Handling the Goods

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the railways were the primary means of transporting any goods other than for very local business. The only other means of longer distance transport was the much slower canal system, parts of which were owned by the railways. They were designated Common Carriers, which meant that they had to take any goods offered, within reason.

A long coal train heading south past Northampton composed mainly of privately owned wagons

The largest traffic carried was coal with the railways distributing it from the mines to everywhere in the country. In this period coal was the primary source of energy being used for domestic heating and heating other buildings, powering the steam engines that ran the machinery in factories, used in large quantities by heavy industry such as steel making, powering shipping and the railways themselves, and used in local gas works for producing gas for domestic and industrial use before the advent of North Sea gas.
Almost every station had a coal wharf for use by local coal merchants delivering domestic coal received by the 10-ton wagon load.
Other traffic in minerals such as limestone, slate, stone, ironstone, lime and salt were carried in bulk. By the start of the 20th century oil in the form of paraffin and motor spirit was widely distributed with early oil companies having tenancies in many LNWR goods yards.

Typical mixed goods train passing Crewe. The first two vehicles are cattle wagons covered in limewash used as a disinfectant. A practice banned in the mid 1920’s as harmful to the animals

Cattle and sheep were transported from farms to cattle markets and fairs all around the country, with most country stations having cattle pens for loading and unloading. The LNWR carried a considerable traffic in cattle from Ireland via its ships through Holyhead, and there was a large flow of cattle from South America into Birkenhead and Liverpool for meat. The care of cattle and sheep in transit was strictly regulated, with limits on how long the intervals between stops for feed and water could be and the disinfection of the cattle wagons between journeys, usually with lime wash.

Train being loaded with Cheshire cheese at Broxton

Merchandise traffic comprised everything produced on farms, in food processing, in factories and distributed by wholesalers and small businesses in either whole wagon loads or in small consignments. For small consignments the railways developed the Tranship system, where a tranship van travelled along each line picking up small consignments and taking them to a Tranship Station where they were sorted and loaded into whole wagon loads for a specific station or into another tranship van to be dropped off at the destination station.

The main flows of goods traffic of all sorts were between the marshalling yards, such as Willesden or Edge Hill, where the longer distance trains were assembled. Shorter trains arrived with or distributed goods to stations along the local lines or via trip workings to docks, local industries or smaller yards.


Windsor Street Goods Yard in Birmingham

The railways also provided a warehouse service, where goods could be stored until the supplier provided instructions for shipment of consignments to customers. These warehouses were located at the larger stations, but most stations had smaller warehouses for the short-term storage of goods to protect them from the weather and provide security.

For an additional charge the railway would pick up goods from its customers’ premises by cart and deliver the goods from the destination station to the end customer.

To avoid unloading and re-loading wagons at junctions between the railway companies, the wagons would run through to their ultimate destination. Anywhere off the LNWR was designated “Foreign” by the Railway Clearing House (RCH). The Railway Clearing House was formed in 1842 to apportion the charges for carriage of goods travelling over several lines, between the companies involved, according to mileage. This was a massive accounting task, with daily and weekly paper “Foreign” traffic returns from sending and receiving companies’ stations being reconciled, and the apportionments calculated. The RCH offices were sited adjacent to Euston Station.

Besides the standard open goods wagons and vans, the railways designed many specialised wagons for transporting different types of traffic – timber, glass, livestock, refrigerated meat vans (as seen here), banana vans, tramcar trolleys etc.

Large loads, outside of the loading gauge (the maximum width and height allowed to clear tunnels, bridges, platforms, signals etc.) could only be carried with very careful planning of the routes and timings to ensure safety. Such large loads included boilers and the Titanic’s huge anchors taken from Dudley to Liverpool enroute to Belfast.

The LNWR employed a Goods Agent at most stations to manage all aspects of the traffic. At smaller stations the Stationmaster took on these duties. The Goods Agent was responsible for canvassing local firms for traffic, managing the goods yard and its facilities, managing the staff of goods porters handling the goods, the carters collecting and delivering merchandise and the clerks dealing with all of the paperwork associated with goods – consignment notes, invoices, delivery notes, the LNWR accounts and RCH returns amongst many other forms.

Parliament, prompted by the business community, kept a close eye on the rates charged by the railways for carrying goods of all types.