For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

Milk Vans – Diagrams 20, 21, 22 and 40


The principal requirement for a milk van, in the days when milk was conveyed in churns, was a secure but well ventilated body allowing a plentiful supply of fresh air to circulate inside and this was accomplished in a number of ways over the years.

Milk vans as a type had existed as far back as 1853, the year in which two cattle wagons were converted for carrying milk. Having in mind that cattle wagons had bodies of open construction few structural alterations were necessary to make them suitable for their new use.

At this time milk vans although conveyed in passenger trains were included in the wagon returns and it was not until 1877 that the first to be included in the miscellaneous stock appeared, probably the first to be designed and built as milk vans rather than conversions from other vehicles. They took the form of a 22ft long four wheeled van, distinguished by having a body with open framework fitted with closely spaced vertical iron bars in both sides and ends with two sliding doors on either side. Three were built in 1877 and another 3 in 1882.

Rather surprisingly in the same year, 1882, a further 4 vans were built to the same length but to an entirely new design, more modern in appearance and bearing some relationship to carriage design. These were to diagram 20 and the lower part of the body had the conventional waist and lower panels associated with carriage stock but the upper part comprised a continuous series of horizontal wooden louvres, a feature repeated in the two pairs of double doors. In 1889 another 3 examples were built, bringing the total stock of milk vans in service to 11.

In 1897 the diagram 20 design was developed into a six wheeled vehicle by extending the body to a length of 31ft 6ins, adding an extra pair of doors and using a steel underframe with bulb angle solebars in preference to wood. The milk traffic was steadily increasing and all the 12 vans built were additions to the total stock now standing at 23.


Loading full milk churns was an arduous task for the platform staff at stations, particularly as they had to be lifted in and out of the van due to the height difference between platform and van floor. In 1902 an attempt was made to make this work rather easier by the introduction of a single 6 wheeled van, to diagram 22, with a length of 31ft 6ins and a width of 8ft 8 ½ ins.

The noteworthy feature was the use of 2ft 9in diameter Mansell wheels, instead of the usual 3ft 6½ ins wheel, to lower the whole van body so its floor level was the same as the height of a standard platform, allowing churns to be rolled between van and platform instead of being lifted. The body design was much improved, adopting a profile to be repeated in subsequent miscellaneous stock types, with a straight sided steel frame with the sheeting mounted on the inside and an elliptical profile roof. The wooden sheeting in the upper part of the body had wide slots to allow free air circulation inside while the three sliding doors were similarly ventilated for their full height, providing a capacity of 90 churns. The frame was of channel steel and because of the use of small diameter wheels the buffing and draw gear was of a special design to bring them up to the standard height. A second van to exactly the same design was built in 1904 and although both were in service until 1938, and therefore could hardly be regarded as failures, no further examples were constructed.


These two vans were also additions to stock, now standing at 25, but at the end of 1907 all of the 1877 and 1882 vans had been withdrawn, reducing the total in service to 20. The shortfall was made good by the final design of van, to diagram 40. This was marginally shorter at 31ft 4 ½ ins on a 6 wheel steel underframe with a body of the same width and profile as the previous design but to an increased overall height to provide improved headroom inside. Whereas the emphasis in all previous body designs had been on extensive ventilation these vans had only narrow louvres along the top of the body while the three sliding doors had solid panels. Five vans were completed in 1910, although they carried 1909 makers plates, bringing to an end construction of this type.

The LNER inherited 26 vans, to diagrams 20, 21, 22 and 40 and although the earlier designs saw an average life of 40 years the method of conveying milk was changing in favour of bulk delivery by rail tanker leading to a reduction in the use of the traditional milk churn. Thus the need for vans dedicated to conveying milk diminished during the 1930’s and thus all of the vans to diagrams 22 and 38 were withdrawn in 1938, the latter vans having a comparatively short life of 28 years.