  2. T.R. Gourvish, British Railways, 1948-73: A Business History (Cambridge, 1986), p.2.
  3. Gerald Crompton, 'The railways companies and the nationalisation issue 1920-50', in Robert Millard and John Singleton (eds), The political economy of nationalisation in Britain 1920-50 (Melbourne, 1995), p.124.
  4. J. Simmons and G. Biddle (eds), The Oxford Companion to British Railway History: from 1603 to the 1990s (Oxford, 1997), p.460.
  5. Toye, Planned Economy, p.23.
  6. Crompton, "railway companies", p.117.
  7. H. Morrison, Socialism & Transport: The Organisation of Socialised Industries with Particular Reference to the London Passenger Transport Bill (London, 1933), p.63.
  8. Morrison, pp.61-62.
  9. R. Bucknall, Boat Trains and Channel Packets: The English Short Sea Routes (London, 1957), p.137.
  10. K.G. Fenelon, Railway Economics (London, 1932), p.180.
  11. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.149.
  12. Fenelon, Economics, p.185.
  13. Bucknall, Boat Trains, pp.142-44.
  14. C.F. Dendy Marshall, A History of the Southern Railway (London, 1936), pp.545-7.
  15. Fenelon, Economics, p.114.
  16. Morrison, Socialism & Transport, p.83.
  17. Toye, Planned Economy, p.72.
  18. Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, File Report A23, 'Investigation of 'Square Deal' for the Railways,' August 1939, p.20.
  19. Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 25, Political Attitudes and Behaviour, 6/F, 'Text on N.U.R. Resolution as published in Daily Mirror, 10.7.40.
  20. R. Kelf-Cohen, Nationalisation In Britain: The End of a Dogma (London, 1961), p.80.
  21. 'Evacuation, ARP and Enemy Action,' in Southern Way, Special Issue No 3, 'Wartime Southern' (2009), pp.7-9.
  22. Financial Arrangements between the Government and the Four Amalgamated Railway Companies, London Passenger Transport Board, Minor Railway Companies, arising from Government Control as from September 1939 (Derby, 1940), p.163.
  23. J. Welshman, Churchill's Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain (New York, 2010), p.68.
  24. B. Darwin, War on the Line, The Story of the Southern Railway in Wartime (Midhurst, 1946), pp.33-4.
  25. Ibid, p.42.
  26. Ibid, p.24.
  27. A. Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (London, 1992), p.108.
  28. Darwin, War on the Line, p.8.
  29. D.J. Knowles, Escape From Catastrophe; 1940 Dunkirk (Rochester, 2000), p.74.
  30. Darwin, War on the Line, pp.23-26.
  31. Imperial War Museum, C. Little, 'Trials and Tribulations of an Old Timer; An Autobiography', ND.
  32. Darwin, War on the Line, pp.28-30.
  33. Ibid, p.24.
  34. Knowles, Escape, p.132.
  35. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.148.
  36. Fenelon, Economics, p.116-7.
  37. Darwin, War on the Line, p.107.
  38. H.P. White, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, Volume II: Southern England, Fourth Edition (London, 1982), p.198.
  39. National Railway Museum Archive, 'A Message to all from our General Manager,' in Southern On Service number 1, January 1940.
  40. 'Evacuation, ARP and Enemy Action,' p.12.
  41. Shunter Black's Night Off, (dir. Max Murden, 1941).
  42. J.N. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting in the Blitz,' in Railways South East, Volume 2 No 3 (1991), p.136
  43. 'From Dunkirk to D Day', in Southern Way, Special issue No 5, 'Wartime Southern Part 2 (2010), p.44.
  44. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.149.
  45. It Can Now Be Revealed: More about British Railways in Peace and War (1945), p.45.
  46. Calder, People's War, p.334.
  47. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting,' p.136.
  48. Ibid, pp.142-3.
  49. E. Course, The Railways of Southern England: The Main Lines (London, 1973), p.138.
  50. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting,' p.143.
  51. Ibid, pp.137-8.
  52. Calder, People's War, p.318.
  53. Course, Southern England, p.242.
  54. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting,' p.139.
  55. Course, Southern England, pp.65-66.
  56. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting,' pp.136-7.
  57. Simmons and Biddle (eds), British Railway, p.461.
  58. Faulkner, 'Southern Commuting, p.144.
  59. O.V.S. Bulleid, F.W. Hawksworth, H.G. Ivatt and A.H. Peppercorn, 'Railway Power Plant, 12th June: Railway Power Plant in Great Britain,' in Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Vol. 157 (1947), p.238
  60. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.150.
  61. White, Regional History, p.198.
  62. Gourvish, British Railways, p.3.
  63. 'British Labour Party election manifesto, 1945,' (date accessed 29 April, 2013).
  64. Fenelon, Economics, p.217.
  65. Dendy Marshall, Southern Railway, p.506.
  66. Crompton, 'railway companies,' p.141.
  67. Toye, Planned Economy, pp.103-7.
  68. White, Regional History, p.198.
  69. D. Edgerton, Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War (London, 2012), p.272.
  70. Simmons and Biddle (eds), British Railway, p.339.
  71. S. Brooke, Labour's War: The Labour Party During the Second World War (Oxford, 1992), p.81.
  72. Edgerton, War Machine, p.274-6.
  73. O.V.S. Bulleid, 'Some Notes on the 'Merchant Navy' Class Locomotives of the Southern Railway,' in Proceedings of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Vol. 154 (1946), p.335.
  74. 'Dunkirk to D Day,' p.43.
  75. 'It Can Now Be Revealed,' p.5.
  76. Ibid, pp.11-14.
  77. Ibid, p.5.
  78. Ibid, p.7.
  79. Ashford Works Centenary: 1847-1947 (Ashford, 1947), p.34.
  80. Ibid, p.36.
  81. 'It Can Now Be Revealed,' p.14.
  82. Ibid, p.11.
  83. Ashford Works, p.36.
  84. White, Regional History, p.218.
  85. 'Evacuation, ARP and Enemy Action,' p.20.
  86. Ibid, p.13.
  87. National Railway Museum Archive, 'The Making of the Southern Home Guard,' in Southern On Guard number 3, September 1940.
  88. Calder, People's War, p.124.
  89. 'It Can Now Be Revealed, p.42.
  90. Ibid, p.40.
  91. 'From Dunkirk to D Day,' p.52.
  92. Course, Southern England, p.275.
  93. 'It Can Now Be Revealed,' pp.43-4.
  94. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.147.
  95. 'From Dunkirk to D Day,' p.115.
  96. Ashford Works, pp.34-6.
  97. Calder, People's War, pp.232-3.
  98. It Can Now Be Revealed, pp.52-3.
  99. Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, File Report 2461, Southern Railway Carriages, February 1947, pp.34-5.
  100. Bucknall, Boat Trains, p.153.
  101. Kelf-Cohen, Nationalisation, p.59.
  102. K.R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, Second Edition (London, 1960), pp.13-14.

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