How Jews laid tracks for UK’s long journey to HS2

Jewish engineers and financiers have been building the network since the early 19th century


High Speed 2, the planned rail link between London and the northern cities which was given the green light by the government last week, is currently projected to cost £106bn. There’s been disquiet about that eye-watering figure for some time — and several Jewish politicians have weighed in on the issue.

Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, has pushed for a review of HS2, as did former MP, Ivan Lewis; Michael Fabricant called for “a total rethink”; while Margarete Hodge questioned its economic justification.

Yet what these prominent figures may be unaware of is that they are following in a little known but long tradition of Jewish entrepreneurial and political involvement in Britain’s railway expansion.

The late 1980s would see Paul Reichmann develop the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) along with Canary Wharf, London’s new banking district. But promised government backing by Margarete Thatcher was slow in coming, leading Reichmann’s company, Olympia & York, to founder.

In 1991, trouble-shooter Peter Levene was brought in to address the project’s difficulties. He subsequently became Chairman of the DLR, which in turn led to his chairmanship of Canary Wharf Ltd between 1994 and 1996. The company has recently been involved with the Crossrail construction project.

Elsewhere, Baron David Anthony Freud, great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, negotiated the Channel Tunnel Railway flotation in the late 1990s. And Michael Vivien Posner, a government and treasury advisor, served on the British Railways Board between 1976 and 1984.

Earlier, John Elliot (formally Blumenfeld), was Chief Regional Officer of British Rail’s southern region, then Chairman of the Railway Executive (1951–1953), topping his career as Chairman of London Transport (1953–1959).

Seat fabrics for London Underground train carriages — updating pre-WW2 moquettes by Enid Marx — were designed by Misha Black and Jacqueline Groag. Black would later be commissioned (1958 — 1962) for the external styling of the Tube’s rolling stock and for British Rail’s diesel and electric engines.

At underground stations, there were Hans Unger’s tile mosaics; including at Oxford Circus, Brixton and Green Park. The Brixton mosaic provided a visual pun on the station’s name: a ton of bricks.

During the Second World War, commuters on the Tube — or those using it for bomb shelter — would see posters by Jewish illustrators: Hans Schleger, Abram Games, and Julius Klinger. Designers were often refugees, and Klinger is believed to have returned to Belarus in 1942 from where he was deported by the Nazis to Minsk and murdered.

During the inter-war years, Leopold Amery became a director of Southern Railways, one of the Big Four rail companies. He kept his Jewish roots hidden but ardently supported Zionism. Notably, as Colonial Secretary, he wrote the Balfour Declaration’s first draft. Chaim Weitzman said of him: “Of larger stature and superior abilities was Leopold Amery… He realised the importance of a Jewish Palestine in the British imperial scheme of things more than anyone else…” Yet with tragic irony, his eldest son, John Amery, was later hanged for treason as a wartime Nazi collaborator.

Mines have a history of using rail for coal transport. But J Lyons & Co., owned by the Salmon and Gluckstein families and famous for its Corner House tea shops and household brand names, were an early adopter of rail for enhancing efficiency in a commercial factory. At their Greenford site, from the 1920s, a narrow gauge line brought raw materials in, shunted them around, and transported finished food products out to the main line for country-wide distribution.

The Underground itself had been brought into existence in the early 20th century with the help of Jewish financiers, including Earnest Cassel and Sir Edgar Speyer.

In 1915, the press attacked Speyer for alleged wartime trading with the enemy. Likely baseless, he nevertheless resigned as chairman of the Underground Electric Railways Company (forerunner of the London Underground). And stripped of his naturalisation and Privy Council membership in 1921, he returned to America where he had been born.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, N M Rothschild & Sons helped arrange the share capital and loans to develop the Underground network.

The 19th century, a golden age of railway development, saw Frederick Davis become a partner in Stacy, Davis & Co, Darby. It supplied ironworks for stations and bridges, such as Eastbourne Railway Station in 1886 and Putney Railway Bridge in 1889. Frederick’s brother, Arthur, meanwhile, an important Hebrew scholar, produced the English translation for the Routledge Machzorim; a mainstay set of festival prayer books used in many British synagogues.

Synagogues, themselves, are not without their rail associations. Samuel Montague — later Lord Swaythling (1907) — headed A Keyser & Co, a bank specialising in placing American railway bonds. Success allowed Montague to pursue his communal passions, including establishing the umbrella organisation, the Federation of Synagogues.

The interests of Jewish businessmen were not always as we might imagine today. In the early 1860s during the American civil war, brothers Samuel and Saul Isaac became one of the largest suppliers of Confederate uniforms and weapons. Ruined when the Union won — they were paid (or to be paid) in Confederate dollars — Samuel bounced back, playing a key role in the Mersey Tunnel line construction, linking Liverpool and Birkenhead. The first engine used was named in his honour: ‘The Major’. Meanwhile, Saul, in 1874, became the first Jewish Conservative member to be elected to the House of Commons.

Elias and Lewin Mozley, powerful English and Jewish community figures, had similar Confederate sympathies as well as holding a number of rail company directorships.

During 1847, Elias headed the opposition to the London and North Western against the Birmingham and Oxford, in which he was a director. Lewin, meanwhile, was a director and major shareholder of the Grand Junction Railway (GJR). The GJR is believed to have been the first long-distance line in Britain. 
Another GJR director was Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid; referred to in that period’s Post Office Railway Directory (arguably respectfully) as “of the Jewish persuasion”.

Goldsmid held multiple railway company executive posts including as president of the Anglo-Belgium Railway. He was also the first Jewish Baronet in England, a leading figures in the Jewish emancipation movement, and a prime mover in establishing University College London, allowing Jews to study at a British university rather than going to Europe as the practice had been.

Rail-related innovations were prompted by Jews too. In 1838, Abraham Cohen of Islington submitted a patent for improved railway couplings. John Lewis Ricardo (a nephew of the famous economist, David Ricardo) formed the Electric Telegraph Company in 1845 with William Cooke, co-inventor of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph system. It made use of existing railway infrastructure and was, it is believed, the world’s first public telegraphy company.

A particularly novel invention of the period was the atmospheric railway developed by Dublin-based shipbuilding brothers, Joseph and Jacob Samuda. It was tried on a number of lines, including the Dublin and Dalkey, the Croydon and Epsom, and the Paris and St Germain — the latter by Isaac and Emile Pereira; French, Jewish, banking and railway pioneers. The renowned engineer, Brunel, also experimented with it on the South Devon Railway. Ahead of its time, necessary air seals could not be maintained: using leather it was affected by weather and chewing by rodents.

The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) attracted exceptional Jewish interest. During the 1840s, directors included Leo Schuster — though he would convert to Unitarianism (he was also the uncle of Sir Felix Schuster who sat on the India office committee for Indian railway finance); Hananel de Castro (coral merchant, and on the Board of Deputies of British Jews), and Ralph Lopes.

Later directors were Jonas Levy (1867; a barrister, philanthropist, and owner of Kingsgate Castle); Sir Julian Goldsmid (1891); and Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1898). The latter four also had engines named after them.

David Mocatta, the company architect, was possibly the only Jew to have designed synagogues (at Ramsgate for Sir Moses Montefiore, and the West London Synagogue) and railway stations (including Reigate Road, Horley, and Brighton).

With an important regional locomotive yard, the LBSCR was understandably instrumental in the growth of Brighton as a holiday resort. It was helped, too, by Sir John Howard, another Jewish entrepreneur who, in addition to building lines in East Anglia for the North British Railway Company, financed the building of Brighton Pier.

That spirit of Jewish railway involvement continues. Grant Shapps, not only concerned with HS2, is reportedly considering reversing some 1960s “Beeching cuts”, where many lines and stations were closed in a sweeping government cost-reduction exercise. Indeed, there are ongoing problems with this country’s network.

Yet in contrast to the often cited horrific associations of Jews and trains in the Holocaust — with cattle waggons transporting Jews to their deaths — Jewish entrepreneurialism in Britain’s railway industry during the last 190 years represents a significant and life-affirming  contribution.

Dr Jonathan Myers is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics

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