Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Watkin, Edward William

WATKIN, Sir EDWARD WILLIAM (1819–1901), railway promoter, born in Ravald Street, Salford, on 26 Sept. 1819, was son of Absolom Watkin, a cotton merchant and prominent citizen of Manchester, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Makinson of Bolton. Of two brothers, John (1821–1870) took holy orders and was vicar of Stixwold, Lincolnshire, and Alfred (1825–1875), a merchant, was mayor of Manchester in 1873–4.

Watkin, after education at a private school, entered the office of his father. Interesting himself from youth in public movements, he became when about twenty-one a director of the Manchester Athenæum, and helped to organise the great literary soirées in 1843-4. With some other members of the Athenæum he started the Saturday half-holiday movement in Manchester. In 1845 he wrote 'A Plea for Public Parks,' and acted as one of the secretaries of a committee which raised money for the opening of three public parks in Manchester and Salford. In the same year he joined in founding the 'Manchester Examiner.'

Watkin soon became partner in his father's business, but in 1845 he abandoned the cotton trade to take up the secretaryship of the Trent Valley railway, which line was afterwards sold at a profit of 438,000l. to the London and North Western Railway Company. Watkin, who had ably negotiated the transfer, then entered the service of the latter company. On recovering from a breakdown in health he paid his first visit to America in 1851, and in the following year published an account of it entitled 'A Trip to the United States and Canada.' In 1853 he was appointed general manager of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire railway, and entered on an intricate series of negotiations with the Great Northern, the London and North Western, and Midland railways, three lines whose hostile competition threatened disaster to his own company. At the desire of the Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state for the colonies, he undertook, in 1861, a mission to Canada in order to investigate the means of confederating the five British provinces into a dominion of Canada, and to consider the feasibility of transferring the Hudson Bay territory to the control of the government; the last was accomplished in 1869. Another object was that of planning railways designed to bring Quebec within easier reach of other parts of Canada and of the Atlantic.

On returning home Watkin resigned his appointment as manager of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Company, through disagreement with his directors, who had come to terms in his absence with the Midland railway, and he became president of the Grand Trunk railway of Canada. Within two years, however, he resumed, in 1863, his connection with the Manchester company, first as director and from January 1864 as chairman. In that position, which he retained till May 1894, he did his chief work. With this office he combined the chairmanship of the South Eastern company from 1866–1894, and of the Metropolitan companies from 1872–94. For a short time he was a director of the Great Eastern (1867) and Great Western (1866) companies. Other enterprises also occupied him. He carried out a scheme for a new railway between Manchester and Liverpool, that of the Cheshire lines committee, which was opened in 1877, and he was actively interested in making the Athens and Piræus railway. He projected the practical union of the Welsh railway system by linking up a number of small lines with the object of forming a through route from Cardiff to Liverpool, thus bringing South and North Wales into direct railway communication with Lancashire by means of the Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1886. To this end a swing bridge over the river Dee at Connah's Quay was built (1887–90) and fines to Birkenhead completed.

Despite these varied calls on his attention, it was to the three railways of which he was chairman that Watkin long devoted his main energies. As chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire railway, now the Great Central, he met with great difficulties by the competition of both the Great Northern and Midland companies, but he greatly improved its affairs. His chief aim was to form a through route under a single management from Manchester and the north to Dover. With that end in view, he projected the new and independent fine from Sheffield to Marylebone, London. At the time the Manchester company's trains ran over the Great Northern line from Retford. The proposed Great Central fine was strongly resisted by Watkin's competitors, but he had his way after a long struggle, and the line was opened for through traffic to London on 8 March 1899.

It was from a desire to extend his scheme of through traffic that Watkin long and ardently advocated a channel tunnel railway between Dover and Calais. This proposal was first made in 1869. A channel tunnel company was formed in 1872, and under Watkin's direction excavations were begun in 1881 beneath the seashore between Folkestone and Dover. At the instance of the board of trade the court of chancery at once issued an injunction forbidding Watkin to proceed, on the ground of his infringement of the crown's foreshore rights. Next session Watkin, who long sat in the House of Commons, introduced a private bill authorising his project; after consideration by a joint committee of the two houses, which pronounced against it by a majority of sixty-four, the bill was withdrawn. Subsequently in 1888, and again in 1890, Watkin reintroduced a bill authorising his experimental works without result, and it was finally withdrawn in 1893. In 1886 Watkin, on receiving a report from Professor Boyd Dawkins, began boring for coal in the neighbourhood of Dover, and the work was continued until 1891, at the expense of the Channel Tunnel Company. Sufficient evidence was obtained to justify the sinking of a trial shaft and the formation of companies for further exploration. Watkin also proposed a railway tunnel between Scotland and Ireland and a ship canal in Ireland between Dublin and Galway. His passion for enterprise further led him to become chairman in 1889 of a company to erect at Wembley Park, Middlesex, a 'Watkin' tower on the model of the Eiffel tower in Paris. Owing to lack of funds only a single stage was completed; this was opened to the public in 1896, and was demolished in 1907.

Watkin was returned to Parliament as liberal member for Great Yarmouth in 1857, but was unseated on petition. He sat as member for Stockport from 1864 to 1868, when he was defeated. In 1869 he unsuccessfully contested East Cheshire, but was member for Hythe from 1874 to 1895. His political views remained liberal until 1885, when he became a unionist, but he often acted independently of any party. He was a member of the Manchester City Council from 1859 to 1862 and high sheriff of Cheshire in 1874. He was knighted in 1868 and created a baronet in 1880. He died at Rose Hill, Northenden, Cheshire, on 13 April 1901, and was buried at Northenden parish church.

Watkin married in 1845 Mary Briggs (d. 8 March 1887), daughter of Jonathan Mellor of Oldham, by whom he had a son, Alfred Mellor Watkin, M.P. for Grimsby (1877-80), and his successor in the baronetcy, and a daughter Harriette, wife of H. W. Worsley-Taylor, K.C., of Moreton Hall, Whatley. His second wife, whom he married in 1893, when she was eighty-one years old, was Ann (d. 26 May 1896), daughter of William Little, and widow of Herbert Ingram, M.P., founder of the 'Illustrated London News.' A portrait of Watkin by (Sir) Hubert von Herkorner was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887. A cartoon portrait by 'Ape' (i.e. Carlo Pellegrini [q. v.], who also painted his portrait in oils) appeared in ' Vanity Fair' in 1875.

Besides the works named above he wrote:

  1. 'Absolom Watkin Fragment No. 1,' 1874 (a sketch of his father, with some of his writings).
  2. 'Canada and the States: Recollections, 1851 to 1886,' 1887.
  3. ’India: a Few Pages about it,' 1889 (on the public works policy of the Indian government).
  4. 'Alderman Cobden of Manchester,' 1891 (letters and reminiscences of Richard Cobden).

[Manchester Guardian, 15 April 1901; Manchester Faces and Places, vols. 2 and 12 (portraits); Men and Women of the Time, 1899; Vanity Fair, 1875 (portrait). Lodge's Peerage, 1901; Paul, History of Modern England, 1905, iv. 308; Lucy, Diary of the Gladstone Parliament, 1886, p. 266, and Diary of the Salisbury Parliament, 1892, p. 81; C. H. Grinling's History of the Great Northern Railway, 3rd edit. 1903, passim; F. S. Williams's Midland Railway, 1875, pp. 157, 275; C. K Stretton, Midland Railway, 1907, p. 222; J Pendleton's Our Railways, 1894, vol. i. passim; W. B. Dawkins's paper la Trans. Manchester Geological Soc. 1897; Contemporary Rev. April 1890.]

C. W. S.