Town owes a debt to the ‘railway king’

Crescent Gardens''w133024b
Crescent Gardens''w133024b

“Gentlemen, my character has been assailed.”

So spoke George Hudson, three time Lord Mayor of York and driving force behind Whitby’s iconic West Cliff estate.

Hudson was speaking at the newly-opened St Hilda’s Hall behind The Angel Hotel as a prospective Tory candidate for the town.

Yet so successful was the campaign of slander against him that this giant of the Industrial Revolution’s reputation has never been restored.

It was 1865 and Liberal member H.S. Thompson had spent seven unpopular years neglecting Whitby in favour of Scarborough.

By contrast, Hudson was greeted with rapturous applause, - despite the crippling personal debts he had incurred as he attempted to make his grand vision for Whitby a reality.

Work underway to construct the Scarborough to Whitby railway line

Work underway to construct the Scarborough to Whitby railway line

The vultures were circling, Hudson had made many enemies through his ambitious plans for expanding Britain’s railway network, and he would soon be arrested and taken to debtor’s prison.

He had returned from exile in France following the death of his brother and the following summer decided to stand as member of Parliament for Whitby.

In doing so he risked arrest, but Hudson, orphaned as a boy, made his own defence.

“A man can not always succeed in his object and I did not succeed in that,” he added. “A committee was appointed and the report they drew up was founded on utter falsehood.”

Throughout his life Hudson showed a penchant for scandal.

At just 15 he paid an unknown girl 12 shillings and sixpence following the birth of an illegitimate child, and he was shipped off to York by his family

Affluent throughout his life, Hudson benefitted greatly from the death of his great uncle Matthew Bottrill - some say to the tune of £30,000 - and he became a councillor and alderman of York.

He was elected Lord Mayor of the ancient city twice in the 1830s, when his association with Whitby began.

“I have now the satisfaction of feeling that what I did was for the best, and that I was in the right, that the policy was characterised by wisdom and foresight,” his speech continued.

The affluence of the Industrial Revolution meant tourism was emerging as a powerful new economic driver.

If Whitby was to exploit this, accommodation was urgently required. However, in typical bureaucratic Whitby-style, committees were formed and there was much talking, but very little action.

Hudson changed all that and began the development of the Cliff estate, with the Royal Hotel and East Crescent built first.

One of the first residents of East Terrace was Hudson’s brother Charles, whose death would instigate George’s return from France in 1864.

Initial plans for the estate from 1827 called for the buildings to be of polished or brick stone, but when this proved beyond the financial reach of Hudson, who was funding the development using personal loans, he switched to bricks and clay from local quarries.

As an enduring monument to his vision, Hudson had planned to construct a terraced crescent that would rival that of Bath.

However, his creditors grew twitchy and finally called in his huge debts - Hudson’s bubble had burst.

The whole estate had been used as security for Hudson’s railway company loans, and so when his creditors came calling, it fell into their hands and Royal Crescent was left in its current unfinished form.

Protected by his status as member of Parliament for Sunderland, Hudson continued free from fear of arrest in relation to his growing mountain of debt.

Yet Hudson’s poor financial housekeeping left him open to attack from his enemies. For this and his use of bribes he has been largely condemned, even to this day.

Then the protection afforded him by his office was suddenly swept from beneath his feet when he lost his Sunderland seat in 1859.

He fled to France to avoid arrest, and, aside from the brief visit to attend his brother’s funeral, he would not return for any length of time until 1865, when he declared himself Tory candidate for Whitby.

Such was the affection that the town of Whitby held for this man that his past discrepancies were forgotten and huge crowds gathered to applaud his every word.

His speech at St Hilda’s Hall concluded: “The fact is, gentlemen, I have been made the scapegoat for the sins of the people, but I have borne all the obloquy showered upon me with much courage and strength of mind, and my innocence has been a great support to me in the persecutions I have undergone. I can tell all my enemies and detractors that I can bear their malice, with the same sang-froid as I have endured attacks from much abler men.”

Yet Hudson would never make it to Parliament again and just two days before Whitby went to the polls, he was arrested and imprisoned in York Castle, where he would remain for three months.

Later changes in the law meant Hudson could return home, but he - and Whitby - would never see his Royal Crescent dream fulfilled.