Crossley's Ribblehead Viaduct, Yorkshire. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

John Sydney Crossley (1812-1879) was one of the great Victorian railway engineers, famous for his work on the Settle-Carlisle Railway, the last, highest and arguably most scenic of the great mainline routes to have been constructed in Britain. Crossley, who originally surveyed the route with Midland Railway Manager James Allport, was responsible for the design and construction of all the major features along it. Although it is only about 73 miles long, it goes through the heart of the Pennine Hills in the north of England, and presented tremendous engineering challenges, with the terrain necessitating as many as 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels, as well as numerous bridges and culverts. This "tremendous feat of engineering" (Scholes 36) was beset by more mundane challenges as well, such as inhospitable weather and a shortage of labour in this part of the country. Around 6000 men were brought in to work on it, and it took six years to complete. The final cost of this enormous project was phenomenal for those days — about £3.4 million (see Conservation Area Appraisals, 13).

Crossley was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire, on Christmas Day 1812. Orphaned in infancy, he was cared for by an architect who articled him early on to his son Edward Staveley, then serving as engineer to the Leicester Navigation Company. When Staveley went to live in America, "Crossley was appointed engineer to the Canal Company — a connection that continued, first as engineer, and afterwards as a director, up to the time of his death" ("Memoirs," 341). His experiences with canals and docks must have stood him in good stead later, when faced with muddy depths and drainage problems on the Yorkshire Dales, an area described in our own times as "the watershed of England" (Pendlebury).

Crossley first worked for the railways in the early 1830s, though it was not until the mid-forties that he became more permanently engaged on them. He became resident engineer on the Leicester-Hitchin railway in 1853, resident engineer to the Midland Railway Company in 1857, and chief engineer to the same company in 1858, a rise made more remarkable by the fact that he had had a severe stroke in the early 1850s. According to his obituary in the Institution of Civil Engineers proceedings, he was responsible for "in all about 225 miles of passenger lines, in addition to colliery branches, junction curves, brewery lines at Burton, and sundry minor works" ("Memoirs," 342); an early historian of the Midland Railway Company says that in all he "planned for Parliament some 600 miles of railways, and constructed 300" (Williams 661).

Crossley is described as having inspired loyalty as well as respect. Noted in his obituary were his "indefatigable power of will ... utmost exactitude in all details .... perfect honesty of intentions and fairness in action" ("Memoirs," 343). No doubt he needed all those qualities to carry through his best-known line across the Yorkshire Dales — "perhaps the most heroic (and hubristic) of all English railway undertakings" (Leach and Pevsner 64). When he went along with the top officials of the Midland Railway Company to inspect the line before it was opened to passengers, he is said to have exclaimed, on reaching Carlisle, "Finis coronat opus!" (which tells much about education in those days, at least for the sons — or wards — of gentlemen). As for the sentiment, it was, indeed, generally felt that, "next to the London and Bedford line, the Settle and Carlisle was the greatest and most vital of the developments of that bold policy of extension by which the Midland has triumphed over the schemes of its eastern and western rivals" (Stretton 216).

Railway rivalry aside, John Crossley was one of those who really made a difference to others, for the new line "not only provided a through route to Scotland, it proved of enormous benefit to the local communities along the route" (Toothill and Armstrong 3).


Related Material


Conservation Area Appraisals in the Yorkshire Dales National Park: Sette-Carlisle Railway. Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. Web. 20 August 2011.

"John Sydney Crossley." Grace's Guide: The Best of British Engineering, 1750-1860s. Web. 20 August 2011. (This uses the "Memoirs" — see below).

Leach, Peter, and Nikolaus Pevsner. Yorkshire West Riding, Leeds, Bradford and the North. The Buildings of England series. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009.

"Memoirs." ice [Institution of Civil Engineers] virtual library. Minutes of the Proceedings, Vol. 58, issue 1879: 341-43. Web 20 August 2011.

Pendlebury, John. "A Very Peculiar Partnership." Conservation Document. Web 20 August 2011.

Scholes, Ron. Yorkshire Dales. 3rd ed. Ashbourne, Derbyshire: Landmark, 2008.

Stretton, Clement Edwin. The History of the Midland Railway. London: Methuen, 1901. Internet Archive. Web. 20 August 2011.

Toothill, David, and Marian Armstrong. The Settle-Carlisle Railway: A Guide to Your Journey: Leeds. Settle. Carlisle. The Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company, 2010.

"Viaducts." The Settle-Carlisle Ralway. Web. 20 August 2011.

Williams, Frederick Smeeton. The Midland Railway: Its Rise and Progress. A Narrative of Modern Enterprise. London: Strahan & Co., 1876. Internet Archive. Web. 20 August 2011.

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Last modified 20 August 2011