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Whitbread spent how much on rail transportation?


A Whitbread newspaper advert, 1909

So, yesterday was an interesting, if little confusing day. Having looked at the Whitbread files at the London Metropolitan Archive, it is clear they were definitely using the railways to transport beer to their bottling and distribution plants. By 1909 the company’s London brewery (and I am presuming it was the London brewery) was supplying 29 of their 32 British depots by rail (two others were in Europe). Indeed, cash books state that they could only estimate the total cost of this ‘carriage of beer’ for each financial year (which weirdly ran to the first week of July) because some railway companies had not submitted their costs yet.

What is slightly confusing is the amount paid by the company for ‘carriage of beer’. In 1909 the company only paid £3843, or 0.305% of its total operational expenditure. This seems a very tiny amount, on the one hand because the company in 1905 bottled 245,599 barrels of beer nationwide, whilst at the same time Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton had special contracts with the Midland Railway for beer transit, because the cost was so large. It seems I have a mystery on my hands. More investigation required, clearly.

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. 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.

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.

It’s not just about posters – railway advertising before 1914.


A London & North Western Railway guide to the Lake District from 1910.

In the history books, the inter-war period has been dubbed the great age of railway advertising; the colourful and stylish posters of that age sticking in our memory. But railway advertising  before 1914 was no less appealing, and the companies issued a diverse range of creative and innovative advertising media. On the one hand, existing advertising such as posters and guidebooks became more complex and compelling.[1] Railways’ newspaper adverts also became more descriptive and alluring, whilst providing coupons enabling you to send off for guidebooks describing the beauty spots the railway served.[2] Alongside, companies also placed into public domain new advertising devices, including  bookmarks, the provision of lantern lectures, advertorials (adverts dressed up as journalism) and postcards. Bassett-Lowke model trains were also displayed at grand public exhibitions, whilst the London & North Western Railway commissioned the documentary film maker, Charles Urban, to make films of the destinations it served.[3] This expanding range of advertising media was not however simply introduced for diversity’s sake; nor did railway managers posses a simple assumption that getting the company’s  message into the most places possible would automatically lead to a boost in sales.


A London & North Western Railway Postcard from c. 1905/06


Edwardian companies, in response to increasing real incomes and growing consumer spending power, developed new and innovative approaches to sales in an effort to secure the consumer’s pound. Given the new competitive pressures the railways were under, as well as their significant decline in profitability in the latter part of the 1890s, railway executives started to do the same. Like many businesses, prior to 1900 the railways had simply proclaimed what services they provided, the expectation being that trains would be patronised as a result. Faced with changed trading circumstances after 1900, they began actively trying to compel and convince the customer to travel by their line; selling  the journey, the experience, the 101 reasons to holiday in the destinations they served, rather than those of a rival. In 1913 Felix Pole and James Milne, two senior Great Western Railway officials who both became the company’s general manager in later years, explained the change in approach:

‘formerly advertising was mere proclamation – now it may be defined as persuasion…The former methods were useless as a means of suggesting the benefits to health of travel or of touring new territory…[they] would not have told them [the traveller] why they should visit Cornwall.'[4]

Such changes in thinking therefore drove the growing diversity and complexity of Edwardian railway advertising, as railway publicity departments now had new objectives. Advertising was to maintain through a range of advertising channels consumers’ awareness of a company’s services and destinations, to differentiate one company’s product offering from those of another, and to be more persuasive about the benefits of North Wales, Cromer or golfing in Scotland. This new approach to generating sales cannot strictly be called ‘marketing,’ after all the companies were only starting to allow customer wants and desires to inform their thinking (the same was the case elsewhere in the corporate economy). Moreover, much of the advertising that was produced was uncoordinated and developed on an ad hoc basis. Nevertheless, embodied in the growing colour and diversity of Edwardian railway advertising was the fact that companies’ were steadily moving towards a marketing-based approach to selling. Perhaps we might even call it ‘proto-marketing?’

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 development of railway marketing 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] Felix Pole and James Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,”  Modern Railway Working – Vol. 7, ed. John Macaulay, (London: Gresham, 1913), 234-235.

[2] “In the Dailies”, The Advertising World, July 1913, 24.

[3] “Display Advert”, The Era, 3 August 1907, 27.

[4] Pole and Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,” 234.

The prevalence of ‘ladies only compartments’ on British railways, 1887

In light of discussions yesterday, I have worked out as best I can the prevalence of “ladies’ only compartments” on British railways in 1887 using returns given to the Board of Trade. The Board issued a circular asking whether the railways provided special provision for ‘ladies travelling alone.’ This was because of a ‘recent outrage’.

The tables show the total route mileage and passenger train mileage in 1887 of the companies that responded to the circular. Their responses fell into four categories. There were companies that had ‘ladies only’ accommodation on all trains, had it on some trains, arranged ‘ladies’ only’ accommodation when requested, and some did not provide it. Also shown in the tables is the route mileage and passenger train mileage of companies who stated that – based on their experiences – when such accommodation was offered it was underused or not used at all.

It should be noted that where railway companies offered accommodation on ‘some trains’ for the most part this was on a very limited number.



Also included in the Board of Trade’s return are figures from the London & South Western Railway – who provided ‘ladies only’ accommodation when requested – for the number of seats used in such compartments over a six day period in October 1887. It was the Charles Scotter’s (General Manager) opinion that they were underused:dds

Haven’t you got too much on? The activities of British railway directors, 1897

1840-1917 schottischer Adel.

John-Stewart-Murray, 7th Duke of Atholl

In 1897 Britain’s 28 significant railway companies had between them 314 directors. These individuals had a diverse backgrounds. At one end of the spectrum, the very rich end, was the Highland Railway’s John Stewart-Murray, 7th Duke of Atholl, whose family was a very well established member of the peerage.[1] At the other John Holloms, as South Eastern director, was a solicitor for his firm Holloms, Sons, Coward & Hawksley.[2] While none of the directors would have had low-incomes, after all considerable stock ownership was required to become a director of a company, a fair few would not have been nearly as wealthy as the richest. Directors also were active in business varying degrees, as evidenced in the pages of the Directory of Directors.[3] Fifty-nine directors – just under fifth of the sample (18.79%) – only sat on the boards of their railways. They were not necessarily inactive, many likely performed civic functions, were Members of Parliament (MP) or ran private unlimited companies and partnerships. Yet within the pages of the Directory it appears their lives were rather slower than some of their compatriots. Over half of all directors (55.37%) held between two and nine directorships outside the railways, and a very small number, seven, held more than ten. The life of one of these seven individuals, John William Maclure, must have been a parade of meetings. In addition to being an MP and a director of the Cambrian and Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railways, he held twenty positions in businesses. [4]


Sir William Pollitt

In business history the issue of who controls companies’ policies and strategies is a constant. Was it the shareholders, who owned the companies? Was it the directors, who were the shareholders’ representatives? In large firms particularly, was it the managers, who ran the organisation day-to-day and perhaps knew more about the business than the directors? In the context of the nineteenth century British and American railways, it has been suggested that this last scenario occurred frequently. Faced with having to manage complex, geographically spread organisations safely, companies invested in cadres of managers to coordinate and control operations who, it has been suggested, became more important in deciding company strategy than investors or directors. The boards who met (in most cases) fortnightly could not possibly hope to understand the nuances and detail of a large business better than the full-time salaried managers. These could therefore control what directors learned about what was going on and were thus able to influence policy.[5] In this scenario, men like Maclure theoretically fade into the background of railway history, while the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire and Cambrian Railways’ general managers –  Sir William Pollitt and C.S. Dennis – played an important role shaping their companies’ destinies.[6]

The reality – I am starting to believe – was quite different. British railway directors after 1880 largely controlled, or at least were expected to control their railways’ affairs very closely, and this is where board members’ activities outside the railway become important. How much attention railway directors gave to their company invariably shaped the extent to which they controlled policy and strategy formation, and its financial performance. Indeed, where a directorate was so active outside the railway industry that they they could not give the activities of managers adequate oversight, the managers might take decisions which served their own ends, such as career progression and job security, rather than profit maximisation.[7] Scholars’ analysis of modern businesses have shown the effect on profitability of inadequate board oversight of management, and these studies are instructive. Ferris, Jagannathan and Pritchard found that directors with multiple directorships can become over-committed by external obligations, leading them to neglect responsibilities within all their firms and giving managers scope to run down companies’ profitability.[8]  Fich and Shivdasani argued that companies where most directors possessed three or more outside directorships had lower profitability and operating returns on sales. Moreover, where most directors had less than three external commitments, companies’ values were on average 4.2% higher than those where the majority of board members had more.[9]


William Hay, 10th Marquess of Tweeddale

Whether nineteenth century railway directors imperilled their railways’ profitability by having too many external business positions, thus giving mangers space to act independently, is a question requiring more investigation. It can be presumed however that directors with a large number of positions, like Maclure, surely could not have given their railway full attention, as one case demonstrates. The Marquis of Tweeddale and Sir Charles Tennant been the chairman and vice-chairman of the North British Railway (NBR) since the 1880s. Yet by the late-1890s they stood at the helm of a company with had unhappy shareholders; the dividends on ordinary shares were consistently low – 0.63% in 1895, 1.13% in 1896, 1.00% in 1897 and 1.33% in 1898.[10] Many shareholders blamed the results on the infrequency of board meetings and the inadequate oversight of the company’s management, which had been left to its own, inefficient, devices.[11] At the September 1898 half-yearly general meeting, T.O. Ockleston, who owned considerable company stock, put a case to those assembled. Whereas most railway boards and their sub-committees met fortnightly, his investigation found that the NBR meetings took place only once every four weeks. The sub-committees met in the morning, with the board meeting in the afternoon, an amount of time he considered inadequate to deal with every matter arising from the operation of a great concern. On top of this the chairman and his deputy were infrequent visitors to the company headquarters at Edinburgh, a result of them both living 400 miles away in London. Ockleston acted; he tabled a resolution that the board should meet more frequently, which was welcomed by those in attendance. Tweeddale called the motion ‘incompetent’, and he and Tennant to refused to allow a vote on it as notice of the motion had not been received before the meeting, as per standard procedure. [12]

It may be called conspiracy, it may be called protecting one’s own interests, but in early 1899 a previously placid NBR director, Henry Grierson, a shipowner and one of the largest holders of company stock took up the complaining shareholders’ cause.[13] He was a logical ally. In 1897 he had argued at the board to increase the frequency of their meetings to once a fortnight, but this was rejected, the opposition being led by Tweedale and Tennant. Thus, days before the March 1899 half-yearly general meeting he sent a circular to shareholders stating that ‘the time devoted to the directors to the business of the company is, in my opinion, utterly inadequate.’ The board only met for four hours once a month, and consequently ‘the chief officials of the company are left virtually uncontrolled.’[14] Whether this was true or not is open to further research – the emergence of considerable levels of bad debts and the company’s low ordinary dividends may suggest that this was so (N.B. I need to look into this further).[15]

1899-04-15 – RN – NBR case 576

Sir Henry Grierson

Grierson was however unequivocal about why this situation had come about and why Tweeddale and Tennant had resisted so vehemently the holding of more frequent board meetings. Firstly, they lived in London. The Directory of Directors for 1897 confirms this, and in addition to having Scottish residences, one of Tweedale’s homes was at 6 Hill Street in Mayfair, while Tennant resided at 9 Mincing Lane in the City of London. Most seriously, Grierson was concerned they were over-committed and did not have the time to dedicate to the NBR; ‘doubtless that the chairman and vice-chairman are (between them) directors of not less than 30 other companies, most of which have their headquarters in London, where these gentleman reside a large part of the year.’ This was also true, and in 1897 the two men held thirty-one positions.[16] At the March meeting, Grierson challenged the men’s alleged lack of commitment to the company. With proxies from a very large number of absent shareholders, he forced the board to adopt fortnightly meetings. At the same time four of the five company directors up for re-election (railway directors resigned by rotation and re-elected) were displaced by his nominees.[17] In the days after Tennant and Tweddale resigned.[18]

The strength of the link between the number of directorships the NBR Chairman and Deputy held, the low frequency of board meetings, and the company’s alleged poor financial performance is unclear. Although, despite the need for further research, the evidence here suggests there may be one. Link or not though, what the NBR case demonstrates is the expectation of what railway directors’ role in the management of their companies was at the end of the nineteenth century. Grierson was able to successfully use the fact that Tennant and Tweeddale allegedly paid insufficient attention to the business to raise the votes against them. NBR shareholders clearly felt railway directors were to be close overseers of their companies’ affairs. But this affair elicited wider comment on what the role of directors in company management was generally. The Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough stated on 24 March that ‘Mr Grierson’s agitation may be accepted as a sign of the increasing demand for efficient service on the part of directors of companies, and a protest against the use of mere figureheads in the management of great concerns.'[19] It is probably no coincidence that on the day after Grierson issued his circular the influential Financial Times, in an editorial reviewing that year’s Directory of Directors, commented that ‘it appears to us that the vice of pluralism has made little progress during the past twelvemonth… we may most potently believe that the veriest club-lounger or half-pay captain is perfectly capable of assuming without the notice the direction of a complicated and technical business, yet it is hard to stretch one’s faith sufficiently to credit him with the capacity for running twenty or more such businesses at the same time.'[20]

These comments and the NBR case suggest that directors at the end of nineteenth century were still expected to have full charge of policy and strategy formation within their companies, irrespective of whether they really controlled their senior managers or not. The challenge, for me at least, is now to see exactly what the power relationships were within in British railway companies were around this time. As I go forward into my research though, my strong feeling is that I will find that directors were calling the shots and cases of managerial control were in the minority.

[1] “John James Hugh Henry Stewart-Murray, 7th Duke of Atholl,” The Peerage, June 28, 2015, accessed Aug 24, 2015, http://www.thepeerage.com/p1120.htm#i11193.
[2] The Directory of Directors, (London: Thomas Skinner, 1897)
[3] From 1880 this recorded all the directorships of directors of public companies and numerous private limited companies. Directors’ business activities are not mentioned in totality, positions in private unlimited companies and partnerships being mostly excluded.
[4] The Directory of Directors, (London: Thomas Skinner, 1897)

MacLure: Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Company; British American Investment Company Ltd; Burnley and District Tramways Company; Calais Tramway Company Ltd; Earle’s Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd; Elephants Kloof Gold Mining Company; Evesham, Redditch and Stratford Junction Railway Company; Globe Accident Insurance Company Ltd; Lombardy Road Railways Company Ltd; London and Northern Assets Company Ltd; London and Northern Debenture Corp Ltd; Neath and Brecon Railway Company; Neuchatel Asphalte Company; Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne &c Railway Company; Ontorio Lands and Oil Company; Rochdale Canal Company; Tramways and General Works Company Ltd; Wigan Junction Railways; Wrexham and Ellesmere Railway; Wrexham, Mold and Connah’s Quay Railway Company

[5]  Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, (Harvard: Belknap 1977); T.R. Gourvish, Mark Huish and the London & North Western Railway, (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1972)
[6] George Dow, Great Central: Volume 2 – Dominion of Watkin, (London: Ian Allen, 1962), 352; “Railway Officials and Nationalisation of Railways,” editorial, Edinburgh Evening News Nov. 11, 1897, 2
[7] Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Raff, M.G. Daniel and Peter Temin, “Economic Theory and Business History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Business History, ed. Geoffrey Jones and Jonathan Zeitlin, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 45-46.
[8] Stephen P. Ferris, Murali Jagannathan and C. Pritchard, “Too Busy to Mind the Business? Monitoring by Directors with Multiple Board Appointments,” Journal of Finance 58, no.3 (2003):1109-1110
[9] E. Fich and A. Shivdasani, “Are Busy Boards Effective Monitors?,” Journal of Finance 61, no.2 (2006): 721
[10] Board of Trade, Railway Returns, (London: HMSO, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898)
[11] Circular from Henry Grierson to the shareholders of the North British Railway, 14 March 1899. Reprinted in “The North British Railway Company. Disagreement at the Board. Charges of Neglect. New Candidates for Directorate,” editorial, Aberdeen Journal March 17, 1899, 5.
[12] “North British Company Meeting,” editorial, The Glasgow Herald Sept 23, 1898, 4
[13] “Sir Henry Grierson,” obituary The Times, Jan 28, 1914, 9
[14] Circular from Henry Grierson to the shareholders of the North British Railway, 14 March 1899. Reprinted in “The North British Railway Company. Disagreement at the Board. Charges of Neglect. New Candidates for Directorate,” editorial, Aberdeen Journal March 17, 1899, 5.
[15] “The North British Report,” The Economist, Sept 22, 1900, 1336
[16] Tennant: Union Bank of Scotland Ltd; Linlithgow Oil Company; North British and Mercantile Insurance Co. (Chairman of Glasgow Bd); Charles Tennent, Sons & Co.; Nobel-Dynamite Trust Company Ltd; Nobel’s Explosives Company Ltd; United Alkali Company Ltd; Champion Reef Gold Mining Company of India; Coromandel Gold Mining Company of India; Goldfields of Mysore Ltd; Mysore Gold Mining Company Ltd; Nine Reefs Company Ltd; Oriental Gold Mining Company of India Ltd; Road Block Gold Mining Company Ltd; Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Company; Steel Company of Scotland Ltd; Forth Bridge Railway Company

Tweeddale: Commercial Bank of Scotland Ltd; Scottish Widows’ Fund Life Assurance Soc.; Stock Conversion and Investment Trust Ltd; Submarine Cables Trust; Direct Spanish Telegraph Company Ltd; Eastern Extension &c. Telegraph Company; Eastern Telegraph Company Ltd; Europe and Azores Telegraph Company Ltd; Globe Telegraph and Trust Company; Western Telegraph Company Ltd; Eymouth Railway Company Ltd; Forth Bridge Railway Company; Newport Railway Company; West Highland Railway Company

[17] “The North British Railway,” Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough Mar. 24, 1899, 2
[18] “The North British Railway,” The Economist, Mar. 25, 1899, 427
[19] “The North British Railway,” Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough Mar. 24, 1899, 2
[20] “The Directors’ Roll Call,” editorial, The Financial Times, Mar 18, 1899, 4

Working City to City: The LNWR’s on-train typist service of 1910

trains75-620x413I am sure from the very earliest days of the railways passengers must have done work on the train. It is, some might say, a tradition of the travelling businessperson. However, the declining cost and increasing hardiness of laptops has undoubtedly changed the nature of train-based work. Rather than simply reading policy documents and making notes, as was likely the case in the poorly lit Victorian railway carriages, those travelling to their place of work can now produce digital documents that will go on to their colleagues, managers and managing directors. The train can be, for many, a second office that is possibly more pleasant than the one at their final destination. But the ability to produce formal document on the train is nothing new. Long before the laptop was invented, from February 1910 businessmen on the London and North Western Railway’s (LNWR) “City-to-City” express had facility to have their important and urgent documents typed.[1]

The typist’s compartment on the “City-to-City”.

The “City-to-City” express was inaugurated by the LNWR between Birmingham and London Broad Street Station to compete with the Great Western Railway’s express services between the same places (the GWR’s services ran into Paddington). Starting from Birmingham at 8.20 am and arriving at 10.35 am, the morning “City-to-City”, which also had a breakfast car attached, took two and a quarter hours to make the journey, whereas the GWR’s service took fifteen minutes less. Although, if you made the journey by the GWR it possibly would have taken you longer overall reach your place of work, Paddington being some distance away from the commercial centres of London. Broad Street Station on the other hand was only a short walk away from the city.[2] The return run of the “City-to-City” started from Broad Street at 5.25pm and arrived at 7.40pm.[3] Presumably in an attempt to entice to their services businessmen who were eager to save time at work, the LNWR took the innovative step of providing Britain’s first ever on-train typist service on the “City-to-City”. Situated in a compartment specially fitted up with a desk and chairs, the shorthand typist was available to take dictation of letters at any time throughout the run.[4] On the inaugural run of the express the work was supervised by Miss Tarrant of the Euston typing room; while on subsequent journeys a Miss Boswell took over.[5] It would  seem that there was some initial objection to this service in the press . In the ‘Woman’s Gossip’ section of the Cheltenham Looker-On it was stated that while 5 or 6 hour journeys for passengers was ‘tiring in itself’, the ‘girl’ doing the typing was expected to be at her post five days a week to ‘do office work all the time.’ In its estimation this would be too much work for the ‘girl and exclaimed that ‘the doctors talk of the growth and spread of nervous habits among the people, but who can wonder at it?’[6]

The first letter sent from the “City-to-City” express.

Despite these objections, it would seem the typing service was initially successful. “I have been kept busy all the way up,” Tarrant said in an interview shortly after the “City-to-City’s” inaugural return run, “twelve passengers dictated letters to me and only once, when we were passing through the Kilsby Tunnel,  was the dictation interrupted…I had no difficulty whatever in using the typewriter, and all my clients appeared to be highly satisfied. The experiment was quite a success.”[7] Yet, after two months the Tamworth Herald would report the typewriting services had ‘not been so well patronised as was expected would be the case.’ It would seem that travellers using the service were unable to overcome the fear that any business they conducted through the train’s typist would not be confidential. Yet, irrespective of customers’ trepidation, later the LNWR decided to extend the service to other trains.[8] Whether the typist service was successful in the long-run is unclear, only a closer examination of the company’s files may reveal this.


[1] Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 2 February 1910, p.4
[2] Wolmar, Christian, Fire and Steam: A new history of the Railways in Britain, (London, 2007), p.188
[3] The Railway Times, 22 January 1910, p.122
[4] The Railway Times, 22 January 1910, p.122
[5] Aberdeen Journal, Thursday 03 February 1910, p.6
[6] Cheltenham Looker-On, Saturday 29 January 1910, p.16
[7] Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 2 February 1910, p.4
[8] Tamworth Herald, Saturday 16 April 1910, p.6

The power of the passenger complaint

The majority train passengers have long ceased writing letters when they find fault with the service; they now take to social media to vent their ire at those purporting to be their carriers. While they may not have bothered to write to British Rail 25 years ago about a late or crowded train, now instant communication gives them the facility to complain instantly to some abused railway functionary operating a Twitter feed. This was exemplified by Southern Railway admitting last week that passengers were daily sending 2,000 to 5,000 complaining tweets about the late and crowded services in and out of London Bridge. But do these Tweets actually have an effect? Does anything change as a result of them? It is hard really to tell. So, perhaps we have to look to the past for an answer.


Archibald Scott, the London and South Western Railway’s General Manager between 1870 and 1884

Instances of deficient train services have been a part of the railway network since the start. Unsurprisingly, so has the passenger complaint. If you had to misfortune in the late 1870s and early 1880s to live within the suburban territory the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), finding fault with your train services would be pretty easy: they were slow, late and overcrowded. Funny Folks magazine of October 1878 noted the case of a season ticket holder who had unsuccessfully brought an action against the company because of delays.[1] The Standard in September 1880 published a letter from an alleged ’victim’ of the company. The ‘unpunctuality of the [LSWR’s] trains is notorious…never in my life [have I] arrived at Waterloo at the proper time.’[2] The hardship of passengers was crystallised by a satirical paragraph in the Sporting Times of October 1881:

‘The most humorous piece of writing in the world is to be seen on the South-Western Railway between Fulwell and Twickenham. It is on a board, and the quaint, incisive words are, “Speed not to exceed ten miles an hour.” Even people with urgent appointments, the keeping of which means life and death as they dodder up to town at the old Thames Valley speed of four and a half miles an hour, have to shriek with laughter when they read Archibald Scott’s great joke. People tell with bated breath how there was once and engine-driver, appropriately termed Dare Devil Dick, who got six miles an hour out of Thames Valley train, and was seen by a directors, and was sacked for furious driving, and was hired by the Midland and sacked for slowness, and now, having qualified on the S.W.R., is earning an honest livelihood by driving a hearse.[3]

The Archibald Scott mentioned in the piece was the LSWR’s General Manager, for whom things were not going well by the late-1870s. Scott had learnt the art of railway management in the 1840s and in 1852 had been appointed the company’s Traffic Manger, a post in which he had to organise the train services. His appointment in 1852 had been considered a huge success; he brought efficiency and effectiveness to every part of the company. Fast-forward by thirty years, and the ageing manager’s understanding of modern railway management was limited at a time when passenger numbers were on the rise: for the LSWR they had  risen from 13.3 million in 1870 to 30.3 million in 1880.[4]

Scott’s response to the growing demand on the network was poor. There were bottle-necks in the system, particularly outside of the company’s London terminus, Waterloo Station, and in 1878 and 1885 it had expanded it. The main running lines were also widened in the 1880s. But had these projects come earlier and been better suited to the demands of the traffic, had Scott pushed for infrastructure improvements, and had the company adopted more modern operational practices, many a suburban passenger would have been saved intolerable train journeys.[5] Unsurprising, therefore, that the management of the company – for which Scott had responsibility for – was lambasted frequently in the press.


The accident between Downton and Breamore, 3 June 1884

But is was an accident in mid-1884 that signalled the start of Scott’s downfall. On 3 June 1884 a train derailed between Downton and Breamore, killing four and injuring fifty-one. The report of the Board of Trade inspector, Rich, was fiercely critical of LSWR operational practices. He recommended ‘the company make a thorough examination of their system and stock, to classify their drivers, to classify their stock, to classify their several lines and to classify their trains.’ Rich also noted that passengers travelling elsewhere on the company’s complained of ‘violent shaking’ when travelling at speed. The LSWR was made out to be a scary, uncoordinated railway that was a danger to travel on; the event was a public relations disaster.[6]

Worse was to come for Scott. On the 9 October five passengers wrote to The Times to complain about the unpunctuality of the LSWR’s suburban train services.[7] What had over the years been a steady trickle of criticism became a torrent, with fifteen letters being written to the paper in quick succession. On the 16th a ‘victim’ laid the blame for the unpunctuality of trains at the feet of ‘the utter incapacity of the management of the London and South Western Railway.’[8] The climax of the barrage came on the 21 October, and one of six letters published that day proclaimed that ‘there is not one [company] so badly managed as the South-Western nor is there any time table which is so purely the work of supposition.’[9]

Scott tendered his resignation on 10 November 1884.[10] While internal politics were undermining his position, it was the further rapid decline of the railway’s public reputation that pushed him out the door. The Breamore accident had laid bare serious weaknesses in the company’s management, but it was the LSWR’s passengers, particularly the commuters, venting their ire in The Times that meant it was untenable for Scott stay. As such, despite it being hard to gauge how Twitter complaints influence the policies of train companies now, we can be certain passenger complaints have contributed to influencing change in the past. As for the LSWR? From 1885 under Scott’s successor, Scotter, it became one of the best managed railways in the country.[11]


[1] Funny Folks, Oct. 26, 1878, 338
[2] The Standard, Sept. 15, 1880, 3
[3] The Sporting Times, Oct. 1881, 1

[4] Board of Trade, Railway Returns, 1870 and 1880
[5] David Turner, “Managing the “Royal Road”: The London & South Western Railway 1870-1911,” (PhD thesis, University of York, 2013), 187-190
[6] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Board of Trade, [C.4122] Railway accident. Report by Colonel Rich, R.E., to the Board of Trade, upon the accident which occurred on the 3rd June 1884 between Downton and Breamore stations, on the London and South-Western Railway; and correspondence thereon. Henry G. Chalcraft to LSWR secretary, 25 July 1884
[7] The Times, Oct. 11, 1884, 7
[8] The Times, Oct. 16, 1884, 10
[9] The Times, Oct 23, 1884, 12
[10] The National Archives, RAIL 411/7, Court of Directors Minute Book, Minute 1547, 13 November 1884
[11] Turner, “Managing the Royal Road,”” 226-229

Britain’s first railway? Business and Beaumont

Two lines originally thought to have been built around one year apart fight it out for the claim to be the ‘first’ British railway – this post explores the history of one of them. Huntingdon Beaumont was born at Coleorton in Leicestershire in around 1560, the youngest son of Sir Nicholas and Ann Beaumont. They exploited the rich supplies of coal within their estate and it is here that the young Huntingdon learned the business of mining. Driven by his insatiable energy, clear vision, but a reckless streak, in 1601 he moved to Nottinghamshire, and using what he had learnt at his parents’ mining business leased and worked coal pits at Wollaton, Strelley and Bilborough. His expectation was that once mined the coal would be moved to the River Trent and then onto the local and national markets. But the enterprise was a failure. Cracking local markets was easy, but entering local ones was far more difficult. This and the result of further failed mining ventures in Northumberland from 1608, again through his continued inability to tap the London coal trade, and an ostentatious standard of living, resulted in him dying as a debtor in Nottinghamshire gaol in 1824; his business partners having long-since deserted him. [1]

Within the tale of Beaumont’s tale of failed entrepreneurialism possibly lies the origin story of Britain’s railways. What made the young Beaumont stand out from his contemporaries was the ingenious tools employed in his mines – machines to pump water out of mines and boring rods –  although where he originated them is unclear.[2] Most notable amongst his many and varied devices was the waggonway (in this post I will use the spelling of the time). Between the Autumn of 1603 and 1 October 1604 he constructed a line from the coal mine at Strelley to Wollaton, where it was shipped by road to the river Trent. The agreement between Beaumont and Sir Percival Willoughby to build the line – the Lord of the Manor of Wollaton and lessee of the Wollaton pits – stated that ‘alonge the passage now laide with railes, and with suche or the lyke Carriages as are now in use for the purpose.’[3] The waggonway was considered a marvel in the Nottinghamshire area, one contemporary noting that they were ‘new and extronaiary inventions and practices for the spedy and conveyance of the said coals.’[4] Baumont also built three waggonways at his northern ventures to take coal for transshipment at the river Blyth and then on to London – although how much actually reached there is unclear.

The virtue of waggonways for mine owners was that they reduced operating costs and thus potentially represented a significant increase in productivity. The laying of rails on the ground reduced the friction on wagon wheels, meaning one horse could pull considerable loads easily, displacing an estimated twenty-four pack-horses and around three four-horse wain carts – the traditional means of moving goods. Mining companies adopting this nascent technology could thus achieve considerable operations savings, particularly in the cost of stabling and fodder. The downside was that the initial outlay on a waggonway was usually high, and in the mid-1700s it was sometimes in the region of £750 per mile. Wooden rails lasted also had a short life at around three years, meaning maintaining the way was costly.[5]

Beaumont’s fall was thus the product of the heavy investment in waggonways, machinery and expensive leases of mines, in addition to his sumptuous standard of living, combined with the fact that his income stream did not cover his debt obligations.[6] This failure should not however obscure his achievements; his realisation of the need to cut operating costs through technology and improving transport links from pithead to river were all ahead of their time and are a testament to the ingenuity and forward-thinking he brought to his business affairs. The suggestion has even been made that if Beaumont had lived within his means, he may have been a success and his death may not have been so ignominious.[7]


[1] R S Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 1 (1957), 115-53

[2] Ibid., 115

[3] “Huntington Beaumont,” Wikipedia, Jan 3, 2015, accessed Jan 11, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huntingdon_Beaumont

[4] Paul Nix, “Huntingdon Beaumont’s Wollaton to Strelley Waggonway,” June 30, 2013, accessed Jan 11, 2014, https://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/huntingdon-beaumonts-wollaton-to-strelley-waggonway/

[5] Maurice R. Kirby, The Origins of Railway Enterprise: The Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1821-1863, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991), 10-11

[6] Lewis, “Reflections on 1604,” 11

[7] Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” 13

Don’t confuse your Bradshaws

Picture2One of the questions I frequently get asked as a railway historian is “do you ever watch the Michael Portillo show? You know, the one where he travels on the railway with a Bradshaw’s Guide?” Usually, I respond that I don’t very often. This is not because I dislike the show, I just have too much going on. My opinion is actually that the BBC have produced an excellent program that has re-awakened national interest in the Victorian railways and their legacy; this is to be celebrated. Where previously railway history books were relegated to a bottom, lonely shelf in bookshops, now they can lay claim to whole bays.

Yet, I have a problem with Great Railway Journeys. The program puts over the idea, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the ‘Bradshaw’ Portillo wields was hugely popular in the nineteenth century; that it was one of the premier railway publications of the age. I am sorry to break it to you, it was not .Picture1

In October 1839 the Manchester publishing company owned by George Bradshaw produced a small collection of railway timetables entitled Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling, with Illustrative Maps and Plans. Soon renamed Bradshaw’s Railway Companion, this pocket-sized publication appeared irregularly until it was discontinued at the end of 1848.[1] This small step into the world of railway timetables did nonetheless lead to the production in December 1841 of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide: a comprehensive collection of all the timetables of Britain’s railways. Published monthly and constantly growing in size as the railway network developed in scale and complexity, this – not the handbook – was the publication that brought great fame to the name ‘Bradshaw.'[2]

Over the second half of the nineteenth century Bradshaw’s Railway Guide acquired a dual reputation. On the one hand it was frequently accused, not unjustly, of being mind-bogglingly complicated. ‘At what hour will I get to Glasgow’, wrote Trollope in 1869, ‘I cannot learn without an amount of continued study of Bradshaw for which I have neither the strength nor mental ability.’[3] In Henry James’ 1904 book The Golden Bowl, a character exclaims ‘I have seen you with a Bradshaw! It takes Anglo-Saxon blood.’[4] Irrespective of such comment, the timetables did however achieve great standing for their utility and comprehensive content. In 1865 Punch chose not to mock the Bradshaw, as it did with so many things, but commented that “seldom has the gigantic intellect of man been employed upon a work of greater utility.”[5] When deciding to take a train, the master detective Sherlock Holmes would invariably reach for the Bradshaw, such as in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches.[6] Such was the fame of the Bradshaw from the 1850s onwards that the term ‘Bradshaw’ was commonly used to mean any railway timetable, even if it had not been produced by his company.

But what of the standing of Portillo’s guidebook? The Bradshaw company started producing descriptive guides to various railway lines in the 1840s. The first is unknown, but the earliest I am aware of was Bradshaw’s Descriptive Guide to the London & South Western Railway from 1845. Thereafter a plethora of guides followed, from Bradshaw’s Guide through London and its Environs, published in 1857, to continental guides including Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-book to Germany of 1873The Bradshaw from Great Railway Journeys is the 1863 edition of Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland.[7]

Picture3Yet while these guides were were commonly known, they were not lauded and praised like Bradshaw’s timetables because they existed in a highly competitive marketplace. The first true guidebook describing the attractions and highlights of a railway line was published in 1833 entitled Railway CompanionBy a Tourist. An almost continuous stream of similar publications followed as the railway network grew. The most famous handbooks of the second half on the nineteenth century were those produced by George Measom between 1852 and 1866, for example his Illustrated Guide to the Great Western Railway from 1852. Throughout the period the railways were also publishing or authorising their own handbooks, with production significantly increasing from the 1890s as companies tried to promote their lines to tourists.[8] The most famous handbook was the Great Western Railway’s Holiday Haunts. This began publication in 1906 and, in addition to information on resorts and attractions, included the details of hotels and boarding houses.[9] The multitude of other handbooks and descriptive guides ultimately meant that Bradshaw’s Handbooks struggled and failed to gain the same fame and respect as their sister publications the timetables, swamped as they were by more famous and well-respected competitors.

So the next time you sit down to watch Great Railway Journeys, perhaps it is worth remembering that what Michael Portillo has in his hand was not nearly as celebrated in its time as it might first appear. The program takes the reputation and fame of one Bradshaw product and applies it to another.


[1] Charles E. Lee, The Centenary of “Bradshaw” (London: The Railway Gazette), 14-15. It should be noted that it remained in publication until only a year after Bradshaw had stepped back from the management of the firm because of ill-health. It can therefore be surmised that he was the individual that was behind its publication.  Bradshaw died in 1853.

[2] G. Royde-Smith, The History of the Bradshaw, (London: Henry Blacklock and Company, 1939), 47-64. Bradshaw’s Railway Guides were published until 1961.

[3] ed. John Hall, The Letters of Anthony Trollope, (California: Stanford University Press, 1989), 493

[4] Henry James, The Golden Bowl, (London: Methuen, 1904),

[5] Punch cited in “Punch on Bradshaw” editorial, The Railway News, July 29, 1865, 111

[6] Arthur Conan-Doyle,”The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” The Strand Magazine, June 1892

[7] “Bradshaw’s Guide,” wikipedia, Nov. 10, 2014, accessed Nov 13, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradshaw’s_Guide 

[8] Jack Simmons, “guidebooks,” in The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, ed. Jack Simmons and Gordon Biddle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 198-199

[9] Alexander Medcalf, “”What to Wear and where to go”, Picturing the Modern Consumer on the Great Western Railway, 1921-1939″ in ed. Benjamin Fraser, Steven D. Spalding, Trains, Culture, and Mobility: Riding the Rails, (Plymouth: Lexington, 2011), 66