Gladstone’s Final Railway Journey

(Revised 23 December 2018)

I have recently had occasion to worry about Mr Gladstone’s last railway journey. Mr Gladstone (1819-1898), you will all know, was of Liberal persuasion and several times prime minister, finally relinquishing that office in 1894. He was regarded as a great statesman and it came to pass that he was accorded a state funeral. He was in fact allowed to lie in state in Westminster Hall, the first occas’’’ion this had been authorized. The funeral was held in Westminster Abbey on 28 May 1898 and the body was then buried in the grounds.

In his final year, Gladstone became increasingly unwell and was residing in his Bournemouth property. His doctors concluded that recuperation in this seaside resort would not serve any further useful purpose and at the end of March 1898 he returned to Hawarden Castle, his home near Wrexham, north Wales. He travelled on Tuesday 22 March from what The Times refers to as the east station at Bournemouth (later called Bournemouth Central) having driven up Holdenhurst Road from his Forest House property. He travelled in the royal saloon which appears to have been attached to an ordinary service train which proceeded via Oxford to Wrexham. The saloon was detached at Wrexham and coupled to a Wrexham, Mold and Connah’s Quay locomotive which conveyed the carriage over that railway to Hawarden station. This was Gladstone’s last journey whilst still alive, for he died within two months, on 19 May. It was not his last railway journey though.

The decision to hold a state funeral meant that he was not allowed to rest in peace in his local community, with which he had had a long and close involvement. His body had to be brought back to London and, as was usual in those days, this meant another train journey. At this point the sources range from ambiguous to conflicting.

For various entirely practical reasons it was desired to avoid any form of public procession at the London end. Happily the decision to arrange the lying in state at Westminster Hall, within the Palace of Westminster, meant that it was feasible to bring a special train into Westminster station and convey the body straight into the palace from the station via the direct subway and private entrance; this had been constructed in 1870 for the benefit of members of either House of Parliament. Gladstone’s home was in fact close to Broughton station on the London & North Western Railway and this railway had running powers over the District from Addison Road to Mansion House. Organizationally this was all quite simple to arrange.

I start off with a record made by the District Railway itself, listed in its own chronology:

Remains of W E Gladstone brought from Broughton Hall to Westminster by LNWR, arr 1:4 am

This seems clear enough, and strongly implies it was a direct LNWR train.

The next reference is from The Grand Old Man by Richard B. Cook (I believe 2004, but not in British Library catalogue):

At 6 o’clock in the evening the body was removed from Hawarden Church and carried to the station for the journey to London. The procession to bear the remains was composed of the family, representatives of organizations, friends and neighbours  Vast crowds lined the route, afoot and in every kind of vehicle. The cortege stopped at the entrance to the Park – Hawarden Lodge, and sang one of Mr. Gladstone’s favourite hymns. Again, when the procession reached the Castle, it paused at the entrance and sang another hymn loved by the late resident of the house, and went on its way to Broughton Hall Station. Every step of the way, after leaving the park, was again lined with sympathetic spectators. While at the station the spectacle was remarkable for the surrounding crush of human beings. A special train was provided for the body and the family. As the body of Mr. Gladstone was placed upon the funeral car the sorrow of the people was manifest. The representatives of the Earl Marshall, of England, took possession of the funeral at this point. Henry and Herbert Gladstone accompanied the body to London and Mrs. Gladstone and family returned to the castle to follow later.

All along the route to London grief-stricken people were standing to view the funeral train as it passed at Chester, Crewe, Rugby, Stafford and Tamworth until the darkness and lateness of the night shut out the scene.

When the train reached London and passed to Westminster, it was early in the morning. A group of some thirty gentlemen, connected with the ceremonies, was at the station; among them the Duke of Norfolk, About two hundred people looked silently on while the body was removed from the train to the hearse, and the funeral cortege moved on to Westminster Hall at once and entered the Palace Yard just as “Big Ben” tolled the hour of one like a funeral knell.

The text implies that there was one train that undertook the whole journey, but the reference to a hearse is at odds with the suggestion that the subway was used (surely a lot more convenient than arranging for a hearse to use the streets for a hundred yards or so). Note that the reports indicate the train did not actually arrive at the station until after 1 am, so the idea of the coffin moving into the palace as Big Ben tolled 1 am appears fanciful.

My next reference is to a letter by Vernon Hughes in Archive magazine in response to publication of a photo at Broughton. It reads:

On 25 May 1898 a funeral train was organized to take the body of Sir William Gladstone from Hawarden via Brougham [Broughton] station to Westminster (Metropolitan District Railway) via Willesden and Earls Court. Train was hauled by Hardwicke class No. 136 Gladstone painted completely in black. On 27 May the main party of mourners was taken from Brougham to Euston for the actual funeral: it is probable that it is this train which is illustrated.

A House of Commons Library paper on the subject of state funerals tends to support the evidence above, with one important difference which I will return to:

Mr Gladstone’s body was brought by special train, pulled by the Brighton Railway locomotive Gladstone, from Broughton Hall to Westminster Station on the District Railway, which was hung in black for the occasion, and then through into New Palace Yard and into the Great Hall.

This does not say that the subway was used, but doesn’t mention the need to visit street level either. No source is quoted for this (though sources are extensively quoted for other matters covered by the paper).

This is all well and good, until I found the following, from Gladstone’s death and Funeral, by H.C.G. Matthew in Journal of Liberal Democrat History, Vol 20, Autumn 1998.

Hamilton and the Duke, whom the former found ‘a charming man to work with – such a gentleman’, had made arrangements for the body to lie in state in Westminster Hall. It was brought to London during the night of 25-26 May on a special train pulled by the engine ‘Gladstone’ (now in the Railway Museum at York), the train also containing the large crowd of journalists and illustrators who had gathered at Hawarden. On reaching Willesden in north London, the coffin was transferred to the District line of the Underground, in which company Gladstone had been a shareholder since its flotation. The underground train took the coffin to Westminster station, from which it was carried into the Hall across the road. Part of the aim of this operation had been to avoid a procession: there seems to have been general agreement among the organisers that a procession, which would inevitably involve soldiers or police, would be inappropriate in Gladstone’s case.

Now this is irritatingly ambiguous. It could be construed to mean that the coffin was removed from the train that brought it from the north and then placed into an entirely different train belonging to the District Railway, presumably a little after midnight, with the described entourage. This feels extraordinarily inconvenient for all concerned. Or do the words merely mean that the coffin, in its original train, was passed from the London & North Western system onto the West London Railway at Willesden (and thence to the District at Earls Court Junction) and the report is not in fact at odds with the other versions?

The Times has a characteristically lengthy report that indicates the train left Broughton at 7:52 on the evening of 25 May, a few minutes late. The arrangements for the journey had been made by Mr Neele, the district superintendent of the Holyhead division (this is probably G.P. Neele, author of Railway Reminiscences in 1904, though he doesn’t mention this journey).  The train proceeded south with huge crowds at each station and by the lineside to pay their respects. I shall quote the following from The Times which is self explanatory:

Rugby was made at 10:40, and at this point an extraordinary scene was witnessed. The platform was densely packed with people, and as the train passed slowly through the station the solemn strains of the Dead March in Saul were distinguished floating upon the stillness of the air into the silent night. Nothing more deeply impressive can be imagined than the sight of this vast assemblage watching bareheaded the passage of the train while the band rolled out the massive tones of Handel’s stately and awe-inspiring music.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. Willesden was reached at 12:29 this morning, and the train was there taken on to the high level of the London and North-Western Railway and run to Addison-road, which station was reached at 12:43. At Earl’s Court it passed on to the District Railway, where it was received by Sir Charles Dalrymple, M.P., director, and Mr Powell, manager. It ran thence to Westminster-Bridge Station, arriving there at two minutes past 1 o’clock.


Waiting on the platform to receive the coffin were the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal, Mr. Edward Green, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant at Arms, and Mr. E. Bellasis, Lancaster Herald (both of the College of Arms), Canon Wilberforece, chaplain of the House of Commons, Sir Algernon West, and Mr. W. Jones and Mr. Thomas Exall, secretary and chief inspector of the District Railway Company respectively. The dimly lighted station was not draped for the occasion, except at the gate of exit, where the walls were hung with black. None but officials were permitted on the platform. Some five or six minutes after the arrival of the train a procession was formed, and the coffin was borne from the platform, up the stairs of the station, through the subway into Palace-yard, and so on through the north door into Westminster-hall, where it was immediately placed on the catafalque which had been prepared for its reception.

Immediately before the coffin, which was covered with a beautiful white silk embroidered pall, bearing the words “Requiescat in Pace” walked tho Officers of the College of Arms followed by the Duke of Norfolk and Canon Wilberforce. The coffin was followed by Mr Henry Gladstone and Mr. Herbert Gladstone, Sir Algernon West, and other mourners. In Westminster Hall the whole of the temporary wooden structures which have been erected for the purpose of the lying in state, bad been simply draped with black cloth. There was no attempt at ornamentation of any kind ; and the only dressing of the bier consisted of a pimple brass cross standing immediately behind the head of the coffin (which points to the south), and four largo candles, placed one at each corner of the bier, and burning in tall silver candlesticks.

Well I think all that is clear enough. Taken together it all seems strong evidence that the coffin was carried the whole way from Broughton to Westminster (Bridge) station in a London & North Western Railway train, hauled by all-black locomotive named Gladstone and that the body was taken via the connecting subway. Note that unlike one of the other reports this one says station was not draped.

I must now return to the House of Commons library paper, referred to earlier. The paper concerned is entitled Lyings in state and reference is: Standard Note: SN/PC/1735, Last updated: 12 April 2002. The inconsistency which I noted relates to the alleged use of London, Brighton & South Coast Railway locomotive Gladstone, apparently repainted in black and borrowed for the occasion. This allegation is to an extent supported by Matthews’ article which follows and reports that the locomotive Gladstone now resides in the railway museum at York. The LBSCR locomotive Gladstone is indeed on display at York and very fine it looks too in its orange-brown livery.

However, notwithstanding the usually impeccable sources of this information, and the temptation (which I myself did not at first resist) to incline to accept it, lovely story that it is, I now believe it is fanciful. The London & North Western Railway had its own locomotive called Gladstone, a 2-4-0 machine of what was sometimes called the ‘improved’ precedent class and this is the locomotive referred to in Vernon Hughes’ letter, also recited above. It is very unlikely two different locomotives were involved and since the LNWR’s locomotive was perfectly capable of engaging in long-distance main line operation, one cannot easily conceive of any reason why another company’s locomotive should have been borrowed. It seems more plausible that a century after the funeral, the two writers suggesting LBSCR involvement were simply misled by the preserved LBSCR loco of the same name. To add further to the possibility of confusion, a precedent class locomotive is also preserved and is on display at York; this is not Gladstone (which was scrapped in 1936) but Hardwicke.

I must therefore lay aside the intruiging thought of an LBSCR locomotive visiting Westminster station and settle for being reasonably confident that a London & North Western Railway funeral train, hauled by that company’s locomotive Gladstone, could provide virtually a door to door service without change of engine. It is perhaps worth emphasising that in and for many years beyond Victorian times the large number of quite separate railways owning and providing services around the country routinely cooperated with each other to operate their trains over other companies’ systems without great difficulty. Today, even with a single network operator, this would frequently be a challenge.

Even so, Gladstone’s last journey raises some new questions. How was the train disposed of after unloading, for example? How did this substantial party of serious dignitaries get home? When Gladstone (the locomotive) picked up the funeral party from Broughton two days later, were they also taken direct to Westminster? Why is ‘the high level’ mentioned at Willesden Junction, for it surely cannot mean the high level platforms that are not on the line of route and, as far as I can see, are not directly accessible from an up train on the main line? So, as always, in answering one question we generate several new ones.

I’d be delighted if there is more light people can shed on this story. I hope it goes some way in undermining the hopelessly simplistic (but all pervading) nonsense that Gladstone’s body was taken to his funeral on an Underground train as though was propped up in a corner of a rush hour carriage! The old subway connection with the Palace I well recall. With the booking hall reconstruction and building of an MP’s annexe over the station in the late 1990s the arrangements have necessarily been altered. There is now a secure subway beneath the road linking the annexe with the palace and from here a discreet entrance to the ticket hall is available for those with appropriate security passes. I’ve used it myself and don’t think it would be suitable for conveying expired statesmen for resting in state at Westminster Hall.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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2 Responses to Gladstone’s Final Railway Journey

  1. Gareth Spencer says:

    I seems to me that on arrival at Willesden the funeral train would have been signalled onto the Hampstead Junction Line, then at Kensal Green Junction, one or perhaps a pair of 4ft. 6in. four-coupled passenger tanks with condensing apataratus (commonly known as “Mansion House” tanks) would have been coupled onto the rear of the train. The train would then proceed via the Willesden Junction High Level passenger station and thence to the West London Line via the Mitre Bridge Loop. Note that the “Mansion House” passenger tank engines worked the Outer Circle Service between Broad Street and Mansion House via the Hampstead Junction Line. The Improved Precedent No.1521 Gladstone that brought the train from Broughton Hall station, would have been detached from the train at Kensal Green Junction.


  2. Gareth Spencer says:

    From the Locomotive Magazine Number 31 (July 1898).
    The late Rt. Hon. W.E, Gladstone. 102. illustration
    Conveyance of the remains of the deceased from Hawarden to Westminster on the L. & N.W.R. on the night of 25 May was an event of such national interest that we append a few particulars together with an illustration of the engine appropriately selected for the occasion. The train consisted of five vehicles, including the brake van and mortuary car, the latter being a sorting tender, specially draped at Wolverton for the purpose. The run from Broughton Hall where the coffin was entrained, to Willesden Junction, a distance of 178½ miles, without a stop by engine No. 1521 Gladstone, one of the earliest of Ramsbottom’s well-known 6-ft. 6-in. four-coupled class, built at Crewe in November, 1866. It is worthy of remark that the deceased statesman had so long ago achieved such a reputation as to have a locomotive named after him. The Gladstone was rebuilt at Crewe in September 1889. At Willesden Jn. the engine was changed, the remainder of the journey to Westminster Bridge. M.D.R., being performed by the L. & N.W.R. Co.’s eight wheel four-coupled condensing tank engine, No. 788.

    Conclusive proof from a contemporary source of the working of the funeral train by the London and North Western Railway from Broughton Hall to Westminter Bridge (Metropolitan District Railway), which confirms the change of engine at Willesden Junction.


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