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"The end of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway meant the end of northern economic independence"

In this brief history, Dr Stephen Caunce describes how a railway company helped to make England’s industrial north – and how its end presaged the region’s economic decline.

The development of the internal transportation network within and between England’s four main northern conurbations is, as usual, distinctive and misunderstood.

The mosaic map created by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company (L&YR), and on display in various stations, shows only a part of the overall system – but it does indicate its unfocussed, decentralised character. Uniquely among major English companies, this company never built a line to London. Adapting this system to modern needs has rarely worked out well over the last century, culminating in the never-ending west coast line upgrade saga, and its strange and controversial child, High Speed 2 (HS2).

The L&YR is especially interesting as the only powerful and long-lasting organisation which emerged spontaneously to co-ordinate activity across these conurbation boundaries. Its profits reflected regional economic performance, and it responded accordingly, always paying a dividend, and often a very healthy one.

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Incorporated in 1847, the L&YR united several small existing companies. Significantly, its core was the Manchester & Leeds Railway Company, formed in 1839, and not the Liverpool & Manchester (1830). It flourished for over 70 years, until 1921, when parliament forcibly grouped most lines into four huge new entities. The western routes mostly went to the London, Midland & Scottish; the rest to the London & North Eastern. The usual guiding logic of regionality and operational efficiency was set aside. The London routes to the north, provided by other companies, were assumed to have primacy.

The end of the LY&R had both a symbolic and practical significance. It meant the end of northern economic independence, and the region’s re-orientation towards becoming a London satellite zone, a move which the Thatcher government pretty much completed. Both the plan for HS2, and the cancellation of the Manchester to Leeds electrification, seem to grow entirely from that vision.

A degree of duplication

Thus it was that, in the 20th century, the L&YR was deemed to have got its fundamental orientation wrong. Yet before 1850 it had played a crucial role, in turning a set of disconnected, short and clumsily constructed lines that mostly carried minerals, into a national network which carried almost all traffic (except the purely local).

The Pennine industrial economy had always adapted cheap and proven solutions to local needs: before the 1820s, costly experimentation had been limited to just two long canal tunnels under the central summits. Even with railways, the region actually borrowed existing technology, and developed it only where the overloading of current communications systems was severely constricting local business performance.

Some lines were literally initiated as extended sidings to particular industrial units

Rosy and justified prospects of profits unlocked ample local finance; routes were planned piecemeal by local entrepreneurs to serve particular needs, rarely citing any wider logic. The goal was a freight network linking a multitude of scattered production sites to Liverpool and Hull, and it produced probably the most complex, unfocussed system ever built. The network had a high degree of duplication of even minor routes; some lines were literally initiated as extended sidings to particular industrial units.

In his 1981 book Trans-Pennine Heritage: Hills, People and Transport, Keith Parry characterised the network as “hard-working, intensively-developed, a little grimy, innovative, yet allowing itself few indulgences and above-all commercially clear-headed to the point of boredom”. Its trademark route ran from Leeds via Bradford and Halifax over to Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn and Preston. Extensive sections had quadruple track, and substantial goods yards existed every few miles.  

Photographs of L&YR operations are rare and unglamorous, for “of all the major British railway companies, [it] was at once the most complex and least colourful”. The most commonly seen picture is of a “heavy coal train near Mytholmroyd”.

Prodigious quantities of relatively short-haul freight were hauled over an intricate system full of junctions, where no two stations were much more than five miles apart. The L&YR’s 1,650 plain black locomotives formed a higher total per mile than any other British company, making it the most intensively worked.

Even by the1850s, an unusual 60 per cent of wagons were iron framed; by 1900 it was building specialised, braked wagons for delicate cargoes, including cattle, as well as unusually large ones for continental freight coming in via Goole. The company was then intensely proud that it could collect yarn from a spinning mill, transport it across Lancashire for weaving, and deliver the finished cloth to a Manchester merchant, all in one day.

Over1,900 passenger services developed around this freight focus, often to increase revenue on lines which existed primarily to convey coal and manufactured goods. Its longest regular non-stop run was from Manchester to Wakefield, less than 50 miles. However, where demand was high it was taken seriously. “Slip” carriages – individual cars, uncoupled from express trains while in motion, to deliver passengers to minor stations – ran from 1889, and mill owners and other wealthy commuters could use luxurious club cars on some lines.  In 1904 it was the first mainline railway to start electrification, between Liverpool and Southport; the Manchester lines followed.   

The company’s logo. Image: David Ingham/Wikimedia Commons.

The L&YR also ran steamship services from Liverpool to Drogheda, and Hull to Zeebrugge, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, and Hamburg. With 28 ships in 1914 it was the biggest shipowner among British railway companies; five more ships linked Fleetwood to Belfast and Derry in a joint operation with the LNWR.

The L&YR had then become the heart of a very integrated, intense and internationalised transport operation, filled out within the region by a host of short, private “mineral” lines and freight tramways, often narrow gauge and flimsily constructed. The corporations of towns of 50,000 people or above all also developed street tramways for passengers; smaller towns often got a service provided by bigger neighbours.

Some local passenger services outside the cities ceased running, but the resulting interurban service in industrial Lancashire was possibly the densest in the world. Even canals, by then mostly railway-owned, still moved bulky, low value freight within an extremely intricate “transportscape”. The problem for the future was the neglect of trunk roads and the lack of impetus to even consider underground railways except beneath the Mersey.


Sadly, railway grouping came just as unprecedented economic challenges developed. The LMS became the world’s largest transport organisation; the largest commercial undertaking in the British Empire; the largest joint stock organisation in the world; and the United Kingdom’s second largest employer, after the Post Office. It might seem to have offered the possibility of more rational planning.

But the region was just a part of its remit. Transpennine connections lost their significance, and an obsession developed instead with glamorous expresses linking London to Scotland, for no very obvious economic reason. One historian noted that, “the LMS did little to develop the former L&YR routes”; the same was true of the LNER in Yorkshire. Ironically, parliament had earlier twice refused to sanction such a merger, in 1853 and 1871.

The industrial Pennines thus emerged from the inter-war depression with transport links that were inappropriate and increasingly inadequate, probably for the first time in its history. The Beeching cuts of the 1960s came when the need for local rail services was heading rapidly downwards: they were severe, both in terms of pruning the network and in killing off rail-related industrial activity, which had been immensely important. We are living with the consequences of all this today.

Dr Stephen Caunce was formerly a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire. He has published a range of books on oral history and the north of England. You can buy them here.

Alternatively, you can read his economic history of the region on CityMetric, beginning here.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.