Brief History

The History of the Great Central Railway

On this website references to the "old" or "original" Great Central Railway refer, in the main, to the London Extension of the GCR which ran from Annesley, just north of Nottingham, through Nottingham Victoria, Leicester and Rugby to London Marylebone.

The origins of the old GCR may be traced back to the earliest days of railways in and around Manchester. What was to become identifiable as the Great Central Railway was the amalgamation on first of January, 1847 of the Sheffield, Ashton under Lyme & Manchester, the Sheffield & Lincolnshire Junction, the Great Grimsby & Sheffield Junction Railways and the Grimsby Dock Company. The area of operation of the MSLR is clear in its title and its reason for existence and principle traffic was the movement of coal and other goods across the harsh Pennine moorland and through the Woodhead Tunnel.

Little change in the system took place until the appointment, in 1854, of Edward Watkin as General Manager. Then a significant period of development took place mainly through joint line developments with other companies. Watkin, who became Chairman of the MSLR in 1864 and was knighted in 1868, was a very ambitious man and had the grand plan of linking the industrial heartland of Lancashire and Yorkshire with continental Europe through a Channel Tunnel. He was Chairman of the South Eastern Railway and in 1872 became Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway which then give him a route across London and on to the Channel. Having progressed the MSLR as far south as Annesley through a collaboration with the Great Northern Railway the only gap in his grand plan was the missing link from Annesley to Quainton Road on the Metropolitan.

A bill was put before Parliament in 1891 for the line from Annesley through Nottingham, where the great Nottingham Victoria station was built with the Great Northern Railway, Leicester, Rugby  and to an end on junction with the Metropolitan at Quainton Road. A short spur, going under Lords Cricket ground, was built from Metropolitan tracks at Canfield Place to the new terminus at Marylebone. It has since become known as the London Extension. It is on this line on which the present day Great Central Railway is based. The line incorporated stations at Loughborough Central, Quorn & Woodhouse, Rothley and Belgrave & Birstall now part of the present railway (although Belgrave has been rebuilt as Leicester North just south of the original station). On the section which is now separately owned by GCR (Nottingham) Ltd, the line included stations at Ruddington and East Leake; Rushcliffe Halt was built later.

Construction of the line started in 1894, by which time Watkin had resigned through ill health, and was opened to coal traffic on 25th July, 1898 (to bed in the line) and to passenger and goods traffic started on 9th March, 1899. Shortly after the opening Alexander Henderson became Chairman and the appointments of John George Robinson (designer of the O4) as Locomotive Superintendent in 1900 and Sam Fay as General Manager in 1902 saw the glory days of the Great Central when the railway did indeed become Great.

On 1st January, 1923 the creation of the "Big Four" railway companies saw Great Central amalgamated into the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).

The nationalisation of the railways in 1948 led to the Great Central metals becoming part of the Eastern Region of British Railways. In 1958 the ex-Great Central was re-allocated to the Midland Region of British Railways and so were sown the seeds of its decline as a main line to London. The Midland Region was staffed by members of the former Midland Railway who had been bitter rivals of the Great Central. The run down of the GCR was inevitable as traffic was transferred to the former Midland route. Through expresses were withdrawn in 1960 and a very poor semi-fast service introduced between Nottingham and London. Country stations such as those at Belgrave & Birstall, Rothley and Quorn & Woodhouse were closed in 1963. In 1966 the line closed as a though route to London and the line was severed just south of Rugby while the proud station at Nottingham Victoria was demolished. Until 1969, when the line was finally closed,  a DMU service ran from Rugby to Nottingham Arkwright Street.

A group of enthusiasts was determined to keep the line alive for the running of main line engines. The Main Line Preservation Group (MLPG) was formed to begin the mammoth task of preservation and restoration. Fund raising was always a problem so in 1971 the Main Line Steam Trust was formed and registered as a charity in order to raise funds through covenants. This too proved not to be sufficient to raise funds for the purchase of a short section of the line so the Great Central Railway (1976) Ltd was formed to raise funds through the sale of shares. This in turn was only partially successful and only the single track line from Loughborough to Rothley was saved with Charnwood Borough Council coming to the rescue by purchasing the land from Loughborough Central to Belgrave & Birstall.

Since then the volunteers and staff have re-instated a double track section from Loughborough Central to Rothley and opened a single track to Leicester North, just south of the old Belgrave & Birstall station (and built a new station there) and have restored stations, signals and signalboxes, carriages, wagons and steam and diesel locomotives. The results you see today are the results of more than forty years of hard work and dedication to keeping main line steam alive.


For further reading on the history of the Great Central Railway please consult:

Great Central - Vols 1 to 3 - George Dow - Published by Ian Allan
The Second Railway King - The Life and Times of Sir Edward Watkin, 1819 - 1901 - David Hodgkins - Published by Merton Priory Press
Sir Edward Watkin - 1819 - 1901 - The Last of the Railway Kings - John Neville Greaves - Published by The Book Guild
J G Robinson - A Lifetime's Work - David Jackson - Published by The Oakwood Press

The Great Central Railway Society continues to study all aspects of the Great Central Railway.

Our next operating day:

This Wednesday and Thursday

Steam and heritage diesel trains are operating this Wednesday and Thursday 24th and 25th July 2024, including on the Mountsorrel Branch on Thursday.

This Wednesday and Thursday

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Reunification appeal - Reuniting the two halves of the Great Central Railway

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