Sir Edward William Watkin, 1st Baronet (26 September 1819 - 13 April 1901) was a British Member of Parliament and railway entrepreneur. He was an ambitious visionary, and presided over large-scale railway engineering projects to fulfil his business aspirations, eventually rising to become chairman of nine different British railway companies.
Among his more notable projects were his expansion of the Metropolitan Railway (part of today's London Underground network); the construction of the Great Central Main Line, a purpose-built high-speed railway line; the creation of a pleasure gardens with a partially constructed iron tower at Wembley and a failed attempt to dig a channel tunnel under the English Channel to connect his railway empire to the French rail network.
Watkin's father was closely involved in the Anti-Corn Law League, and Edward soon joined him, rising to become a key League organiser in Manchester. Through this work Watkin gained the friendship of the Radical leader Richard Cobden, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of Cobden's life.
Watkin began to show an interest in railways and in 1845 he took on the secretaryship of the Trent Valley Railway, which was sold the following year to the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), for £438,000. He then became assistant to Captain Mark Huish, general manager of the LNWR. He visited USA and Canada and in 1852 he published a book about the railways in these countries. Back in Great Britain he was appointed secretary of the Worcester and Hereford Railway. He then left the LNWR and in 1853 became the general manager of the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR). He held this position to 1862, and was chairman of the company from 1864 to 1894. He was knighted in 1868 and made a baronet in 1880.
Manager from 1858, then president 1862-69, of the Grand Trunk Railway of eastern Canada, he promoted the Intercolonial Railway, which eventually connected Halifax with the GTR system in Quebec. His grand vision was a transcontinental railway lying largely within Canada, but owing to the sparse population west of Lake Superior, the scheme could not be profitable in the absence of government financial backing. Opposition to the idea within the company led to Watkin's ouster. The GTR would later miss various opportunities to build a viable Canadian transcontinental railway.
Watkin was involved with other railway companies. In 1866 he became a director of the Great Western Railway and in January 1868 the Great Eastern Railway. In fact it was Watkin who recommended Robert Cecil who is credited with leading the GER out of its financial crisis. Watkin resigned as a director of the GER in August 1872.
By 1881 he was a director of nine railways and trustee of a tenth. These included the Cheshire Lines Committee, the East London, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire, the Manchester, South Junction & Altrincham, the Metropolitan, the Oldham, Ashton & Guide Bridge, the Sheffield & Midland Joint, the South Eastern, the Wigan Junction and the New York, Lake Erie and Western railways.
For Watkin, opening an independent route to London was crucial for the long-term survival and development of the MS&LR, but it was also one part of a grander scheme: a line from Manchester to Paris. His chairmanships of the South Eastern Railway, the Metropolitan Railway, in addition to the MS&LR meant that he controlled railways from England's south coast ports, through London and (with the London Extension) through the Midlands to the industrial cities of the North; he was also on the board of the Chemin de Fer du Nord, a French railway company based in Calais. Watkin's ambitious plan was to develop a railway route which could carry passenger trains directly from Liverpool and Manchester to Paris, crossing from Britain to France via a tunnel under the English Channel. The Great Central Railway's main line to London was also built to a comparatively generous structure gauge; but contrary to popular belief it was not built to a 'continental' gauge, not least because there were no agreed dimensions for such a gauge until the Berne Gauge Convention was signed in 1912. Healy mentions two bridges which were built to 'unusual dimensions ... to provide for possible widenings in case the Channel Tunnel project ever took off'. . In other words, the GCR would have needed enlargement for international trains.
Watkin started his tunnel works with the South Eastern Railway in 1880-81. Digging began at Shakespeare Cliff between Folkestone and Dover and reached a length of 2,020 yards (1,850 m). The project was highly controversial and fears grew of the tunnel being used as a route for a possible French invasion of Great Britain; notable opponents of the project were the War Office Scientific Committee, Lord Wolseley and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge;Queen Victoria reportedly found the tunnel scheme "objectionable". Watkin was skilled at public relations and attempted to garner political support for his project, inviting such high-profile guests as the Prince and Princess of Wales, Liberal Party Leader William Gladstone and the Archbishop of Canterbury to submarine champagne receptions in the tunnel. In spite of his attempts at winning support, his tunnel project was blocked by parliament and cancelled in the interests of national security. The original entrance to Watkin's tunnel works remains in the cliff face but is now closed for safety reasons.
Watkin's last project was the construction of a large iron tower, called Watkin's Tower, in Wembley Park, north-west London. The 1,200-foot (370 m) tower was to be the centrepiece of a large public amusement park which he opened in May 1894 to attract London passengers onto his Metropolitan Railway. The park was served by Wembley Park station, which officially opened in the same month, though it had in fact been open on Saturdays since October 1893 to cater for football matches in the pleasure gardens.
Watkin's vision of Wembley Park as a day-out destination for Londoners had far reaching consequences, shaping the history and use of the area to the present day. Without Watkin's pleasure gardens and station it is unlikely that the British Empire Exhibition would have been held at Wembley, which in turn would have prevented Wembley becoming either synonymous with English football or a successful popular music venue. Without Watkin, it is likely that the district would have simply become inter-war semi-detached suburbia like the rest of west London.
The tower was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The foundations of the tower were laid in 1892, the first stage was completed in September 1895 and it was opened to the public in 1896.
After an initial burst of popularity, the tower failed to draw large crowds. Of the 100,000 visitors to the Park in 1896 rather less than a fifth paid to go up the Tower. Furthermore, the marshy site proved unsuitable for such a structure. Whether the original design (which was to have had eight legs) would have distributed the weight more evenly cannot be known, but by 1896 the four-legged tower was clearly tilting. In addition, Watkin had retired from the chairmanship of the Metropolitan in 1894 after suffering a stroke, so the tower's enthusiastic champion was gone. In June 1897 the tower was illuminated for Queen Victoria's 60th Jubilee, but it was never extended beyond the first stage.
In 1902 the Tower, now known as 'Watkin's Folly', was declared unsafe (though this was because of concerns about the safety of the lifts, rather than directly about the subsidence) and closed to the public. In 1904 it was decided to demolish the structure, a process that ended with the foundations being destroyed by explosives in 1907, leaving four large holes in the ground. The Empire Stadium (later known as Wembley Stadium) was built on the site in 1923.
Throughout his life Watkin was a strong supporter of Manchester Liberalism. However, this did not equate into consistent support for a single party.
In 1874 he was elected Liberal MP for Hythe in Kent. However, he increasingly moved away from the Liberal party under William Ewart Gladstone, and in 1880 it was claimed that he had taken the Conservative whip. However he never stood for election as a Conservative and continued to sit with the Liberals; between 1880 and 1886 he was regarded variously as a Liberal, a Conservative, and an independent. In 1886 he voted against Gladstone's Irish Home Rule bill, and was thereafter commonly described as a Liberal Unionist. The confusion over his status came to the fore when he resigned his Hythe seat in 1895. Both the Liberal Unionists and Conservatives, who were in alliance, claimed incumbency and the right to nominate his replacement; Watkin for his part insisted that he was a Liberal, albeit one who had moved away from the official party. Reflecting on Watkin's position, the Conservative Aretas Akers-Douglas observed that 'no one knew what his politics were, except that he had voted for anyone or anything to get support for his Channel Tunnel'. In the event the Conservatives forced the Liberal Unionists to back down, and they won the seat in the 1895 general election.
Watkin lived at Rose Hill, Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, in a house bought by his father in 1832.[page needed] He is buried in St Wilfrid's churchyard in Northenden, where a memorial plaque commemorates his life.
Watkin married Mary Briggs Mellor in 1845, with whom he had two children. Their son, Alfred Mellor Watkin, became locomotive superintendent of the South Eastern Railway in 1876 and Member of Parliament for the Great Grimsby constituency in 1877. A daughter, Harriette Sayer Watkin, was born in 1850. Mary Watkin died on 8 March 1888.
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Charles Edmund Rumbold
Sir Edmund Lacon
| Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth
1857 - August 1857
With: William Torrens McCullagh
Adolphus William Young
John Benjamin Smith
| Member of Parliament for Stockport
With: John Benjamin Smith
John Benjamin Smith
Baron Amschel de Rothschild
| Member of Parliament for Hythe
Sir James Bevan Edwards
|Baronetage of the United Kingdom|
|New title|| Baronet
(of Rose Hill)
Alfred Mellor Watkin