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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.


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.


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