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The art of railway PR: learning from the past, John Elliot and the Southern.

The British railway industry is not good at presenting itself positively in the public sphere or hyping its achievements. Despite some exceptions, there is frequently a near-deafening silence when fare increases are splashed on the front-pages of newspapers and news websites, whilst improvements to the network are simply not paraded regularly enough for all to see.  I am not presenting an argument here for or against the current structure of the industry, but simply suggesting that if the industry wants to try and ingratiate itself into the public’s hearts and garner support, then it needs to improve its communication with it. The industry is cowered, perhaps because this is a most difficult of challenge. How do they reverse decades of ire aimed at it, and challenge the alleged misinformation that circulates?

To start they may want to take a leaf out of the inter-war railways’ books. Between the wars British industry began embracing recognisable Public Relations, the art of an organisation managing its relationship with the public(s). For instance, when in the 1920s Shell-Mex, was charged with polluting the British countryside by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and others, it used tasteful modern art, shown at galleries nationwide, to create narratives enhancing the idea that they cared for the environment, were a responsible company and, thus, improved their public face.[1]

Unsurprisingly, given the railways were (and are) inherently ‘public’ organisations, they followed suit and developed Public Relations operations to counter similar negative press. Unlike the commonly held, perhaps idealised view of the inter-war railways, they were not held in high esteem in 1923. In the forty years before the First World War their place in public life had changed and had been challenged. Once seen the vanguard of modernity and a symbol of British industrial progress, by 1900 they were cast as greedy monopolists that set rates for goods haulage too high and thus damaged British industry’s international competitiveness, provided poor services, and cared not for the safety of the public or their staff. The public saw them as only concerned about the bottom line.[2] War did not change much. Whilst there was justifiable respect for their significant achievements in supporting the war effort, this was not enough shake off negative perceptions of their public position, especially given a goods rates increase in 1921 hit many struggling businesses’ finances hard.[3] To add to the pressure, this was a period when nationalisation was a common part of public discourse, much to the concern of railway officials, and the companies’ were looking to throw off what they saw as Victorian restrictions on their commercial freedom (common carrier obligations, goods haulage rates available for publicly inspection at stations etc.) that they considered held their profitability back.[4] The railways therefore not only needed to improve their public image to stave off criticism and, perhaps, nationalisation, but also needed to acquire support for legislative changes to compete effectively with road haulage.

Creating a positive public image and managing their relationship with the press and public was therefore very important. The London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) was perhaps the first of the new ‘Big 4’ railway companies to address the issue (100+ companies had been amalgamated into 4 by the Railways Act 1921, which came into force on 1 January 1923) . In mid-1924 it outsourced press relationship management functions to the advertising agency Whitworth Hird, which acted on its behalf until the function was bought in-house in 1928.[5] Yet it was the Southern Railway’s response to a crisis in 1924 that perhaps could teach railway executives today the most about improving the industry’s corporate image, managing its relationship with the public, and that negative narratives that build up in the public sphere should not be allowed to become established unopposed.

Starting with gripes over the introduction of a new time-table, from July that year there were frequent letters in The Times about poor train services, ticket prices that were high and strangely set, and the low standard of facilities. Reminiscent of current complaints about the railways, one complainant stated the following in late July:

Sir – That the advantages of amalgamation are not to be shared with the public is shown in more ways than the inadequacy of the new time-table of the Southern Railway. For instance, Tunbridge Wells, Eridge and Crowborough are connected by motor-car service. When asked that a season ticket from Eridge to Victoria be made available on their other line from Tunbridge Wells to Cannon-Street for the through journey only, the company’s reply is that an additional £16 2s 8d a year must be paid for this convenience, although the distance from Tonbridge Wells is shorter. With slow trains, often from inconvenient stations, and a general lack of encouragement to travel by rail, is it to be wondered at that travelling by motor-car is resorted to more and more?[6]

As months went on, what started as a gripe of a handful of letter writers transformed into a widely-understood and damaging narrative where the paucity of the company’s services and overall offering became an establish fact, as this letter from October shows.

SOUTHERN RAILWAY TIMETABLES – The unfortunate traveller on the Southern Railway has yet to face another terror besides that of bad train services. Having to travel to town on Saturday afternoon, I bought a time-table at Purley Railway Station on Thursday and went to catch the 2.2 pm to Charing Cross. I was calmly informed that there was no such train, that it was a “misprint”, and that passengers had been arriving at Purley all the week intending to travel by that train, yet time-tables were being sold at the railway station without notice being given to the purchaser that they are unreliable.[7]

Whilst printing an incorrect train time in a timetable was clearly an error, and one passengers should have been notified about on purchase, the letter writer situated this issue within the recognised narrative of the Southern Railway’s perpetual failure. Its travellers were ‘unfortunate’ and  this was was ‘another terror’, despite this being an easily remediable problem that under other circumstances might have been simply forgotten. Thus by the end of the year, every new issue that arose, however small, was folded into the existing, prevailing negativity, thus reinforcing it. The Southern recognised something needed to be done to present a counter narrative that would attempt to improve its public image. Enter John Elliot.

The railway industry did not traditionally recruit talent from outside, preferring to appoint from amongst its own.[8] Elliot’s appointment as the Southern’s “Assistant to the General Manager for Public Relations” in January 1925 was therefore pretty unique. He was a press man and had been Assistant Editor at the Evening Standard and was the son of the editor of the Daily Express.  To appoint someone who had knowledge of the press – ostensibly the enemy at this point – was a master-stroke. It was an acknowledgement by Herbert Walker (the General Manager) that the company did not have the necessary skills internally to manage the relationship with the press and how its public persona was projected through it, whilst also a recognition that the void could only be filled by an individual with an understanding what they were up against.  Elliot did not however want to be a mere adjunct to the company; he wanted a £2,000 salary and to be on the senior management team, both of which he got. The latter was crucially important if he was to improve the Southern’s image – operational decisions and new policies could be coordinated and synchronised with the PR operation so that there would be no misunderstanding or mixed messages. The message about everything the railway was doing should be carefully and effectively managed.[9]

1925-01-22 - The Times (London, England), Thursday, Jan 22, 1925; pg. 17

The first advert that formed part of Elliot’s PR campaign of 1925, “Display Advert”, The Times, Jan 22, 1925, 17. Because this cannot be blown up, I have added a full sized version at the bottom.

Elliot arrived on the 16 January and only six days later an advert appeared in the press with the heading “The Truth about the Southern” that attempted to put into the public domain a new, clear and consistent narrative about the company. It highlighted the labours of the southern railways during the war and the running down of the system (heading: “Achievement”), and the fact that because the railways had not passed back to private control until 1921 there had been three lost years when investment and advancement could not take place (“Period of Unrest”). Importantly, and reflecting what the passenger wanted to see in their services, it stressed that what was then occurring was “Reconstruction”; “From the day that the Southern group was formed it has laboured in unceasing endeavour towards the standard of efficiency which its directors have determined it shall achieve.” This “standard of efficiency” encompassed the delivery of 80 new passenger engines, 120 main line carriages, 537 new vehicles as part of an extension of electrification, the rebuilding of 70 stations, and, ultimately, investment of over £10,000,000. Indeed, this reflected the company’s desires to be seen at the heart of the nation as in the vanguard of technological progress. Finally, the company cast itself as vital to post-war reconstruction, a key cog in Britain’s social and economic health – “the Southern Railway will take its place as a Builder of National Prosperity”. This sentiment was summed up by its new tag-line “Actively Engaged in the Public Service.”[10]

Over the next half-year further informative and easily understandable adverts appeared that created and the reinforced a positive narrative about the company’s activities. Some showed the intensity of the train operation in and out of London stations at peak hour, demonstrating the operational challenges it faced,[11] others drew attention to the delivery of new passenger locomotives,[12] whilst others told the public that of the 113,709 steam trains run in February, 93 per cent arrived within 5 minutes of the scheduled arrival time – something the advert deemed a success.[13] Newspaper adverts were also just one dimension of an integrated PR campaign. The Railway Gazette reported that there was a “systematic scheme of connected and co-related publicity” that utilised closer media management, a regular publication for first class ticket holders, postcards and even paperweights, all of which carried consistent messages about investment and improvements.[14] This was, one could argue, a sophisticated, dynamic and far-reaching PR campaign.

To what extent Elliot’s efforts were responsible for the fall in complaint letters written to The Times after January 1925 requires more research, especially as this may also be partly attributable to improvements and investment coming to fruition. There is however evidence to suggest that he changed popular perceptions about the Southern. A brief survey of post-January letters broadly shows a shift towards complaints being  individualised grievances, rather than them being connected to a broader discourse of continual railway failure. Frequently, letters also suggested the Southern Railway could make positive change, denoting greater public trust in its abilities. One letter from August complaining about poor timekeeping of new electric trains ended by stating “Surely a solution is to be found?”[15]

Elliot was a pioneer of railway company PR; his twenty-first century successors could learn a lot from him. He realised that negative public narratives, built up over time, could damage companies’ reputations and, potentially, business propositions – they therefore needed to be challenged through the crafting of new positive counter-narratives over a long period of time. To do this he required a prominent position and voice within the Southern so as to align policy with PR, he had to manage the relationship with the public carefully and cautiously, and he delivered a sustained, unified and consistent message that sold a positive view of what the Southern was doing that reflected what passengers wanted to see. As such, whatever you might think of the British railway industry today, it clearly needs to improve how it presents its public face, perhaps through adopting similar methods as Elliot did.

[1] Michael Heller, “Foucault, Discourse, and the Birth of British Public Relations”, Enterprise & Society 17, no.3 (2016): 651-677.

[2] P.J. Cain, “Traders verses Railways: The Genesis of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act,” The Journal of Transport History, New Series, 2, No. 2 (September, 1973). T.R. Gourvish, Railways and the British Economy, 1830-1914 (London: McMillan, 1980).

[3] Thomas Spain, “‘Food Miles’: Britain’s Transition from Rail to Road-based Food Distribution, 1919-1975”, Unpublished PhD Thesis, 2016.

[4] Gerald Crompton, “‘Good Business for the Nation’ The Railway Nationalisation Issue, 1921–47”, The Journal of Transport History 20, no.2 (1999): 141-159.

[5] TNA, RAIL 390/35, London & North Eastern Railway Organisation Committee, 20 February 1924 and 26 March 1924. Untitled, Hendon & Finchley Times, Feb 25, 1927, 6.

[6] “Letters to the editor”, The Times, July 26, 1924, 8.

[7] “Points from Letters – Southern Railway Timetables”, The Times, Oct 14, 1924, 10.

[8] Terence R. Gourvish, “A British Business Elite: The Chief Executive Managers of the Railway Industry, 1850-1922,” Business History Review 47, no.3 (1973): 289-316. David Turner, “Managing the “Royal Road”: The London & South Western Railway 1870-1911,” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of York, 2013.

[9] Michael R. Bonavia, The History of the Southern Railway, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), 63-64.

[10] “Display Advert”, The Times Jan 22, 1925, 17.

[11] “Display Advert”, The Times Feb 18, 1925, 10.

[12]  “Display Advert”, The Times Mar 4, 1925, 18.

[13]  “Display Advert”, The Times April 15, 1925, 9.

[14] Beverley Cole and Richard Durack, Railway Posters, 1923-1947, (London: Laurence King, 1992), 10-11.

[15] “Points from Letters”, The Times Aug 27, 1925, 12.

1925-01-22 - The Times (London, England), Thursday, Jan 22, 1925; pg. 17

The first advert that formed part of Elliott’s PR campaign of 1925, “Display Advert”, The Times, Jan 22, 1925, 17.

If BrewDog own Allsopp

Samuel Allsopp & Sons of Burton was one of the failures of the late-Victorian and Edwardian brewing industry. City Life magazine published in 1890 cartoon entitled ‘Poor Old Allsopp,’ as despite a clamour to buy the company’s newly issued shares in 1887, its dividends were so unimpressive that shareholders were demanding their money back.[1] Crisis followed thereafter. In 1899 a £80,000 60,000 barrel lager brewery was built, only to be shut down in 1914 because of limited demand for lager.[2] Finally, after failing to merge with Thomas Salt and Co and the Burton Brewery Company in 1907, Allsopp went into receivership in 1911, and only a restructure saved it.[3]

This dreadful performance and rash acts of investment, led Gourvish and Wilson to argue that Allsopp was the “most recklessly run brewery in England.”[4] How delightful therefore that BrewDog have applied to acquire one of its trademarks. Whilst looking for Whitbread trademarks on the UK register, I decided to enter “Brewdog” to see what turned up. To my surprise, the company applied to register FOX & ANCHOR in July and on 21 August Allsopp’s, specifically its “Special Bottling Pale Ale”.[5]

Why BrewDog have done this is a mystery at this point, but a future attempt to use history and/or heritage in marketing a product is a possible explanation floating around on Twitter. Brewers have done so for centuries. Whitbread in the 1890s used a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – “I’ll Swear on that Bottle” (Act 3, Scene III) – to associate their product with an earlier age, and invoke an idea of integrity based on a history.[6] Current breweries do similar; whilst looking forward, Fuller’s’ establishments and beers adhere to a pseudo-historical motif that suggests implicitly that it is an old brewery that can be trusted. And lets just mention the countless new breweries that proudly proclaim ‘Since 2008’ or ‘Since 2015,’ or the such-like. The founding year is deemed important to emphasise, to say to the consumer “we haven’t been doing this since yesterday – trust us”.

By contrast, however, BrewDog has no heritage to draw on. Whilst the company website tells the story (some might say a highly mythologised one) of their founding and development since 2007, in marketing they have always shunned the use of heritage, or the past, or anything that came before them. They were Punk, they were about the present, and hence it is curious that they have applied to acquire Allsopp’s mark. Could this however be symptomatic of problems with the Dog? It is well understood that in times of difficultly companies resort to using their history or heritage to sell products, as it is a stable message that conveys trustworthiness and integrity. Undoubtedly, over the last few years, BrewDog’s share of the overall craft market has been threatened by new entrants, and they have had a couple of bumps in the road, notably the failure to raise the target amount of capital from Equity for Punks USA.


Even Punch in 1887 thought the ‘Red Hand’ was a poor design.

Could it be that to compensate for these and other new challenges the company is looking to expand into the long-established market for traditional beers by using a historic and perhaps trusted brand as a vehicle? Considering we have seen the revival of historic names in recent years – most notably Truman’s and Lacon’s – acquiring and then applying the Allsopp’s mark to a new range of beers might be a way to follow down this road and reach a new group customers outside its established customer base. Indeed, it could do this without imperilling or altering the reputation and identity of the existing business, which it wants to keep growing.

Under normal circumstances, this might actually seem like a logical strategy for an expanding concern. But in terms of reputation Brewdog is not a normal company. If ‘Allsopps by BrewDog’ – if that is what is going to happen – materialises, will beer drinkers just see the red hand, or see what is behind it? Will they forget that heritage has not been a BrewDog attribute up until now, that the company has simply acquired history, or just forget that BrewDog is involved? Only time will tell. BrewDog could give Allsopps its greatest success in over 130 years, or perhaps deliver another Turkey like that £60,000 lager brewery.

20/09/2017 – Edited for clarity.

[1] T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 1830-1980, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 230.
[2] Ibid., 177.
[3] Ian Webster, Ind Coope & Samuel Allsopp Breweries – The History of the Hand, (Stoud: Amberley, 2015), 26-28.
[4] Gourvish and Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 177.
[5] https://trademarks.ipo.gov.uk/ipo-tmowner/page/search?id=503917&domain=1
[6] Advert, Southend Standard and Essex Weekly Advertiser, Aug 8, 1895,

Freight Transport History Workshop – Friday 24 Nov, at the University of Reading

The Railway & Canal Historical Society has organised, jointly with the Centre for Institutions & Economic History, University of Reading, a day-long Workshop on Freight Transport History. It will be at the University from 10.00 to 16.30.

The speakers are expected to be: 1997-7397_DY_832

Keith Harcourt & Peter Tatlow, ‘Movements in freight haulage – the impact of vertical and lateral movement on intermodality’.

David Turner, ‘Barrels rolling free: modal shift in the brewing industry, 1900-1914’.

Nigel Sheppard, ‘War surplus lorries – is it a case of a bus at the South Pole?’.

Richard Simmons, ‘Little Frictions – the operation and efficiency of the steel industry’s intra-urban freight transport in nineteenth century Sheffield’.

Mike Clarke, ‘Early canal investment in Europe and England’.

Grahame Boyes, ‘From BOTTOMS to TOPS: the impact of the computer on the development of British Railways’ freight business’.

Peter Brown, ‘Some thoughts on competition between canals and other transport modes in the 19th century, based on the experiences of the Shropshire Union Canal and its predecessors’.

Jorgen Burchardt, ‘The transition from rail to road in the Danish cooperative retail chain FDB, 1945-1980’.

There is no charge for the workshop, but attendance will be limited to 60, and it will be widely advertised. Booking is essential, and a reserve list will be in place.

Bookings to Fabian Hiscock, by e-mail to fabianhiscock@virginmedia.com or by post to him at 101 Byewaters, Watford WD18 8WH, by 4 Nov 2017.

The mobility of ‘Family Ale’: Whitbread’s bottling and sending of beer before 1892

Whitbread proudly proclaimed by the early twentieth century that it was the world’s largest bottler of beer. The figures certainly demonstrate that this was so, it putting 353,936 barrels Pale Ale, Stout, Extra Ale, and the interestingly named ‘Family Ale’ (amongst others) into bottles in 1910. It had also opened up network of bottling stores and depots to supply demand, the number reaching 38 in that year.[1]

Forty years earlier the situation had been very different. In 1870 it had put only 1,293 barrels of beer into bottles (372,384 pints, for those keeping count). The first bottling occurred in 1868 at 26 Worship Street, Finsbury Square and then a more permanent residence was taken up in 1870 at 277 Grays in Road. In both instances the company’s agent, Robert Baker, was in charge.[3] However, no more bottling stores or depots were opened until 1891.

The question that has vexed me is why was this so, and what role did the cost and accessibility of transport play in this? This line of enquiry also speaks to broader questions about how transport networks, access to them, and the cost of using them, can render freight mobile or immobile, and business activity stymied (similar issues can be considered when thinking about human mobility). Redman, the company’s archivist, argued that whilst Whitehead executives may have envisioned further mobility for their beer beyond London and market expansion, it was limited by the blocking force of excessively high railway rates before 1892, when the brewer made a ‘deal’ with the railway industry.[3]

1877-02-24 - Hastings and St Leonards Observer - Saturday 24 February 1877 - 4

Hastings and St Leonards Observer, Feb 24, 1877, 4.

I have always been sceptical about this claim on a number of counts. It is rare that companies would make a deal with the whole railway industry, and indeed, later Whitbread dealt with railways on a case by case basis.[4] Also, whilst consumption of bottled beer grew steadily after 1870, because of high prices demand was never too high until the 1890s, suggesting that there was no need to transport huge volumes of beer before then.[5] This is despite Whitbread’s bottled beer becoming cheaper over the period, the cost then stabilising before 1889. In 1870 a dozen bottles (pints) were retailing in Bury St. Edmunds at 5 shillings, but by 1889 in Hastings London Cooper and Family Ale cost 2 shillings 6 pence, Stout and Pale Ale were selling at 3 shillings.[6] This suggests that price was not the only determinant of demand and drinking habits needed to change before bottled beer became popular. But most significantly, before 1892 the brewery could absorb transport costs into the price of bottled beer with ease, even if the margins on each bottle shrank.

Indicative of this, before 1892 the company was utilising the railway network to send beer nationwide and grow its share of the market. Redman himself acknowledged that customers in Leeds ‘received their beer in heavy closed three dozen cases sent up on the railways.'[7] After trawling through nineteenth century adverts it also appears outlets were selling Whitbread’s product in Newcastle, Bury St Edmund’s, Leamington, Bedford, Dundee, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Bath and Herne Bay, amongst other places.[8] The final nail in the coffin was a note on an advert from 1877 (shown) which stated that beer was ‘Delivered free to any Railway Station or Carrier in London, in quantities of not less that Three Dozen, at from 2/6 to 4/- per Dozen.'[9] Whitbread was therefore offering to send its beer anywhere in Britain, an offer which resulted in the bottling operation growing 38,782 barrels being put into bottles in 1890.[9]

What is therefore likley is that railway rates were not a huge limit on Whitbread’s bottled beer operation expanding before 1892. Rather, changes thereafter were possibly the result of an intersection between individuals’ spending power rising, shifting habits towards home drinking and, in response, a change in Whitbread’s corporate strategy, the result of it converting to a limited company in 1892 and needing to service its capital. Although, naturally, further research may reveal more, and other ideas might come to mind.

logoThis research is part 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.

[1] T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 300.
[2] Redman, Nicholas Barritt, The Story of Whitbread, 1742-1990, (unknown publisher: unknown location, c.1990-2000), 18 and 24.
[3] Ibid., 24.
[4] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 410/200, London & North Western Goods Traffic Committee, Min 3346, 18 May 1898. TNA, RAIL 236/161, Great Northern Railway Traffic Committee Minute Book, 01 November 1901. TNA, RAIL 411/267, London & South Western Railway Traffic Committee Minute Book, 20 March 1907.
[5] Gourvish and Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 45.
[6] Bury and Norwich Post, Aug 16, 1870, 1. Hastings and St Leonards Observer, April 27 1889, 4.
[7] Redman, The Story of Whitbread, 24.
[8] Newcastle Journal, Dec 6, 1870, 1. Bury and Norwich Post, Aug 16, 1870, 1. Leamington Spa Courier, Apr 22 1871, 2. Bedfordshire Mercury, Oct 7 1871, 1. Dundee Courier, Jan 2, 1872, 4. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Aug 24, 1872, 8. Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, Dec 17, 1873, 2. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, July 24, 1873, 1. Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, July 24, 1875, 1.
[9] Hastings and St Leonards Observer, Feb 24, 1877, 4.
[10] Gourvish and Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 300.

CfP – Freight Transport Workshop, University of Reading, 24 November 2017


Birmingham goods station, 1901. ©National Railway Museum and SSPL (http://www.nrm.org.uk/ourcollection/photo?group=Derby&objid=1997-7397_DY_832)

Offers of 30-minute papers are invited for a freight transport workshop organised jointly by the University of Reading’s Centre for Institutions & Economic History and the Railway & Canal Historical Society, to be held at the University on 24th November 2017. Programme organisers: Grahame Boyes, Colin Divall and Mark Casson.

The aim is for a mix of papers by academic and amateur historians, which will illustrate the potential benefits of greater dialogue between the two. Preference may be given to papers which treat themes or topics not already covered by the symposium held in Reading during April 2015, From Carrying to Logistics: Distributing Goods in Britain, 1680-2015. (details found here: blogs.reading.ac.uk/economic-history/2015/04/17/from-carrying-to-logistics-distributing-goods-in-britain-1680-2045/)

The closing date for submission of a written proposal is 16th June (up to 200 words). Please send your abstract to Grahame Boyes (g.boyes1@btinternet.com).

Railway rates and roads: mass goods mobility by road as an envisaged reality in 1893

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.[1]

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).[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5]

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.

1893-01-20 - Western Chronicle - Friday 20 January 1893 - 1

Display Advert, Western Chronicle, Jan 20, 1893, 1.

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.”[6] The traders in Chelmsford considered organising a system of road transport to take goods the 30 miles to London using steam traction.[7] 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’.[8]

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.[9] 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.”[10] Road surfaces were poor, and where they were not there were frequent complaints about the excessive damage traction engines did.[11] Their speed was also restricted to 4 miles per hour (2 in urban areas) by the Locomotive Act of 1865, also limiting their rage. [12]

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 ,[13] 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. 

logoThis 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.

[1] P.J. Cain, “Traders verses Railways: The Genesis of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act,” The Journal of Transport History, New Series, 2, No. 2 (September, 1973): 68
[2] “Railway Rates”, West Somerset Free Press, Feb 4, 1893, 4.
[3] “Brewers and the Railway Rates”, Brewing Trade Review, Mar 1, 1893, 85.
[4] “The New Railway Rates, Action of Portsmouth Traders”, Portsmouth Evening News, Jan 7, 1893, 2.
[5] “Untitled” South Wales Daily News, Mar 7, 1893, 4.
[6]”The New Railway Rates, Action of Portsmouth Traders”, Portsmouth Evening News, Jan 7, 1893, 2.
[7] “The New Railway Rates”, Tamworth Herald, Jan 21, 1893, 4.
[8] Display Advert, Western Chronicle, Jan 20, 1893, 1.
[9] Thomas Gibson, Road Haulage by Motor: The First Forty Years (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 1-42.
[10] “Letter to the Editor”, South Bucks Standard, April, 28, 1893, 8.
[11] “The County Council and the Traction Engine”, Wrexham Advertiser, Nov 11, 1893, 5.
[12] Gibson, Road Haulage, 12.
[13]”Letter to the Editor”, South Bucks Standard, April, 28, 1893, 8.

Mobilities, beer mats and Red Barrel marketing – a trip to Lancaster

As an academic my work takes me on many journeys to many places. This weekend Lancaster University was the host, where I attended the Mobilities, Literature, Culture conference (and many congratulations must go to Charlotte, Marian and Lynne for staging such an excellent couple of days).

There were however other delights to be sampled in Lancaster, and on the Thursday evening I ended up at the excellent and cosy Ye Olde John O’Gaunt, a home for good real ale, live music most nights, and brewery memorabilia, which includes a healthy beer mat collection. Beer mats are disposable items, there to rescue tables from drips and spills,  to add colour, and to be cast away when worn out. But they can also act as powerful marketing tools, putting a brand or message in front of users repeatedly. The decision by Tim Martin, the founder or Wetherspoons, to print 200,000 beer mats during the Brexit campaign calling for UK to leave EU is case in point: it got a single message to many thousands of people quickly and efficiently. For historians, beer mats can therefore act as a window into the messages brewers want to convey, and their marketing strategies.

IMG_20170420_204459[1]It is at this point that I should mention Watneys Red Barrel. The name is infamous amongst drinkers, this 1960s beer remaining a watchword for ‘crap’. The reputation is such that if you type ‘Watneys’ into Google, the first thing that comes up is ‘Watneys Red Barrel.’ The beer’s fame also has had resonance through the generations.  My close friends talk about it with disdain, despite being too young to have ever tasted it.  I too treat the beer as a comedy product, and on seeing this beer mat at Ye Olde John O’Gaunt duly posted it on Twitter to elicit a response.

It is nonetheless too easy to sweep Red Barrel under the carpet as simply ‘that crap thing we don’t have to tolerate any more’, and indeed there are numerous problems with the post-barrel memory. Firstly, Red Barrel was initially promoted as a premium product, and it was found on the QE2 and British European Airways flights.[1] Also, the really dire beer was its successor, Watney’s Red, but even this was only around between 1971 and 1975, it being roundly rejected by punters and then discontinued.[2]

It is also important to remember that Red Barrel was promoted through sophisticated and well-thought out marketing strategies, that tried to shape consumers’ discretionary choices by tapping into cultural understandings of the age. Firstly, as the beer mat shows, there was an attempt to connect it with the recent memory of the camaraderie of wartime, the slogan ‘Roll the Red Barrel’ being a riff of the popular wartime song ‘Roll out the Barrel’. The beer was therefore by association hoping to promote itself as part of a culture togetherness and fellowship, something that perhaps was designed to appeal to established beer consumers.

On the other hand, at a time when the consumption of beer amongst the younger generation was falling, Watneys sought to evoke the idea that Red Barrel was relevant to them by connecting it with the growing interest in popular music. This is highlighted by the musical notes on the mat, as well as the details being clustered round a centre and the black background, all of which appear similar to a vinyl record. Beyond this, Watneys pushed the association with popular music further by getting the (moderately famous) band The Scaffold drinking the stuff.[3]

In addition, the mat also offered users a chance to win £50. This is more straightforward marketing device, as competitions have been used through the ages to entice users to make a purchase. Although, I have not been able to find out what one had to do to win £50, that’ll remain a mystery for now.

Overall, these are only some quick thoughts, but this one beer mat can tell us a lot about the strategies that Watneys were using to sell Red Barrel. Thinking more broadly though, it also highlights how both brewing and marketing historians can learn a lot from beer mats, and should perhaps do more than simply stand glass on them.


[1] http://www.retrowow.co.uk/retro_britain/keg_bitter/watneys_red_barrel.html
[2] T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 563.
[2] http://www.retrowow.co.uk/retro_britain/keg_bitter/watneys_red_barrel.html

A pleasant surprise

Welcome to the first of my ‘beer moments’, a series of blog posts charting my journey through the world of beer. These will rarely be long tomes (hit ‘The blog’ if you want that), especially as an objective is to improve my writing. Rather, these will usually be short pieces on my thoughts, observations and encounters with breweries and beer. I will also chuck in odd bits of brewing history I find. So where to start?

Taking advantage of having [Good] Friday off, a friend and I decided that strolling by the canal from Little Venice, occasionally stopping at hostelries, would make for a pleasant afternoon. We went the wrong way, clearly. In my mind beforehand was my frequent walks up regents canal from Kings Cross, where one can enjoy the surroundings, rest frequently, and perhaps end up at the Howling Hops tank room. But as we walked along the Grand Union towards Ladbroke Grove the feeling of an emerging dystopia increasingly set in, something not helped by the concrete edifice of the underside of the A40. FST

Salvation came in the form of the recently refurbished Union Tavern, perched on the canal near Westbourne Park. Initially we were unclear about who owned it. The ‘ghost sign’ proclaiming Fuller’s, Smith and Turner might simply have been a relic of times past. Unless one was a devotee of the Chiswick brewery the plethora of local beer offerings might also suggest independent ownership. It even had emblazoned on the side ‘Support Craft Beer’, not a phrase traditionally associated with established brewers. But we soon confirmed the pub was a ‘Fuller’s’, and one that reflects the company’s astute fashioning of pubs to meet the markets they serve.

The pub is excellent: relaxed, spacious, has a river-side seating area and, most importantly, modern. I don’t know much about the area, but avoiding all the ‘classic’ signs Fuller’s ownership, and clearly sitting on the trendy/craft end of it’s offerings, effectively taps the local market of professionals and families, which were in evidence. But this pub’s design is part of a broader pattern of behaviour by Fuller’s. Paying attention to their markets, the quality of pub environments, and shifts in beer consumption, has over the last ten years kept the company relevant to users, who keep coming back. This is a skill in an era of the informed, discriminating and, perhaps, progressively picky consumers.

Whitbread’s beer by boat – a longer story than we knew about

I cannot say that researching how Whitbread distributed beer to their bottling plant and stores after 1870 is the easiest thing in the world. Researching Bass’ distribution activities is much easier; the company’s own files are okay and the railway companies that served Burton detailed the process repeatedly. Whitbread however were operating all over the country in a much more atomised way, meaning that finding their very occasional dealings, contracts and agreements with the railway companies is like looking for a needle in a haystack. A lot of trawling is involved.


Whitbread Advert, The Era, Saturday 9 April 1892

The trawling can however pay off and very occasionally you find something that changes what we know. This is what happened today. Review the Whitbread company histories, and indeed the surviving company files[1], and you’d be mistaken for thinking that after 1892 most plants and stores were supplied by rail. Redman’s history of the brewery, for example, states that “The bulk beer for bottling was sent out from London, usually by rail.” Generally rail charges stymied the development of the company’ network until 1892 when new rates were agreed, which allowed the network to grow. Only Norwich remained supplied by “steamer to Great Yarmouth and then by lighter or wherry to the depot”[2]

Yet, the Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) files give a different picture. In 1901 Whitbread asked the railway if it could expand its bottling stores at City Road, Bradford. The company agreed on the proviso that all beer be sent there by rail, because at that point Bradford was supplied from Leeds, which received its delivery by boat. This demonstrates that not only was Whitbread supplying more than just Norwich by boat around 1900, but that water transport retained a cost advantage after the agreement of 1892 (these have not been found however).[3] This supports my findings from brewing press at the time that rail carriage costs were prohibitively high for most brewers between 1870 and 1914.[4] But this broader subject is for another post, another day.

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 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). 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.


[1] At the London Metropolitan Archive
[2] Nicholas Barritt Redman, The Story of Whitbread, 1742-1990, (London: Unknown Publisher, 1990) 24-25.
[3] The National Archives, RAIL 226/161, Great Northern Railway Traffic Committee Minute Book, 01 November 1901, p.237.
[4] Commercial Motor Magazine, February 29, 1910, 29. “Why Motor Transport Thrives”, Commercial Motor Magazine, September 19, 1912, 12.

To break a barrel, to spoil the beer: the railways’ care for barrels after 1860.

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.[1]

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.”[2]


Burton Station 1896. ©National Railway Museum and SSPL (http://www.nrm.org.uk/ourcollection/photo?group=Derby&objid=1997-7397_DY_387)

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.” [2] Two years later the same publication argued that road transport led to “a decided decrease in the number of empties damaged, broken or lost.”[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.

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 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.


[1] T.R. Gourvish and R.G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 1830-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 202.
[2]  The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 9, 1896, 3.
[3] Commercial Motor Magazine, February 29, 1910, 29.
[4] “Why Motor Transport Thrives”, Commercial Motor Magazine, September 19, 1912, 12.
[5] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 410/616, Goods Officers’ Conference, 20 October 1896, Minute No. 6330.
[6] Railway Clearing House, General Instructions as to Merchandise Traffic, (London: Jas. Truscott & Son, 1899), 15.
[7] Midland Railway Study Centre [MRSC], File 30024 – circulars, Midland Railway to Staff, 16 July 1861.
[8] TNA, RAIL 410/616, Goods Officers’ Conference, 20 October 1896, Minute No. 6330.
[9] MRSC, File – 503-05-05 – Midland Railway District Goods Manager’s Unnumbered Circulars, Circular to Staff, 14 November 1902.