Terry Jenkins

Sir Ernest Lemon: the production engineer who modernised the LMS railway and equipped the RAF for war: a biography..
Oxford: Railway & Canal Historical Society. 2011. 272pp.

This is a remarkable book in that it casts new light on the LMS and its endeavour to develop "modern best practice". At the same time it illuminates the contribution which the subject of this biographical study made to this progress and adds further insights into the way in which Sir Henry Fowler was eased out of office, his temporary? replacement by Lemon, and his ultimate replacement by Stanier. Most importantly the study is based on a collection of Lemon's private papers. The author has not been content to rest upon this collection, but has augmented this by consulting the Company's records stored at Kew, and by extensive reading of published material by people like Cox and Bond. It also adds considerably to our knowledge of Tommy Hornbuckle, who was Lemon's brother-in-law, Robert Reid (William Paton Reid's brilliant son who died aged 44) and was Lemon's chief and several others notably C.E.R. Sherrington.

The book makes it abundantly clear that Lemon instigated many of the features which many might otherwise associate with other names lower down in the management structure. Thus the motive power organiaztion associated with Rudgard was engineered and instigated by Lemon. In some areas, notably in the installation of mechanized marshalling yards, the LMS was behind the LNER in their development: thus Toton was modelled on Whitemoor, and in some areas, notably signalling, never caught up.

The book makes it clear that Lemon was an extremely hard taskmaster who set very demanding standards. His marriage did not survive, but he did not divorce: and when Ernest received his knighthood for his work for the RAF in 1941 his wife became Lady Amy and continued to use this style until her death.

The author trained as an engineer, but spent his professional life as a principal tenor with English National Opera. His brother-in-law Keith Harcourt had been asked to evaluate the Lemon papers which had been brought to the attention of Colin Divall by one of Lemon's granddaughters. If the author has the strength and spare time he might be an ideal candidate to produce a thorough biography of that somewhat enigmatic figure: Josiah Stamp. This book has already uncovered some gems notably Appendix A which shows Stamp's working methods with his Executives. Before that he really ought to attempt to inform the world, preferably in a short journal article of (1) Lemon's Baptismal name; the form of name used on census records; (2) more about his relationship with his mentor Professor Laurie and (3) where Margaret Stirling fits in the picture — he missed the point that the letter writer had been recently widowed: her husband had been a major figure in polymer (rubber and plastics research) during the Interwar Period.

One major fault has been detected the Author had clearly not read H.A.V. Bulleid's Master builders of steam which contributes some illuminating comments on Lemon and interprets Stanier's relationship with Jimmy Anderson in a very different manner. KPJ considers that he is partly to blame for failing to squeeze the last drop of information from this treasure trove of a book and Jenkins does acknowledge steamindex. Jenkins also fails to note that Lemon was a member of the Association of Railway Locomotive Engineers, although according to the Minutes he does not appear to have been very active in its affairs: the latter should be scanned and placed on the Internet..

The index is not as good as it looks at first sight: notably the lack of sub-headings. Thus use of colour for the illustrations must have increased production costs, but does sometimes increase their impact, notably in the Norman Wilkinson watercolour of the interior of Wordsworth's Lakeland cottage (p. 114): neither Wilkinson nor Wordsworth in index.

The book has been reviewed by Dr John Quail of York University in J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2011 (212) p. 48 and this reproduced below (KPJ is in agreement with most of the views expressed by the reviewer, although he might quibble with the "poor agricultural labouring stock" being noted so early and Lemon was like Aspinall, Harrison and Milne namely an engineer who grew to be a manager. In that respect Lemon was not quite so rare.

The subject of this book, Ernest Lemon, rose from poor agricultural labouring stock to qualify as an engineer, eventually rising through the ranks of the LMSR to become a Vice President. His skills as an organiser were recognised by government and utilised to organise the crash programme of aircraft production before World War Two for which he was knighted.

The book is welcome for a number of reasons of which two are particularly important. The first is that it is assiduously based on archival research some of it from new and important sources — regrettably not always the case particularly with railway books. The second is that its subject is a manager and an engineer. In the US the early managerial revolution has been described as the application of engineering principles to organisation. Lemon is a relatively rare UK example of an engineering career culminating in senior general management who actually fulfilled this criterion. In company with his peers Lemon has been largely ignored. The UK public figure or the entrepreneur gets the biography and the ‘technician’ who made their career possible gets a footnote.

Terry Jenkins very ably shows that many of the innovations on the LMSR routinely ascribed to Josiah Stamp were instigated, designed and implemented by Lemon including the reorganisation of Carriage and Wagon workshops, the appraisal of the large array of locos inherited from amalgamation and their steady winnowing out, the reorganisation of locomotive maintenance shops and methods. These were huge organisational tasks conducted with great energy. Jenkins is right to hint that Stamp should be remembered as someone smart enough to recruit very able senior managers to do most of the work. (Jenkin’s appraisal of Harold Hartley is also welcome in this respect. I may add that it was Hartley who introduced the concept of budgetary control to the LMS and Stamp who reduced it to a crude set of spending cuts.) At least Lemon’s work on aircraft production was rewarded with the public recognition of a knighthood.

Jenkins contributes some revelatory detail on Lemon the man raising questions of social conventions and hidden lives which could, perhaps, have been further explored. He was effectively adopted and detached from his labouring family by a middle class couple who presumably paid for him to become a premium engineering apprentice. His rise would have been impossible otherwise. The story of the desertion of his wife and his subsequent partners is evidenced precisely but any account of the stifling gender politics and fear of scandal of the times is underdeveloped. But this, perhaps, would have been another kind of biography. The book is very detailed and will be useful above all to the transport historian and informed railway and aircraft enthusiast. It does not follow the clichéd story arc of ‘great man’ biographies and the detail gives a realistic picture of the task-storm and conflicts of managerial life. This lack of ‘fictionalisation’ however while utterly virtuous will not make it an easy read for the ordinary reader, whoever they might be. As an account of an exceptional engineer/manager, however, this is a fine achievement.