As part of my ‘brewing and railways’ project, I have been musing on when Britain’s businesses started thinking seriously about the possibilities of long-distance goods haulage by road, and what this could offer them them in terms of improving the flexibility and reducing the cost of distribution. I keep coming back to the 1 January 1893, probably one of the most important, but largely forgotten dates in railway history.
Most railways had their maximum rates for different categories of goods set by their authorising Acts of Parliament. But in a quest to beat competition, they ordinarily charged businesses ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’ rates below these, arranged on a case by case basis. Despite this, traders were not happy with the regime, and in response in 1888 the government ordered all rates be revised by the Board of Trade, with the new schedule to come into effect on 1 January 1893. No one expected what happened next. On that day the railways put all rates up to the maxima nationwide, eliminating all the special rates. There is an argument that this was a result of their inability to revise the millions of special rates by the deadline, but Cain characterised the action as an act of ‘shortsighted greed and clumsy diplomacy.’ The new scheme would have reduced some rates, and profits, and the companies were looking to reimburse themselves for these losses.
Businesses everywhere hit hard. At a meeting of the trading community of Tamworth on 28 January 1893, those in attendance recorded that on average transport costs had risen by 35 to 40 per cent. There were also extreme cases, a Mr Chappel stating that moving a ton of tin plates had risen from 6s 8d to 19s 10d (although he did not say to and from where). The brewers of Burton were also affected. Previously, distributing beer by rail nationwide had cost them £562,000 annually, yet the new rates added £82,000, an increase of 14.59 per cent.
Soon after, the railways realised their misstep and as was reported at Tamworth, and in the case of the brewing industry, they restored many of the old rates. But there were broader implications beyond the short-term dent in the railways’ public image. With the railways being perceived as monopolistic, greedy and arrogant, the business community seriously began exploring new systems of goods mobility that would release them from their dependence on rail. At a meeting of commercial interests in Portsmouth on 7 January, it was suggested that they come together “with a view to the formation of companies to…render us independent of the railways.” Where coastal shipping was available, traders availed themselves of this. Other solutions were proposed. Sir James Whithead, a merchant and Liberal MP, introduced a private members’ bill to nationalise the canals so that the common need for cheap bulk goods transit would be met.
Significantly, the discourse also extended beyond simply thinking about appropriating long-established forms of transport. After 1 January 1893 there was, possibly, a perceptible shift in the business community away from simply hoping the railways could do better, towards envisioning a new reality where they delivered long-distance goods transport by road.
Most businesses used horse and cart over short distances, but this was not practicable over longer runs. Some therefore began thinking about the potential of steam traction engines, that up until that point had principally powered farm equipment, but had occasionally been used for road haulage. These vehicles’ percieved future potential as a means of long-distance haulage is suggested through the lack of reference in discussions to any spacial restrictions on their range of movement. At the Portsmouth meeting it was argued that “The employment of traction engines passing through the villages along which their lines run would undoubtedly prove a very serious matter for…Railway Companies.” The traders in Chelmsford considered organising a system of road transport to take goods the 30 miles to London using steam traction. Finally, as a direct response to railway rates increases, Eddison & De Mattos Steam-Plough Works of Dorchester advertised haulage services, most importantly carrying goods ‘to any extent and any distance on lowest terms’.
At this point there were many problems that the traction engine had to overcome to become viable as a means of mass goods haulage (as we know it never did, the internal combustion engine rising to dominance). Whether Eddison and De Mattos could actually deliver anywhere is doubtful, given the poor quality and reliability of many traction engines. They were also beasts, and perhaps rightfully elicited negative reaction. A letter writer to South Buckinghamshire Standard stated that they had been a “source of terror and alarm to all those within 100 feet of the road.” Road surfaces were poor, and where they were not there were frequent complaints about the excessive damage traction engines did. Their speed was also restricted to 4 miles per hour (2 in urban areas) by the Locomotive Act of 1865, also limiting their rage. 
Nonetheless, these limiting factors were seemingly absent from the discussions surrounding the future possibility of unrestricted long-haul goods mobility by road, with the quotes above suggesting a more positive outlook. Combined with numerous cases of businesses starting to use steam traction engines for haulage after 1 January 1893 , it can therefore be suggested that at this time many began seriously entertaining the idea that a more flexible long-distance system of road-based goods mobility could be instituted. It is perhaps ironic that this thinking, which snowballed from then-on and may have driven the technical and conceptual development of motor haulage by road, was kick-started by the railways’ actions.
N.B. These are some formative ideas and I need to do much more research and gather more evidence on this subject.
This research comes out of my ‘brewing and railways’ project 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) and the 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.