William Towle was born in 1849 as the son of a blacksmith in Twyford. The Towles had long been in this trade, and it was perhaps expected that William would follow in his father’s footprints, but he left for Derby as a teenager to embark on an entirely different career – a career that would see him revolutionise his industry and earn a knighthood for his efforts.
Sir William Towle’s career began in the Midland Hotel Derby.
Towle began his working life in this Derby as a 14-year-old hotel boy but he must have quickly shown his skill and worth because he was made manager at just 21 and had also been given control of the train station’s refreshment rooms. Soon the hospitality and service provided in the Midland Hotel expanded down the lines and onto the trains themselves.
His involvement in the refreshment rooms of Derby led to a revolutionary new venture into a food service that paved the way for the on-board trolley services and buffet cars we see today. In 1875 he came up with the idea of a basket-based catering service and launched the first ever lunch service on a train from Derby to St Pancras. The basket would be ordered prior to boarding, delivered by the porter and the basket collected at the destination. When the service began there were two choices: option one was a half chicken with luncheon meat, salad, cheese, bread and butter and a half bottle of either claret or burgundy; the second option was a veal and ham pie, salad, bread and butter, cheese and a bottle of stout. At first this was a luxury for the wealthier passengers but Towle soon introduced an economy lunchbox and in 1887 he developed the supply of hot lunches even further.
As the services and the Midland Hotels expanded, Towle’s ideas of hospitality and catering across the Midland Railway network developed on a wide scale to become incredibly influential and profitable. In the mid 1880s he was asked to take over what became the Midland Grand in St Pancras, an establishment that was seen as one of finest around, and he ended up creating the largest hotel chain in Europe of the time. He managed 10 hotels in all, including the iconic Midland Hotel in Manchester that was designed by Charles Trubshaw, opened in 1903 and serviced Manchester Central Railway. Not only had he moved away from the old Towle family business and proved himself within his chosen profession, the hotel industry quickly became the family trade as his sons entered the business – taking over after his retirement – and his wife, Edith, supervised the housekeeping and female staff .
Sir William Towle’s work during the war and his wider impact on his community.
Towle may have retired in 1914 but he did not have long to enjoy his time away from the world of hospitality and catering because he was soon drafted in by the Ministry of Munitions as part of their Canteen Committee in 1915. The committee was set up following a report from October 12th 1915 that stated that “excessive drinking may often be traced to the want of adequate facilities for food, refreshment and recreation” and the decision to improve facilities to reduce the problem. It was felt that those volunteer-run, alcohol-free canteens could improve efficiency and eliminate the problems seen. Towle’s experience in catering and management on a wide scale made him the ideal candidate.
He will be remembered by many for his service to the country in this war effort but the community of Twyford will remember him as the generous son that never forgot his roots – even if he did manage the grandest hotel in London. In 1910, a fire damaged the local church significantly and the replacement oak pews and a new stained glass window were gifted to the church by William.
William Towle’s death and memorial.
William died in 1929 and left the family business squarely in the hands of his sons, although the Midland Grand would close soon after in 1933, and is still fondly remembered for his services to catering, the hotel industry and the railways and the way he was able to combine the three into an impressive and inspiring empire. In 1920, William was knighted by the king for these achievements – a year after his son was awarded his own – and he is celebrated today in the form of a new blue plaque in Derby. The plaque takes pride of place on the hotel that once the Midland, the hotel where it all began, and will great visitors travelling on the line that he worked on for so long.