Richard Beeching, David
Serpell and Ernest
steamindex home page
If George Hudson was the Railway King, then Marples was the ruthless destroyer of the railway system and great beneficiary of this destruction: it is ironic that he fled Britain by the Night Ferry to evade his tax dues.
Born 21 April 1913. Educated Maidstone Grammar School and Imperial College of Science & Technology, London. ARCS, BSc 1st class Hons. PhD London. Fuel Research Station, 1936 Mond Nickel Co. Ltd 1937. Armaments Design Dept. Ministry of Supply, l943. Dep Chief Engineer of Armamemts Design 1946. Joined Imperial Chemical Industries, l948. Director, 1957-61 and 1965. Deputy Chairman 1966-69. Various other senior positions within ICI. Chairman British Railways Board 1963-65. Famous for Beeching reports which showed an utter disregard for geography and even absurder prospects for British heavy industry. Merry-go-round and liner trains were his major positive legacies. Sacked by an incoming Labour administration which lamentably failed to reverse his most dubious failures in political geography: the Scottish Borders being the most obvious, but the tidal train service to the formerly? "strategic" city of Plymouth must be even more significant. The otherwise admirable R.H.N. Hardy has written a dubious hagiography. Beeching died on 23 March 1985 in East Grinstead.
Anne Pimbott Baker has produced an excellent ODNB study which includes Barbara Castle's diary comments: that he approached transport policy with an arrogance that comes, I suspect, from a clear mind that sees a logical answer to a situation and cannot tolerate any modification of it to meet human frailty (Castle Diaries, 196470, 122). Furthermore, the biographer records Tony Benn's astute observations: after a lunch in January 1965 at which Beeching had launched an attack on overblown democracy, observed: I think Beeching imagined himself as a new de Gaulle, emerging from industry to save the nation (Benn, 205).
Mathew Engel has given a sharp portrait of Beeching: "Given how late 130 years late the simple review of the railways' purpose was, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect Beeching to have glimpsed the future accurately as well as the present. But we can see now that he misread the future very badly [KPJ's emphasis]. First, he believed that his cuts would take British Railways into profit, or very close to it, by 1970. They did nothing of the kind, and had no prospect of doing so. Second, he thought the future of the railways lay primarily in bulk freight, which it did not, rather than passenger traffic. Third, he failed to see the importance of urban railways, even though towns and cities were already starting to choke [KPJ: this is especially damning for a man from Maidstone who commuted from Sussex, where the Southern Railway had changed the geography of South East England]. Fourth, being neither a historian nor a rail enthusiast, Beeching never thought "Well, you never know'. Obscure railways had helped save Britain in two wars; he never saw how some less obscure ones could provide options in the future. There was a fifth failure too, the most important of all, which we will come to shortly. Most of the first four points tie in, as usual, to the wider failure of government. The Conservative Party was not thinking of potential traffic problems in the twenty-first century; it was concentratiilg on getting through the distinctly unpromising 1964 election. It wanted to show the electorate that it was dynamic, unstuffy, forward thinking and possibly even cool, with-it and groovy by grasping the problems of the railways. But there was next to no liaison between the transport and housing ministries about how the plans might link with another government policy of moving people out of London. In 1962 it was decided to triple the population of Haverhill in Suffolk; in 1963 Haverhill station was listed for closure. There has been a minor flood of literature to mark the fifthieth anniversary (Golden Jubilee??) of the dreaded report.
Dr. Beeching's remedy: a cure for a century of the railway's ills. David N. Clough. Ian Allan, 160pp. GBS ***
This is reviewed by Geoffrey Skelsey in Backtrack, 2014, 28, 62: an alarming number of errors are listed, but notes that the biography of Beeching appears to be good. KPJ has since borrowed this book (cost 55p from "free" library in Norfolk) and doubts whether it is worth that amount: in his opinion too many largely irrelavant pictures; too little text; no index.
Those tempted to read David Henshaw should also consult Geoffrey Skelsey's excellent thoughtful review in Backtrack, 2014, 28, 126.
Sir David Serpell
David Radford Serpell was born in Plymouth on 10 November 1911. He was brought up in the city and attended Plymouth College. His father, Charles, who inculcated his family with a strong Nonconformist ethic of duty, had a law practice. In 1930 Serpell went up to Exeter College, Oxford, where distracted by a hectic social life and the river he gained a poor third in history. To make amends to himself and his father, he went to France, where he earned a doctorate in history at Toulouse University with a thesis on the Cathars. In 1934 he became an English assistant in a Gymnasium in Templin, north of Berlin. He also had first-hand experience of the growing anti-Semitism when he had a bout of appendicitis and a Nazi orderly delayed his operation because his name was David and he was circumcised. From Germany he moved to academic research as a Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy attached to Tufts University. While in the US he met Ann Dooley, a student at Syracuse University, whom he persuaded to move to England in 1937 and to marry him. Once back in the UK he joined the Civil Service as a member of the Imperial Economic Committee until the outbreak of war in 1939. From 1939 to 1942 he was with the Ministry of Food and from 1942 to 1945 he was with the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Immediately after the war he was involved in planning for the Berlin airlift.
He continued his ascent of the Civil Service ladder through the 1950s. One of his notable achievements was the negotiation, early in the decade, of favourable terms for the supply of oil from Iran. He was under-secretary at the Treasury, 1954-60; deputy secretary at the Ministry of Transport, 1960-63; and served in Ted Heaths Board of Trade, 1963-68. In 1968 he returned to the Treasury before being appointed KCB, and then appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport. In 1970 he moved to the new Department of the Environment, serving until his retirement in 1972, aged 61. Serpell set great store by the public service ethic of never taking political sides, and this he passed on to generations of subordinates and protégés, among them, Ian (later Lord) Bancroft, who became head of the Civil Service. When Bancroft died in 1996, Serpell gave part of the eulogy at St Margarets, Westminster, to a congregation which included Jim Callaghan and Michael Heseltine. He made it clear how much he was dismayed by the break-up of the Home Civil Service in favour of government-funded agencies no longer operating with the same culture, professional standards and training.
After retirement from the Civil Service, he took on several demanding roles. He was chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council immediately after its establishment; he was a director of British Rail and the Waterways Board; and he chaired a committee reviewing the Ordnance Survey in 1979.
The Serpell report, commissioned by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on options for the future of Britains railway system was the project which attracted the most attention. The report looked at the financial state of the post-Beeching system, which had reached its nadir in 1982 with strikes and rapidly falling revenue. There were several options to reduce British Rails deficit of £933 million, all painful in requiring a sharp reduction of the networks 10,000-plus route miles. The committee made several recommendations. The most drastic was nearly halving annual passenger miles by closing all but intercity services and main commuter lines in the South East. Each option was graded according to cost saving and impact on passenger service. Such substantial savings would inevitably leave people without rail service and forced on to the roads, and the report, portrayed by many rail supporters as a second Beeching, did not result in any substantial network changes. But Sir Peter Parker, the chairman of British Rail from 1976 to 1983, exploited the proposed closures to persuade the train drivers union Aslef to call off a threatened strike that would have shut the rail system. The Economist, no supporter of rail transport, considered the report to be absurd (one option would have deprived Plymouth of rail access). The long hours of preparing the report, followed by the politicking and the unwelcome attention of the media, persuaded Serpell that enough was enough and he finally retired for good.
Despite a professional aversion to personal publicity, Serpell did give an interview to The Times in May 1972. He was described as a witty, introverted man, and as an under-secretary he had the fire-breathing reputation of a man with extraordinarily high standards and little time for those who did not measure up to them. In his retirement proper Serpell moved to Dartmouth and enjoyed walking, golf, reading crime novels in particular and his family. He died on July 28, 2008, aged 96
The bulk of this entry is based on D.J. Dutton's ODNB extensive entry which significantly excludes Marples's escape on the Night Ferry with his ill-gotten gains. This event is in the Wikipedia entry and in the National Archives. It is ironic that his exit was by rail, rather than by road. Born Levenshulme, Manchester, on 9 December 1907, the only child of Alfred Ernest Marples, an engine fitter; later foreman engineer, and his wife, Mary Hammond. Ernest Marples was educated at a local council school before winning a scholarship to Stretford grammar school. Marples moved to London in the late 1920s and purchased a house on a mortgage while letting part of it to cover his outgoings. This was the start of a successful career in property development in which he bought up Victorian houses and converted them into flats. Before long he had set up a construction firm which he financed from his savings and a loan offered by the civil servant Jack Huntington, whom he had met on holiday and who became a lifelong friend. Huntington also introduced Marples to cultural and intellectual issues, including the study of political philosophy, which his own limited formal education had not encompassed.
By 1939 Marples owned Marples, Ridgway & Partners which had built several power stations, including one in Liverpool, which probably explains his choice of constituency. He had joined the London Scottish territorials, transferring to the Royal Artillery in 1941, rose to the rank of captain, but was wounded in 1944. At the 1945 general election he became the Conservative member for Wallasey in Cheshire, a seat held until 1974. He became secretary of the party's housing committee and produced a well-received booklet on housing problems. He ensured his future ministerial career by responding positively to the commitment given to the party conference in 1950 that the next Conservative government would build 300,000 houses in a year. This was, he told the 1922 Committee shortly afterwards, something which could be achieved in five years and at a reasonable cost. When, therefore, Churchill appointed Harold Macmillan minister of housing in October 1951, Macmillan chose Marples as his parliamentary secretarythus starting a political partnership which ultimately led to the latter's elevation to the cabinet. It was an unlikely partnership, uniting the Edwardian whose pretensions at least were aristocratic and the entirely self-made and somewhat brash businessman who had once been a bookie's dodger. Anthony Sampson stated between Macmillan with his languid style and Marples with his boasting efficiency, there existed an alliance of mutual advantage, between the amateur and the professional (Macmillan: a Study in Ambiguity, 1968, 98). It was his spell at housing that catapulted Macmillan into the front rank of Conservative politicians, and he never forgot the debt he owed to his junior minister. Among Marples's tangible contributions was to initiate the design of a house which needed almost no timber, then in short supply, using concrete instead. But his greatest value was in terms of his no-nonsense common sense, his limitless energy, and a capacity for self-publicity.
Marples was moved sideways to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in October 1954; here his talents were less well employed than at housing, and he returned to the back benches and his business career in December 1955. But when in January 1957 in the wake of the Suez crisis Macmillan became prime minister, Marples had his reward, becoming postmaster-general. He brought his ministry into the public limelight in a way in which few if any of his predecessors had done. His was the right sort of ingenious mind to bring new technology into the running of a government department which was more susceptible than most to the techniques and practices of the business world. During Marples's tenure subscriber trunk dialling was introduced, a new Atlantic cable transformed communications with the New World, and a series of efficiency studies was carried out to improve the profitability of the Post Office. Macmillan had recently introduced premium bonds, in the face of considerable opposition on moral grounds, and it seemed entirely appropriate that Marples, with his flair for publicity, should inaugurate the electronic random number indicating equipmentknown by the acronym Ernieto select the lucky winners. Overall, the minister enhanced his public standing as someone who could get things done, and it was no surprise when he was promoted to the cabinet as minister of transport following the Conservatives' victory in the general election of 1959.
The Ministry of Transport was not a post that usually figured prominently among Whitehall departments, but there was by the late 1950s a growing concern about Britain's transport problems, especially about those resulting from the rapid and seemingly inexorable growth in the number of motor vehicles, and Marples approached his brief with an infectious conviction that such problems could be resolved. He concentrated his early efforts on London, where road traffic was already approaching gridlock, and soon achieved considerable success in improving the flow of traffic. Many of his schemes were controversial and aroused motorists' hostility, but later came to be accepted as indispensable features of urban life. It was during his five-year tenure at transport that yellow no-parking lines and parking meters, with fixed fines imposed by traffic wardens without trial unless the offending motorist insisted on a court appearance, became commonplace in Britain's towns and cities. He also laid the groundwork for some of the reforms usually associated with his Labour successor, Barbara Castle, especially the introduction of the breathalyser as a means of tackling the problem of drink-driving.
To his credit Marples recognized that short-term palliatives, however useful, were not enough to deal with the problems of Britain's roads, and he invited Sir Colin Buchanan to produce a comprehensive report on the entire road network. Entitled Traffic in Towns, it was published in 1963 and called for the systematic planning of urban development so as to reconcile the needs of road transport with those of social amenity. The minister had already authorized the building of a full-scale network of motorways across the country, expanding the plans initiated by his predecessor Harold Watkinson. Many schemes for new bridges, flyovers, and embankments were also put in place. Overall it amounted to a considerable record of achievement. The ODNB biographer fails to record his subject's personal gain from this activity through Maples-Ridgeway
Marples's legacy to the railway industry was less fortunate. The nationalized network was making heavy losses and losing customers to the roads in an apparently irreversible fashion. Marples brought in Dr Richard Beeching, a leading executive from ICI, to join the British Transport Commission, with a view to succeeding the existing chairman, Sir Brian Robertson. Beeching then became the first chairman of the British Railways board with instructions to carry out a searching inquiry. He recommended concentrating resources on long-distance inter-city routes and the provision of special goods-carrying services to industry, conclusions which entailed the closure of about 2000 stations, particularly in rural areas, and 5000 miles of track, on the grounds of underutilization. Marples, who believed that the railways must, in the last resort, compete in the market with road transport, with the customer as final arbiter, gave Beeching's recommendations his full support, despite fierce opposition in the country and from the Labour opposition in parliament. At the time, Marples seemed to have had the courage to do something about the intractable problems of a remorselessly declining industry, but later concerns about the environmental pollution caused by an ever-growing number of motor cars and his refusal to recognize the railways as at least in part a necessary social service render his achievements somewhat less impressive.
By the time when the Conservatives lost office, Marples's career had peaked. He did shadow the new Ministry of Technology, but his relations with Edward Heath, who became leader of the party in July 1965, were never easy; he was dropped from the shadow cabinet, with some bitterness, after the general election of 1966. Heath did, however, make some use of his talents from the back benches. It seemed to make good sense to employ a self-proclaimed technocrat to consider ways of improving party organization. But Marples lacked a specific brief beyond looking at possible money-saving schemes, and he soon resigned, making it known that he had received no clear remit. Later he was put in charge of a public sector research unit, designed to study the application of modern management techniques to the machinery of government. There was, however, no place for him when Heath formed his government in June 1970. Marples left the Commons in February 1974 and became a life peer as Baron Marples, though he was never prominent in the upper chamber.
Early in 1975 Marples suddenly fled to Monaco. Among journalists who investigated his unexpected flight was Daily Mirror editor Richard Stott: "In the early 70s ... he tried to fight off a revaluation of his assets which would undoubtedly cost him dear ... So Marples decided he had to go and hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through his Liechtenstein company ... there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the Night Ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions ... He claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years' overdue tax ... The Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. By then most of them were safely in Monaco and Liechtenstein.". As well as being wanted for tax fraud, one source alleges that Marples was being sued in Britain by tenants of his slum properties and by former employees. He never returned to Britain, living the remainder of his life at his Fleurie Beaujolais château and vineyard in France.
Marples died in the Princess Grace Hospital in Monte Carlo on 6 July 1978. According to Humm (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc, 2015, 38, 252) he is buried in the Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-cum-Hardy..
Born in Exeter on 28 January 1897; died 9 February 1975. Educated Shebbear College and King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham. Engineering apprentice at Wolseley Motors. Chairman Advisory Group on British Transport Commission 1960.
MacGregor. John Roddick Russell (Earl of
Minister of Transport between 1992 and 1994 when he dismembered the British railway industry which led to the politically sensitive Hatfield and Paddington railway accidents and has escalated the cost of travel. He was educated at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh and at St. Andrews University. He is small in stature and is usually known as Wee MacGregor. He must be proud of the frightful lack of cross-country train services from Norwich (Truro has far more) and the slowness of trains from Diss (one of the impediments to less slow trains from Norwich to London).