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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

When Victorian Beer Trains Crash

I was recently invited to the launch of the East Lancashire Railway’s ‘Real Ale Trail,’ where you can explore the pubs in and around the line. Unfortunately, and very sadly, I was unable to make it (but please go and see all about it HERE). However, it got me thinking about the interaction between the railways and breweries and how ale would be hauled from creator to consumer. Of course, much beer in the Victorian period was drunk in the local proximity of the brewery. Yet, while I am in no way a historical beer expert (a goal, for sure), the large breweries mass-produced beer for large markets in Britain and abroad and this was where the railways would play their part. After searching the online 19th century newspapers I found eight stories between 1873 and 1896 about beer-trains, all involving accidents that occurred to them.

What is most interesting about the accidents was that six of the eight occurred on the Midland Railway. The other two took place on the Great Eastern Railway. The large number on the Midland was because of the many breweries in the Midland’s region, specifically around Burton. Indeed, all the Midland Railway's accidents occurred on trains going from that place. On the 4th August 1888 a Midnight Goods train, mostly filled with beer, was prevented from erroneously passing onto the main line at Claycross by a slip point, allowing it to career down the embankment. It was going from Burton to Leeds.[1] Furthermore, in January 1883 a beer train being shunted to allow an express passenger train to pass was struck by a train of empty wagons going from Burton on the Leicester to Leeds line.[2]

Importantly, the accidents’ geographical locations evidence that mass-shipment of beer was not a nation-wide phenomenon in the late Victorian period and was restricted to the Burton region. Indeed, if there were other regions of Britain sending beer in such volumes, I’m sure that I would have found a larger geographical spread of accidents.

In addition, I initially thought that most of the accidents would be due to the weight beer causing damage to the trains, it being one of the heavier commodities the railways carried. However, only three accidents were of this nature. On the 7th August 1873 a Great eastern Railway beer train on its way to Norwich was thrown off the line by a trucks's axle breaking.[3] In February 1881, a ‘Burton beer train’ near Leicester was ‘running at speed’ and broke in two. The forward section moved off, however, when it stopped the rear section careered into it smashing the wagons.[4]

What is more interesting is that when the beer trains did overturn or collide, their weights did cause considerable damage to the track. So, the Beer train to Norwich caused significant damage and held up the mail train by 4 hours. Lloyds Weekly Newspaper commented that ‘Alcohol can thus baffle her Majesty’s mail as well as her Majesty’s Government.’[5] When in 1881 near Bromsgrove the driver of the Birmingham to Bristol Beer train stopped it to check a broken coupling, an auxiliary train came up behind causing 10 vehicles to be thrown off the line. Four hours elapsed before trains were running again.

Luckily, no fatalities were caused in any of the accidents. However, a lot of beer went to waste, and that the real tragedy? In the 1888 Claycross accident the train on reaching the bottom of the embankment became submerged in a deep pool of water. Its length of the train was nine wagons and I can only surmise that they and their contents was lost.[7] The 1873 accident on the route to Norwich involved damage to some barrels that were ‘emptied onto the thirsty road.’[8] On 3rd December 1896 a beer train from Burton to Leicester ‘struck the points’ and overturned. The result was that the barrels of beer were ‘scattered in all directions, and some were thrown with such violence that they were precipitated into a field adjoining the railway embankment.’[9] Lastly, at Bromsgrove in 1881, local fields were ‘deluged with beer.’[10]

Of course, not all the beer went to waste. On the 14th January 1876 a train from Burton hit two stray horses on the line between Derby and Sheffield at Wingfield station. The force of the collision overturned to of the beer-laden wagons and threw the driver from the train. However, worse was to come and an oncoming mineral train collided with the wreck despite the driver’s attempt to warn it. In the course of these events several beer barrels were broken and the contents poured out. The York Herald recorded that this was ‘a circumstance which a number of colliers going to their work did not fail to notice, and had their early beer, good and plenty of it, on exceedingly good terms.’[11] All I can say was that this was a happy ending.
[1] The York Herald, Saturday, September 08, 1888; pg. 4; Issue 11630
[2] The Pall Mall Gazette, Friday, January 26, 1883; Issue 5587
[3] Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 10, 1873; Issue 1603
[4] Western Mail, Saturday, February 26, 1881; Issue 3682
[5] Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 10, 1873; Issue 1603
[6] Nottinghamshire Guardian, Friday, October 21, 1881; pg. 7; Issue 1900
[7] The York Herald, Saturday, September 08, 1888; pg. 4; Issue 11630
[8] Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 10, 1873; Issue 1603
[9] The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 9, 1896; Issue 9492
[10] Nottinghamshire Guardian, Friday, October 21, 1881; pg. 7; Issue 1900
[11] The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 9, 1896; Issue 9492.


  1. I know the Bass and Worthington breweries at Burton were also famous for their large internal railway systems - I would imagine they must have thrown up their fair share of small accidents and 'accidental tasting sessions' over the years.

    Would have thought there might be the odd tale of Guiness trains from Park Royal running into mischief - I'm guessing they would have been the other big national distributor at this time.

  2. I have never come upon a 'beer train wreck' but passing through Needles California years ago I did find a Budweiser Beer Truck had wrecked and torn open the trailer. There was broken beer bottles scattered across the Interstate in both directions. Quite sad actually even if I do prefer my Foster's. :)

  3. Rail Ale Tour Guide15 June 2011 at 22:35

    Thanks for mentioning the Rail Ale Trail at Great anectdotes about beer accidents! We look forward to you visiting and coming on one of our tours, so that we can share stories! thanks Rail Ale Tour Guide


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