[Sir] Henry Worth Thornton

Thornton was born in Logansport in Indiana on 6 November 1871 and died in New York on 14 March 1933 (Marshall). Allen (in both his histories of the GER and the LNER) is strong on this fascinating personality, and the significance of a major might-have-been if Thotnton had been offered the post of Chief General Manager on the LNER. Allen actually worked directly for Thornton in producing statistics in graphical form for him during his general managership of the Great Eastern. His appoinment at the age of 41 must be regarded as one of Lord Claude Hamilton's great achievements. The Great Eastern Board had clearly been shocked by the Midland's acquistion of the Tilbury line and sought more dynamic management in the shape of an American, who had been General Superintendent of the Long Island Rail Road. He was strong on technical, traffic and adminstrative qualifications, and his experience of electrification might be useful. He was appointed in May 1914. He was a big and burly figure with a fresh-complexioned face and was accessible to staff. He instigated higher levels of remuneration for the senior staff and this was to create problems following the Grouping. He was a great believer in the creation of specific committees to address particular problems: there was a timetable committee, for instance. In 1917, following the retirement of Horace Wilmer, Thornton additionally took over the role of Chief Engineer, but in March 1919 he relinquished this role when John Miller, who had also served on the Long Island Rail Road, took over the Chief Engineer's duties.

Bonavia (A history of the LNER) notes that during 1922 J.H. Thomas (one time General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and then Secretary of State for the Dominions) had invited Thornton to become President of the newly-formed Canadian National Railways, an offer which Thornton accepted but probably lived to regret. But it now seems likely that Thornton might have preferred to stay in England and that for a time he toyed with a bold idea of detaching the Great Eastern's suburban lines from the rest of the undertaking and associating them with the London Underground Group and the Metropolitan Railway — and in the process providing a very exalted position for himself. This emerged in an article by Michael Robbins [Journal of the Railway and Canal Historical Society, Vol. XXV No. 3, September 1979] discussing the significance of some long-overlooked papers, which came into the possession of C. E. Whitworth, Principal Assistant to the General Manager of the Eastern Region of BR when the headquarters offices of the Region were being transferred to York. It is fascinating to speculate upon the possible consequences ofThornton becoming so closely associated with Lord Ashfield of the Underground and Lord Aberconway of the Metropolitan — both, to say the least of it, very strong personalities. Thorntou's proposal, which seems to have been discussed with a group of American financiers, involved electrification of the GER suburban lines and a new connecting 'Tube' into the West End of London, together with the redevelopment of Liverpool Street Station and erection of a major office block on the site — all schemes which have either been carried out or revived since nationalisation. However, this 'escape hatch' apparently did not work and shortly afterwards Thornton accepted the Canadian offer, thus making it easier for the North Eastern Railway Board to ensure that their nominee would be the first chief executive of the future LNER.

It is tempting to postulate what might have become of the Great Eastern under Thornton if there had been no World War and no amalgamation in 1923. The LNER, under its coal and steel orientated Board, considered suburban development an alien occupation. In consequence, suburban development in Essex and Hertfordshire remained less advanced than in the Metropolitan's Chilterns and Sir Herbert Walker's Southern. Earlier electric trains to the fringes of the Epping Forest and to the Blackwater and Clacton might have balanced development elsewhere: Harlow might have been a middle class suburb, rather than a new town. The Buntingford branch might still be with us and Hertford might have become another Guildford. The obituary in J. Instn Loco. Engrs., 1933, 23, 600 states that Thornton died on his birthday, but this at variance with the data in Who Was Who and in Marshall. Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia


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