Jump to content
  • entries
  • comments
  • views

Broad Gauge Mail Coach - part 3 (research)





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!


sketch of planned model




Link to Part 4


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.



  • Like 5


Recommended Comments

  • RMweb Gold

I remain in awe of your knowledge and interest in the detail a good read ................


Link to comment



Excellent article as always. It's a real challenge modelling very early railways but also very rewarding.


You refer to the colours of the coaches. Were you aware that at the transport museum at Bristol (just along from the Great Britain, definitely also worth a visit) they have the side of a broad gauge coach in the same condition as when scrapped, presumably in the 1870's. The coach was used as a shed (probably living accomodation in those days!) and the side was panelled over for a hundred years or so. It's a remarkable example of long term preservation. I have a photo of it and having looked at it again the level of detail is breathtaking. As you say, the "cream" is more white. Lettering, coach numbers are all there. If you haven't seen it I would say it's well worth a visit.



Link to comment

I've had my nose buried in books for a few weeks, Halsey.  I find it hard to relate different facts, so drew the timeline to help.

Link to comment

More thanks, John, since I have now visited the Bristol Museum's website. 


Apart from the coach side that you mentioned, they have a fine collection of O-gauge models, including many early coaches of types which I have modelled (in 4mm) myself.  The website has a search facility and this link leads to the models of railway carriages.

Link to comment

A very informative entry. Many thanks!


Your modelling and blog is a sore temptation to try BG myself.


Link to comment

Go on, Duncan, you know you want to! 


Only having worked in plain 00 (no EM or P4), I found it quite a challenge.  If I make it as far as mixed-gauge, that will have to be P4, because 00 looks ridiculously narrow inside BG.

Link to comment
  • RMweb Premium

Yes, I think you're right that the transition from the 'primitive' to the 'classic' railway took place over the last quarter of the 19th century (in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, at least). On the Midland, the appointment of T.G. Clayton - a Great Western man - as Carriage and Wagon Superintendent in 1873 was the really significant event from the point of view of carriage design. But if there is a defining moment at which the 'classic' railway crystallised (to use a term) it must be the Regulation of Railways Act of 1889, which empowered the Board of Trade to require the railway companies to implement 'lock, block, and brake' on all passenger trains and lines. The BoT had been pressing for this for decades but the trigger was the Armagh disaster of 12 June 1889. In this day and age, it's sobering to read that the Act received the Royal Assent on 30 August, less than two months later.

Link to comment

Thank you, Compound. It's a salutary reminder that private companies have to be regulated by Government .... even on matters of basic safety. 


I sincerely hope that the new US President will understand that States are not companies.

Link to comment
  • RMweb Gold

Thanks for all the very useful information in that post Mike! You mentioned oil lamps in the 1930s. Do you know if they were still actually used at that time?


Apart from the BG info I do like the photo of your 4- and 6-wheelers. The 1850 coach is going to attract quite some attention when it's done. The photo sides somehow help to give the coaches a slightly antiquated look.

Link to comment

Mike, agree with the first comment - the research and knowledge is incredible. Are those coaches actual models?! I've nearly finished Simon Bradley's 'The Railways; Nation, Network and People and found his historical account on the development of coaches fascinating. He describes the passenger experience through the ages. Not anywhere as detailed as your research though. Brilliant stuff.

Link to comment

I can't add anything about 'use' of oil lamps, Mikkel as I'm, just repeating something I read 'somewhere' - possibly not too reliable.  I do remember the signal box and station at Rufford being lit by oil lamps, when I used to pass it as a kid in the 1950s.


re that 1850s coach - it actually needs a compete re-build, since Winander has pointed out that it should have rounded ends.  Looking at my illustration of the original again, it's quite obvious and quite a large radius, too. 


There's a good example of an 0-gauge model in the Bristol Museum collection (item J2030) where it is described as "3rd class railway carriage No.385, 1857", although my own photo shows it marked as second class.

Link to comment

You are very kind, Paternoster Row.  I've written quite a lot about my methods for building coaches in my other blog


Reading and sorting information does get in the way of modelling, a bit :)  I shall look at the book you have mentioned.


It's going to take me a while, to work out how to build the chassis for my Mail Coach.  The kit instructions are of very little use, since they refer to vacuum-braked examples at a later date.

Link to comment
  • RMweb Gold

There's a good example of an 0-gauge model in the Bristol Museum collection (item J2030) where it is described as "3rd class railway carriage No.385, 1857", although my own photo shows it marked as second class.


Some very nice models in that collection!


Rounded ends, well I never noticed that either. But that will certainly make it even more interesting. 

Link to comment
  • RMweb Gold

I remember looking at all the models the museum then was part of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in Queens road up near the Uni. The one in the Industrial Museum had the boats and the Gauge 1 layout.

Bullo Pill is quite fascinating the Harbour is/was? tiny



Link to comment

Hi Don.  Bullo Pill was originally the port from which coal was exported from the Forest of Dean.  A tramway ran down through the Haie Tunnel which, in 1810, was the longest railway tunnel in the world.  There was even a plan to continue the line through a tunnel under the Severn.  It was converted to a Broad-Gauge railway in 1854 and became a branch off the South Wales line.  Some restoration work was done on the harbour in 1991 but, when I last visited, there were just a few houseboats there.

Link to comment
  • RMweb Gold


Very interesting, and very valuable and necessary research.  It is interesting that the driver was in charge of the train as almost up until now the guard was in charge.  Luggage still on the roof, I hope it was tied down well.

Link to comment

Hi Chris,  I'm not sure about formal responsibilities but there is no doubt that the engine driver was the only person who could control the train in the early days.  If brakes were needed, the driver would use the 'break whistle' (low tone) to tell any breaksmen on the train to apply them.


It appears that luggage was carried on the roof until around the end of the 1860s, usually under a tarpaulin that was tied to a frame on the roof.  In the very early days of lines such as the Liverpool and Manchester, there were also seats on the roof, for 'those passengers who preferred them', just as had been the case in stage coaches.

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...