North Eastern Railway War Memorial
Sir Edwin Lutyens (1923)

Lutyens’ Legacy

Aerial view of war memorial and city wall with large building in background
Fig. 1: the NER war memorial, unknown photographer, unknown year, reproduced from an original held by City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.: 1000293.

The North Eastern Railway’s (NER) War Memorial is a Grade II*-listed building erected by the board of the company and designed by the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) after WWI as a memorial to those employees who lost their lives during the conflict. Lutyens, himself deeply affected by WWI, was unquestionably the most prominent of the designers of WWI war memorials; he designed 58 extant war memorials in the UK and abroad.1 His designs included: the Whitehall Cenotaph, London, which became the focus for the national Remembrance Sunday commemorations; the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, the largest British war memorial anywhere in the world; and the Stone of Remembrance which appears in all large Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. The chosen language of memorialisation for Lutyens, as seen in York, was a distinctive abstract classicism.

The NER was one of the largest employers in the north of England and released over 18,000 of its employees to serve in the armed forces during WWI, many of them joining the 17th (North Eastern Railway) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. By the end of the war, 2,236 men from the company had died during military service overseas; others were killed at home by bombardments of east coast ports, such as the raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, and in the Zeppelin raids on York in 1916.

York was the headquarters of the NER, and a site for the company war memorial was chosen outside its offices designed by Horace Field and William Bell in 1906, and now the Grand Hotel, in the shadow of the city’s walls. The NER board formed a subcommittee to consider possible designs and propose a suitable budget. As with the Cenotaph in London, a wooden memorial designed by Lutyens had been erected at the site in 1919 for the first commemoration of the end of the war. After considerable debate within the community and the company, a permanent structure was commissioned that needed to be a fitting legacy for both the public and the railway community. The company agreed to spend £20,000 on the memorial and drew up an agreement with Lutyens to design it in the autumn of 1921.2

Over the following year there was much local controversy over the design and especially the siting of this memorial, and likewise that of the nearby City memorial, which Lutyens was also designing. In particular, the mound of the city walls had to be partially removed to create the space for the NER War Memorial. The York conservationist Dr William Arthur Evelyn objected strongly to this and called the finished work, a “pagan erection.”3 Nonetheless, revised plans for the NER memorial were approved in October 1922.4

Furthermore, the committee for the York City War Memorial and the NER Board became embroiled in controversy over the fact that both memorials were originally to sit so closely to the historic city walls and to each other, namely a hundred yards apart; moreover, the budget for the city’s memorial was a tenth of that of the NER’s. The controversy was resolved after Lutyens modified his plans for the NER memorial to move it away from the walls and the city opted for a revised scheme on land just outside the walls, coincidentally owned by the NER, whose board donated it to the city.

After both memorials had been erected, it was found that there were some extra funds available for the City of York Memorial, and so Lutyens designed additional memorial gates for the entrance to the gardens of the city cenotaph at no extra cost. The City War Memorial is inscribed on the south side ‘TO THE CITIZENS OF YORK 1914 – 1918 1939 – 1945’, and on the north side, ‘THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE’.

Sony Dsc
Fig. 2: York City war memorial and the gates of the memorial garden, designed by Lutyens. Photo: Mtaylor848 (detail), CC BY-SA 3.0.

The NER war memorial stands at the head of Station Road, just inside the city walls, and alongside the former NER offices. Constructed of Portland stone transported to the site using the company’s rollingstock from the south coast, the memorial comprises an obelisk, typical in Lutyens’ oeuvre (he designed five other memorials with obelisks), surmounted on a stone screen, and flanked by two lateral screens that terminate in urn finials, laurel swags and wreaths. The central screen contains the armorial shields of the NER in relief. The Stone of Remembrance itself stands in front of the central screen, raised on shallow steps. The screen, in characteristically fine lettering, bears the names of the those who lost their lives in WWI, while fifteen slate panels record those employees who fell during WWII.

Colour photograph of war memorial
Fig. 3: the NER war memorial in the twenty-first century. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

In 2015, as part of commemorations for the centenary of the First World War, Lutyens’ war memorials were recognised as a national collection, “a legacy like that of Wren’s churches or Nash’s Regency terraces” accordingly to Historic England; all of his free-standing memorials in England were listed or had their listing status reviewed, while their listing entries were also updated and expanded.5 As part of this process, both of Lutyens’ memorials in York were upgraded from Grade II to Grade II*.