From his home at Copsewood Grange, high on a bluff overlooking the road to Binley, Sir Richard Moon could see his trains as they approached Coventry.
It was said that any driver who showed too much smoke on the run into the city would later find himself sternly ticked off for wasting coal.
Waste was an obsession with Richard Moon and he would not tolerate it in his company, the London and North-West Railway. As its chairman for almost thirty years from 1861, he turned the L&NWR into Victorian England’s premier railway. By 1885 it employed 55,000 men and was the world’s largest joint stock company.
His gifts as a clear-thinking manager and his eye for talent in others earned him a place among the pioneers of the railway age. Yet he is little known today and remains one of Coventry’s more mysterious and intriguing Victorians.
In his own time, Moon was feared and hated by many of those who worked for him. The photographs show an austere martinet whose thin-lipped smile betrayed few signs of human warmth and charity.
His ruthlessness was legendary. A clerk who turned up for work at the company’s Euston offices on a summer Saturday in flannel trousers was summarily dismissed and not even directors were immune from the icy blast of Moon’s displeasure.
For years the chairman patrolled his railway network with a fierce and restless energy, turning up at remote country stations at dawn to see that all was as it should be, correcting station announcers on their pronunciation as he passed through, looking for waste and sloppiness everywhere.
Those journeys, often made alone, turned him into a bogey man who was all-seeing and all-knowing. As The Times, in its obituary of him in November 1899, put it, ‘the hardest of hard workers and the sternest of stern disciplinarians.’ A man, it went on, who was utterly incorruptible, but was also ‘one of the most terrifying personages in private business’.
The elder son of a Liverpool merchant, Moon joined the family firm after attending, but not graduating from St Andrew’s University, and before long found himself in the exciting new world of the railways.
By 1847, still only in his early thirties, he was a director of the London and North-West Railway, a recent amalgamation of a number of railway companies, operating several lines, including the London & Birmingham. And in little more than a decade he had clawed his way to the top, brushing aside competitors with no more thought than swatting a fly.
Under Moon, the L&NWR produced dividends of hitherto unimaginable dimensions for its shareholders, but also managed to stay in the forefront of innovation.
He ploughed its vast profits back into power signalling schemes, flying junctions and a host of other engineering projects, some of which are still part of today’s railway infrastructure. It was Moon who turned the small town of Crewe into the major railway hub of the twentieth century. And there is a street there named after him still.
In 1879, at the height of his power, he bought Copsewood Grange, built seven years earlier for James Hart, a Coventry ribbon manufacturer.
Why Coventry? Neither Moon nor his wife Eleanor, daughter of a wealthy Cumbrian ship owner, had any connections with the city. But a glance at a map would show that it lay at the mid-point of his railway empire. And things like that mattered to Sir Richard.
Autocrat though he was, personal aggrandisement was not Moon’s style. He had wanted to turn down the baronetcy offered to him in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee honours of 1887. Only the distress of his family persuaded him otherwise.
After his retirement four years later, the forbidding Sir Richard seems to have mellowed a little. He still took an interest in railways; with a local Welsh landowner, he was joint founder of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, opened in 1896.
There were personal interests. He loved the gardens at Copsewood Grange and won prizes for his chrysanthemums. He also had the best collection of railway maps in private hands in the country.
He invested in the attempts by Coventry industrialist Joseph Cash to invent artificial silk and there was even local philanthropy too. He laid the foundation stone of a new vicarage in Stoke and gave money to Stoke Church for a pulpit and to the nearby National School.
He died at the Grange on 17 November 1899, little more than a month before the dawn of the century he had done so much to herald, and was buried at St Bartholomew’s Church, Binley, accompanied by masses of his beloved chrysanthemums.