Cel­e­brat­ing the life of one of the Great Cen­tral Rail­way’s fig­ure­heads

Steam Railway (UK) - - CONTENTS - SR

“I can’t say that I was ever in­ter­ested in rail­ways, trains… or all the other facets that seem to in­fect waves of hu­man­ity that flock to line­sides all over the coun­try when­ever there’s a trail of smoke, a whiff of steam or a toot and a clank in the near dis­tance.”

How was it then that some­one as ap­par­ently dis­pas­sion­ate about rail­ways as Bill Ford ended up spend­ing the best part of a decade of his life work­ing seven days a week, un­paid, to keep the Great Cen­tral Rail­way afloat? The an­swer lies in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy A Life on Fire.

Bill re­called how “out of the blue, two young men came to visit me at Ford & Slater’s of­fices on Nar­bor­ough Road, Le­ices­ter. They were Richard Lo­vatt and Gra­ham Oliver, and they wanted to see if I would be in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing in this new-old ven­ture – the Great Cen­tral Rail­way. Richard and Gra­ham walked away with a cheque for £1,000, and I thought no more of it.”

That was the au­tumn of 1975; a crit­i­cal time for the nascent GCR, but also for Bill, who had floated his com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle com­pany on the stock mar­ket, shortly be­fore it was sold in 1973 to Unilever, where he re­mained a fun­da­men­tal part of the busi­ness un­til his re­tire­ment in 1983.

But in 1976, Bill’s in­volve­ment in the GCR was to be­come hands-on. Bri­tish Rail had be­come im­pa­tient with the preser­va­tion­ists’ at­tempts to buy the rail­way, and was on the verge of eras­ing any trace of the de­sired sec­tion of line be­tween Lough­bor­ough and Quorn & Woodhouse.

Bill was co­erced by Messrs Lo­vatt and Oliver into at­tend­ing a Fri­day morn­ing meet­ing at BR’s head of­fice in Maryle­bone, to “have one last go at a stay of ex­e­cu­tion”. Bill as­sured BR’s Deputy Chair­man Bob­bie Lawrence that the re­main­ing £80,000 owed would be set­tled by way of two £40,000 pay­ments – the first by the fol­low­ing Mon­day – thereby keep­ing the de­mo­li­tion gang at bay.

Asked by Oliver whether the nec­es­sary funds were in his ac­count, Bill replied: “No, but we’ve got all day to raise it!”

And raise it Bill did, thanks to his healthy re­la­tion­ship with the East­ern Re­gional Direc­tor of Na­tional West­min­ster Bank – and so con­tin­ued a sta­tus quo of Bill act­ing as the GCR’s bank guar­an­tor. By the late 1970s, the GCR was es­tab­lished as a func­tional steam at­trac­tion, and its for­tunes con­tin­ued to rally thanks to Bill’s in­tro­duc­tion of ex-For­mula 3 and long-dis­tance rac­ing driver David Clarke, who had re­cently moved to the area to ad­vance his busi­ness in­ter­ests.

Al­though a de­vout en­thu­si­ast of the GWR, “slowly and surely David be­came hooked, and the pair of us spent more and more time, ef­fort, in­flu­ence and money on the blessed born-again GCR. Then, one day, I floated an idea past him… ‘hey, shall we buy a steam en­gine?’”

It was 1977. “At Unilever, I had been con­tacted by one of our sup­pli­ers… a cred­i­tor of a com­pany that had gone into liq­ui­da­tion, and had se­cu­rity on an as­set that my con­tact thought I might be in­ter­ested in… they had ti­tle to a Bri­tish Rail­ways 1934-built ‘Ju­bilee’ class steam lo­co­mo­tive that had been fully re­stored.”

That lo­co­mo­tive was No. 5690 Le­an­der, then based at Dint­ing Rail­way Cen­tre. Bill said: “I had to use all of my per­sua­sive pow­ers to bring David round to buy­ing an LMS en­gine. I talked him round by re­mind­ing him that the de­sign­ing en­gi­neer had been born in the GWR town of Swin­don and had been ap­pren­ticed to the great­est GWR lo­co­mo­tive de­signer, Church­ward – and that did the trick.”

Bill Ford and David Clarke took own­er­ship of No. 5690 in 1978, the start of a ten-year spell of main line op­er­a­tion un­der the newly formed Le­an­der Lo­co­mo­tive Com­pany Ltd.

Run­ning the ‘5XP’ at speed rep­re­sented “the nearest thing I know of where art and sci­ence com­bine to pro­duce some­thing amaz­ing, some­thing truly sub­lime.”

It had ac­tu­ally been the duo’s in­ten­tion to bring the ‘Ju­bilee’ to run at the GCR as the flag­ship of a new din­ing train, with prof­its to be di­vided be­tween the two com­pa­nies, but they were re­fused on the grounds of un­jus­ti­fi­able fi­nan­cial gain for share­hold­ers of the rail­way.

“Le­an­der never came back to the GCR while in our own­er­ship, which makes me sad even to­day when I think about it.”


By the end of 1990 the Le­an­der Lo­co­mo­tive Com­pany was dis­solved, and Le­an­der was out of ser­vice and writ­ten off as a tax loss. This was at a time when Clarke seemed to have lost in­ter­est in the op­er­a­tion of No. 5690, but Bill was pre­pared to stump up the es­ti­mated £150,000 re­quired for over­haul (in 1990), and had agreed it with the Sev­ern Val­ley Rail­way. Sadly, halfway through the ne­go­ti­a­tions Bill suf­fered a brain haem­or­rhage, which brought an end to his in­volve­ment with Le­an­der.

“Dur­ing my con­va­les­cence, a Dr [Peter] Beet, along with his son, Chris, showed an in­ter­est in Le­an­der and, hav­ing de­cided to let the en­gine go, I trans­ferred own­er­ship for a nom­i­nal sum.”

The sale might have been the end of his in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with rail­way preser­va­tion, hav­ing al­ready stepped back from board-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing at the GCR in the mid-1980s, but in 2002 David Clarke died – leav­ing the rail­way on the brink of fi­nan­cial ruin.

“There was a huge cri­sis, as David had per­son­ally guar­an­teed the GCR’s over­draft. The bank froze the GCR ac­count, leav­ing the rail­way floun­der­ing, and I was asked to help; I did, along with sev­eral oth­ers.

“Money be­queathed by David was be­ing held in the ac­counts of the Friends of the Great Cen­tral group, at that time called the Main Line Steam Trust. It was a ridicu­lous state of af­fairs in that the MLST had

more than £400,000 in its ac­count, and there was no ma­jor­ity among its ranks will­ing to see any trans­ferred to help the oper­at­ing com­pany pay wages and re­pair in­fras­truc­ture and rolling stock.

“In or­der to re­lease those funds, I be­came pres­i­dent and per­suaded the board and mem­bers of the MLST to form the David Clarke Rail­way Trust, with my­self as chair­man… this sin­gle act saved the rail­way, and lost me many friends.


“I don’t pos­sess the abil­ity to dream like David did, but I can man­age a com­pany. And for the fol­low­ing 14 years that’s what I did, the first seven by guar­an­tee­ing bank over­drafts, ne­go­ti­at­ing terms with own­ers of en­gines and get­ting new fun­ders on board; then tak­ing up the reins of­fi­cially from 2007, when I be­came chair­man and man­ag­ing direc­tor [of the GCR].”

Bill would later ad­mit that it was “by far the hard­est job I have ever done”.

“As much as I would not want to ad­mit that I had caught this all­con­sum­ing ad­dic­tion, I have no other ex­pla­na­tion that an­swers the ques­tion as to why I got in­volved at all, never mind to the ex­tent that I did.”

In the decade that

Bill was at the top of the

GCR, he over­saw the de­vel­op­ment of a hand­ful of land­mark projects – chiefly the in­stal­la­tion of the new bridge that tra­verses the Mid­land Main Line at Lough­bor­ough.

This bridge was re­garded as the key to un­lock­ing the se­ries of in­fras­truc­ture projects, lead­ing to the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of the GCR with its Not­ting­ham­based coun­ter­part and Net­work Rail. But be­fore he was able to over­see the in­stal­la­tion of the ‘Bridge to the Fu­ture’, Bill was de­posed.

“A crit­i­cal eye op­er­a­tion pre­vented me from at­tend­ing the board meet­ing in Au­gust 2016, and I was ousted in my ab­sence. How I was treated beg­gars be­lief. I should have been al­lowed to project man­age the Bridge to the Fu­ture on a part-time ba­sis, once I had re­cov­ered from the op­er­a­tion.”

Bill was asked to stay away from the rail­way, amid un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims of fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

“I hope you can imag­ine the hurt and the anger this caused within me. I had worked tire­lessly, seven days a week for most weeks, over nearly ten years, re­ceiv­ing not a penny in salary.”

After this episode, Bill’s health be­gan to fail him in a se­ri­ous way, but he was de­ter­mined to pub­lish his mem­oirs.

Re­flect­ing on the GCR, Bill con­cluded: “We raised in ex­cess of £10 mil­lion in do­na­tions for var­i­ous projects and we nearly made it to be­come the best in the busi­ness; all we needed was that con­nec­tion. But I just couldn’t get to that fi­nal bridge be­fore they shut off my steam.

“If I were a younger man, would I do it all again? No. The cost in hu­man terms, for me, was too much.”

Bill Ford died on Septem­ber 2, aged 80. His fu­neral was held at St Cuth­bert’s Church, Great Glen, Le­ices­ter­shire on Septem­ber 27 where his achieve­ments in preser­va­tion were cel­e­brated.

The GCR said its “leader and leg­end” would be “greatly missed”.

i just couldn’t get to that fi­nal bridge be­fore they shut off my steam

Bill Ford 1937-2018


Le­an­der, once half-owned by Bill Ford, roars through Dent on the ‘Set­tle & Carlisle’ on Septem­ber 9, car­ry­ing a wreath in his mem­ory.

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