LNER class Q1 0-8-0 No. 3440 (formerly GNR class K1 No. 440) at Saltersford, near Grantham, with an Up coal train for London. Photograph from the collection of Dr. Geoffrey Hughes.
The first prospectus of the Great Northern Railway (initially called the London and York Railway) was issued on 3rd May 1844 and plans were deposited in that year's parliamentary session.
The Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons despite fierce opposition from the London and Birmingham Railway and the newly formed Midland Railway which had a monopoly of the London to Leeds and York traffic. In the 1845 session the sheer number of railway projects plus opposition from established companies and rival projects meant that the London and York bill, although not defeated, failed by running out of time.
The London and York bill finally received Royal Assent on 26th June 1846 as The Great Northern Railway Act, 1846: it granted powers to construct the main and loop lines. Construction began first on the Peterborough to Gainsborough section of the loop line because the ease of construction over the flat terrain promised an earlier return on investment.
However the first section of line to be opened (on 1st March 1848) was the Louth and Grimsby section of the East Lincolnshire Railway which although nominally independent was leased to the GNR from the start. The first section of GNR proper to be opened was the 3 miles from Doncaster to Askern Junction, where an end on connection was made with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line from Knottingley.
The East Lincolnshire line opened from Louth to Boston on 1st October 1848 and on 17th October the loop line opened between Werrington Junction and Lincoln with GNR trains using the Midland line from Werrington Junction to the Eastern Counties Railway station at Peterborough (latterly named Peterborough East). The GNR and MS&LR lines allowing through running from Lincoln to Doncaster via Retford opened on 4th September 1849.
On 23rd February 1849 the York and North Midland Railway agreed in principle to give the GNR running powers from Burton Salmon to York and over a new line to be built from Knottingley to Burton Salmon. The new line opened in June 1850 when the agreement was formalised and in return the GNR agreed not to proceed with its own line from Askern to York.
The line from London to Peterborough was constructed from 1846 onwards and opened on 7th August 1850 from a temporary station at Maiden Lane, London. The remaining section between Peterborough and Retford opened in 1852, as did the permanent London terminus at King's Cross. Doncaster locomotive works opened in 1853, replacing temporary facilities at Boston.
Over the next thirty years numerous lines were opened in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. Other lines were acquired by absorption or joint working, and running powers agreements gave GNR trains access to numerous places off the company’s system. The London suburban system expanded too, with the GNR encouraging the growth of home ownership in Herts, Middlesex and North London and what we refer to today as “commuting”.