For enthusiasts, researchers and modellers of the Great Eastern Railway

An Overview of Wagon Construction

The previous sections have shown the relative importance of goods traffic to the GER’s finances, the nature of the system, the process for obtaining new wagons and the shift away from contractor built wagons to the founding of Temple Mills Wagon Works.

What follows is an examination of the main trends of wagon supply and production and the introduction of new types. For the purpose of this examination the GER era has been divided into five periods; they do not coincide with any change of Locomotive Superintendent but relate to distinct periods of wagon supply.

1862 to 1879

In August 1862 the GER took control of 7266 wagons. The majority were of ECR origin, perhaps about 75%, whilst the remainder had been purchased by the other constituent companies prior to being drawn into the ECR net.

These constituent companies were the Northern & Eastern, Norfolk, Newmarket, East Anglian and Eastern Union Railways. Their stock was supplied by a variety of contractors and built to the particular requirements of each railway. Early wagon stock had a relatively short life expectancy by later standards so it is unlikely that many pre 1845 wagons remained. Thus few Northern & Eastern or the earliest ECR wagons survived whilst a proportion of stock delivered between 1846 and 1850 to the constituent companies had also been withdrawn.

It is perhaps fortunate for the GER that Robert Sinclair, who had been Locomotive Superintendent of the ECR since 1856, continued in office. He had been responsible for some 1500 wagons since his appointment in September 1856 and the designs he had devised or inherited from Gooch continued to be supplied to the GER for a few years until Samuel Johnson replaced him in July 1866. Nonetheless there is little doubt that the GER inherited a bewildering array of constructional types which must have been expensive to maintain.

Although the wagon stock was complex from maintenance point of view the number of different types was quite limited. Round ended opens, with outside wooden framing and used for general merchandise, were probably the most numerous. Cattle wagons accounted for 20% of the stock in the 1860’s, a fair reflection of the importance of this trade in the area and links with the London markets. Trucks specifically for carrying sheep, usually referred to as ‘cages’, were also in stock.

Bolsters and batten wagons dealt with round and cut timber; there were few coal wagons, some low sided trucks and a limited supply of covered vans and goods brakes. Ballast stock was purchased secondhand from contractors and the few wagons required from time to time to carry particular merchandise and perishable goods came from converting standard types.

The First Specialised Type

The first specialised wagon type, the machine truck, had been built in 1860 at Stratford to carry agricultural engines made by Richard Garrett at Leiston. They were low flat wagons with smaller than normal wheels referred to for many years after as ‘Leiston Lorries’. The type was multiplied over the years as the number of agricultural machinery manufacturers increased in East Anglia and became a type especially associated with the GER.

Wagon Shortages

A familiar cry at the outset of the GER period, to be repeated until the early 20th century, was a shortage of wagons. Protests came on the one hand from traders who could not obtain sufficient trucks quickly enough for their traffic and from the Goods Manager on the other who could see actual or potential trade being lost.

For a start wagon utilisation was probably appalling by later standards. Sinclair on his part maintained that the stock he was being asked to provide was quite adequate in quantity but its effective use and movement was being seriously hampered by the failure of others to provide adequate sidings and yard facilities.

Initially additional wagons were authorised to reflect trade generated from existing lines and to serve the progressive increase in route mileage. More than 3000 wagons were ordered between October 1862 and November 1864 but the growing financial crisis dramatically slowed acquisitions and orders did not revive until early 1872.

Out of Chancery

The release from Chancery did not immediately aid a bout of wagon orders but nonetheless it was found possible for Johnson in 1870 to order 25 sheep trucks, 75 covered goods and 150 open wagons on capital account, that is, as additions to stock. In the following year 13 machine trucks were added to stock and a 5 ton travelling crane for handling heavy goods.

In 1872 significant additions to stock were achieved to a total of 1220 wagons. The means of acquisition give a clue to the underlying financial state of the railway; some were hired for a period of 5 years, others obtained on hire purchase, payments being spread over 5 years, whilst the remaining 720 wagons of various types were conventional cash purchases.

Hire purchase agreements continued to feature in further acquisitions until 1876, as well as cash payments for stock. Whilst this method of payment represented the means of obtaining much needed stock without undue financial strain it also proved to be a quicker and more reliable means of getting stock into service.

The Locomotive Coal Supply Problem

Obtaining reliable and ample supplies of locomotive coal had long been a standing problem for the GER and the ECR before it. The system was located remote from coal producing areas and initially the GER contracted with collieries to supply coal to Stratford and the other major depots in private owner wagons. On that basis it had no stock of wagons to convey locomotive coal.

By 1872 the severe delays in deliveries forced the GER to acquire 500 coal wagons. It was not in a financial position to purchase such a quantity outright so 250 were hired and the remainder secured on hire purchase. They were loaded at the colliery, thus eliminating reliance on the pit owners wagons, and this policy proved successful. By the early 1880’s over 700 wagons had been purchased; they were a mixed bag some second-hand and most dumb buffered. Thereafter the number in stock was progressively increased to reflect the growing locomotive stock.

Contractors Delays

A further factor which made hire purchase an attractive alternative to cash purchases arose from orders placed by William Adams with four contractors early in 1875 for the supply of carriage stock. Although contracts were placed on the basis that deliveries would be completed by September this did not happen. One firm became bankrupt in November 1875, leaving the GER to complete the work, whilst deliveries from the other three firms were not finalised until October 1876, over a year late.

This bitter experience was undoubtedly another reason for gradually increasing manufacturing capacity at Stratford to progressively reduce reliance on contractors.

Standard Wagon Types

There are relatively few records or drawings for this period to indicate to what extent Johnson and Adams developed wagon design. Johnson was doomed to be in post during the blackest years of the GER’s fortunes whilst the known designs that Adams initiated do not suggest and significant design changes.

The first available detailed breakdown of wagon stock was provided in August 1878 when, at the request of the Traffic Committee, the recently appointed Massey Bromley presented a general report on the state of the rolling stock. The wagon total had increased from 7266 in August 1862 to 11034 by mid 1878.

Bromley identified eighteen existing wagon types of which William Birt, the Goods Manager, considered six of these to be standard wagons which it was intended should continue to be supplied.

These were:

Open goods trucks                6372

Covered                                  731

Timber                                    357

Batten                                      160

Cattle                                    2208

Machine trucks                         68

These types accounted for 9896 out of the total of 11034, or nearly 90%. The small number of covered goods will be noted, only 6% of the total. Although the proportion steadily increased over the years, to meet the call for secure and water tight accommodation for more valuable freight, the percentage was still only 11% at Grouping.


The total wagon stock saw an increase of 3854, from 7266 in 1862 to 11120 at the end of 1879. At least 7300 wagons were delivered in the time so nearly half of the new construction replaced old, outworn stock. The effect of this replacement rate would be to leave most of the Gooch period wagons still running as well as a few hundred pre-1850 wagons. Although most of the constituent companies’ wagons would have been withdrawn the fact that several hundred wagons over 30 years old were still in stock was far from satisfactory.

The period saw no striking development in wagon design or an emerging need for specialised types beyond the additional machine wagons. All wagons supplied had sprung buffers, apart from the locomotive coal wagons already noted, and ballast wagons, which undoubtedly were of the most basic construction. Brake gear was entirely lacking, the only brake power was provided by rather basic goods brakes of no more than 10 tons weight, wooden sprags jammed into wheel spokes controlled stationary stock.