Home » The Blog » The railway – shaping Whitbread’s distribution network?

The railway – shaping Whitbread’s distribution network?


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]


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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