For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

The New Century 1903 to 1915


Compared to the previous period wagon building activity was very subdued and totalled 8390 for the 9 years, an average of only 600 per annum, a stark contrast to the recent annual output of 2000 or more wagons.

New construction achieved an increase in total stock of 3463, that is, from 26512 to 29975. The remaining new stock enabled most pre 1880 wagons to be withdrawn. More recent, but obsolete types were also taken out of service, notably the round ended wagons built in such ample quantities up to 1885 and pre Holden wood framed machine wagons.

The period was distinguished by the introduction of further new wagon types, the modification of some existing designs and repeats of some earlier orders. The question of either side brakes and competition from adjoining railways for long distance traffic also involved expenditure on altering existing stock.

Old Favourites Revitalised

The early years of the new century saw all wagon types undergo complete redesign or alteration in constructional details.

The goods brake van, hitherto 10 ton and with wooden frames, was becoming quite inadequate by 1900 for the increasingly heavier trains. Initially this need was answered by a steel framed version, built to the rather obscure weight of 17 tons. This was short lived as in 1904 a completely new 20 ton design was introduced having 6 wheels. Fifty were built over the next few years, so it was obviously successful but redesign resulted in the appearance, in 1908, of a 4 wheel version, the body and weight remaining unchanged. In this form orders appeared up to 1924.

The 16ft covered van with its outside wooden framed body, built since 1888, was replaced by a completely new design measuring 19ft 3ins over headstocks. It had a steel framed body and was built from 1903 onwards. Six were completed as meat vans, for which use they had Westinghouse brake through pipes fitted.

Somewhat surprisingly the design was reduced in length in 1911 to 19ft, the design being otherwise unchanged. The reason for this was that in 1909 the GC, GN and GE attempted, unsuccessfully, to merge, a measure that Parliament refused to sanction.   The negotiations did have some effect, however, in that certain standards for wagon construction and use of materials were agreed between the companies despite the failure to formally merge. A visible result of this agreement was the reduction in length of the covered van to 19ft to accord with the length then current on the other two railways.

In 1903 construction of the high sided open ceased, it was the work horse of the GER and no less than 12050 with steel frames had been constructed during the previous 10 years whilst a very similar wood framed version, introduced in 1885, totalled 3640.   As already noted an all steel replacement was not pursued, instead the design was minimally altered by adding two extra planks, with vertically hung top doors and a 5 plank drop door.

This 7 plank wagon had only a short life in production; 1903 to 1908, during which time 1300 were built. In 1908 its successor was again another 7 plank high sided but to the increased length of 17ft over headstocks. As with its predecessors it was rated to carry 10 tons, experience had shown that merchandise might fill a wagon but rarely did it weigh anything approaching 10 tons.

Ballast Wagons

The steel framed ballast wagon, dumb buffered and brakeless, introduced in 1887, continued to be built up to 1905, to a total of 225. It had a 3 plank dropside body, 12ft long with one end hinged.

In 1906 a rather revolutionary replacement appeared, with 13ft 4ins long body and a low floor to assist loading spent ballast from the trackside. This was achieved by fitting 2ft 2ins diameter spoked wheels, perhaps a record for the smallest diameter wheels for the period, which reduced the floor to rail level measurement from 3ft 9ins to 2ft 6ins. They ran in fixed sets of 20, the wagon at either end acting as a guard truck since the intermediate wagons had central couplings secured by a single link. Portable bolsters were provided so sets of three trucks could carry 45ft long rails.

Either Side Brakes

During the 1890's the Board of Trade had urged the railways, for staff safety reasons, to fit either side brakes to its wagon stock. This gave rise to great ingenuity on the part of many companies and numerous patents were deposited both by professional railwaymen and the keen amateur.

The GER's response was to fit a wagon in 1896 with Haydon Parker's Patent Double Acting brake. Subsequently 650 new wagons were fitted and in July 1899 permission was given to Holden fit all new wagons with it as well as to those passing through the shops. Trials of brakes invented by Parker and McDermid were also given trials at Temple Mills early in 1904 and in the following year 150 wagons were fitted for an extended trial.

In the BOT in 1907 issued a draft rule, the effect being that the GER was requested to remove all the either side brakes it had so far fitted on the grounds that brakes should only be capable of being released from the side they were applied.

The railway companies challenged this rule through the Railway Commissioners who rejected the BOT's draft rule. In response an amended rule was issued, the outcome of which, for the GER, was that it was given 20 years in which to replace the either side brakes already fitted to 1550 wagons.

Although the GER felt that its brake contributed to safe working it noted that all the gear so far fitted would be life expired within the time allowed anyway so there was no financial penalty. It was also the case that the type of brake now favoured by the BOT was cheaper than that fitted by the GER so the decision was not challenged.

Cattle Trucks

Although the overall stock of cattle wagons steadily declined in numbers from the all time high of 1884 wagons construction continued to maintain the stock in good order. From 1900 all new trucks had steel frames but in 1910 wood frames were reintroduced and in all 425 built until the final orders completed in 1916.

All other wagon types continued to be built with steel frames and one may conclude that cattle urine was having particularly adverse effects on the steelwork beneath the floor boards.

Fitted stock

Up 1905 very few wagons were fitted with the continuous brake. Exceptions were some covered vans and cattle trucks fitted in 1892 with the Westinghouse brake pipe for inclusion in passenger trains, whilst the two Pooley weighing machine vans and travelling gas tank wagons had complete apparatus fitted.

If merchandise was required more quickly than the ordinary goods train could achieve then it was consigned by passenger train and conveyed in the brake van or in one or other of the large variety of special passenger train vans.

In 1905 the Traffic Committee was told by the General Manager that the other principal companies were running fast long distance goods trains by using either using wholly or partially fitted vehicles with the continuous brake. Merchandise was being carried at near passenger train speeds but at the lower goods train rates.   The M&GN, for example, were getting fish to Manchester via the Great Northern much quicker than the GER whilst the GNR itself were offering an overnight service to Scotland.

The GER, not surprisingly, was unable to persuade the other companies from discontinuing these services so it was reluctantly decided to start its own. The rolling stock requirement to run competing services was calculated as 10 engines, 500 box wagons, and 8 goods brakes, all to be fitted with the Vacuum brake.   Hence the appearance of Claud Hamilton engines in May 1906 on overnight services to Doncaster and the introduction of oil axleboxes on newer GER wagons.

To remain competitive it was found necessary in 1907 to construct 100 open fish trucks, fitted with the Vacuum brake and Westinghouse pipe, to carry loose fish to the north of England from Yarmouth and Lowestoft, another traffic being lost to other companies. At the same time 25 cattle wagons were fitted for traffic to the north.

Other Specials

A further limited number of special wagons were built during the period. Six more refrigerator vans and 25 continental open trucks appeared in 1913. In 1914 another plate glass wagon was built and the final order for 22 14 ton machine trucks. The Civil Engineers Department obtained 30 single bolster wagons to form a 'rail train'; he may have been lucky because he got these and a couple of ballast brake vans just before the outbreak of the Great War.


Wagon construction continued at a comparatively low level mainly because the requirement to add substantially to the total stock was no longer there. However, an annual building rate of 600 wagons was not really sufficient to keep abreast of withdrawals from a stock of nearly 30,000 wagons. Assuming an average life of 30 years a replacement rate of 1000 per annum was needed and thus the period saw a gradual ageing of the stock. Even so all but about 1500 wagons were less than 25 years old so the situation at the outbreak of the Great War was not yet critical.

Post 1900 types:

46 coal wagon

49 20t goods brake

54 fish wagon

55 17ft high sided goods wagon

72 covered goods wagon