Much of what we now accept as standard railway practice was actually developed towards the end of the 19th century, so that it is easy to forget that there was a long period of evolution, before the 'norms' with which we are so familiar became established. Whereas we have plenty of photographs to guide our perceptions of the later years of the century, our 'picture' of the earlier years remains much hazier, so it is easy to lose sight of the many major changes that occurred.
For example, my modelling of some early coaches demonstrated to me how it was not until the 1870s that the design of railway coaches began to shake free of their stage coach roots. There was a dramatic change in both the scale and the construction methods of railway vehicles in the latter half of the century. Two of my (unfinished) standard-gauge models illustrate the point. On the left is an early 2nd-class coach, probably built during the 1850s, while on the right is the type of coach that was built in the new carriage shop at Swindon, to diagram S5 in 1875
Now that I have started looking at the Broad Gauge era of the GWR, linked to a specific event in November 1868 - the accident near Bullo Pill - I have started to look more closely at developments around that period. Research is an endless task and it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the facts that start to emerge, as one digs more deeply, but one has to start somewhere so, here is a look at the state of GWR rolling stock in 1868.
The photographs of the accident at Bullo Pill clearly show the telegraph wires running alongside the railway. It seems almost inconceivable from our standpoint that these wires were not used to control the movements of trains. Responsibility for the running of the trains rested almost entirely on the driver, just as it had rested with coachmen in earlier times. In 1868, an express train could be running at 50 mph or more, with virtually no knowledge as to whether the line ahead was clear. According to the accident report: "The rules of the company require the signalmen to warn the driver of a passenger train when there is, after dark, a goods, cattle, or mineral train, less than 20 minutes in front of such passenger train." Since the interval at Lydney was 22 minutes, no warning had been given.
In addition, the express train had no means of stopping quickly, if something untoward occurred, because there were no continuous brakes in 1868 and only a few carriages (including the Mail Coach) had hand-wheel brakes, operated by a Guard, who could respond to a whistle signal from the engine. Sanders' Automatic Vacuum Brake was trialled on a standard gauge GWR train in 1876 and only adopted more generally in 1878, long after my chosen period
Early carriage brakes were often of the 'clasp' type, with large wooden shoes acting on the rims of the wheels. A typical arrangement, taken from a drawing of an early brake van, is shown below. The layout of the various levers varied but the principle remained the same.
What does all this mean for the design of my model of a Broad Gauge Mail Coach, which was one of the three coaches on that ill-fated mail train? It turns out that my model will be rather different from my initial pre-conceived ideas, which were formed largely on impressions given by later re-builds of such vehicles. Much of the information in the following paragraphs is taken from MacDermot's 'History of the GWR', Vol.2.
We all 'know', of course, that GWR coaches were painted 'chocolate and cream'. Except that they weren't! GWR coaches were painted brown all over until some time after October 1864, when the Directors decreed that the tops of the carriages should be painted white. The cream appearance only developed as several coats of varnish were applied. Furthermore, the Broad Gauge had already been in decline for many years by then, with no new carriage stock having appeared since 1863, and the existing stock steadily became increasingly shabby and dilapidated.
Although the Broad Gauge 'hung on' in the West Country until 1892, a major conversion had already occurred, much earlier. In May 1872 all the South Wales lines (plus other lines West of Gloucester) were converted to standard gauge. With this major upheaval already pending in November 1868, it seems very unlikely that much attention would have been given to updating any of the Broad Gauge stock running in that area, at that time.
So, the colour and the brakes of my model should be more appropriate to a date in the 1850s, when these coaches were built, than to 1868. What other details might differ from my expectations?
Early coaches were built with iron spoked wheels. These wheels were still fitted to almost all Broad Gauge coaches and vans as late as 1874, although Mansell wooden-centred wheels had been tried as early as 1866 and adopted for all new stock in 1868. My coach, therefore, requires spoked wheels.
The long wooden footboards, widely associated with GWR coaches, were only introduced in 1876, so my coach should have a small iron step at each doorway, just like those fitted on stage coaches in earlier times.
Less surprisingly, the axle boxes should be of the grease pattern, as oil boxes were a much later innovation, dating from 1886. Gas lighting had arrived a little earlier, in 1882, but, as with most such changes, it was many years before they were fitted in all stock. (I believe some oil lamps were still around in the 1930s)
Even the 'communication cord', initially slung along the eaves of the coaches, was only introduced on the Broad Gauge in 1869, after initially running only from the leading Guard's van to the tender. Throughout the 1860s, luggage rails were fitted to the roofs of many Broad Gauge coaches but it is not clear whether this applied to the Mail Coaches. One photograph (P.W.Pilcher, 1885) suggests that luggage may have been carried on the lower section of the roof.
With all this additional information, I am relieved that I have not yet started building the underframe of my Mail Coach. I could easily have added many later details, without realising, and bought completely the wrong type of wheels. Some aspects will now be simpler, since I have already encountered the difficulties of modelling later brake gear, with all its rods and safety straps to prevent bits falling onto the track!
As an annexe to this post, I have placed the various dates mentioned above on a 'timeline', to help visualise when the various innovations were made.