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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

It's Who Knows You - Promotion Amongst Victorian Railway Clerks

Britain’s railways have two stories that run like a thread through them. On the one hand, there were the events that took place in the head offices and amongst senior managers that shaped what actually happened on the railways. On the other, there were the myriad of stories that played out at stations, yards and on trains around the network amongst railway employees. Therefore, the role of the railway historian is to either choose to focus on one aspect of these tales, or, to look at their interaction.

This fact was brought to mind when, on visiting the National Railway Museum’s (NRM) archive on Monday, I looked at a book by W. Buckmaster called Railway Reminiscences. Produced after his retirement in 1937, this small pamphlet detailed his career as a member of the clerical staff of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) and his subsequent rise into management. Indeed, it was his management activities that consistently brought to my mind the diary of another L&SWR clerk, Sam Fay (Shown), which I have in my possession. What was interesting was that Buckmaster showed how senior managers approached the promotion of clerks within the company, while Fay’s diary starkly detailed the strains, pressures and hopes that clerks had while trying to gain these promotions. Thus, what I have now is a view of promotion amongst the L&SWR’s clerical staff from those being promoted and those doing promoting.

Buckmaster started his L&SWR career in 1875 when he became a clerk in the company’s Goods Department. After spending seven years at what he called his ‘home station,’ he then became a clerk at a ‘busy goods depot’ for another seven. He then spent three years as a relief clerk, was posted at the Superintendent of the Line’s office in around 1892 and was appointed ‘Chief of the Traffic Department Staff’ a few years later.

Thus, for the five years that Buckmaster was in this post he was the man who best understood the Traffic Department’s staff from a management perspective, gaining ‘a thorough insight’ into the staff’s ‘character, temperament, disposition etc.’ Thus, with such knowledge he was seemingly the one who had control over clerks’ career paths as it enabled him to ‘form an opinion as to their fitness and ability to undertake other and more responsible duties as and when vacancies occurred.’ Subsequently, he controlled ‘to a great extent their destinies.’[1] This suggests that single senior managers had the most say in who was promoted within the Traffic Department. Furthermore, the recommendations that these managers made as to who should be promoted were simply based on their subjective opinions of individuals’ suitability to fill vacancies.

But what about the process clerks went through in applying for jobs? While some were clearly approached directly to fill positions within the Traffic department by senior management, as Buckmaster himself was,[2] evidence from Sam Fay’s diary, written during his time as a clerk in Kingston, shows how the L&SWR’s clerical staff went about applying for positions (If you would like to know more about Fay’s life at the time see HERE.)

Firstly, within the company there was seemingly a network whereby individuals would acquire knowledge about vacancies, whether it were through letters, news stories or through word of mouth. Thus, on the 25th February 1878 Fay, who was looking to advance his career at this point, ‘asked Mr Pettit [the station master] on Friday if he had any objection to my applying for Queen's Road as I heard the Chief Clark was about to leave.’[3] Additionally, in April 1879 F. Mears, Agent at Bournemouth died. Such was the dissemination of this knowledge that Fay reported that there was ‘over 100 applications for the latter job.’[4] Of course, occasionally information regarding potential opportunities was received too late for vacancies to be applied for. When in November 1879 a vacancy came up at Reading, Fay applied. However, a Mr Goffe in the General Manager’s office replied to Fay’s application stating that ‘Stacey late agent at Midhurst had been appointed there.’[5]

However, what is evident from diary is that while there was an internal labour market, whereby individuals applied for jobs en masse and competed for vacant positions, a clerk’s chances were more likely to be shaped by the knowledge that those above them in the management hierarchy had. Indeed, this confirms Buckmaster’s assertion that senior managers were key to clerks’ promotional prospects. In October 1878 Fay ‘asked the governor his opinion about applying for vacancies caused by the opening of Holsworthy line.’ However, because Petit was ‘strongly against [him] applying,’ he gave up the idea.[6] Indeed, there is evidence that Station Agents had some sway over who left their stations and on the 25th February 1878 Fay ‘asked Mr Pettit on Friday if he had any objection to my applying for Queen's Road as I heard the Chief Clark was about to leave.’[7] Lastly, in August 1879 Fay himself went up to see the company’s General Manager, Archibald Scott, about a vacancy at Andover if ‘Lawrence goes to Midhurst.’[8]

Thus, Fay’s superiors, from his direct line manager, Petit, to the General Manager of the company, Scott, all played a part in advancing or holding his back is career. Therefore, within the late Victorian railway company, while competition for posts clearly existed, career advancement was more dependent on how superiors thought of individuals, how aware they were of them within the organisation, and their subjective opinion of their abilities. Indeed, this puts a ‘human’ element into the studies of social mobility within the Victorian railway, which have seemingly only seen career advancement as a logical outcome of good education and start-of-life opportunities. Indeed, this small study has shown that it wasn’t always what you knew or who you knew that got you advanced, rather, it was who knew you that sometimes did the trick.

[1] Buckmaster, W. Railway Reminiscences, (London, 1937), p.7
[2] Buckmaster, Railway Reminiscences, p.4
[3] William Fay Collection [WFC], Sam Fay's Diary, Monday, 25th February 1878
[4] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Tuesday, 22nd April 1879
[5] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Tuesday, 28th November 1879
[6] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Wednesday, 16th October 1878
[7] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Wednesday, 16th October 1878
[8] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Monday, 25th February 1878

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Magazine Adverts of British Railways after World War One

After World War One the railway companies of Britain were not in a good state. However, after four years of being overworked they were faced with an old problem returning. Between 1900 and 1914 the number of passengers and goods the railways conveyed had levelled off, after a period of massive growth between 1870 and 1900. Naturally, under the stresses and strains of the wartime environment the traffic on the railways had increased dramatically. However, as the after-effects of the conflict started to die down, they were faced with the traffic problems of the pre-war period returning. This fact was highlighted when I looked at issues of Railway Magazine from September and November 1919, and February 1921. In these magazines the railway companies advertised services that they hoped would contribute to alleviating the faltering growth in traffic.

The first thing of note is that the adverts can be divided into two categories. Firstly, there were those that advertise the passenger services that the companies provided, and, secondly, there were those in which they advertised space alongside the railways for businesses to set up.

Interestingly, adverts for the companies’ passenger services were limited in number in the 1919 editions, coming from the Underground and the The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR). The Underground advertised ‘The Services to the Countryside,’ referencing that they, and ‘allied services,’ could convey individuals to ‘the Northern Heights, the Southern Downs, the forests in the east, the wooded plains and river-side in the West are all served partly and daily but mostly at weekends.’[1]

The L&YR’s advert for ‘Summer Season’ traffic in 1919 wasn’t so much an advert, as it was a warning. In rather stern tones it stated that ‘All passengers to the Blackpool and Southport districts on Saturday, September 6th will be required to obtain their tickets in advance.’[2] Indeed, ‘Passengers from Blackpool and Stations to Lytham travelling to Preston and beyond on Saturdays and Mondays, up to and including September 15th, must obtain a special ticket authorising them to travel by a specific train.’ The reason for the these harsh rules is unclear, however, after the wartime conditions it is quite possible that the resources that the L&YR had at their disposal to marshal unexpected passengers was diminished and, therefore, the company wished to be able to plan their operations more carefully.

The small number of adverts advertising passenger services can possibly be put down to the fact that many men were still in uniform at this time and that they were unavailable to travel for leisure, and that wartime conditions for all were still in place. Furthermore, with passenger levels still buoyant given wartime conditions were mostly still in place, the railway companies perhaps did not feel the need to advertise their services in such a manner. However, by the February 1921 edition it is clear that the companies were now trying to capture passenger traffic that was being challenged by passengers moving to trams and the beginnings of motorcar ownership.

The Great Central Railway (GCR) was advertising their ‘Health and Holiday Resorts Guide.’ The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) were promoting their ferry services which, in their words provided ‘The shortest and most comfortable route to France, The Riviera, Switzerland, Italy, Pyrenees, Spain and All Parts of the Continent.’ The South, Eastern, Chatham and Dover Railway (SEC&DR) were doing the same, and were also claiming that they provided ‘the shortest sea routes to the continent.’[4] Indeed, the Great Eastern Railway (GER) was also following suit, although its only claim was that it had ‘the most luxurious steamers between England and the continent,’ presumably because in no way could they argue they had ‘the shortest routes.’[5] Lastly, the L&YR was advertising its ‘Exchange Station Hotel, Liverpool,’ and was in its estimation the ‘nearest First Class Hotel to the Landing Stage, exchanges, and Principal centres of Business.’[6] Lastly, the Metropolitan Railway and the GCR were advertising housing developments near their railways where individuals could live, which would assure the railway companies of their patronage.

Throughout this period the railway companies were also trying to capture the more goods traffic through indirect means. In the all editions of Railway Magazine they advertised the lands adjoining or near to their lines that could be purchased by businesses. Some of their land was the companies’ own, but mainly they compiled registers which individuals could consult of those wishing to sell land or properties. The London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) notice stated that ‘if you require premises or land for business development, write giving particulars and we may be able to put you in touch with just what is wanted.’[7] Thus, in the September 1919 edition, the GCR, Midland and South Western Junction Railway, Kent and East Sussex Railway, East Kent Railway, Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway, Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway, GER, Rhondda and Swansea Bay Railway, SE&CR, London & North Westen Railway, L&SWR and the Great Western Railways were all advertising these services.[8]

These advertising campaigns were logical for the railway companies to engage in, as by putting potential purchasers of land in touch with sellers who were close to the railways, they would keep business near the railways and capture the trade emanating from them. In addition, it allowed the railways to be far more aware of what businesses were in their operational sphere and they could than manage their requirements better. Of course, in the period before the war businesses would have naturally set up near railway lines as the railway companies dominated to freight transportation market. However after the war the expansion of road haulage firms, using sold-off ex-army vans, began to challenging the railways’ dominance in transport services. Thus, the adverts and the property registers were a way of counter-acting this new threat to their businesses.

Thus, in the post-war period (and at other times) what the railways advertised and how they went about it was shaped by what the state of the business environment they were operating in.


[1] The Railway Magazine, September 1919,
[2] The Railway Magazine, November 1919, p.v
[3] The Railway Magazine, February 1921, p.ii
[4] The Railway Magazine, February 1921, p.iv
[5] The Railway Magazine, February 1921, p.vii
[6] The Railway Magazine, February 1921,
[7] The Railway Magazine, September 1919,
[8] The Railway Magazine, September 1919

Sunday, 19 June 2011

When Railway Clerks Went to Work - The Entrance Age of Victorian Clerks

It is generally understood that in the late Victorian period most individuals started their railway careers shortly after leaving school. However, what is not so commonly recognised is that different employment practices were in place earlier in the period and many started their railway careers at later points in their lives. In this post I will examine the ages that clerks on the London and South Western Railway were appointed (L&SWR) to their first posts between 1840 and 1910. It should be noted, that I have also included in this study all cases where individuals were appointed to positions on the clerical career ladder, including junior clerks, chief clerks, goods agents and station agents.

The table below shows the age at which 200 clerks with surnames beginning with ‘A’ or ‘B’ were appointed to the company’s staff. Figures for the period 1880 to 1899 were unavailable as I have not photographed the records yet.

Of the 200 individuals in the sample, 148 (74%) were appointed under the age of 20. Thus, it can be inferred that majority of the clerks joined the company after leaving school. However, evidently, the likelihood that new clerks would be from this age group increased. So, in the 1840s only two new clerks, or 15.38%, of the 13 appointed in the decade were under 20. However, in the 1850s this proportion had risen to 29.63% (8 out of 27 appointed), in the 1860s it was 69.6% (39 out of 56 appointed) and in the 1870s it was 93.24% (69 out of 74 appointed). Lastly, after 1900, 100% of all new clerks were under the age of 20.

Conversely, the number of clerks of older ages declined. In the 1840s and 1850s the table shows that clerks were being appointed at a diverse range of ages. Indeed, in the 1840s 46.15% (6 out of 13 appointed) were appointed above the age of 30, and this had increased in the 1850s to 48.15% (13 out of 27 appointed). This would suggest that the majority would have had employment elsewhere beforehand, and this may have been in clerical positions either within other railway companies or other industries.

However, after 1860 the proportion of clerks appointed who were above 30 years of age declined. In the 1860s they constituted only 8.9% of all appointments (5 out of 56 appointed) and in the 1870s the proportion dropped to 2.70% (2 out of 74 appointed). Considering all clerks after 1900 were appointed in their teens, this indicates a change occurring in railway company employment practices over the period

In the early railways there were no railway professionals. Railway company managers, who had very little idea how to manage their new, but complex, businesses, looked to external sources to find the talented individuals needed to undertake the clerical and administrative work. Thus, while the L&SWR clearly did employ teenage individuals as clerks where available (possibly because they were cheaper), experience was a much more valued attribute at the time. However, as the L&SWR’s business matured and developed, it started to develop its own staff and turned less and less to external sources for labour. Indeed, the company increasingly opted for employing younger and younger individuals.

Thus, within the L&SWR was formed an ‘Internal Labour Market’ (ILM) whereby the company internalised a process, that of recruitment, that had previously occurred externally. The benefits of this for the company was that the cost of searching for labour was reduced and managers could be certain that the time taken training young clerks would not be wasted. For the clerks, the reduction in entrance ages meant that those entering the company later in its history would have far more structured careers ahead of them, good job security, the possibility of reaching management positions and, unless they did something wrong (and they did – see here), have employment for life.

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.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

When Two Transports Go To War - The Electric Fight-Back in the 1900s

In my last blog post (here) I talked about how the trams, which were spreading through the suburbs of Britain’s cities, began to challenge the railway’s dominance of suburban passenger traffic. The trams offered a more convenient, clean and cheaply priced door-to-door service than the railways’ somewhat inconvenient, overcrowded and dirty ones. In this blog post I will look at how Britain’s railway’s fought back against this threat.

This week, it will not have escaped anyone’s notice that South West Trains was having a very bad time due to failures in their electrified services. Signalling failures, cable theft and bad customer care created a perfect storm where the company looked very bad, even though the problems were not their fault. The electrified network that SWT currently operate was established by their predecessors, the London and South Western and Southern Railway (L&SWR) in direct response to the tram threat. However, if the L&SWR had pursued a different strategic course, and had adopted more widespread use of the steam railcar, then the problems encountered this week may never have materialised.

Steam railcars were effectively carriages powered by a small steam engine in their front (shown). In the L&SWR’s case the General Manager, Charles Owens, felt that the railcars could be used where the level of traffic did not require the use of a locomotive and carriage. Indeed, the L&SWR were using them on 18 routes by 1912 (although 3 had been discontinued by that point).[1] However, while not strictly a response to the tram threat, as many were used on small branch lines, some did migrate towards the suburban districts, and one service was run between Twickenham and Gunnersbury.

Yet, the L&SWR wasn’t the only company to build steam railcars. Indeed, after borrowing one of the L&SWR’s railcars for trials, and being suitably impressed, the Great Western Railway eventually ordered 99 to operate services on local lines.[2] Furthermore, other companies also built them and 173 are known to have been constructed before 1923.[3] Yet, the steam railcars could never effectively defend against the tram threat as they could only could carry limited numbers of passengers. Indeed, while some did have extra carriages attached to increase their capacities, one was always the maximum. Thus, while they looked like a more ‘modern’ way to travel, in reality they were a re-hash of old ideas.

Thus, some railway companies started to turn to electric traction to match the speed, comfort and cleanliness of the trams, and to make rail travel attractive again. Because of the large electrified network that existed on the southern suburban lines in the 1920s and 1930s, many authors have ignored the fact that initially electrification was a national movement. By 1890 there were a number of electric trains operating on piers, however, in the 1890s a number of standard-gauge suburban lines were opened including the City & South London Railway (1890), the Waterloo & City Railway (1898), the Central London Railways (1900) and the Liverpool Overhead Railway (1893). However, these were all new railways, built when the main line railway companies were still benefiting from rising passenger traffic figures and were not responses to any particular threat

Yet, with people deserting the trains to travel by tram, the railways started investigating electric traction. The Mersey Railway was electrified in 1903, the Lancashire and Yorkshire electrified its Liverpool to Southport route in 1904 and the North Tyneside Systems of the North Eastern Railway were also upgraded in 1904. Furthermore, in 1903 the Metropolitan District Railway started to electrify its lines, followed by the Metropolitan Railway in 1905. But these electrifications, that used a range of different electric systems, were unsuited for the long-distance services that many of the main line companies operated because of their low voltages.[4]

Now, at this point most authors would direct your attention to the fact that the different mainline companies adopted different electrical systems, and indeed they did. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway started electrifying its suburban network in 1909 using 6,700v ac current supplied from overhead cables. The North Eastern Railway started using 1500v dc current overhead systems on Teesside in 1913. The London and North Western Railway used the London underground’s 4-rail 630v dc system between Watford and Euston, and between Broad Street and Richmond from 1909. The Midland Railway tested 6600v dc systems between Lancashire and Heysham in 1908. Lastly, the L&SWR started to electrify its suburban network in 1912 using third rail 660v ac systems. Thus, by 1923 363 miles of standard gauge line in Britain was electrified using many different systems.[5]

But in a way the minutiae is not important. The important question is why the multiple systems were adopted. By the 1900 most technical aspects of the British railway industry had been standardised through the railway Clearing House (RCH). So, train couplings were the same, accident prevention devices had been formalised, signalling was (mostly) uniform and the height of buffers were all identical. Yet, the railways did not come together to agree a uniform system of electrification. Indeed, this was despite companies having territories, for example those of the southern companies, where their issues regarding declining passenger numbers were almost identical. Indeed, years later the Southern railway, which took over the southern companies, converted all the London, Brighton and South Coast’s overhead electrified systems to the London and South Western’s third rail one.

The reason for this was that the companies, while unified in many respects through the RCH, acted independently in the face of the tram challenge. Because the vast majority of Britain’s railway managers and directors had been working with steam traction throughout their careers, a consensus on what was the best electric system to adopt did not develop within the industry. Therefore, because of their limited experiences and knowledge of electric traction, the result was the haphazard implementation of a hotch-potch of electric systems.

However, the most important question is whether the growth in suburban electric services worked in countering the tram threat before 1923? Nationally the impact cannot be discerned as the majority of passenger trains remained steam hauled. Furthermore, the First World War distorted the figures for the number of passengers conveyed as the railways had unnaturally high usage. Yet, specific figures have been detailed by Colin Chivers for the number of passengers using the L&SWR’ suburban network. Before electrification in 1915 the number of suburban passengers had fallen to 23.3 million. However, by 1920 this had risen to 52.6 million. As Chivers argues ‘an increase of 126% in those five years has to be judged a successful outcome.’[6]

Whether this was repeated elsewhere is unknown, and nationally the number of passengers the railways carried did fall off in the post war period.[7] However, there is clear evidence here that the electrification of commuter lines did improve passenger numbers in those districts. Indeed, after grouping in 1923 the newly formed Southern Railway, who progressively electrified more routes, had consistent passenger traffic growth until 1937. While the northern railway companies continued to be challenged by trams, buses and cars between 1923 and 1937, the number of passengers conveyed by the Southern Railways rose from 236 million to 379 million, a growth of 60.59%.[8] Subsequently, where electrification was applied, the railways remained the dominant form of passenger conveyance until after Work War Two.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/415, Personal collection of details of a varying nature covering costs, and information of a general character, p.89



[4] Boyes, Grahame, ‘Electrification,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997) p.143

[5] Boyes, ‘Electrification,’ p.143

[6] Chivers, 4 The Riverside Electric, p.164

[7] Munby, D.L. and Watson, A.H.(eds.), Inland Transport Statistics, Great Britain, 1900-1970, (Oxford, 1978) p.100

[8] Moody, G.T., Southern Electric: A history of the world’s greatest suburban electric system, (Shepperton, 1957) p.83-84

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

When Two Transports Go To War... Trams vs Trains in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In the late 19th century the number of passengers that Britain's railways carried increased so rapidly that the companies’ infrastructure became desperately stretched. Indeed, I have described previously the London and South Western Railway’s troubles in adapting to this traffic growth; and how the company’s general manager was forced to resign because of complaints in The Times regarding the quality of the company’s service. (Found HERE) In 1870 British railways carried 336,545,397 passengers. By 1880 this had risen to 603,885,025, an increase of 79.44%. In 1890 817,744,046 passengers travelled, a 35.41% increase. Lastly, in 1900 British railways conveyed 1,142,276,686 individuals, equating to further growth of 36.69%.[1]

With such growth, and with the promise of consistently increasing passenger revenue, it is no wonder that in the late 19th century railway directors and managers were happy to make continual investment in improving their infrastructure, rather than hold back and cause overcrowding, poor services and slow train speeds. Thus, the railways invested heavily in improving stations, yards and sidings to improve their services and to accommodate future traffic increases. Furthermore, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway’s extension to London, started in 1895 and opened in 1899, could not have been initiated without the company’s managers judging that traffic would continue to increase, unabated. Indeed, despite criticism at the time that the extension was unnecessary, they perceived that it would be highly profitable in the future.[2]

Then, in 1900, the unimaginable happened and passenger (along with goods) traffic stopped growing rapidly on Britain’s railways. Between 1870 and 1900 the number of passengers conveyed grew by an average of 7.98% per year. Yet, in 1910 1,248,792,604 passengers were conveyed, a growth of only 9.32% over the decade. Indeed, the average yearly traffic growth between 1900 and 1910 stood at only 0.93%.

This change in the speed of traffic growth was because the street trams started to attack the railways’ short-distance third class passenger traffic. The increased numbers of railway passengers between 1870 and 1900 had principally travelled by third class accommodation. In 1870 they constituted only 67.88% of the total passengers conveyed in the country. Yet, by 1900 90.67% of all railway passengers travelled third class. Subsequently, many of the improvements to the infrastructure of the British railway network after the mid-1880s, and all the expectation of increased revenue and potential profits from future projects, had been built on this low-paying, short-distance, class of passenger.

Electric trams had been introduced into Britain in 1883 when Magnus Volk had constructed the Brighton Tramway, which still exists today. By 1885 the first street tramways were installed in Blackpool. Yet, it should also be remembered that there was not just an increase in electric trams in the period, and horse-drawn trams also played a significant role in urban transport. Thus, after 1885 the trams spread like wildfire. While I have not found statistics for tram mileage growth before 1900, between then and 1910 it grew from 1,041 to 2,434 miles, a 133.81% increase.[3] Thus, by 1896 street tramways in Britain carried 759,466,000 passengers. Yet, by 1910 this had risen to 2,907,177,000, an overall growth of 282.79% or an average 20.20% per year. Indeed, it was in 1900, the year in which passenger growth on the railways slowed, that more individuals travelled by tram than bought third class railway tickets.[4]

Short distance travellers had always existed between 1870 and 1900, and, as Cain pointed out, the majority of commuters did not use public transport. For example, by 1900 in South London only 1 in 10 individuals used public transport to get to work.[5] Yet, as the tram network spread, and access to them was widened in urban areas, their speed, comfort and reasonable ticket prices provided people with a service that the railways could not match easily for very good reasons.

With fixed routes, aged technologies and heavy costs to modify the infrastructure, the railways were in a very difficult position. The heavy investments in infrastructure of the 1890s, which made sense at the time as the railways had little competition in the transport market, looked far more foolhardy after it. None of them were made to deal with the new challenge to their business and most were to address capacity problems or make further profits. Indeed, many investments in improving stations and yards for future use were found to be unnecessary after 1900 as traffic growth slowed. Furthermore, after 1895 railway profitability, through rising costs, government legislation and poor management practices (See my PhD, when finished), had declined significantly, and after 1900 the companies found it hard to raise enough capital to respond to the tram challenge through defensive investment.

Yet, faced with calls from passengers after 1895 for faster, more frequent and more comfortable services, the railways developed responses to the challenge of the trams. These will be covered in part 2.


[1] Board of Trade Returns.
[2] Harris, Michael, ‘The Great Central Railway,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.188-189
[3] Munby, D.L. and Watson, A.H.(eds.), Inland Transport Statistics, Great Britain, 1900-1970, (Oxford, 1978) p.338
[4] Board of Trade Returns.
[5]Cain, P.J., ‘Railways 1870-1914: The maturity of the private system,’ in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.), Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988), p.101

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Defending London's Interior - Railway Promotion and the 1846 Royal Commission

It has probably escaped no one’s attention that the three of London’s great stations, Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, are all in a line along the Euston Road. But why is this so? Why did the London and Birmingham, Midland and Great Northern Railways not push their lines further into the city, whether the passenger traffic that it had to offer could be more easily tapped?

The first railway lines to run through parts of London were of little consequence. The London & Greenwich and London & Blackwall Railways were short in length, on the outskirts of the city, built mostly on viaducts and any housing they cleared was slums. Indeed, clearing slums was an activity that landowners, parish councils and government were not going to complain about. More pertinently, these railways did not come into conflict with any of London’s major landowners and their construction was therefore relatively cheap.[1]

But thereafter, many of the major railways who wished to build termini in the capital did not attempt to penetrate the interior, as this would mean passing through parts of the capital where land-owning was well established, purchase prices were high and a degree of dispute was inevitable. Thus, many railways decided to finish their lines outside of London’s central zone. The Great Western Railway established their terminus at Paddington, the London and Birmingham’s line ended at Euston Square and the London Southampton Railway ceased construction at Nine Elms.[2]

However, during the railway mania between 1844 and 1847, the number of new railways promoted increased significantly. Indeed, in 1846 alone 272 were authorised by Parliament (with a third never being built).[3] With such fervour and with the available capital seemingly inexhaustible, many of these projects planned to drive lines right into London’s centre. Subsequently, in 1846 no less that 19 projects had plans to site termini within central London. But the multitude of plans brought alarmist reactions at the time, and Kellett argued that the new railways would ‘have completely altered the topography and character of west and central London, of Southwark and Lambeth.’[4]

Faced with the almost complete destruction of central London, the government decided that a Royal Commission should be established investigate the railways’ possible incursions. Indeed, the area of London under consideration was from Park Lane in the West, up to the line of the Marylebone and Euston Roads in the north, down to the Lambeth road on the south (shown in black on the map).[5] In the usual course of affairs, bills authorising the construction of new railways were considered individually by separate parliamentary committees. The commission on the other hand would call witnesses representing a wide range of bodies who would ordinarily not have a say in these committees and railway construction. Included were the Corporation of London, Parish bodies, the Surveyors of Pavements and Sewers, urban carriers of omnibuses, independent valuers as well as many others.

The result was that these voices dominated the commission’s deliberations, effectively silencing those of railway promoters and managers. Subsequently, the commissioners deemed that the promoters arguments, that railway lines into the centre of London would be of benefit to its population, were overstated. Indeed, the Commissioners stated that despite the fact that London residents may have to travel further if the railway companies were kept out of the centre, this inconvenience was worth it if the disturbance to the people and property there was avoided. Furthermore, as some of the projected lines crossed the Thames, naval concerns were also taken into consideration and the fact that the Admiralty might object to further bridges being built.[6]

As such, the commission recommended that only two of the 19 projected railway lines through the central metropolis should proceed. Both were located south of the river, and while one never got built, the other was the London and South Western Railway’s line to Waterloo. Furthermore, they suggested that one line be built across the Thames west of Vauxhall to link northern and southern railways. They also recommended that the limits of railway building into the centre that had been established, for example the no penetration between the Euston road and the river, be maintained. Lastly, and most importantly, they recommended that ‘under no circumstances should the thoroughfares of the Metropolis, and the property and the comfort of its inhabitants be surrendered to separate schemes brought forward at different times, and without reference to each other.’[7]

The commission only made recommendations that were not legally binding. However, it was important as it put in place a framework of ideas into the minds of legislators and railway builders when they approached new railway promotion and construction. Thus, in 1852 when the Great Northern Railway opened King’s Cross Station it was on the Euston road, the company not being permitted to go any further. Additionally, when the Midland Railway built St Pancras station between 1862 and 1868 it also did not go any further south. And whilst the commission’s core recommendation was eroded in the 1850s and 1860s through new termini being built over bridges coming from the south side of Thames to Victoria (1858), Charring Cross (authorised 1858, opened 1864), Cannon Street (authorised 1861, opened 1866) and Ludgate Hill (1864) stations; realistically it ensured that surface railways never truly broke into London’s heart.[8]


[1] Robbins, Michael, ‘London,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.277
[2] Robbins, ‘London,’ p.277
[3] ‘Railway Mania,
[4] Kellett, John R., Railways and Victorian Cities, (London, 1979), p.35
[5] Robbins, ‘London,’ p.279
[6] Klapper, Charles, London’s Lost Railways, (London, 1976), p.33
[7] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers [HCPP], 1846 [719] Report of the commissioners appointed to investigate the various projects for establishing railway termini within or in the immediate vicinity of the metropolis, p.21
[8] Robbins, ‘London,’ p.278

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The State of Britain's Railways, 1945-1948

During World War Two Britain’s railways played a crucial role, hauling the goods, people and machines that allowed this country to make war. Indeed, in 1944 the freight ton mileage of Britain’s Railways was 50% above 1938 levels. However, when the conflict was over the railway network was in a horrendous state. Infrastructure had not been maintained adequately, obsolete locomotives were common place and the wagon and carriage rolling stock was run-down. This post will examine the state of Britain’s railways in 1945 and will summarise possible causes. I will be using statistics and information provided in Terry Gourvish’s British Railways 1948-73: A Business History (p. 3-5).

The maintenance of all sorts of Rolling Stock, locomotives, carriages and wagons, had fallen back significantly creating a maintenance and renewal backlog. On the 31st December 1938 only 6.04% of Britain’s total locomotive stock was awaiting or under repair (a 32% increase). Whereas on the same day in 1946 the proportion stood at 7.98%. Coaching stock had fared worse, and over the same period the proportion had risen from 6.52% to 12.52% awaiting maintenance or under repair (a 92% increase). It was Britain’s “little bob-tailed wagons” that had received the worse treatment, and on 31st December 1938 only 2.82% were awaiting or were under repair. However, by 31st December 1946 the figure had risen to 10.79% (a 281% increase).

The causes of these maintenance deficiencies were simple. Many locomotives were at the end of their operational lives, had not been broken up because of wartime requirements and, thus, required heavy repairs. Wagon stock had been augmented by the railway companies acquiring 563,000 privately owned wagons during wartime, many of which were aging and obsolete. Indeed, more than 50% being over 35 years old. Lastly, passenger carriages, which had not been prioritised for renewals under wartime conditions, were falling to bits. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) had approximately 22,000 carriages, yet, had only renewed a measly 16 per year between 1940 and 1944.

Alongside the evident problems afflicting the rolling stock, after the war the condition of Britain’s railway infrastructure was just as bad, if not worse. The increases in traffic had not precipitated an increase in track maintenance, which had reduced to 30% of pre-war levels. Indeed, in 1945 2,500 miles of track required maintenance, the equivalent of two years’ worth of work at pre-war rates of repair and renewal. Indeed, similar requirements were felt on the structures of the network, the bridges, the buildings, the tunnels etc.

The cause of these back-logs has been put down to the fact that the railways had a weakening financial position. The government had restricted railway earnings to £43.5 million per year, it retaining any revenue above this level. Thus, between 1941 and 1945 the railways earned £412.6 million pounds, but £195.3 million was retained by government. However, the restricted income was inadequate for all the maintenance required given the significant increases in coal, material and labour costs. Despite this, the government did not invest any more money.

Some of the surplus government retained went into an accumulating trust fund for deferred repairs and renewals, i.e. a fund for after the war. However, despite the pressing needs of the time, government thinking was that this fund would be sufficient to meet replacement infrastructure costs at ‘future prices’ [italics in text] which diminished the need for heavy wartime investment, some of which may be unnecessary. Furthermore, they felt that the money should be held back so that post-war renewals could be geared more towards changed national transport needs and ‘motive power policy.’

Yet, despite all these factors, Gourvish argued that much of the under-investment was due to wartime shortages and that ‘it may be difficult to accept that a more generous wartime policy towards railway investment would have succeeded in safeguarding assets which were, it is generally agreed, in relatively good shape in 1939.’ (p.5)

Whatever the cause, Britain’s four private operators, the Southern (SR); London, Midland and Scottish (LMS); London and North Eastern (LNER) and Great Western Railways (GWR), did not have the financial or physical resources to reverse the maintenance and renewal situation quickly or efficiency after the war. The result was that the Labour government nationalised Britain’s railways through the 1947 Transport Act, which came into force on the 1st January 1948 and created British Railways.

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