GNSRA, Great North of Scotland Railway Coat of Arms.

The General Managers Of The GNSR

This article by R P Jackson appeared in the Great North Review No.106, Summer 1990.

Robert Milne | William Moffatt | George Davidson

In its earliest days the Great North did not have a General Manager, but by 1856 it was clear to the Directors that this post should be created. For the following 62 years until the Company ceased to exist it was held by only three men.

The first was Robert Milne, an Aberdonian born and bred being the son of Mr. J D Milne, Advocate. On leaving the Grammar School he went on to the city's university where he found he had a great interest, as well as ability, in engineering. He then underwent further training in Glasgow before returning to his native city to set up in practice on his own account. No doubt it was his combination of engineering, business and administrative skills that led to his appointment as Secretary to the fledgling GNSR in 1851, putting him in a position to lend valuable assistance in connection with setting out the main line north from Aberdeen.

After five years in the post he was given the additional responsibilities inherent in the new office of General Manager and he held the combined job until they were again separated in 1868.

During his term as General Manager the Company expanded greatly. The main line reached Elgin. The Buchan lines to Peterhead and then Fraserburgh, the Alford and Oldmeldrum branches, the lines to Turriff and on to Macduff, as well as the route up the Spey valley, were all built during his time. In addition the Banffshire and Deeside Railways also came into the fold.

Robert Milne saw the Great North through difficult and exciting times but one cannot help wondering whether some at least of the acrimonious relations with other organisations and individuals, both within and without the Company, reflected something of his character, even though an obituarist noted that "he earned the respect of his colleagues in office, and by his friends he was greatly beloved for his genial and gentlemanly nature."

After twenty-nine years as General Manager in charge of the day-to-day running of the railway, Robert Milne’s health began to fail and he resigned in 1880. Unlike some other holders of high office he did not go on to join the Board but lived quietly in retirement until he died in 1891.

Following his departure the Directors again combined the two posts of Secretary and General Manager and went far afield in their search for a successor, appointing William Moffatt from the North Eastern Railway.

Moffatt was born in South Shields in 1836 and joined the NER at the age of 18, serving that Company in various capacities, including management of Tyne Dock, for the next 26 years. 'The Directors chose well as their new General Manager had great ability and energy as well as a clear vision of where he wanted the Company to go. The year before he arrived in Aberdeen, William Ferguson had become Chairman and he and Moffatt worked together very harmoniously. This was just as well as there was much to do - the GNSR sorely needed improvement.

These improvements were tackled vigorously. Not only were the train services and equipment greatly enhanced, the Coast Line was built and opened as were the branches to Boddam and St. Combs, while the main line was doubled as far as Keith. Much of the ground work and negotiations for the new Joint Station were done, the Company’s two hotels were opened and the locomotive works moved to Inverurie. The road motor services were also introduced. Relations with other Companies, not least the Highland, underwent great change -indeed Mr Moffatt was instrumental in the negotiations to amalgamate the two railways and it was not his fault that the scheme failed.

In 1906 he retired, having lived up to his reputation as "a man of strong and dominating personality (whose) control of the undertaking was characterised by great vigour, foresight and activity." In consideration of all that he had done the Board awarded him a "substantial allowance." He had a long retirement and died, while living in Wimbledon, in 1929 at the ripe old age of 93.

George Davidson, the third and last General Manager, was another Aberdonian. The son of a granite merchant, he was born in 1871 and was educated at Robert Gordon’s College. Following that he was trained as a Solicitor and joined the GNSR in 1894 on the creation of a separate Law Department. Here he acted as assistant to James Ross before succeeding him as Solicitor to the Company in 1905.

It was decided once again to separate the posts of Secretary and General Manager and Mr Davidson was appointed to the latter on 2 April 1906 with the "hearty approval of the directors, shareholders and staff." During his time in office he also acted as Legal Advisor, thus retaining a firm grip over the Company’s affairs.

He was able to build on the good work done by his predecessor and his years in office were marked by continued expansion in services as well as the reconstruction of the Joint Station. The traumas resulting from the Great War placed heavy burdens on his shoulders and these were not eased by having to give considerable help to the hard-pressed Highland Railway. Added to the work needed in the aftermath of war came the problems associated with the Grouping.

When the Great North became part of the LNER, George Davidson was appointed Solicitor for Scotland in the new Company and moved to Edinburgh. However he did not really enjoy being separated from traffic work and was delighted when he was given the post of Divisional General Manager of the North Eastern Area, based at York, in June 1924. He set about his new job with considerable vigour, in particular simplifying what he considered a too complex management structure.

While at York he found himself responsible for arranging the 1925 Railway Centenary celebrations and carried these through with great success, the occasion being marked by the award of a CBE. One result of the exhibition was increased public awareness of, and interest in, railway relics and he gave his full support to the early days of the York Railway Museum. He was a man with a very human heart and took great personal interest in his staff at whatever level.

His favourite area for relaxation was the Aberdeenshire coast and it was while on holiday at Cruden Bay that he was suddenly taken ill and died on 18 August 1928. Unlike his predecessor he was young, only 57.

Three men, very different in background, training and personality but each in his own way the man for the time. They served well the Great North and its successor.

Footnote : By appointing a "General Manager" in 1856 the Great North was, once again, abreast of the developments in railway operation. A quick scan of Bradshaw’s Directory for 1854 shows that there were very few companies with such an official. Several of the larger companies, such as the Caledonian, North British and even the LNWR had a "Manager".

In those days, nearly all decisions were taken by the Board of Directors themselves, even down to the appointment of many staff. A General Manager was responsible for implementing all the Board’s decisions and would be gradually delegated more and more authority. A mere ‘Manager’ would be one of several people, such as the Locomotive Superintendent, who each reported directly to the Board.

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