Obituary: James Graham Urquhart, 90

James Graham Urquhart started out as a booking clerk
James Graham Urquhart started out as a booking clerk
Have your say

A British Rail manager who played a central part in negotiations during the 1982 strike has died at the age of 90.

James Graham Urquhart, born in 1925, was the oldest of nine children and was brought up in a tenement block in Edinburgh. The family relocated to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where he attended Berwick High School, leaving aged 15 to earn money for the family.

He got a job as a booking clerk on the railways but in 1941 he joined the RAF and trained as a navigator. He spent much of his time at RAF Birkenhead, where he met Margaret Hutchinson and they married at the end of the war.

Urquhart then returned to the railways, which were nationalised by the Attlee government in 1948. He started as a traffic apprentice and was promoted to a marshalling yard superintendent at Stratford in east London in 1951. He served as District Traffic Superintendent in Perth (1960-62) and from 1964 to 1967 was divisional manager for Glasgow and south-west of Scotland. In 1969 he joined the main BR board in London and was in charge of personnel and productivity (1977-83).

Urquhart made his mark with senior management and was one of those who organised a conference for Margaret Thatcher when she was leader of the opposition in 1969. Held at Woking, it gave Mrs Thatcher the opportunity to meet senior BR managers.

Urquhart had carefully listed on a blackboard possible discussion topics, which Mrs Thatcher immediately dismissed, saying: “Oh, you people can’t think on your feet. You can’t work out what you want, can you?” She then launched into a tirade against the chairman of BR. Urquhart later complained about her treatment of the managers to the chairman and an apology came from Mrs Thatcher.

But it was during the strike of 1982 that Urquhart showed his mettle. As the director of British Rail responsible for personnel, he was much involved with the core issues in the dispute with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the NUR. A two-day strike in January halted all rail services.

During these discussions Mrs Thatcher developed her campaign to revolutionise trade union legislation, announcing that she intended to tighten strike laws even further.

By July Urquhart and his negotiating team faced deadlock and the railway system virtually closed down for six weeks. Backed by the BR chairman, Sir Peter Parker, Urquhart announced that BR would dismiss any employees who refused to return to work under the new system of a seven- to nine-hour day. Urquhart was then appointed director of BR’s exports but resigned a year later to pursue non-executive directorships.

Urquhart, who was awarded the CVO in 1983, retired to Swanage in Dorset, where he was a keen golfer, gardened and enjoyed travelling. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.