Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Matthew Holmes

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1886. Express engine for the North British Railway.

Matthew Holmes (1844-1903) of the Cowlairs Works.

From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


THE locomotive superintendent of the North British Railway is well protected from intrusion. His offices stand like an island in the broad river of rails that converges on Cowlairs tunnel. Puffing engines and rolling waggons continually bar the approaches like so many iron images of Cerberus. Once across the lines and in the office buildings, forbidding aspects give place to frank cordiality; busy workers find leisure to afford clear and short directions for the manager's room; and almost before you are quite prepared for it you find yourself ushered into the presence of Mr. Matthew Holmes, locomotive superintendent of the North British Railway Company. A tall man and wiry, of fresh complexion, keen features, and clear eyes, his face and figure suggest rather the gentleman-factor on a large estate or the well-to-do sheep farmer than the master of 800 locomotives and the brawny titans who build and drive them.

Mr. Holmes is a native of Paisley, the town which produces shawls, thread, poetry, and political portents. His father owned a business there, but the commercial depression and industrial stagnation of the early forties led the elder Holmes to enter the service of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company, as foreman of their works at Haymarket, Edinburgh. When his parents removed to the Scottish capital Mr. Holmes was very young, and consequently he received the greater part of his education in Edinburgh.

Like most of the men who have risen to high position, Mr. Holmes derived a certain vantage-ground from his birth and training. Candid observers assert that to achieve great success in practical business a man must either possess extraordinary genius or build on a foundation laid by the labours and sacrifices of his family.

Leaving school at fifteen, Matthew Holmes became apprenticed to Messrs. Hawthorne & Co., engineers, Leith. In 1859 he followed his father into the service of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company. Here he manifested early that mechanical skill, intelligent grasp of business details, and ready command of men which have won for him his high position, and at the age of twenty-nine was appointed foreman of his department.

While Matthew Holmes was diligently acquiring the rudiments of engineering in Hawthorne & Co.'s works, and gaining experience of locomotive construction at Haymarket, great changes and developments were going on in the railway world - changes in which, had he known it, the young engineer was deeply concerned.

The North British Railway Company, which had been rapidly extending its dominion over the eastern counties of Scotland, amalgamated with the Edinburgh and Glasgow Company, and took over its lines, stations, and workshops, in the year 1865.

Change of ownership did not at first affect much the Haymarket Works, and for ten years Mr. Holmes quietly continued at his post, gathering experience for future use. In 1875 he was appointed chief inspector of the North British Railway and nominally assistant to Mr. Drummond at Cowlairs Locomotive Works — a sudden change after ten of waiting, but one which subsequent events have amply justified. Mr. Holmes not only kept a watchful eye over the long stretches of North British rails, but interested himself in the development and increased size of locomotives. In conjunction with Mr. Drummond, he designed those mighty engines that have played so great a part in the rival races fur speed between the East and West Coast routes to London.

In 1882 Mr. Holmes succeeded, as by right of merit, Mr. Drummond in the post of locomotive superintendent, his previous experience and record of service designating him the fittest man for the position.

The locomotive superintendent of a railway has two distinct departments to govern. He is head manager of the locomotive works, in which are produced the engines, carriages, and wagons required for the service; superintendent of the running department, he examines and appoints engine-drivers, firemen, and shunters, regulates their hours of labour and rates of pay, supervises the time-tables, guards the expenditure on oil and coal and repairs. Mr. Holmes's duties am therefore difficult to describe with any degree of clearness within the compass of a short biography. Commander of an army numbering close to 7000 men, he must keep himself informed in regard to the general character and ability of every workman and engine-driver, labourer and fireman; know the capacity and coal consumption of every engine; the newest devices and mechanical inventions for facilitating the production of rolling stock in the works; the latest type of vehicle for public service. Only by organised system and utilising the intelligence of picked assistants could one man hope to overtake duties so various and complex. This is what Mr. Holmes has been careful to do. Not only has he his personal staff within call — men informed in all the details of the service — but regularly every Monday the vestibule leading to the manager's room is occupied by waiting men — candidate engine-drivers ready to be tested for eyesight and technical ability; foremen of the various workshops, heads of different departments — each following the other into the superintendent's presence, and filing out when their turn of consultation is over. The sight is remarkable, and not without its inspiration, for it may very seriously be doubted if the war army could furnish a division of men so capable, physically and mentally, as those members of the industrial army there taking orders from their captain.

Cowlairs Works are a series of high brick buildings running parallel with the North British Railway as it emerges from the Cowlairs tunnel. The buildings are massive and serviceable, and spread themselves over an area of twenty-two acres. At St. Margaret's, Edinburgh; Burntisland, and Monkland, are branch works, all of which are under Mr. Holmes's supervision. In the locomotive engineering, engine-building, and repairing department about 4000 men are employed, who produce, on the average, thirty engines in the year, 100 carriages of all classes, and 3000 waggons. Repairs of engines number 850; carriages, 8600; waggons, 80,000 per annum. Labour-saving appliances abound in every workshop, the latest invention adopted being the pneumatic drilling machine, which has almost wholly superseded the heavy labour of the hand driller.

In 1889 Mr. Holmes overlooked a stretch of 1023.5 miles of railway; in 1899 his province had extended to 1140.5 miles. At first he had 618 engines, 2041 carriages, 39,718 waggons under his care, and now he oversees the working of 764 engines, 2847 carriages, 61,231 waggons. During the same period the train mileage increased from 13,674,355 miles to 17,768,070 miles — equal to a journey 1600 times round the earth. Still more remarkable is the expansion of North British traffic in mineral, goods, and passengers during that decade. In the year ending 30th July, 1889, nearly 26 million passengers, 3,723,820 tons of goods, and 10,953,151 tons of mineral were conveyed, while for the same date in 1899 the figures are— Passengers, 36,692,770; goods, 4,518,632 tons; minerals, 17,181,630 tons. As may be expected, the number of employees in the locomotive department has also increased. At 31st July, 1889, there were employed 5146 men, receiving £333,360 9s. 4d. in wages; in July, 1899, there were 6983 men, receiving in the year £454,734 4s. 2d.

Mr. Holmes is married, and lives at Lenzie, finding, as he says, that not only is the little villa town much healthier for the family than a city suburb, but it is even more convenient to his work. His heavy responsibilities do not visibly burden Mr. Holmes. Asked what branch of the service he preferred, the superintendent of many departments smiled as he answered "Oh, well, I like them all." Mr. Holmes is essentially a middle-class man, his experience as a workman scarcely having left a trace in his manner of thought or outlook. We do not wish even to hint that he is a captain of the buccaneer order, albeit that was esteemed in good repute not many years ago; but the leaven of Socialism or the microbe of sentimentality has not entered Mr. Holmes's calm mind. His whole manner of dealing with workmen is practical and commercial, lightly touched by the personal kindliness of the man. Doubtless the shareholders and directors of the North British Railway Company, as well as the travelling and commercial public, derive distinct profit from the service of so cool and capable an official. He keeps his eye on his own business, serves the company singly and faithfully, and for the rest is probably not ungrateful to trades' union leaders and labour agitators for the light they help to throw on the weak points of the organisation of his great industrial army.

1903 Obituary [1]

1903 Obituary [2]

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