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The Railway King: George Hudson

George Hudson and his family by Frederick Frith (c) National Portrait Gallery

George Hudson is the man York has to thank for its prominent role in the railways.

Born in Howsham, about 12 miles north-east of York, he was the fifth son of a farmer.  On leaving school in 185 he was apprenticed to a firm of drapers in York.  He later received a share in the business which became Nicholson and Hudson.  In 1821 he married Elizabeth Nicholson, the daughter of one of the partners in the firm.

Hudson was already wealthy when he received, under suspicious circumstances, a legacy of £30,000 from a great-uncle, Matthew Bottrill, money which he used to join the York establishment.  He joined the Tory Party, was elected to the York City Council in 1835 and became Lord Mayor in 1837-8, an honour he celebrated with a lavish party.

He contrived to be reappointed Lord Mayor for 1838-9, and to mark the coronation of Queen Victoria on June 28, 1838, he treated poor parishioners to ‘an excellent and substantial breakfast’ while providing free grocery tickets for 14,000 of the ‘lower orders’, paid for by public subscription.

In 1833 Hudson attended a meeting to discuss the construction of a railway line from York to link up with the Leeds to Selby line.  He bought 500 shares to become the largest shareholder.  Crucially he convinced George Stephenson to route the line from Newcastle to London through York rather than bypassing it on the way to Leeds.

An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1837 and Hudson became chairman of the company, known as the York & North Midland Railway Company, with George Stephenson as the engineer.

England was soon in the grip of railway mania, and Hudson was at the centre of things.  By 1844 he controlled more than 1,000 miles of railway and was dubbed the Railway King.  His wealth allowed him to buy several Yorkshire estates, including the 12,000-acre Londesborough estate and Newby Park. 

In 1846 he outlined plans for 32 Parliamentary Bills for railway projects costing a total of £10 million and became Tory MP for Sunderland.  This was the high point of his career.  His companies controlled over a quarter of the railways then built in England.

Cracks in the Hudson empire began to show in 1848 when some of his sharp business practices were exposed – most notably his payment of ‘dividends’ out of company capital.  His shares fell in price and the backlash against the Railway King began.  Hudson had to resign from many of his company directorships and to repay large sums of money which he was deemed to have misappropriated.

In 1849 he was expelled from the city council, and his wax effigy at Madame Tussauds was melted down.  But by this time he had established York as a major railway centre.  The formation of the North Eastern Railway company in 1854, led by Hudson’s arch-enemy George Leeman, furthered York’s rail links by cutting the journey time to London to five hours.

Hudson fled his creditors and lived in France for a while, returning to England in 1865 to fight the general election for a seat at Whitby.  Just before the election Hudson was arrested and imprisoned at York, where he remained for three months.  He was freed and his remaining friends and admirers raised enough money to pay him a yearly income of £600.  With this he went to live with his wife in a small house in  London.

Hudson was taken ill in York in the December of 1871 and returned to London, where he died at home.  Fittingly, his coffin was taken by train to York and he was buried at Scrayingham, close to his birthplace. The former millionaire left effects worth less than £200.

On his fall from grace in 1849, George Hudson Street in York was renamed Railway Street, but in 1971, a century after his death, the street was given back its original name.