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GWR 19th Century Carriage Development




Whereas there are 'umpteen books about the development of the steam locomotive, relatively little has been written about early railway carriages. One of my aims in making models of some earlier carriages was to hep me visualise the changes that took place in the mid-19th century.


As railways moved from purely industrial uses to the carriage of people, the first thought was simply to mount benches inside ordinary wagons. The next step was to adapt the road carriages of the time to run on rails. Even Brunel, considered visionary in so many ways, did not appreciate the potential of his broad gauge, since his initial idea was to use large diameter wheels outside the body of the carriage itself - just like a road carriage. Thus, he missed the potential for much larger vehicles, by failing to leave sufficient clearance around his running lines.


It was not until the second half of the century that designers began to think of railway carriages in a different way and to move on from the 'stage coach' roots. During the 1870s, the Midland Railway imported some American style Pullman cars, which were on a completely different scale from what had gone before.


The GWR had started on its own course with the broad gauge but, by the middle of the century, the writing was on the wall for this system and the fortunes of the railway were in steep decline. There was no incentive to invest in new broad gauge stock, while their first standard gauge coaches came as acquisitions from other companies. These coaches were usually built by specialist contractors (often with their roots in stage-coach construction) such as Joseph Wright and Sons, Saltley Works, Birmingham. (not to be confused with the Saltney works of the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway)




When Joseph Armstrong (formerly of the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway) arrived at Swindon, he faced the need for the GWR to build its own standard gauge stock and a new carriage works was built at Swindon, starting in 1868. The Lot system for new carriages and wagons had started in August 1867 and it seems likely that there was a period of 'working up' for the new works, with some orders completed at Worcester or Saltney. The early carriage designs were of the simple slab side and flat end variety, with additional embellishments being incorporated as the local skills developed.

Lot 57, finished in May 1872 was the first of a new generation of carriages from the completed shop - followed in January 1873 by the 1st class coaches (later Diagram R2) shown in the above illustration.


I took the following photo in the Swindon Steam Museum, where an exhibit shows the method of construction used in these early carriages




The dramatic change in scale of the new generation of carriages produced after 1872 is clearly illustrated by my two models of passenger brake vans. The earlier design (on the right) is of the slab-sided variety, probably built at Worcester or Saltney in the late 1860s, whereas the later Diagram V5 dates from 1892 and is on a completely different scale.




The increase in the size of carriages during the 1870s, when designs finally moved away from their road-vehicle roots, only really came home to me when I built the models.


My last photo shows two trains passing at North Leigh Station. On the left is the down local 'Ox and Cow', heading for the 'County' end of its run, made up of old-style carriages and headed by the former OW&W locomotive GWR No.184 while, on the right, is a 'modern' train, including a V5 van and some clerestory coaches, headed by a Dean 2-4-0, No.3505





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  • RMweb Premium

Interesting contrast there, Mike. All the old GWR trains are highly picturesque, but to me the old train is more attractive than the Dean, which is always held as good looking. Am I being perverse? What do other folks think?

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Unfortunately, my model of the Dean 2-4-0 (modified from a 'Mainline' Dean Goods) has a Belpaire firebox, which gives it a rather angular look.  I prefer the flowing curves of earlier designs.  Perhaps I should swap the loco for my 'Queen' class single and re-take the photo?

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  • RMweb Gold

Very informative Mike!  Interesting to see how much changed in the fairly short space of twenty years.  I also like the idea of No 3505 pulling a modern train! :-)

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  • RMweb Premium

One of the fascinating parts of this hobby is the diversity of interests! I have always been interested in Carriage development and a good part of the recent LB&SCR carriage book by Ian White, Simon Turner and Sheina Foulkes from Kestrel Railway Books covers these developments very well. Well worth reading even if not a LB&SCR devotee!



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Thank you wenlock.  I only realised the scale of the changes myself when I built the models, so it has been an informative time for me too.  It's strange how, when you immerse yourself in the earlier years, the 1890s seem very 'modern' indeed :)

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  • RMweb Gold

Interesting Mike. I would imagine in the early days the idea that the coaches could be wider than the wheels must have seemed very strange most road vehicles had the wheels to the outside. Also the workforce to build the first carriages would have learnt their trade building stage coaches.

It is really good to see models of the earlier days before all this modern stuff of the 1890s.


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Thank you Don; your comment about stage coach building was certainly true of Joseph Wright. 


He started business in London and owned most of the stage coaches then running between London and Birmingham.  He was quick to see that the future lay in railway carriages, so he moved his works to Birmingham in 1845, since this was already becoming a railway 'hub'.  The business prospered and, in 1862, the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd  acquired the whole of the undertaking.  In due course, this became Metro-Cammell and, eventually, ALSTOM. 


Thus, there is a continuous thread from stage coaches to truly modern railway stock!

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  • RMweb Gold

Nice piece Mike!


It's like ketchup bottles. They just keep growing in size but noone really notices until you look back.


I suppose the driving force behind these developments was that comfort and space were the main competitive factors - more so than fuel economy? 

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Hi Mikkel - I think economy was a driver as well.  Fewer high-capacity coaches are easier to pull than a large number of small ones, because there are fewer wheels and the weight per passenger is less.  That was the driving force behind Churchward's 70-footers.




ps it's the same with cars - earlier models in a range are often smaller.  I have an early Audi A3, which is about the size of the current A1 model!

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  • RMweb Gold

Ah yes, that makes sense. Hadn't thought of that. 


Christmas trees though, they were bigger when I was a boy ;-)

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