The railways of the Victorian period were, for legal purposes, common carriers. Vital to the country’s trade and industry, they were legally obliged to carry all the goods that individuals brought to stations and yards if they were willing to pay the rates and charges the companies quoted. The only exemption from this rule, as stated in the Railways Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, was that the companies were under no obligation to ‘carry upon the railway, any aquafortis, oil of vitrol, gunpowder, lucifer matches, or any other goods which in the judgment of the company may be of a dangerous nature.’ If the railway did agree to carry them the consignor had to label them clearly as such, and failure to do so would result in he or she paying a £20 fine to the company.
Despite this, railway companies were initially reluctant to carry such traffics and the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) 1853 rule book stated that ‘no package of gunpowder, Lucifer matches, aquafortis, or other goods of similar combustible material nature can be received under any pretence.,’
However, companies came to realise that refusing this traffic was not good as they could charge more for its conveyance than for other traffics. As a result, the railway companies developed increasingly complex rules for governing the movement of explosives. Furthermore, companies that had military bases within their territories could not really refuse to carry explosives and arms, but at the same time convey the army and navy’s men, horses and equipment. In a way, and although I feature it frequently, the L&SWR is probably one of the best candidates to have its ‘explosives’ procedures examined. Within its territory were Salisbury Plain, Hounslow Barracks and Portsmouth Harbour. Thus, by serving a large number of military bases the company would need to be at the forefront of developing procedures for the conveyance of explosive materials.
From early on in railway history gunpowder was loaded onto a train in a special position. The L&SWR’s 1858 guide for Goods Agents stated that it ‘must not be loaded beside any other goods; but must be given specially in charge to the Guards, or loaded in the powder magazine.’ Furthermore, so railway managers were able to know when Gunpowder was travelling it was only to be conveyed on ‘Mondays and Thursdays’ and before 3 pm. By 1865 these rules, for the general public, were still in place.
However, by then it seems that the L&SWR had come to more formal arrangements with the War Office regarding the supply of explosive materials to the military bases within its region. With the railways becoming more important to the defence of the nation it made sense for the railway and the government to formalise their relationship. Thus, the 1865 ‘instruction to station masters’ showed the expanded range of potentially dangerous items that the L&SWR was conveying for the army. They included ‘tubes, fuzes, signal rockets, port fires, quickmatch, blue, percussion and long lights, powder, rockets, fire-filled shells, gun and small arm cartridges, with percussion caps.’ They were to be conveyed in ‘metallic cylinders’ or by special ‘gunpowder vans,’ which I can only consider were a new addition to the L&SWR rolling stock fleet.
Yet, these rules were created in a period when all the companies specified their own rule books and gave orders to their own employees. But in 1871 all the rule books of Britain’s railway companies were standardised through the Railway Clearing House, and as a result the procedures for the conveyance of gunpowder and explosive materials was formalised nationwide.
Subsequently, the 1884 rule book shows how procedures had proliferated regarding the conveyance of what were now termed ‘explosives.’ Firstly, any vehicle containing ‘explosive matter’ was to have a label with the word ‘explosives’ attached. Secondly, not more than five vehicles with explosives were to be attached to each train. Third, the head guard of the train must be notified of the contents. Fourthly, the vehicles must be placed as far away from the engine, and the guards were prohibited from lighting fires in the break-vans. Fifth, in unloading the explosives they were to be moved from hand-to-hand and not rolled unless cloths, hides or sheets had been laid down. Sixth, each individual engaged in loading was to take the ‘necessary precautions for the prevention of accident by fire or explosion.’ Seventh, at each station that the train stopped the guard in charge was to check on the load and also check the axel boxes to make sure that they were not overheating. Lastly, and most importantly, explosives were not to be conveyed by passenger train. This last rule was particularly interesting as at no point previously was the conveyance of explosives by passenger trains prohibited.
Overall, given the very basic rules of 1858, most aspects of explosives’ movements, from loading, transit and unloading, were covered by rules at the end of the century. Yet, it should be recognised that the development of the rules and procedures for the conveyance of these traffics was indicative of the changing nature of railway procedure throughout the Victorian period. Initially, they had been governed by a limited number of rules that were perceived to protect the trains in which they were carried. Yet, as time passed the procedures became more complex, reflecting the increased concern over their safe movement. Thus, this gradual increasing of the number of rules over time, which was mirrored in changes in procedures governing other aspects of railway operation, was symptomatic of an industry increasingly concerned with safety in an ever-more complex industry.
 Simmons, Jack, ‘Dangerous Goods,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.124
 1845 c. 20 (Regnal. 8 and 9 Vict), Railways Clauses Consolidation Act 1845, 105
 London School of Economics Library [LSE], HE 3020.L L84, London and South Western Railway Rule Book, 1853, Rule 38, p.26
 The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 1135/269, Abstract of Instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station Agents. etc. 1st May 1858, p.18
 TNA, RAIL 1135/270 Abstract of Instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station Agents. etc. 1st June 1865, p.60
 TNA, RAIL 1135/270 Abstract of Instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station Agents. etc. 1st June 1865, p.61
 Horne, M.A.C. British Railway Rule Books, (Unpublished Paper, 2008), p.26 http://www.metadyne.co.uk/pdf_files/RULE_MAIN_V4.pdf
 South Western Circle Collection [SWC], London and South Western Railway Rule Book 1884, rule 258a, p.147-151