Edward Watkin

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This article is about Sir Edward Watkin, railway chairman (1819–1901), for other people of the same name see Edward Watkin
"The Railway Interest". Caricature by Ape published in Vanity Fair in 1875.

Sir Edward William Watkin, 1st Baronet (26 September 1819 – 13 April 1901) was a British Member of Parliament and railway entrepreneur. He was an ambitious visionary, and presided over large-scale railway engineering projects to fulfil his business aspirations, eventually rising to become chairman of nine different British railway companies.

Among his more notable projects were his expansion of the Metropolitan Railway (part of today's London Underground network); the construction of the Great Central Main Line, a purpose-built high-speed railway line; and a failed attempt to dig a channel tunnel under the English Channel to connect his railway empire to the French rail network.[1]


Edward William Watkin.jpg

Watkin was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of wealthy cotton merchant Absalom Watkin,[2] who was noted for his involvement in the Anti-corn Law League.

After a private education, he went to work in his father's mill business.[3] In 1845 at age 26 he founded the Manchester Examiner, by which time he had become a partner in his father's business.

He lived at Rose Hill, Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, in a house bought by his father in 1832.[4] He is buried in St Wilfrid's churchyard in Northenden, where a memorial plaque commemorates his life.


Watkin's high-speed Great Central Main Line

Watkin began to show an interest in railways and at in 1845 he took on the secretaryship of the Trent Valley Railway, which was sold the following year to the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), for £438,000.[5] He then became assistant to Captain Mark Huish, general manager of the LNWR.[citation needed] He visited USA and Canada and in 1852 he published a book about the railways in these countries. Back in Great Britain he was appointed secretary of the Worcester & Hereford Railway.[citation needed] He then left the LNWR and in 1853 became the general manager of the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR).[6] He held this position to 1862,[citation needed] and was chairman of the company from 1864 to 1894.[7] He was knighted in 1868 and made a baronet in 1880.[8]

Abroad, he encouraged the uniting of the Canadian provinces by the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also helped to build the railway between Athens and Piraeus, advised on the Indian railways and organised transport in the Belgian Congo.

Watkin was involved with other railway companies. In 1866 he became a director of the Great Western Railway and later the Great Eastern Railway. By 1881 he was a director of nine railways and trustee of a tenth. These included the Cheshire Lines, the East London, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire, the Manchester, South Junction & Altrincham, the Metropolitan, the Oldham, Ashton & Guide Bridge, the Sheffield & Midland Joint, the South Eastern, the Wigan Junction and the New York, Lake Erie and Western railways.[citation needed]

He was instrumental in the creation of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway's (MS&LR) 'London Extension', Sheffield to Marylebone, the Great Central Main Line, opened in 1899.[9]

Channel Tunnel[edit]

For Watkin, opening an independent route to London was crucial for the long-term survival and development of the MS&LR, but it was also one part of a grander scheme: a line from Manchester to Paris.[9] His chairmanships of the South Eastern Railway, the Metropolitan Railway,[7] in addition to the MS&LR meant that he controlled railways from England's south coast ports, through London and (with the London Extension) through the Midlands to the industrial cities of the North; he was also on the board of the Chemin de Fer du Nord, a French railway company based in Calais. Watkin's ambitious plan was to develop a railway network which could run passenger trains directly from Liverpool and Manchester to Paris, crossing from Britain to France via a tunnel under the English Channel.[10] As well as a high-speed specification, the Great Central Main Line was also built to an expanded continental loading gauge; unlike any other railway lines in Britain, Watkin's line would be able to accommodate larger-sized continental trains crossing from France.[11]

Watkin started his tunnel works with the South Eastern Railway in 1880–81. Digging began at Shakespeare Cliff between Folkestone and Dover and reached a length of 2,020 yards (1,850 m). The project was highly controversial and fears grew of the tunnel being used as a route for a possible French invasion of Great Britain; notable opponents of the project were the War Office Scientific Committee, Lord Wolseley and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge;[12] Queen Victoria reportedly found the tunnel scheme "objectionable". Watkin was skilled at public relations and attempted to garner political support for his project, inviting such high-profile guests as the Prince and Princess of Wales, Liberal Party Leader William Gladstone and the Archbishop of Canterbury to submarine champagne receptions in the tunnel.[1] In spite of his attempts at winning support, his tunnel project was blocked by parliament and cancelled in the interests of national security. The original entrance to Watkin's tunnel works remains in the cliff face but is now closed for safety reasons.[13][14]


Watkin was Liberal Member of Parliament for the constituencies of Great Yarmouth (1857–1858) Stockport (1864–1868) and Hythe in Kent (1874–1895). He was High Sheriff of Cheshire in 1874.[15]

Watkin's Tower[edit]

The first and only completed stage of Watkin's Wembley Tower (c.1900)

Watkin's last and unsuccessful project was the construction of a large iron tower, called Watkin's Tower, in Wembley, north London. The 1,200-foot (370 m) tower was to be the centrepiece of a large public amusement park which was built to attract London passengers onto his Metropolitan Railway, and was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris.[1][16] Watkin successfully opened the park in 1894 and built a new station at Wembley Park, but the tower ran into financial and structural difficulties. Watkin died before it was completed and the unfinished base structure was demolished in 1907.[1][17]

Other schemes[edit]

Watkin was responsible for an abortive attempt in the 1880s to create a new south-coast resort and deep-water port at Dungeness in Kent.


Watkin married Mary Briggs in 1845;[18] their son Alfred Mellor Watkin was locomotive superintendent of the South Eastern Railway in 1876[19] and Member of Parliament for Great Grimsby (UK Parliament constituency) in 1877.[18] His nephew Edward Watkin was general manager of the Hull and Barnsley Railway.


  1. ^ a b c d Goffin, Magdalen (2005). "4. The Watkin path". The Watkin path : an approach to belief. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. pp. 23–25. ISBN 9781845191283. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para. 1.
  3. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para. 2.
  4. ^ The Buildings of England: Lancashire-Manchester and the South-East
  5. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.3.
  6. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para. 3.
  7. ^ a b Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.5.
  8. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.4, 10.
  9. ^ a b Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.6.
  10. ^ Haywood, Russell (2012). Railways, Urban Development and Town Planning in Britain: 1948–2008. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 22. ISBN 9781409488255. 
  11. ^ Healy 1987, pp. 24–53.
  12. ^ Hadfield-Amkhan, Amelia (2010). "4. The 1882 channel Tunnel Crisis". British foreign policy, national identity, and neoclassical realism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 67–72. ISBN 9781442205468. [clarification needed]
  13. ^ "Channel Tunnel – Yes Or No?". 1957. British Pathé. Retrieved 6 September 2013.  Missing or empty |series= (help)
  14. ^ Horsfall Turner, Olivia (2013). "Making Connections". Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain. British Broadcasting Corporation. BBC Four. 
  15. ^ Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.10.
  16. ^ *Lynde, Fred. C. (1890). "Design No. 37". Descriptive Illustrated Catalogue of the Sixty-Eight Competitive Designs for the Great Tower for London. London: The Tower Company/Industries. pp. 82–83. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  17. ^ Rowley, Trevor (2006). The English landscape in the twentieth century. London [u.a.]: Hambledon Continuum. pp. 405–7. ISBN 9781852853884. 
  18. ^ a b Sutton & Bagwell 2004, para.11.
  19. ^ Biographical details of managers, chairmen, etc


  • Hartwell, Clare, Hyde, Matthew and Pevsner, Nikolaus, The Buildings of England: Lancashire: Manchester and the South East (2004) Yale University Press
  • Healy, John (1987). Echoes of the Great Central. Greenwich Editions. ISBN 0-86288-076-9. 
  • Dyckhoff, Nigel. Portrait of the Cheshire Lines Committee, Ian Allan, Shepperton, 1999 ISBN 978-0-7110-2521-9

Biographical articles[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Edmund Rumbold
Sir Edmund Lacon
Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth
1857 – August 1857
With: William Torrens McCullagh
Succeeded by
Adolphus William Young
John Mellor
Preceded by
James Kershaw
John Benjamin Smith
Member of Parliament for Stockport
With: John Benjamin Smith
Succeeded by
William Tipping
John Benjamin Smith
Preceded by
Baron Amschel de Rothschild
Member of Parliament for Hythe
Succeeded by
Sir James Bevan Edwards
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New title Baronet
(of Rose Hill)
Succeeded by
Alfred Mellor Watkin