It is with great regret that we mark the passing of Gordon Biddle, one of the influential individuals who laid the foundations for these awards in the late 1970s. He passed away on 8 April 2024 at the age of 95. One of the acknowledged experts on the history of railway architecture, Gordon’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject was unrivalled. Our condolences go to his family; he will be sorely missed. Robin Leleux, who has known Gordon for many years, pays tribute to his friend.

In February 2020 a number of committee members travelled to Cumbria to present Gordon with a copy of the then recently published Restoration Rewarded, which had been released in December 2019 to mark the 40th anniversary of the awards. The book was formally presented to Gordon by its author, Robin Leleux (seen here on the left).

As the 1970s progressed, preserved steam railways were increasing their popularity but their surroundings were not keeping pace. Money and effort had gone into restoring locomotives and trains leaving behind the all-important stations and this was becoming increasingly apparent. So the eminent railway author and journalist Michael Harris – he was then Editor of the popular Ian Allan monthly Railway World – rang Gordon Biddle, whom he knew, having received articles from him, to discuss an idea to encourage station restoration. Gordon, a land surveyor by profession with extensive experience in local government and insurance, was also a respected author of books on canals and railway architecture. So in the summer of 1979 the Best Preserved Station Competition was born. With 18 entries it was an immediate success. The idea took hold, interest grew, the name changed to ‘Restored’ station (and changed again as participation and sponsorship throughout the railway industry increased, to emerge finally as The National Railway Heritage Awards) and soon British Rail and London Transport eagerly joined in.

Gordon had a great knack for knowing important people who would readily lend their support for the Awards. Initially these included Captain Manisty RN of the Association of Railway Preservation Societies, Bernard Kaukas, then the chief architect of British Rail, and David Allan of the publishers Ian Allan Ltd. The list would soon embrace leading figures in both the railway industry and heritage world including David Lawrence MBE of the BR Property Board, Gregory Beecroft of Rail Property Ltd, Sir William McAlpine and Leslie Soane from the Railway Heritage Trust and John Hume and Frank Lawrie both of Historic Scotland. Through their influence the Chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker, came to present the awards for the first four years, followed by his successor Robert Reid for another two. Royal approbation came in 1987 when HRH Prince Michael of Kent came as Guest of Honour. He was followed over the next few years by the Duke of Gloucester and then The Princess Royal (both of whom subsequently made return visits) which surely is a tribute to the sound foundations which Gordon had laid during his quarter century of active involvement. This was rounded off when Jim Cornell became Director of the Railway Heritage Trust in 1996 and joined the Awards Management Committee which enabled the two organisations to work closely together.

Gordon and Michael Harris laid out the principles and rules for the awards competition in Railway World and these have remained largely unchanged over the next forty plus years. When David Lawrence took over as Awards Manager he introduced the Call for Entries in the long lasting A4 size colour illustrated Brochure. Gordon and I took the opportunity to hone and elaborate the principles set out inside the brochure. Similarly, we would tweak the entry form in the light of experience and finally we set about the large task of redrawing the judging form, done in a marathon session at the Crewe Arms Hotel.

Gordon was also a founding member of the Railway & Canal Historical Society in 1954 and throughout his life was prominent in its affairs, serving variously as its first secretary, President and for some thirty years a Vice-President. He was also a prolific author with some fifteen books to his credit, either alone or occasionally with others. The two-volume Canals of North West England with Charles Hadfield appeared in 1970, soon followed by Victorian Stations in 1973. Other canal and railway station studies followed including working with O. S. Nock and others on The Railway Heritage of Britain (1983). Another magisterial work was The Railway Surveyors (1990) and then in 1997 he co-edited with Prof Jack Simmons the Oxford Companion to British Railway History. This impressive work involved co-ordinating the offerings of nearly ninety contributors, of which I was honoured to be included. However Gordon’s magnum opus must be his Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings which appeared in 2003. Several Guests of Honour have since received a copy and I have used it frequently ever since when writing up the annual Award winners for the railway magazines. He did not rest on his laurels, more books appearing well into his eighties and early nineties, including Railways in the Landscape in 2016, Two Hundred Years of the Lancaster Canal in 2018 and Railways, Ports and Resorts of Morecambe Bay in 2020. Certainly his name will live on in these important studies.
To end on a personal note, Gordon approached me in 1990 to take on the organising of the judging which was becoming haphazard. Gordon would chair the annual meeting of the Adjudicators while I presented the judging results. Gordon’s immediate friendship was invaluable; he was a pleasure to work with and he taught me a lot. David Lawrence took on chairing the Adjudicators’ Meeting when Gordon retired and I followed David in due course. Throughout these years, and backed by enthusiastic Chairmen and the Management Committee, we have upheld Gordon’s fundamental aim, to use the Awards competition to promote excellence in the built railway environment. Although as he and Michael Harris admitted, as he wrote in his Foreword to the Awards 40th Anniversary book Restoration Rewarded, ‘Neither of us imagined that forty years later they would still be going strong’. That they are is in no small part down to Gordon’s foresight, skill and determination.

Robin Leleux,
Awards Patron
April 2024