For enthusiasts, researchers and modellers of the Great Eastern Railway

The Great Eastern Railway

The formal opening of the Eastern Counties Railway on June 18th 1839, from a temporary terminus at Mile End to Romford, heralded the beginning of the development of the railway system in East Anglia. Originally the ECR had obtained Parliamentary approval to raise the capital to build a railway from London to Norwich and Great Yarmouth via Ipswich. However events took a different course and by 1843 the ECR had only got as far as Colchester. It was subsequently left to the Eastern Union Railway in 1849 to finally complete the route to Norwich via Ipswich. Expansion of the railway system in East Anglia followed the country-wide pattern of many small companies building railways to connect with the main arterial routes. In keeping with the rest of the country, most of these small companies were later swallowed up by their bigger brothers. Hence by the early 1860's the ECR was predominant in either working the smaller concerns under agreement or by acquisition. These arrangements were formally recognised by Parliament when the Eastern Counties, Eastern Union, East Anglian, East Suffolk & Norfolk Railway companies, along with their subsidiary undertakings, were incorporated into the Great Eastern Railway on the 7th August 1862.

The East Anglian Railway System circa 1923

Click on the map to see a full size version

GER small map graphic

The birth of the Great Eastern Railway was not without problems. 1867 saw the company overstretching its financial resources and finding itself in chancery. During this unhappy period some of the Company's assets were claimed by creditors manifested in some instances with locomotives bearing plates proclaiming their new ownership! Fortunately the GER survived this set-back and entered a period of growth and stability which was only interrupted by the First World War and the subsequent amalgamation of the major UK railway companies under the 1923 Grouping.

There are several aspects of the GER that are noteworthy.

A mainline operator

Although not having the glamour of the some of the other longer British main line routes, the GER ran express services on the London – Ipswich – Norwich route, as well as London – Cambridge – Ely. From Ely services reached March, King’s Lynn and cross country via Thetford to Norwich. As trains became longer and heavier, many with dining cars, this prompted the development of improved locomotives and carriages.

In the 1880s, a new mainline was constructed as a joint line with the Great Northern Railway, creating an artery northwards to Spalding, Sleaford, Lincoln, Gainsborough and Doncaster. It was thereby enabled to divert lucrative coal traffic destined for London and the East of England onto its own network. Further access to the coal fields was achieved by negotiating running rights over the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway.

Suburban services

In the 1870s, the GER built a new London terminus at Liverpool Street and extended their suburban lines and services to destinations such as Enfield, Chingford, Loughton, Hertford and towns along the Lea Valley and the main line out to Shenfield. These proved to be highly profitable as many who worked in London realised they could now live further out. The only downside was the requirement to provide cheap workman’s fares in the early morning. By the 20 th Century, competition from trams became an issue and the GER would have liked to electrify their suburban services as other railways were beginning to do. Indeed, the GER brought in Henry Thornton as General Manager, an American who had experience from the Long Island Railroad. But in the end, the lack of capital committed the GER to remain with steam which it improved to the point where the services, dubbed ‘The Jazz’, could boast to be the most intensive steam-hauled suburban service in the world.

Cross-Country and rural branches

There were plenty of smaller cross country and branch lines constructed in the mid-19th Century. Usually local interests would raise capital, get approval and after construction get a larger company to operate the services. In many cases the lines were leased or sold outright to the larger companies. During the period 1845-1849, the ECR’s Chairman was none other than George Hudson, “The Railway King” whose dubious and sometimes outright fraudulent business practices would often be used to force acquisitions. Thus the network grew organically and with little overall planning or vision. To reduce costs, many lines followed river valleys and many of the cross country routes have been known by the valley route they followed, such as the Crouch Valley Line, the Colne Valley Line, the Stour Valley Line and the Waveney Valley Line.

The importance of these lines was in the goods traffic: bringing in coal and materials to rural communities and allowing the export of agricultural livestock and products. As such, the fact that many of the lines were lightly built along river valleys meant that the stations might be a mile or so from the community they served. This was no problem for farmers and businesses, but rather inconvenient for passengers, who would later find bus services more convenient. As road transport became a serious challenger, both goods and passenger traffic declined. They did play an important role in World War Two, serving the hundreds of RAF and USAAF airfields and supporting facilities across East Anglia, but few such routes survived the Beeching era cuts.

However, not all branch lines were unprofitable. In the 1860s the Tendring Hundred Railway was built, extending out to Walton and Clacton and operated by the GER. In the 1880s, the ‘New Essex Lines’ were built from Shenfield to Southend and Southminster. These survive to this day and being electrified are within commuting distance of London.

Coastal and Continental

Its location in East Anglia meant that the GER served many towns along the coast. The GER supported the docks and quays at London Docks, Maldon, Colchester (Hythe), Mistley, Harwich, Felixstowe, Ipswich, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Wells, King’s Lynn and Wisbech. Lowestoft and Yarmouth in particular supported a huge fishing industry.

To overcome the cramped facilities at Harwich, the GER developed a major port facility just west of Harwich named Parkeston Quay, opened in 1882. This was the base for important North Sea services to the Continent and the GER was a major operator of shipping services on the routes to Rotterdam (later the Hook of Holland) and Antwerp. In conjunction with these, the GER built dedicated carriage sets to operate boat trains to London and through to the North of England. It also owned a number of hotels to cater for these long distance travellers.

Just after the Grouping, a train ferry terminal was developed at Harwich, which survived until 1987, by which time containerisation had changed the nature of sea transport. However, this did benefit Felixstowe which remains an important rail-connected port for container traffic.

Seaside destinations

Additionally, the coming of the railways to coastal towns led to the development of seaside holiday destinations, such as Clacton, Frinton, Walton, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and Hunstanton. It also popularised the rather more genteel destinations such as Wells, Aldeburgh and Southwold.


Although the GER was one of the smaller pre-grouping companies, it managed its affairs in a prudent manner and its contribution to the development of the railway system has been somewhat underestimated. Mention has already been made of the intensive suburban steam service into Liverpool Street introduced in 1920 as a result of the Company finding it uneconomic to improve services by electrification. However by taking a pragmatic approach in modifying existing working arrangements, at minimal cost to the Company, the resultant 'Jazz Service' handled more passengers during the rush hour periods than any other UK railway company at that time.

Other notable milestones included:



  • Building of the first UK locomotive to the 0-10-0 wheel arrangement. This locomotive No. 20 was known as the 'Decapod' and was a 'one off' built to demonstrate that steam traction could match electric traction for acceleration.
  • Assembly at Stratford Works in 1891 of a steam locomotive to working order in the record time of 9 hours 47 minutes.



  • One of the first UK railway companies to introduce complementary bus services in 1904 and to build omnibuses in their own workshops at Stratford.
  • First UK railway company to provide 'on train' refreshments for 3rd Class passengers in 1891.

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    • First UK railway company to employ a 'foreigner' as a General Manager namely Henry Worth Thornton who took office in 1914 having served as General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad, USA.
    • First regular British use of oil-fired locomotives in 1887.
        • High degree of standardisation introduced into its locomotive design by the turn of the century.
        • First UK railway company to install electric-pneumatic power signalling notably at its Spitalfields signal box in 1899.

        The LNER Period

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        The incorporation of the Great Eastern Railway into the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923 did not result in any immediate profound changes to railway operations in East Anglia. Business was much as usual with freight traffic in East Anglia continuing as a significant contribution to the LNER's turnover. This was augmented by the inauguration of the Harwich-Zeebruge train ferry service in 1924 by the independent Great Eastern Train Ferries Ltd.

        Inevitably GER rolling stock and locomotives gradually sported their new LNER livery and stock from the other LNER constituent companies found its way onto GE metals. However the LNER recognised the need to expand its operations in East Anglia to keep pace with developments in the pattern of railway traffic and several significant changes were introduced during its tenure as illustrated below.


        To provide much needed extra capacity for surburban traffic, widening of the Liverpool Street-Norwich main line from Romford to Shenfield, including the replacement of semaphores with 'searchlight' colour light signals.

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        Introduction of 'Sandringham' Class 'B17' 4-6-0 locomotives to supplement existing ex-GER motive power. Two of this class were fitted with streamline casing in the manner of the East Coast Main Line 'A4' Pacifics to haul the new 'East Anglian' Liverpool Street-Norwich service introduced in October 1937.

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        Building of the automated marshalling yard at Whitemoor which saw the first British use of hydraulic wagon retarders.

        The passing of the First World War saw a general decline in the fortunes of Britain's private railway companies and this continued after the Grouping. The LNER was particularly affected resulting in the inevitable curtailment of services. The East Anglian region saw the withdrawal of passenger trains from several lines but otherwise the system remained essentially intact until after nationalisation. Two announcements in 1935 were to have far-reaching consequences for the former GER's suburban catchment area. On the one hand the London Passenger Transport Board advised of the planned extension of the Central Line tube from Liverpool Street to Stratford and thence to embrace the LNER's Loughton branch including the Fairlop Loop with a new underground section from Leytonstone to Newbury Park. Additionally the LNER published its intention to electrify the Liverpool Street-Shenfield section. In the event both schemes were started but were interrupted by the Second World War and were not completed until the LNER had lost its identity as from the 1st January 1948 to be part of the new nationalised British Railways.