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Red Wagons - Experimental Archaeology




Some time has elapsed since I first decided to paint the wagons red on my GWR 'North Leigh' railway but I still look out for any further information that may shed further light on when and where this colour was used.




My 1st edition copy of 'Great Western Way'(GWW) stated: "it would seem to be about the end of the 1870s that wagons and vans first sported a standard pattern of painted lettering. It was about this time, too, that the change from red to grey as a body colour was apparently decided upon." Since that was written, however, opinions have been revised and many now think that red was still in use up to 1904. (the way things are going, I'm sure someone will eventually conclude that red continued until nationalisation, when it was renamed 'bauxite' :) )


My old GWW also states that the earliest lettering took the form of the letters "G.W.R",...on the left hand end of the vehicle usually three planks up from the bottom of the body side" The text continues by stating that the lettering soon moved to the bottom plank, with the legend "To carry ... tons" above the initials. At the opposite end (RHS), the wagon number appeared, with the tare weight above. Then, in the early to mid 1880s, the pattern was reversed, with G.W.R at the right-hand end on the second plank up and the number and tare at the LHS. Legends for load and tare were now below the letters and numbers. Numbers also began to appear on the ends of wagons. GWW also reports that, in 1894, the use of cast plates for ownership and number information started to be applied and continued until at least 1905.


With that received wisdom in mind and some knowledge of later opinions, I happened upon an interesting photo in Ian Pope and Paul Karau's book 'The Forest of Dean Branch - volume one' This photograph shows Cinderford ironworks and is believed to have been taken in the 1890s and certainly after 1880, because it shows a structure completed in that year.


There is another photo, also taken in the Forest of Dean, in 1883, of a wagon at Coleford in what is described in GWW as "the earliest style of painting with lettering on the solebar".


A selection of wagons appear in the foreground of the Cinderford photo, in a considerable mixture of liveries. For research purposes, I have copied two small sections of the photograph, to illustrate this point.




In the upper row, five wagons can be seen, of which two appear to be of a darker shade than the others. Taking the two 'dark' wagons first: the one on the left has G.W.R low on the LHS with (presumably) load above, while the number and tare are to the RHS. The other dark wagon has the G.W.R above the load, to the left, and a number (level with the G.W.R) to the RHS, with some addition small lettering above and to the right of the number. The lettering on the 'lighter' wagons is less distinct but G.W.R always seems to be on the left side.


In the lower row, the first wagon on the left is unclear but, next, is a dark-looking wagon, with G.W.R on the left and other lettering in the centre and RHS. Next is a lighter-looking wagon, with G.W.R at bottom left and (presumably) load above but what might be the tare seems to be below the number on RHS. The next wagon is not clear and the final wagon has G.W.R high on the left, with load below and number on RHS, though not on the visible end of this wagon.


I have noted that there is a clear distinction between 'light' and 'dark' wagons and that the shades of these two types seem consistent, between the various members of each type.


At this point, I decided to try some experimental archaeology.


I set up a line of model wagons from my collection, some painted grey and some in my interpretation of GWR red. After photographing the group, I processed the photo using a Photoshop plug-in that allows a Black and White conversion, with an adjustable colour response. I chose a 'colour blind' response, typical of 19th century film technology, when film emulsions responded to blue, violet, and ultra-violet wavelengths but only very slightly to green and not at all to yellow and red.




My experiment shows that the model wagons divide into 'lighter' and 'darker' shades, as in the Cinderford photo, with the red wagons being darker.


If I extrapolate from my experiment to the Cinderford photo, it suggests that, at the time of the photograph (known to be after 1880 and probably around 1890), there were three red wagons in the yard, together with seven grey wagons. Both types, however, showed a mix of liveries, with G.W.R either above or below the weight information in both cases. If my guess about colours is correct, then it appears that both styles of painting were in use concurrently, both before and after the time of the change of lettering style!


Could one have been predominant on the South Wales line from Gloucester, while the other was Swindon practice? I'm sure there are many knowledgeable people on the forums, who may have ideas on this matter.


The books on the Forest of Dean railways are well worth tracking down for the superb illustrations of many industrial scenes from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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I've read in one or more of the discussions on colour, that red weathered to pretty much grey, grey to pretty much black, and red and grey appear the same in photos of the time. So I'm not sure that photos are much help!


I've decided I'm going to use red up to 1904. Part of my logic for this is that the 1900s saw other changes in colour to a more drab livery; loco frames from Indian red to black in 1906, and coaches from ornate brown and cream to plain brown in 1908, then to lake in 1912. So it makes sense to me that wagon colour could have been part of that change. Anyway, that's my excuse for having plenty of red wagons in 1905, and I'm sticking to it, unless anyone comes up with clear evidence to the contrary!

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Hi John,  I have no argument with your logic and, like you, will use red for my late 19th century scenes.  I was, intrigued, however, by the sharp discrimination between the two shades of wagons in the Cinderford photo.

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I like your approach, and how the way your programming can show how the old photographic emulsions reacted to red, which is a given. Most convincing case for red wagons I've seen.

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Thank you, Northroader.  I was struck by the division of the wagons into two distinct shades, which does not appear to be due to weathering, because the differences span different painting styles.

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Fascinating. I find myself agreeing with John. The lettering on the "dark" wagons looks much sharper than on the "light" wagons. This might just be a question of contrast, but I'd interpret the "dark" wagons as being quite recently painted, whereas the "light" wagons have a shabbier appearance; these photos argue for inconsistency or variation between works in the placing of the lettering more strongly than they do for variation in base colour. There is a similar situation in knowing the colour of Midland Railway service stock (the well-known 3-plank dropside wagons labelled E D, also crane match wagons and ballast brakes). Official ex-works photos and others that can be interpreted as showing newly painted wagons look dark and glossy, wagons in service look lighter and less glossy. I think that's also the case in the Cinderford photos: the "dark" wagons look "shinier". So, I suggest that the surface finish is also a factor in the apparent colour. I believe it is the case that until the advent of "modern" paints, true matt paint didn't really exist and most fresh paint would look glossy. Wear and tear would remove the shine. (Sorry this is based on memory of stuff I've read at one time or another; more research than can be done at this time in the evening is needed to support my statements.)


What I have learnt from recent reading about old paint is that the main constituent of the most readily-available red paint was red lead (lead oxide) - known to the Romans as minium. When applied to an iron or steel surface, this reacted to form insoluble iron plumbate; hence it was an ideal anti-corrosion paint (and explains why the Forth Bridge has always been red) - this has a bearing on the idea that the red livery originated in the days of iron wagons; eventually with more wood being used, for some reason grey became a better choice (cheaper?). Red lead is a much less orange in hue than the "iron oxide" colour which I've tried (Humbrol 70) - closer to the colour you've used, Mike, and answering the description of a "warm red". Need to think about the chemistry of lead oxide reacting with atmospheric pollutants especially sulfur compounds.

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Edit: My post crossed with Compound's - hence the repeated point.



Hi Mike, I saved your post for my evening read (too bad for John le Carré!) and was not disappointed! That is a very interesting photo indeed.


It seems a little odd if the wagons were painted in different liveries at the same time, although your theory of different works is interesting. Alternatively, as John says, it could be that the dark wagons are recently painted (red or dark grey) and the others are simply faded (to grey). It would be interesting to see the same experiment done with dark grey and light grey wagons.


As Northroader says the fact that you are using photoshop to copy the photos of the time is quite clever. Some time ago we were discussing whether bodies and below-solebar areas where the same colour or not. I made this experiment to suggest that perhaps it was not possible to tell the difference in photos. But that was done with a modern digital camera's unedited photos.



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I'm pleased to see that others find the Cinderford photo as intriguing as I do!  I shall take some time to digest your comments and respond in due course, with my own further thoughts.


In the meantime, I processed Mikkel's wagon through my B/W converter with the following result:



Edited by MikeOxon
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For anyone interested, the plug-in I use with Photoshop for converting colour images to B/W is available from the Photo-plugins website.


The sensitivity of early photographic plates to different colours was limited, as shown in the following diagram based on information from the 'Manual of Photography'



Edited by MikeOxon
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On 07/09/2016 at 00:30, Mikkel said:

PS: Mike, you could try running one of these photos of Ian's wagons through your software. Different shades of red and grey than yours - but trying a straight black and white conversion in Painthsop Pro produces the red as light and the grey as dark.



Ian Smith has kindly agreed to me using his photos, so I show the results of my converting them to B/W below:








Ian told me that his red colour was initially glossy so he subsequently applied a matt varnish.  The effect of the gloss can be seen to lighten the first two images of the red wagon, above. 



Edited by MikeOxon
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Hi Mike, this is fascinating. Your work on my one-planker photo brings out a difference between red and grey which isn't evident in my black and white photo. And the result with Ian's photo is directly opposite of what I got using a "Time machine" feature in Corel's Paintshop Pro (which I suspect is a lot less nuanced than your software), where the grey came out darker than the red.


It doesn't prove anything I suppose, but it does leave open the possibility that the dark wagons in the photo could be red, and the lighter ones grey. Whether the grey ones were originally red before they faded, is then yet another interesting question.

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Very interesting stuff Mike. I am not wholly convinced using software to change a colour image to black and white (well greyscale actually) would accurately match the response of B&W film to colours. You could try using film to take a photo but even then modern emulsions may differ from 19th century ones. However if we assume it would be a matter of degree it is likely that the experiment has shown a real effect.


Red Lead is quite different from Red Oxide. It is much more protective as the lead being toxic seems to inhibit molds and insects from attacking timber. It is not particularly good for the painter either!


The Severn and Wye and Forest  of Dean books are a great reference source. I lived there for about 15 years and became friends with Ian Pope. I walked many of the old railway and tramway tracks and would discuss them with Ian



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I've been thinking about all the comments made on my OP.  Thank you for them all.  There seem to be three strands, which I shall take in turn and then add my own speculations:


1. validity of my experimental method

As a retired physicist, I'm reasonably confident that my digital processing will give a 'true' representation of the effects of using a photographic emulsion with limited colour response.  I believe, however, that orthochromatic film is still available from specialist suppliers so, if someone with the resources would like to try it on some appropriate models, I'd be very interested to see the results.  Photographic printing papers (B/W) are usually only sensitive to blue, so appropriate images  could also be created on these but that would need some special apparatus to take the photo.


2. shades of red

I like the suggestion by Compound2632 that the use of red paint may have arisen as a protective coating for iron wagons.  We know that the early GWR used iron for both wagons and coaches, so this seems highly plausible.  The paint used would have been red lead which, from information I found on the web seems to have a more orange hue than many iron oxides (which are very variable). According to the same link, the long-term behaviour of red lead paint is problematic and depends very much on atmospheric conditions and exposure to light.  All that seems to be agreed is that is it not a stable colour!  
On another website , I discovered that there is concern about the fading of some Van Gogh paintings where he used red lead pigments. [ http://phys.org/news/2015-03-explore-red-van-gogh-art.html ] It is stated there that "Sometimes the color darkens or blackens as the red lead pigment is converted to plattnerite (β-lead dioxide) or galena (lead sulfide). At other times, the color will lighten or bleach due to the conversion of red lead to lead sulfate or lead carbonate."  So, it seems that almost any colour from pink to brown is possible!


3. photo interpretation

There seems no doubt that the wagons shown in the Cinderford photo are of two distinct shades.  Assuming the wagons at this rather remote ironworks are a random selection of stock then, if weathering were the cause of the differences, I would expect a range of shades, rather than two distinct 'camps'.  
The idea that they are from two batches in different shades of grey is perfectly possible, although it seems odd that the lettering styles do not correspond with the 'batches' - i.e. the same lettering styles occur in both groups.  Perhaps, though they come from two different wagon works, which used different shades of paint but did follow the same lettering guidelins, which changed with time.


The tantalising questions are: were they all painted grey, in two different shades?, were they all red, in two different shades?, or were the darker ones actually red?.  There's no definitive answer.


4. Speculation

Picking up on the idea of red lead being used as a protective coating on iron wagons, this style of painting may have evolved into a Broad Gauge tradition for all wagons.  When the Northern Division was formed from standard gauge acquisitions, it seems likely that grey wagons would have been inherited and this colour may then have persisted on the narrow gauge.

Although the final date of conversion in 1892 is well-known there was, in fact, a much larger conversion of the South Wales lines and lines west of Gloucester in 1872.  Perhaps the new narrow gauge stock for these converted lines retained the traditional Broad Gauge colour, which led to  red wagons becoming mixed with grey wagons from the Northern Division?


I have not seen this point of view discussed before, so will be interested in any comments.

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I can't take credit for the comment about red lead as anti-corrosion paint for iron - I first picked it up in one of the earlier threads on GW red wagons on here but was recently reminded of it by reading up on lead-based paints on Wikipedia. I'd also looked at the site you linked to, Mike, as well as the Little, Greene website which is useful for understanding greys: what the Georgians at least meant by "lead colour" and "dark lead" seems to be well-understood by architectural and decorative historians.


The statement about the various reactions of red lead (lead oxide) clarifies some previous discussion. Following the route to lead sulfide or lead carbonate, both these are white compounds, the latter being "white lead", the major ingredient in the grey paint used by e.g. the Midland Railway. So this provides the chemical explanation for "red weathers to grey". These white compounds can react further to yield black lead sulfide, or red lead can go there directly. See also the discussion on drduncan's blog (to which you've contributed).


A further point I've just noticed is that two of the "dark" wagons are what I would take as of fairly "modern" design, 4 plank sides with angle iron end pillars, in contrast to the "light" 2 plank wagon with wooden end pillars.


What is the surviving documentation from Swindon and Wolverhampton works? Did everything go to the bonfire in Churchward's day or later? Are Midland enthusiasts just exceptionally fortunate in the high survival rate of at least drawings from the mid 1870s onwards?

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....Following the route to lead sulfide or lead carbonate, both these are white compounds,......

I can't agree with lead sulphide (galena) being white!  In fact, it has been used as a black pigment.  There is a white lead(IV)sulphide but this is a powerful oxidising agent and unlikely to exist as a stable product in a normal environment.  Perhaps you were thinking of the sulphate, because you refer later to the black sulphide.  There are so many possible chemical pathways, which is why it is hard to predict what will happen in general 'weathering'.

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Sorry, yes, my confusion. On the other hand, I'll note that the American spelling sulfur/sulfide/etc. is the IUPAC recommended spelling - the deal being that IUPAC recommends the British spelling of aluminium, so there's transatlantic balance.

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When I hear an American say "alumin-i-um", I'll consider writing 'sulfur' :)  Thank you for contributing to this thread - useful thoughts.

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Red wagons again!


I think I may have mentioned this in a previous blog but I think the colour postcard in the link below could be convincing evidence.




Badminton station was only opened at the turn of the century, I think it was 1904, so certainly red wagons appear to be commonplace then. What I don't know, maybe someone else does, how accurate the colouring was on these postcards. Everything else looks as it should so I assume they were fairly accurate. Also interesting to note that the underframe on the red wagons was black, not the body colour as with the dark grey.


It goes to prove that even little more than a hundred years on some important aspects of railway history are still shrouded in mystery. Still it means some know it all at an exhibition can hardly tell you that you've got the colour wrong.  

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.....It goes to prove that even little more than a hundred years on some important aspects of railway history are still shrouded in mystery. .......

Infuriating isn't it.  I've been doing some family history research and keep hitting similar problems - kicking myself that I didn't ask more questions of elderly relatives before they died.


Personally, I wouldn't trust those old hand-coloured postcards much.  My father used to tint his B/W prints and the result were more 'artistic impression' than reality.  Still, something made the postcard-producer think it was appropriate to colour the wagons, even if the details are hazy.


I found your earlier blog post , with the reference to this postcard and photos of some of your own wagons.  For the present, I shall stick with red underframes, for the simple reason that I like 'em that way :)

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These are certainly the most interesting thoughts on GWR red I have seen for some time. I like the red lead theory, not least because I happen to like red orange :-)


I agree with Mike that the colouring of postcards probably shouldn't be trusted too much. Even so, it is quite interesting that the colourer has coloured *some* wagons but not others in the postcard that John links to above. Why would he do that, if there was no difference in reality? (PS: Badminton was opened to goods traffic January 1st 1903, and to passenger traffic July 1st 1903).


BTW here is another postcard, although this is probably one case where the colouring is dodgy:



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Even so, it is quite interesting that the colourer has coloured *some* wagons but not others in the postcard that John links to above. Why would he do that, if there was no difference in reality? 


To answer my own question, maybe just to brighten up the postcard. Here is a 1911 postcard of Launceston, with the LSWR yard in the foreground and the GWR station in the background. Those cattle wagons are very colurful!



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.........maybe just to brighten up the postcard...........


That's exactly my concern with these postcard views, where the aim is to produce something attractive that will sell!   Nevertheless, they probably have some basis in fact, even if not highly accurate.

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What colour were the brake vans during this ''red wagon'' period ?

Most writers suggest that brake vans were always grey.

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