The Midland Railway at War

A naval gun being transported on the Midland Railway 1914

When the First World War broke out in 1914 it marked a significant change to the fortunes of Britain’s railways. There were no major roads or heavy vehicles available so the military effort absolutely depended on the railways to deliver munitions, supplies and the armed forces to sea ports and mainland military establishments. There was no air transport available at this time to move anything long distances in a hurry either.

Sir Herbert Walker (1868-1949)

The railways were acknowledged as absolutely vital to the war effort and were immediately nationalised being brought under Government control via the Requisition of Forces Act 1871. They were run by The Railway Executive Committee (REC) whose membership was made up of the 13 larger railway companies’ General Managers. The Chairman of the REC was the President of the Board of Trade and the chairmanship was taken up by Sir Herbert Walker who was General Manager of the London & South Western Railway.


The declaration said that the REC had been formed for some time and had pre-prepared plans to facilitate the provisions of the act in case of war. It was stated at the time that railway facilities for other than naval or military purposes may be for a time somewhat restricted, the effect of the powers would be to co-ordinate the demands on the railways of the civil community with those necessary to meet the special requirements of the Naval and Military Authorities.

The announcement also said that

“More normal conditions in due course be restored and it is hoped that the public will recognise the necessity for the special conditions and will in general accommodate themselves to the inconvenience involved”

Here in Northampton the railways, and its employees certainly played their part in the war effort. The goods yard here at Cotton End became an important supply base for troops in the Eastern districts. Unfortunately this also meant that the yard became a target for theft, especially when food shortages began to take effect.


It should be noted however that the war had put significant pressure on railway workers due to the nature of their work. Food rationing struggled to take into account that many railwaymen were routinely taken far from home and expected to feed themselves. As the Union of Railwaymen complained at a meeting at the Plough Hotel in Northampton:

“Members pointed out that it was impossible for them to pack their baskets for the week under present conditions, and suggested that booking off and lodging out should be stopped until the war was over. A speaker said that on one occasion he went from Northampton to Welland and from Welland to Peterborough. The authorities refused to let him come home saying there was plenty of food, but all he could get for 10d. was a piece of bread and ham which had to do for supper and breakfast.”

Northampton Mercury Jan 21st 1918.

 Millions moved

Millions of troops were moved by rail from August 1914 and the planned summer holiday timetables were altered from the declaration of war. In fact, winter timetables were introduced from September as this was a reduced service to the summer months. Both Bridge Street Station and the goods station were used for the embarkation of troops to the front.

 The Northampton Yeomanry depart from Bridge Street Goods Station, 1916
clipping describing the departure of the Northamptonshire Regiment from the goods yard in 1914

Ambulance Trains

These trains were built by the larger railway companies and included a pharmacy, hot and cold water, electric lighting and day and night accommodation. Officers and men’s carriages were provided as were medical staff carriages. They also had a kitchen and pantry car plus staff compartments. The trains were steam heated and some carriages had lead floors.Carriages were equipped with sliding doors so stretchers could be used on and through the trains. These were often made from requisitioned parcels vans or at Wolverton, from Picnic Saloons which did not have many internal fittings to remove hindering conversion. Large 1000 gallon water tanks and toilets were installed for staff and patients use. These trains were about 500 feet long and places like Wolverton Works could turn out one train every week. A total of 17 such trains were built in the first month of the war.

An ambulance train being lowered onto the tracks at Swindon, 1914

The wounded were returned to Southampton by ship where they were met by 12 of these trains under the command of the Surgeon General. He received lists of wounded twice a week and hospital bed availability and thus was able to arrange suitable trains from Southampton around the UK to these hospitals. Each train could convey around 96 casualties plus four wounded officers plus staff and carried red crosses on the side of the carriages.

Interior of an ambulance train c1915

The following describes the arrival of just such a train at Northampton:

“The train baring its sad burden steamed through the Castle Station punctually to the scheduled time of 5.20 and then very slowly and gently backed into a special siding where preparations had been made to give the wounded tea and transport them to the hospital. They had left France very early that morning and had been taken straight from the boat to the train which left Southampton at one o’clock. By half past seven they were all in bed at the hospitals.”

Northampton Mercury, November 9th 1914

Jobs for Women

The railway companies tried to restrict the number of workers who joined the army, especially those who were highly experienced, as they were needed to keep the trains running. However, many of the railways less skilled workers such as general labourers, porters and clerks were allowed to join in their thousands. The Midland Railway alone lost 22,000 workers to the army. By 1915 the railways were beginning to allow women to take more and more roles in the railway, from porters to cleaners and beyond.

Female railway worker operating signals (1918) 

Unfortunately, despite proving themselves to be capable of handling many of these traditionally male roles, the end of the war saw the end of women’s employment on the railway…for the moment.


The clerical staff of the Midland Railway Goods Station held a most enjoyable evening on Saturday at the Cosmo Café to welcome back the members of staff who had served in the Forces, and to bid farewell to the lady clerks employed during the war. The occasion was opened with supper and the remaining time spent in harmony, dancing etc. … About fifty ladies and gentlemen were present.”

Northampton Mercury, Friday December 26th 1919

Lest We Forget

Ultimately of all the impacts of war, the loss of life is the most important.

Of the 22,000 men of the Midland Railway who served in the army, 2,833 were killed in action, 4,000 were wounded and 268 reported missing. A further 452 men were taken as prisoners of War.

Midland Railway roll of honour: Northampton


Name Department Grade Rank Regiment Remarks
Althorpe J. Goods Labourer Private 2nd Northants Invalided home
Bailey W.G.H Goods Porter Private 1st Northants Wounded in action
Lawrence J. Police Constable Private 1st East Kent Invalided Home
Pulley E. Goods Labourer Private Grenadier Guards Wounded in action


Prisoners of War

Name Department Grade Rank Regiment Remarks
Rabbit A.W Goods Stockman Private 1st Dorset POW in Germany


Killed in Action

Name Department Grade Rank Regiment Buried
Boyson F. Goods Drayman Private Manchester Outtersteene, France
Faulkener L.T Goods Dray Leader Private Tank Corps Harpole All Saints, England
Gibbins A. Goods Dray Leader Sapper Railway Opperations Division Kantara, Egypt
Ingram A. Goods Dray Leader Private Grenadier Guards Zantvoorde, Belgium
Joyce C. Goods Drayman Sergeant Royal Berks Le Touret, France
Langton A.E Traffic Porter Private Royal Welsh Fusiliers Loos, France
Pettifer B.C Goods Drayman Gunner Royal Garrison Artillary Grevillers, France
Reeve H. Goods Dray Leader Private Northants Peronne, France
Stocker P. Goods Stableman Gunner RFA Northampton Towcester Road, England
Webb A. E Goods Chain Horse Youth Private Northants Ration Farm, France
White T. Goods Drayman Private Northants Wootton St George, England
Whitehead Goods Porter Private Manchester Pozieres, France
Workman C.H Traffic Clerk L Corporal Northants Loos, France

These men, amongst their fallen comrades, were commemorated on a war memorial by the Midland Railway. The memorial, located at the headquarters of the Midland Railway Company in Midland Road, Derby, was officially unveiled on 15th December 1921. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the memorial is a cenotaph in Portland stone, with a figure of a dead warrior on top. The memorial was dedicated by the Bishop of Southwell, Edwyn Hoskyns. General Sir Herbert Lawrence, a director of the Midland Railway, gave an address at the service. Large crowds turned out for the service, as the horrors and losses of the war were still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Derby memorial
The ceremony for the unveiling of the Midland Railway war memorial, 1921
The memorial today