The Railway King

Written By PhilG

York is a great place for a day trip or short stay. With lots of museums, restaurants, and pubs to explore.  

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Who was the railway king, and how did he get his name?

Opposite the Minster, in the same row as St Williams College there is a National Trust shop and on the wall of this shop is a plaque telling you that George Hudson, the Railway King once lived here and plied is trade as a draper from this little shop.

George Hudson, the Railway King, came to York as a 15 year old but through hard work, enthusiasm and luck he came to be in charge of one quarter of the railways in England and then fell from grace and moved abroad to avoid his debtors and the law.

York disowned Hudson for 100 years.

George Hudson was born in 1800 in Scaryingham near Howsham not far from York. When he was 15 he was thrown out of the village for fathering a child out of wedlock and made his way to York. In York he became an apprentice in Richard Nicholson’s drapers shop (now the National Trust Shop) and began learning the draper’s trade. In 1821 when George was 21 he became a partner in the business, George’s Uncle Matthew Bottrill was one of the richest men in York and may well have provided the money.

Less than six months after becoming a partner in the business George married Richard Nicholson’s sister Elizabeth on 17 July 1821 in Holy Trinity church Goodramgate York. George was 21 Elizabeth was 5 years his senior.

Happy and successful before his downfall.

When you find out more about George Hudson, I’m sure you‘ll be as surprised as I was to discover that he seems to have genuinely loved and cared for his wife and family. George and Elizabeth were both uneducated and out of place in the social circle they were to eventually to encounter.

Elizabeth was openly mocked on occasion but other people’s opinions don’t seem to have bothered George, it seems Elizabeth was the one for him, she was his wife and the mother of his children and he loved her.

“My ruin was…”

Between 1821 and 1827 George and Elizabeth seem to have lived happily above the shop opposite the Minster. George himself said “The happiest part of my life was when I stood behind the counter and used the yard measure in my shop. My ruin was having a fortune left to me.

I had the snuggest business in York”.

Investing his inheritance.

So what changed everything for Gorge and Elizabeth? In 1827 Gorge’s Uncle Matthew Bottrill one of the richest men in York died and left Gorge £30,000 this was a fortune in 1827 and the Hudson’s invested it in the birth of the railways. They also moved a short walk down the road to 44 Monkgate, the house that had belonged to George’s uncle.

George and Elizabeth had seven children but only four lived to be adults George was proud of them all and wanted to give them a secure upbringing and good education, something he had missed out on in his own life.

George Hudson invested heavily in the new railway network and in 1833 became treasurer of the York Railway Committee. In 1835 the York Railway Committee became the North Midland Railway Company. Hudson was treasurer and Robert Stephenson was its engineer.

“To make all the railways come to York.”

Hudson’s dream, of making all the railways come to York, was up and running and Hudson’s enthusiasm provided enough steam to power the adventure for thirteen years. As a York Explorer, I love George Hudson’s idea of making all the railways come to York,I’m not so keen on his accounting practices.

A special way of accounting.

Hudson had a talent for building up enthusiasm in his investors and few of them questioned the fact that if something seems too good to be true it probably is. Not surprisingly one of the Rowntree’s, a Quaker family well known for the care and help they gave to their employees and their fellow citizens pointed out there could be trouble in store.

Hudson’s genius and also his downfall was the way he sold shares with a guaranteed dividend, share holders couldn’t loose, for a while anyway.

One of the reasons the Railway King (George Hudson) rose so quickly and became so powerful was his special way of accounting, he seemed to pay dividends from capital not from revenue. And in 1848 Arthur Smith published a pamphlet about “The bubble of the Age or The Fallacies of Railway Investment” in which he explained, what he believed, Hudson was doing.

George’s enthusiasm and his shareholders desire for quick profits had stretched the railway investment bubble to bursting point and when investors realized this share prices collapsed.

On May 7 1849 Richard Nicholson was found drowned in the river Ouse at York. He probably committed suicide because of Hudson’s dodgy financial dealings.

Richard Nicholson was auditor for one of Hudson’s railways and director of another.

If Richard shared his sister’s lack of education (Richard Nicholson was the brother of Gorge Hudson’s wife) this would have been quite a difficult role.

However you view George’s dealings, it’s difficult to imagine York being the tourist destination it is today without his enthusiasm for the railways and his idea of making them all come to York.

Was The Railway King a hero or a villain?

I think a bit of both. There seems little doubt that he genuinely loved his wife and family, I think he thought that his accounting was less important than his dream.

George and Elizabeth were both uneducated and mocked for their lack of social graces but this didn’t seem to bother either of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in private, the Hudson’s laughed at the people who were laughing at them.

George had risen from a shop keeper to become the Railway King, an MP and three times the Lord Mayor of York. When the shares in his venture collapsed he ended up in debt and fled to France where he lived in exile to escape his debtors and the law who were also interested in George’s unusual way of accounting.

In 1870 Hudson returned to England he died in 1871. He is buried close to his berth place of Scrayingham close to Howsham.