Britain’s traders and industrialists complained vigorously about the railways between 1870 and 1914. In a period when anxieties about British industrial dominance falling into decline were abound, a feeling emerged that excessively high rates for goods transit were damaging home firms’ international competitiveness by increasing operating costs (you can read about this in earlier blogs). Yet underneath this primary concern, businesses had a range of other issues with rail transport. For the brewers these included pilferage of beer, poor storage, delays in delivery and the subject of this post, damage to barrels. Indeed, barrels were perhaps the brewers’ biggest items of working capital – in 1873 Bass’s stock was valued at £200,000 – and therefore maintaining their integrity through damage avoidance was a priority.
Of course, barrels were on occasion damaged (or destroyed) in crashes. On 14 January 1876 a beer train from Burton hit two stray horses at Wingfield (between Derby and Sheffield). Two wagons overturned and the driver was thrown from the train. Worse was to come, and an oncoming mineral train collided with the wreck, despite warnings from the now shaken driver of the first train. Three people were injured, although not everyone thought this was a terrible event. Several barrels were broken and 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.”
But the number of barrels damaged here was likely small compared huge numbers compromised in regular transit each week. Brewers’ disquiet with this situation is best demonstrated by the Edwardian discourse surrounding the utility of commercial motor vehicles. In 1910 a representative of Greenall, Whitley and Co., brewers of Warrington, wrote to Commercial Motor Magazine proclaiming that by using two sentinel road vehicles “in competition with the railway company” there was “much less damage to the barrels, and the beer arrives in better condition.”  Two years later the same publication argued that road transport led to “a decided decrease in the number of empties damaged, broken or lost.”
This was not however simply a problem only for brewers; claims against the railways for damaged property cost them dearly. For instance, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) in 1896 noted a significant increase in claims from breweries.
The railways therefore tried to confront the problem. When in 1861 the Midland Railway received “serious complaints from Burton Brewers of the frequent damage done to their return ale casks in loading and unloading,” staff were implored to exercise greater care. This may seem a somewhat lacklustre response, but in an era when railway operation was developing, and rules and regulations were being codified, arguably not much more could be done.
Forty years later there had been some advance. Standard instructions on how to arrange and manage barrels in wagons was being issued to all companies via the Railway Clearing House in 1899:
“35. Casks…must be loaded in spring-buffer trucks.
43. Casks…must be tightly scotched, and, when practicable, the casks should be loaded lengthwise with bung uppermost. Bricks or stones must not be used for this class of traffic, but a supply of straw or wood scotches must be kept on hand for the purpose, to meet the requirements of the station.”
These instructions were not seemingly enough to prevent damage to casks though and it continued to be a frequent problem. Yet despite the significant gap of time between 1861 and the turn of the century, when railways received complaints from brewers the solution was the same as it had always been. In 1896, for instance, the LNWR re-issued a circular instructing that greater care be taken in loading and unloading barrels. The Midland in 1902 received numerous complaints from Burton brewers on account of damage to casks due to “careless shunting, either owing to the improper application of the steam breaks, or the trucks being allowed to run into the sidings too sharply without being steadied down.” Again, the instruction given was for employees to be more careful.
There is clearly much more that I need to learn about the part in the railways played in the brewers’ supply chain before 1914. Yet, their unchanging response to complaints of damage to barrels suggest that once operational systems had been put in place up to 1870, the development of practice slowed or even stopped. This implies that there was a culture of complacency amongst railway decision-makers, perhaps because of their dominance on long-distance inland transport, and that this may have militated against more secure ways to load, unload and move barrels being developed.
But there were broader concerns. Whatever the reason new methods appear not have been developed, the breakage of barrels in transit generated a small part of the negativity directed towards the railways by Britain’s business community, which added to the broader perception that they were damaging the nation’s economic health.
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 online 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). he railway rates issue is covered in module 2 (The declining profitability of the British railway industry, 1870-1914). More information on the course can be found here.