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The railway – shaping Whitbread’s distribution network?

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The pint of Bass I had last night, in the Express Tavern at Kew Bridge – the only place in London I know that serves it.

This week I have been looking at the files of the brewer Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton (held at the National Brewery Centre Archive, Burton-upon-Trent) to continue my research into the relationship between Britain’s brewers and railways between 1870 and 1914. I’ve found some really interesting stuff, and amongst other things have determined how much Bass was spending on transport over the period. But that’s for another day.

Here I will continue exploring the strange case of Whitbread’s apparently small spending on rail transport (which the figures from Bass seem to confirm are way too low). The company’s accounts show that in 1909 it spent only £3843 or 0.305% of its total operating expenditure on ‘carriage’. I immediately suspected this was wrong; by this point the company was sending 100s of thousands of barrels of beer all over the country to be bottled. This suspicion has been subsequently confirmed by two pieces of evidence.

The first is Nicholas Barritt Redman’s history of Whitbread, a significant book considering he was the company’s corporate archivist (the files were gifted to the London Metropolitan Archives in about 2000). He states that when it started bottling beer in the late 1860s at its plant on the Grays Inn Road, produce was sent onwards by rail all over the country in heavy three-dozen cases of bottles. As the company’s bottling operation got going – the company expanding its bottling operation to encompass 32 regional plants by 1914, with five in Northern Europe[1] – the barrelage sent by rail would have naturally increased. The development of this trade was not all smooth sailing though. High railway rates restricted the expansion of the bottling operation until 1892, when new charges were agreed, allowing it to develop.[2]

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An Advert from 1913

Given the scale of Whitbread’s bottling operation, this evidence therefore suggests that contracts where significant money was to change hands were signed between the railways and Whitbread, and that the amount of £3,843 for carriage in 1909 is far too smaell. But out of Redman’s work another useful conclusion can be drawn. It suggests that the complaints of traders, industrialists and farmers that railway rates were too high in the late nineteenth century – a major concern of my project –  have some credence, in the case of Whitbread at least. Indeed, in its case charges were possibly restricting the business’ development. Although I’m am cautious. Redman’s assessment is based on the brewery’s own files, and thus is susceptible to bias. Going forward what I really need to do find is a contract between a railway and Whitbread to see what they actually specified.

Through other sources, I have however turned up the details of one contract from the immediate pre-war period. A small handwritten notebook in the London Metropolitan Archive revealed that in 1907 Whitbread leased from London & South Western Railway (LSWR) a building at Exeter Queen Street Station to act as a depot. This building, vacated shortly before by another brewer (Ind Coope), was to be modified and enlarged at the railway’s expense (£1,543), with the rent set at £120 per annum for ten years.[3] The contract also tied Whitbread’s distribution operation in the South West to the LSWR, and where possible the brewery would send any beer and supplies by it.[4] The company’s trains would have carried beer to Poole and for Newport on the Isle of Wight, and from 1911 a new depot at Plymouth – an old engine shed.[5]

This long-term exclusivity deal again suggests that a lot of money was potentially changing hands yearly. The agreement may also however have had broader impacts. I am speculating, but could it have possibly influenced Whitbread’s expansion plans? Between 1909 and 1914 it opened new bottling depots and stores at fourteen UK locations. Three of these were within the LSWR’s territory, and one, Bristol, could have potentially supplied by the railway via the Somerset and Dorset Railway which it jointly owned with the Midland Railway. The LSWR therefore possibly supplied 28.57% of Whitbread’s new depots and stores, not an inconsiderable proportion.[6] I therefore don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that because of the agreement Whitbread executives were more inclined to expand along the LSWR, rather than the lines of another company with whom they had no contract for transport, for instance the Great Western Railway.

As I say, this is a speculation, and I may be wide of the mark. Yet, if confirmed, the railways may not only have restricted the expansion of Whitbread’s bottling operation in the 1890s, but shaped where it expanded in the 1900s.

logoThis project is funded by the Business Archives Council’s bursary for business history research. For more information see here.

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. How the railways changed goods transportation in Britain is covered in module 1 (The coming of the railways to Britain, 1830-1900). More information on the course can be found here.


[1] London Metropolitan Archive [LMA], LMA/4453/C/08/073, various statistics book: C H Adam, private.
[2] Redman, Nicholas Barritt, The Story of Whitbread, 1742-1990, (unknown publisher: unknown location, c.1990-2000), 24.
[3] The National Archives, [TNA], RAIL 411/267, Traffic Committee Minute Book, 20 March 1907, minute 597.
[4] LMA, LMA/4453/D/02/016, Notebook containing various brewing information and statistics, 152
[5] Ibid., 152; TNA, RAIL 411/267, Traffic Committee Minute Book, 4 May 1911, minute 715.
[6] LMA, LMA/4453/C/08/073, various statistics book: C H Adam, private; Redman, The Story of Whitbread, 27-28.
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Whitbread spent how much on rail transportation?

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A Whitbread newspaper advert, 1909

So, yesterday was an interesting, if little confusing day. Having looked at the Whitbread files at the London Metropolitan Archive, it is clear they were definitely using the railways to transport beer to their bottling and distribution plants. By 1909 the company’s London brewery (and I am presuming it was the London brewery) was supplying 29 of their 32 British depots by rail (two others were in Europe). Indeed, cash books state that they could only estimate the total cost of this ‘carriage of beer’ for each financial year (which weirdly ran to the first week of July) because some railway companies had not submitted their costs yet.

What is slightly confusing is the amount paid by the company for ‘carriage of beer’. In 1909 the company only paid £3843, or 0.305% of its total operational expenditure. This seems a very tiny amount, on the one hand because the company in 1905 bottled 245,599 barrels of beer nationwide, whilst at the same time Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton had special contracts with the Midland Railway for beer transit, because the cost was so large. It seems I have a mystery on my hands. More investigation required, clearly.

This project is funded by the Business Archives Council’s bursary for business history research. For more information, see here.

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. How the railways changed goods transportation in Britain is covered in module 1 (The coming of the railways to Britain, 1830-1900). More information on the course can be found here.

Why research the relationship between brewing and the railways?

Today I start a new research project exploring the relationship between the railways and Britain’s brewing industry between 1870 and 1914. Through examining the files of two of the nation’s major breweries – Bass, Ratcliffe & Gretton and Whitbread – I will examine how the services the railways provided and the rates they charged for transit affected the brewers operationally and financially.

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British Rail road-tail tanks of Whitbread beer on wagons for export to Brussels, 6 April 1954. ©National Railway Museum and SSPL http://www.nrm.org.uk/ourcollection/photo?group=Liverpool%20Street&objid=1995-7233_LIVST_RF_451_B

I am doing this research to provide new insight into an old debate. Britain’s traders in the nineteenth century were unhappy. The long depression after 1873 cut sharply into profits and increasingly they blamed the railways for their ills. On the one hand, the railways carried imported bulk goods from port to depot at lower rates than the British trader or farmer could access. On the other, and this was the main complaint, rates were simply too high. As one Berwick trader put it in around 1890, “What we want is to have our fish carried at half present rates. We don’t care a —– whether it pays the railways or not. Railways ought to be made to carry for the good of the country, or they should be taken over by the Government.”[1] The result was progressively louder calls for government to regulate rates, to which the politicians eventually responded. The Railway & Canal Traffic Act 1888 ordered the railways to revise their maximum rates, which had been originally set by their authorising Acts of Parliament (although most goods were carried at lower ‘special’ rates). Following this the Railway & Canal Traffic Act of 1894 limited rates increases to their maximum level on 31 December 1892. For the railways this was highly problematic. When operating costs rose significantly after 1897 rates could not be increased to compensate, squeezing their profits. [2]

In large part historians have written about these events from the railways’ perspective, although this is problematic for a number of reasons. On the basis the proclamations of the vocal few like the Berwick trader, most have simply argued that traders were ‘unhappy’ with their rates. Little consideration has been given to the fact that the relationships between firms and their transport providers evolved over time, the happiness or disquiet of one or both fluctuating. It is these fluctuations that I want to explore through my research, to understand how happy brewers were with the service the railways provided. Were the vocal complainers speaking for all industry? Most significantly, exploring this relationship will provide an insight into whether the level of railway rates (and service levels) were genuinely impacting negatively on British industry’s financial performance after 1870. Was British business blaming the railways for their ills, rather than engaging in the more difficult process self-criticism? Indeed, answering this question will speak to broader issues, for instance how railway activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth affected British economic performance.

This project is funded by the Business Archives Council’s bursary for business history research. For more information, see here.

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. The railway rates issue is covered in module 2 (The declining profitability of the British railway industry, 1870-1914) and module 4 (Railways and government, 1880-1939). More information on the course can be found here.

[1] T.R. Gourvish, Railways and the British Economy, 1830-1914, (London: Macmillan, 1980), 47-48.
[2] P.J. Cain, “Traders Versus Railways: The Genesis of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act”, The Journal of Transport History, New Series, 2 no. 2 (1973): 65-80.

It’s not just about posters – railway advertising before 1914.

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A London & North Western Railway guide to the Lake District from 1910.

In the history books, the inter-war period has been dubbed the great age of railway advertising; the colourful and stylish posters of that age sticking in our memory. But railway advertising  before 1914 was no less appealing, and the companies issued a diverse range of creative and innovative advertising media. On the one hand, existing advertising such as posters and guidebooks became more complex and compelling.[1] Railways’ newspaper adverts also became more descriptive and alluring, whilst providing coupons enabling you to send off for guidebooks describing the beauty spots the railway served.[2] Alongside, companies also placed into public domain new advertising devices, including  bookmarks, the provision of lantern lectures, advertorials (adverts dressed up as journalism) and postcards. Bassett-Lowke model trains were also displayed at grand public exhibitions, whilst the London & North Western Railway commissioned the documentary film maker, Charles Urban, to make films of the destinations it served.[3] This expanding range of advertising media was not however simply introduced for diversity’s sake; nor did railway managers posses a simple assumption that getting the company’s  message into the most places possible would automatically lead to a boost in sales.

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A London & North Western Railway Postcard from c. 1905/06

 

Edwardian companies, in response to increasing real incomes and growing consumer spending power, developed new and innovative approaches to sales in an effort to secure the consumer’s pound. Given the new competitive pressures the railways were under, as well as their significant decline in profitability in the latter part of the 1890s, railway executives started to do the same. Like many businesses, prior to 1900 the railways had simply proclaimed what services they provided, the expectation being that trains would be patronised as a result. Faced with changed trading circumstances after 1900, they began actively trying to compel and convince the customer to travel by their line; selling  the journey, the experience, the 101 reasons to holiday in the destinations they served, rather than those of a rival. In 1913 Felix Pole and James Milne, two senior Great Western Railway officials who both became the company’s general manager in later years, explained the change in approach:

‘formerly advertising was mere proclamation – now it may be defined as persuasion…The former methods were useless as a means of suggesting the benefits to health of travel or of touring new territory…[they] would not have told them [the traveller] why they should visit Cornwall.'[4]

Such changes in thinking therefore drove the growing diversity and complexity of Edwardian railway advertising, as railway publicity departments now had new objectives. Advertising was to maintain through a range of advertising channels consumers’ awareness of a company’s services and destinations, to differentiate one company’s product offering from those of another, and to be more persuasive about the benefits of North Wales, Cromer or golfing in Scotland. This new approach to generating sales cannot strictly be called ‘marketing,’ after all the companies were only starting to allow customer wants and desires to inform their thinking (the same was the case elsewhere in the corporate economy). Moreover, much of the advertising that was produced was uncoordinated and developed on an ad hoc basis. Nevertheless, embodied in the growing colour and diversity of Edwardian railway advertising was the fact that companies’ were steadily moving towards a marketing-based approach to selling. Perhaps we might even call it ‘proto-marketing?’

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. The development of railway marketing is covered in module 2 (The declining profitability of the British railway industry, 1870-1914) and module 4 (Railways and government, 1880-1939). More information on the course can be found here.

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[1] Felix Pole and James Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,”  Modern Railway Working – Vol. 7, ed. John Macaulay, (London: Gresham, 1913), 234-235.

[2] “In the Dailies”, The Advertising World, July 1913, 24.

[3] “Display Advert”, The Era, 3 August 1907, 27.

[4] Pole and Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,” 234.