BILL FORD – A TRIBUTE
Celebrating the life of one of the Great Central Railway’s figureheads
“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.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR...
“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.