For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

An Introduction to the Great Eastern Railway Wagon

This article first appeared in the October 1995 (No 84) and April 1996 (No 86) issues of the Great Eastern Journal.  Apart from the use of line diagrams to replace the photographs in the original article, the text is largely unchanged.

1. Objective

This article aims to set out for the first time an outline history of the GER wagon, set in the context of the area served and the processes involved in building or purchasing new stock.

The relative importance of the various wagon types to the business of conveying goods traffic will be described and some comparisons made with other railways to see how the GER ranked in importance.

Although there have been many articles on individual wagon types in the Great Eastern Journal most have been relatively detailed, prepared mainly with the modeller in mind. In this way quite a wide variety of stock has been described but with little appreciation as to how particular types or designs fitted into the overall requirement for wagon stock.

The article will hopefully achieve three things. Firstly, to give a wider view of wagon stock as a whole, without getting involved in fine detail; secondly, to help the modeller achieve a more realistic balance of rolling stock by explaining why certain wagons were provided. Lastly, by setting a context within which future detailed articles on individual wagon types can be placed.

Content of Article

This review is divided into two distinct but interrelated parts. The first considers what a wagon is and how important goods traffic was to the GER's finances. Then the process of authorising the acquisition of new stock is described and those responsible for its design and subsequent maintenance. As a separate strand the progress from absolute reliance on contractors for the supply of wagons to virtually complete self sufficiency at the new works at Temple Mills will be traced.

For the second part the GER era is divided into five periods as a convenient means of describing distinct phases of wagon development and building. The GER was created in 1862 by the amalgamation of several companies, the largest of which was the Eastern Counties Railway and although essentially an administrative change that date has been chosen for the purpose of this article as a tangible starting point.

It is as well to emphasise that this article does not attempt to be a detailed history of the GER wagon. Neither does it attempt to cover all the varieties built or describe the many design details; that requires a sizable book. In the meantime this will serve as a review of the 60 years of the GER, identifying the major developments and contemporary conditions which affected wagon supply.

Finally, there will be no reference to liveries, individual wagon diagrams, running numbers or quantities for every type of wagon built.

Main Sources

This account relies principally on a variety of official Great Eastern Railway records. They divide themselves into two groups, one mainly statistical and the other descriptive for which references are given at the end.

The published Half Yearly reports of the GER from 1862 to 1922, and the Half Yearly Reports of the Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Department, as they survive for the period 1885 to 1910 both provide invaluable statistical and financial detail. This has been supplemented by Board Minutes and the proceedings of the Locomotive, Traffic, Way & Works and Stores Committees which provide, in many instances, the reasons for ordering stock and the constraints under which the railway operated.

Additionally, the Temple Mills copy of the 1901 Wagon Diagram Book, the first and only one prepared, illustrates most types built from the early 1880's onwards.

2. What is a Wagon?

Before going further it is worth considering what the GER regarded as being a wagon. In simple terms it was designed to carry merchandise, livestock and minerals for conveyance in goods trains. Wagons were not normally conveyed in passenger trains except where specific rules allowed mixed train working. This was generally restricted to lightly trafficked branches where trains maintained a sedate progress more akin to goods train speeds. In such trains the wagons were always kept separate from the passenger carriages.

Wagons were not designed to travel at normal passenger train speeds neither were they usually fitted with continuous brakes. However, as we shall see, this general rule was broken later on and a few wagons did get continuous brakes to enable them to run to near passenger train timings.

3. What are Goods?

The goods traffic was broken down by the GER into three separate elements for accounting purposes and these divisions were reflected to some extent in the types of wagon built. They were:

Merchandise - comprising all manufactured goods, foodstuffs, machinery, timber and other raw materials apart from minerals.

Livestock - principally cattle and sheep but also horses, pigs, goats, poultry, etc. The majority of horses, because of their relatively high value, travelled in horse boxes by passenger train for which the higher passenger train rates were payable.

Minerals - mainly coal in practice but also coke, stone, sand, gravel, ashes, etc. This category did not include locomotive coal, the purchase and carriage of which was part of the running expenses of the Locomotive Department.

table 1

Table 1 illustrates passenger and goods receipts for the period 1864 to 1912. Because of inflation following the Great War comparable figures for 1922 are not shown here or in Table 2 since they produce a distorted view. This table shows that passenger receipts overtook those for goods from the early 1880's. This was an unusual situation in that for most major railways goods receipts far outstripped those for passenger. It emphasises the extent and importance of the suburban traffic to the GER.

There was a steady and even increase in goods receipts throughout the period. It is noteworthy that although the GER placed great importance in securing a route to the North, achieved in 1882 with the opening of the GN & GE Joint Line, the traffic generated did not result in a dramatic increase in receipts.

table 2

Table 2 shows a breakdown of the goods receipts into the three categories of traffic defined above. Merchandise always predominated and grew in relative importance during the 1890's. Mineral traffic was always hard won but showed a remarkably even climb, sustained by the opening of the Joint Line.

table 3

Table 3 shows wagon ownership for twelve pre-Grouping companies in 1922, ranked in order of wagon totals. The heavyweights were the North Eastern Railway with 123,723 wagons; the Midland had 107,617 followed rather later by the Great Western with a total of 80,693. The GER had 30,104 wagons and ranked tenth being broadly comparable with the Great Northern, Great Central and Lancashire & Yorkshire. This, of course, is only one comparison as to the relative importance of the GER and does not have regard to other aspects of each railway. In regard to carriage stock, for example, the GER ranked fourth whilst the North Eastern, pre-eminent in freight haulage, came sixth.

Livestock traffic, popularly perceived as being a strong GER feature and one which was encouraged in reality made quite a minor contribution to its fortunes. At its best in the mid - 1870's it never exceeded 9% of total goods receipts and thereafter it gradually declined to only 3% at Grouping.

table 4

Table 4 provides a comparison of wagon types for 1862 and 1910 and also illustrates the overall increase in wagon stock during that period.

General goods wagons, which includes all types of open wagons, covered vans and machine trucks, was always the most numerous group. The table shows that the overall increase in wagon totals was due mainly to the fourfold increase in this category.

By comparison the other types were multiplied by a smaller amount; ballast and loco coal wagons roughly trebled, timber doubled and only the brake vans showed a larger increase. By contrast cattle wagon totals actually declined.

table 5

Table 5 shows wagons built each year between 1885 and 1924, the majority at Stratford and, from 1896, at Temple Mills.

The great increase in building rates from about 700 in 1890 to a climax of 2782 in 1900 was followed by a sudden decline in 1902 to 800. Thereafter construction rates continued to drop reaching zero in 1917. The relatively high total of 650 in 1920 only reflects the rate of 30 years earlier.

table 6

Table 6 records the wagon stock between 1862 and 1922. This represents total wagon stock in each year and marks the initial decline in numbers due to missing and broken up wagons being removed from the stock totals. Thereafter the stock increases, the sharp rise during the 1890's being a reflection of the high building rates seen in Table 5. From the early 1900's numbers are relatively static, only a small increase occurring up to Grouping, disguising the fact that the stock as a whole was ageing.

4. The Nature of the GER System

The composition of the wagon stock was a direct reflection of the railway system and the following description of the area served by the GER identifies the main sources of its goods traffic.

The system was compact and well defined and, outside London, served a predominantly rural area. The main source of goods traffic in the country districts was agricultural produce, grain, seed, livestock and timber. The GER gained a reputation for helping local producers by favourable agricultural rates and thereby helped to bolster the local economy which was never robust in the rural areas.

Much of the industry in the larger towns was firmly rooted in the surrounding agriculture areas. This provided the GER with traffic in agricultural implements, machinery and road locomotives and the import of raw materials for its production. Ports such as Lowestoft and Yarmouth generated fish traffic; some went to London but most travelled to the Midlands and the North.

There were no concentrations of heavy industry, significant mineral reserves or any coal measures on the system. All of the coal to service the manufacturing industries and for domestic use had to be imported into the area. The opening of the GN & GE Joint line gave direct access to the Yorkshire coalfield to modest financial benefit of the GER. But it was always in competition with waterborne transport: most heavy users of coal, particularly gas and electricity works, usually contrived to site themselves at the waterside. Here rail access was not the primary means of delivering coal but the outlet for by products.

The London area represented the largest market for domestic and industrial coal but that too was a restricted one for the GER. Too many other railways penetrated the north east London area and again easy access to waterborne coal existed. Manufactured goods were exported to the country areas in exchange for grain and agricultural produce, not forgetting hay and straw to feed the vast horse population.

The Continental services at Harwich, and later Parkeston, were carefully nurtured and steadily developed, providing a valuable traffic in imported goods and food and an outlet for manufactured goods from many parts of the country but especially London.

As a consequence the GER had no use for bogie or high capacity wagons to carry the exceptionally heavy or bulky loads that were commonly found on the northern lines. The GER pursued at an early date the policy of encouraging private traders to provide their own wagons for the coal trade. This meant that most coal traffic carried in the GER's own wagons was locomotive coal for which a special fleet was maintained.

These characteristics shaped the number of wagons required and the types provided were carefully tailored to the traffic that was on offer. The result was a quite a limited range of wagons types with heavy dependence on the humble high sided open wagon. This could carry virtually everything on offer - manufactured goods, agricultural produce, building and raw materials and coal. Covered vans were relatively rare, they were only available for the more fragile or valuable merchandise, for the rest an open wagon with a securely roped tarpaulin sufficed.