Wedgwood, smart and smashed

Is there a connection, apart from name, between the restaurant on the Royal Mile and the china firm? Who knows? Who cares? Both are at the top of their act.

CVWYesterday’s post skimmed lightly over the dominance Dame Cicely Veronica Wedgwood (right) had over several generations of students and teachers. The book to which I referred there, The Thirty Years War, came out in 1938, and was very much a product of its time. The author herself concluded the war was the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict. In the Preface to the 1956 reprint, she went further, and put the work in the context of the 1930s depression: Preoccupation with contemporary distress made the plight of the hungry and homeless, the discouraged and desolate in the Thirty Years’ War exceptionally vivid to me.

This, let it be noted, from a daughter of privilege, privately-educated, touring Europe with her maternal grandfather, Albert Henry Pawson, multi-lingual, sensitive to art and culture,  A.L. Rowse’s “first outstanding pupil”, an Oxford First, literary adviser at the publisher Jonathan Cape, editor and columnist, reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, and committed to the mission of making history accessible to the average reader.

Not bad, eh?

Now let’s go back a generation, and get reciprocating.

Her father, Ralph, was the younger brother of Josiah Wedgwood. a Trinity College, Cambridge, man and a contemporary of the likes of the philosopher G.E.Moore, historian G.M.Trevelyan (the “M” for Macaulay, and grand-nephew of Thomas Babbington ditto) [Ouch! see comments below] and Ralph Vaughan Williams (who was also a cousin).

Ralph Wedgwood, from early days was a train-spotter. After Cambridge, he joined the North Eastern Railway, and worked his way through the docks operations and traffic management, until in 1914 he took charge of the whole of NER freight and passenger operations. His war-service was directing the rail transport to the Front Line, under his old NER boss, Eric Geddes, and he arrived at the rank of brigadier-general in charge of docks.

Back to civilian life, it was time for the reorganisation of the railways. The NER was a main constituent of the East Coast grouping, and on vesting day, 1st January 1923, Wedgwood became chief general manager of the new London and North Eastern Railway (LNER. The LNER employed over 200,000 staff, ran 6000 route miles oftrack, and was the world’s largest dock-owning railway company. For the record, Wedgwood’s chairman at the LNER was William Whitelaw, grandfather of Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary. It’s a smaller world than we think.

The Streaks

In 1935 Wedgwood gave the nod to the LNER’s chief mechanical engineer, Nigel Gresley to produce four streamlined steamers for the East Coast Main Line. This was George V’s silver anniversary, so these first four A4 locomotives all had “silver” in their namings: 2509 Silver Link, 2510 Quicksilver, 2511 Silver King and 2512 Silver Fox. To show how it should be done, on its inaugural press run Silver Link broke the British speed record twice, and averaged 100 mph over 43 miles.

Having proved the concept of high-speed steam traction, the LNER extended the production run — at first the namings were for birds (Gresley was an ornithologist), then five were built specifically for the Coronation express between Kings Cross and Edinburgh, and named for the Dominions, two were named with woollen connections (Golden Fleece and Golden Shuttle) for the West Riding route. The seventeenth of this second batch, originally and now again 4498, would be Gresley’s hundredth Pacific locomotive: the LNER named it after him to celebrate the occasion.


Sir Ralph Wedgwood

By late 1938 the LNER was scraping the barrel for bird names: 4469 was going to be Gadwall, a species of pretty average ducks. Instead it became Sir Ralph Wedgwood, as the General Manager was coming up to retirement.

On 29th April 1942, 4469 Sir Ralph Wedgwood, had been shopped out after an overhaul and had been routinely running in between Gateshead and York. That night the York North Shed took a direct hit, and 4469 was damaged beyond repair. York North Shed is now the National Railway Museum Great Hall and a plaque marks the spot.


Later, between 1944 and its scrapping in 1965, 4466 Herring Gull would take 4469’s former name plates.




Filed under Britain, History, railways, reading, World War 2, York

3 responses to “Wedgwood, smart and smashed

  1. James Loucks

    I like your observations a great deal. May I offer that you’ve misspelled Macaulay’s middle name: it should be “Babington.” From a constant reader.  —  James Loucks

  2. Your stories are always so thorough and well researched. As a researcher myself, kudos to many tasks well done.

  3. Malcolm Redfellow

    Apologies: “Babington”. I was confused by a half-memory of a very weak undergraduate pun on the name.

    “I babbled for you, as babies for the moon,
    Vague brightness” [Tennyson, The Princess, III]

    By the same token, too many of the National Railway Museum publications have “Wedgewood”.

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