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Last days of the WC&P

In 1942, perhaps as an intellectual exercise to clear his mind, the WC&P’s last Receiver, Henry Edward Fulford, set down on paper his recall of the circumstances surrounding the shutdown of the line. These passed, with other papers from the Excess Insurance Co, via a house loft to the Colonel Stephens Museum. The text is presented here exactly as he left the draft.

 

On the 18th June 19401 the last train of the Weston, Cleveland and Portishead Railway started on its last journey. For some thirty years the line had [whilst in receivership- Ed] performed a modest but conspicuous public service. The passenger service was of special value both to residents in and visitors to the locality: the goods service admitted indeed of replacement but was likewise valuable. Moreover these services had been self-supporting, or nearly so. The first receivership closed indeed with a deficit of some £4,5002 which was for a time a great difficulty but the constant and minute care of the management during the second receivership provided for this deficit and, if, on closing the accounts, a sum of about £650 had to be provided to effect a final settlement, this was due entirely to special circumstances brought about by the war.

These excellent results were due to the fact that the line possessed in Mr. Austen, who for 8 years held the position of Engineer and Manager, a gentleman of great business capacity who spared no efforts in his endeavours to preserve its life. The long record of public services (among which may be reckoned the line's services as an employer of a staff - some [omission in original -Ed] whole time men and [ omission in original -Ed] part time men) to which brief allusion has been made is the result of the minute care and attention which Mr. Austen has devoted to his work3.

It will be understood however that no efforts of Mr. Austen or of others who aided him could do more than keep the line alive4. The creditors secured and unsecured, the stock and shareholders have not and could not have ever received anything. It is therefore right that a tribute should be paid to the great public spirit which has continued for so many years the Chancery proceedings which have provided the legal foundation for the receiver's operations.

The outbreak of war followed by the death of the petitioner5 in the proceedings referred to (to whom no successor could be found) marked the final stage of the history of the line. The receivership could not in the circumstances be continued and after a period of some seven months during which the great neighbour the GWR and the Ministry of Transport were fully and continuously apprised of the position, the receiver caused a party attending the proceedings to apply to the Court for a time limit to be fixed for the exercise of the managerial powers of the receiver. For this period Mr Austen and the Receiver on the [ omission in original -Ed] April 1940 drew up, after attending the Court the following programme:-

All parties concerned and more particularly the Ministry and the G.W.R. were to be apprised that within a period of four months the managerial powers of operating the line would cease to be exercised. A short period of reflection (comprising the Easter recess) was then allowed for so that the choice which was offered to these bodies - offered indeed since the beginning of the war - of continuing the line as part of a larger system might be prominently brought before them. This period was followed by a formal six weeks’ notice that on the 18th June 1940 the traffic would cease. But such notice was still in the nature of a "decree nisi’’ and it was still contemplated that in the event of a choice to continue the notice might require extension or modification. In particular the Receiver wished to run the motor coach6 for the full period of four months but circumstances rendered that course impracticable.

The final two months of the last managerial period were reserved (In the event of a negative choice as to continuance) for the performance of the last public service the line could render. The large quantities of rails sleepers and other materials were of Incalculable value to the national effort. This was impressed on the Receiver when attending the board meetings of a Durham Colliery Company. The impression was fortified by a circular from the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Transport urging in the strongest terms that railways no longer used should be dismantled. Now Mr. Austen pointed out in very clear terms that by retaining staff, steam power and transport during the first four months the dismantling could be promptly and efficiently performed under his guidance. But should the receiver operate for the full four months then dismiss his staff (except a caretaker) and close down his power, the dismantling would encounter great difficulties. The final two months were therefore reserved (in the event of a negative choice) for the dismantling of the line.

In the event of an affirmative choice as to continuance the final two months were reserved (after a suitable modification of the notice to shut down) for the conclusion of an agreement as to the passing over of the line followed always with the period of four months by the cesser (sic) of the exercise of managerial functions by the receiver. During the currency of the notice to close down the closest touch was kept both with the Ministry and the GWR. In particular the gentleman, whose official duties at the Ministry placed him in charge of the matter, having enquired why if the powers of management could be exercised over a period of four months, the traffic was to be discontinued after two, was furnished with particulars of the scheme dealt with above. It was added that in any event a deficit must be faced as the result of the continued operations, that it was not desired to increase this deficit by a further two months operating, but that the predominant consideration was the public service which would be rendered by a dismantling effected by a manager still functioning, having a staff at his disposal together with power and transport ready to work. The fullest approval was expressed and the decision of the Ministry as to the alternatives of continuance or dismantling was promised as early as the inevitable complications of official formalities would allow.

Before the period of two months had elapsed, the GWR and the Ministry both decided against continuance. The Receiver therefore ceased to operate on the 18th June 1940: Mr. Austen made all ready to commence dismantling: the Receiver who continued his contact with the Ministry urged that sanction should be given for Mr. Austen to begin and it was intimated it would be given forthwith.

It may be claimed with some confidence that the foregoing record shows a continuous regard for every public interest. The distinction between an application that the Receiver should cease to operate within a certain period and an application that he should so cease at its expiration was in the circumstances a very material one. The language in which the application under review was expressed, the well-founded observation that the limitation of powers sought was analogous to that commonly imposed in debenture holders actions, the exposition in outline of the programme here expounded could leave no doubt (or no reasonable doubt) both as to the formal character of the application or as to its substantive merits.

But in times of cataclysm the most carefully laid plans are liable to defeat. The dismantling of the line was imminent when as a consequence of the collapse of France possession of it became urgently necessary to the GWR for purposes of national defence - not indeed that it might be operated for passengers and goods - but for other purposes.

Sir James Milne acted without delay. He acquired (I believe in the course of a half-hour meeting) the rights of all the creditors of the railway company, of all the stockholders, and of all the shareholders (except a parcel of shares which cannot be traced and are of no value.) He then asked the Receiver through the solicitor to the GWR for possession of the line with all its rolling and other stock at midnight on the [omission in original -Ed] 1940.

The Receiver acceded to the application and thereupon ceased to exercise his managerial powers. The sanction of the Court could not indeed be sought for the Court had no jurisdiction to give it. But the Ministry of Transport supported the application, the G.W.R. had itself acquired all material beneficial interests, the Receiver was himself prepared to meet all his creditors and finally to extinguish the debts of the first Receiver and has in fact done so. The Receiver further thought that the consideration of the public interest required him to accede to an application which was only technically defective.

The line therefore begins a new period of public usefulness. A final word may be added as to its legal destiny. The Receiver was invited to a meeting at the Ministry of Transport to discuss this matter. It was attended by the Treasury Solicitor the GWR Solicitor and many official gentlemen of various departments. The public services rendered by those for -whom the Receiver answered – the creditors who had assigned their claims to the GWR and Mr. Austen - were amply recognised. An explanation of the legal position was welcomed and it was generally agreed that the GWR would in due course perfect its title by Act of Parliament7.

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1 This was the originally planned date. In fact the line closed a month earlier.

2 This was a sum owing to the GWR for traffic forwarded in the last 3 months of the first Receivers custody and appears to have arisen from an error in his receivership duties.

3 This is a view shared By the Chairman of the Excess Insurance Co, E Merrick Tylor, who in a letter of 18 April 1941 to W H Austen sent a cheque for £500 as compensation for loss of office and said ‘I want to write and tell you how very great an obligation I feel this Company is under to you for your faithful service and the great help that you have been to us at all times in connection with a most difficult matter. This obligation on our part for the helpful and cheerful way in which you have assisted us in bringing the matter to a conclusion, although that conclusion meant a financial loss to you, is I feel in no way liquidated by the payment which is being made out of the proceeds of the Sale, and I wish to add to this the expression of sincere thanks for all that you have done, and warmest regards to you personally.’

4 Austen recorded in his reply to Tylors letter above ‘There was a time, of course, when I felt that the Weston Clevedon & Portishead Railway had really turned the corner and that better days were in store for the little line, but the changeover at the Black Rock Quarries was, I fear, the death knell of the railway.’

5 C E Heath principal of the Excess Insurance Co

6 Presumably the larger Drewry Railmotor.

7 This never occurred and indeed the WC&P was not included in nationalisation so anomalies of ownership continued for many years