John Ellis (1789-1862)

'John Ellis (1789–1862), MP, Chairman, Leicester and Swannington Railway and Midland Railway' by John Lucas 1858, from the collection of the National Railway Museum

'John Ellis (1789–1862), MP, Chairman, Leicester and Swannington Railway and Midland Railway' by John Lucas 1858, from the collection of the National Railway Museum

John Ellis is mainly remembered for promoting the growth of railways in the nineteenth century and for his involvement in the building of the Leicester and Swannington Railway to bring coal into Leicester from North West Leicestershire.

From his early years John Ellis was a successful farmer in Beaumont Leys and was acknowledged to be an expert on shorthorn cattle, actively contributing to the improvement of the breed.  John Ellis’s involvement with railways began in October 1828 when he was approached by William Stenson, a coal owner from Whitwick, who was seeking assistance in promoting a railway to bring coal into Leicester from the North West Leicestershire Collieries.

Local coal owners had seen the price of their coal increasingly undercut by cheaper coal arriving by canal from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The River Soar had been canalised between Trent and Loughborough in 1776 and when the Soar Navigation was extended in 1796 cheap coal from Derbyshire was able to reach Leicester. Local coal owners realised that the only way to avoid ruin was to look at a new efficient way of transporting their coal and it was agreed that the future lay with the new railway system. 

In 1825 George Stephenson had built a new steam generated railway to transport coal from Darlington to Stockton-On-Tees and had now begun work on the even more ambitious Liverpool to Manchester Line. After his meeting with William Stenson, John Ellis agreed to approach George Stephenson to check the viability of the route for a Leicestershire line which had been surveyed by Stenson. Stephenson was enthusiastic about the proposed Leicestershire line and set off for Leicestershire immediately with his son Robert. A meeting was called at the Bell Hotel in Humberstone Gate and the Leicester and Swannington Company was formed. It was agreed that as George Stephenson already had so many commitments that his son Robert Stephenson would be chief engineer.

By 1838 John Ellis was working for the Midland Counties railway as well as continuing with his farming interests and, with his knowledge of both, the railway employed him to assess compensation to farmers affected by the railway’s construction. However, in 1846 he finally gave up farming and moved from Beaumont Leys to a new house in Belgrave named Belgrave Hall. He became well known for his charitable work within this community, including providing a new schoolroom. His house at Beaumont Leys, though now surrounded by other houses, can still be seen and is used as the Home Farm Neighbourhood Centre on Strasbourg Drive.  Belgrave Hall is now a museum owned by Leicester City Council and is open for special events.

John Ellis died on 26th October 1862 and crowds gathered to watch the funeral procession as it made its way from Belgrave to Welford Road Cemetery.  His grave is marked by a simple headstone.


Moore, A. 2003 Ellis of Leicester: A Quaker Family’s Vocation, Leicester: Laurel House Publishing.