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Road haulage - social impact

British manufacturing

In 1927 the UK was a major manufacturing nation, and petrol-driven goods vehicles ranging from light vans to heavy lorries were offered by no less than 40 British manufacturers. These home-grown products competed with vehicles from 34 foreign firms listed on the British market. We were exporters of manufactured products, and the UK’s commercial vehicle exports in 1929 earned us £2,962,179.

A busy scene at a depot showing Thornycroft lorries being maintained.

The importance of goods vehicles

By the late ’twenties goods vehicles had become an important part of the UK’s social fabric. Rapid and continuous development in the manufacture of goods vehicles had occurred with striking results. In summer 1923, there were around 173,000 goods vehicles on British roads, but this had increased to over 300,000 by September 1928, making a real contribution to trade and employment, both in the lorry factories and for thousands of people in the road transport industry. Commercial vehicles did our fetching, carrying and shuttling, some of them bearing the livery of national household names, while others bore the sign-writing of local builders, grocers, fishmongers and others.

Goods vehicles supplemented railways by venturing where trains could not go, sometimes acting as the initial and final link in a mixed road and rail journey. The railways were sometimes even supplanted by goods vehicles and, generally, the commercial vehicle gave mobility and freedom from railway dominance. Road transport became a well-organised industry in which millions of pounds of capital were involved, and the efficiency of the UK’s transport system was a valuable factor in building up our export trade in road vehicles, because a good export performance was best founded upon a successful performance on the home market, and export sales helped to reduce production costs.

Interest in road transport developed in line with its importance, enough to support commercial vehicle shows, an important one of which was the Commercial Vehicle Motor Show at Olympia, London. At the opening of the 1929 Olympia event, the President of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mr J Maughffling, CA, said that the growing interest in commercial vehicles and their increased utility made the Commercial Motor Show as important as the Car Show, and (perhaps a personal opinion) decidedly more interesting! Attendance at the 1929 show was 111,380 compared with 89,375 for 1927.

Goods vehicle users

By 1930 the tendency was for traders to rely increasingly on contractors for the carriage of their goods. Many traders who employed haulage contractors to take care of their transport insisted that their vehicles were painted to their own specification. By contrast, big retail firms tended to own the vehicles they used, a good example of which was a well-known pharmaceutical retailer which distributed products from bulk stores to its 300 shops by road, using a fleet of 63 lorries and 18 battery-powered electric vehicles. Forty-five vehicles were stationed at Nottingham, 20 in London, seven in Manchester and nine at other branch depots. There was a bonus scheme to reward the firm’s drivers for good time-keeping, freedom from accidents, general conduct etc. No fewer than 17,000 tons (17,272 tonnes) of various manufactured commodities were handled annually by the organisation’s Nottingham fleet alone.

However, the previous statistics pale into insignificance beside those of a large well-known food manufacturer, famous for its “Corner Houses”. By 1931, this firm operated about 1,600 vehicles throughout the country ranging from 7cwt vans for retail delivery in suburbs up to 8-10 ton (8,128-10,160kg) vehicles, in addition to trailers and special publicity vehicles. Vehicles were loaded during the night at the firm’s London HQ and 300 vehicles left the depot each morning within an hour, and, collectively, travelled twice round the world in mileage in a working day. Sentinel steam wagons which had entered service in 1919 were still working for the firm in 1931, as were reconditioned petrol-driven Leylands bought shortly after WW1.

Vehicles and drivers had to work hard to earn their keep. For example, a Leyland Cub lorry owned by Mr Sydney Neal carried poultry from Boston, Lincolnshire, to London five nights a week. This 116 mile (187km) journey took about five hours, and empties were brought back by day. Mr Neal’s redoubtable vehicle covered 61,000 miles (98,149km) in 13 months without an involuntary stop, which, in those more primitive days, was impressive. Although fully-glazed cabs were available on the latest lorries by 1930 or so, there were few other creature comforts such as heaters and power steering, and long distance driving must have been a tiring experience.

A wide variety of user or product groups was served by goods road-vehicles in the UK between 1927 and 1932, some of which are shown below:

  • Agricultural produce
  • Bakers, millers, corn & seed merchants
  • Brewers
  • Builders and builders’ merchants
  • Chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • Coal merchants
  • Co-operative societies
  • Corporations and local authorities
  • Engineers
  • Estate transport
  • Florists
  • Food retailers and manufacturers
  • Furniture removers and manufacturers
  • Gas companies
  • Government departments (including the Post Office)
  • Haulage contractors
  • Laundries and cleaners
  • Livestock
  • Meat, fish, poultry, milk and perishable foods
  • Mineral water manufacturers
  • Oil, colour and chemical manufacturers/traders
  • Oil refineries
  • Paper manufacturers and stationers
  • Pet food manufacturers
  • Publishers
  • Railway companies
  • Retail stores
  • Shipping companies
  • Steel mills
  • Textile and clothing industry
  • Timber merchants
  • Tobacco companies
  • Tyre and rubber companies
  • Whisky distillers, wine and spirit merchants

A masterpiece of road transport was the use of a Scammell 100 ton (101,600kg) low-loader to transport 14 large pacific steam locomotives, each separately, from their builder (the Vulcan Foundry) to the Gladstone Dock, Liverpool, for shipment to India.

Taxation

Some of the many issues raised 75 years ago in connection with road transport would seem familiar today. Perhaps the classic one was the fear of leaving such a hugely complex process as road transport to the mercy of civil servants with “paper” knowledge only! Taxation levied on road users was a particularly sensitive issue and much discussed then, as now. Grants made from the Road Fund in 1926-27 were £18,050,673. However, it seems that money raised by motor taxes was not ring-fenced for road use, and local authorities were concerned that ‘raiding’ the Road Fund for other purposes would have repercussions on road quality. A petition organised by the AA, and signed by no less than 920,000 people, was presented to the government in 1928 requesting that the method of raising money to meet road requirements should be amended in favour of a flat rate duty on petrol, with a small registration fee. This would result, it was claimed, in a more equitable distribution of the burden over the whole of the motor tax payers. There was disquiet about the level of taxation on commercial vehicles, which was claimed to be heavier in the UK than elsewhere. For example, in 1929 a 4 tonner (4,064kg) in the UK attracted on average £110 a year on licence fees and petrol tax. It was claimed that similar vehicles in New York attracted £8 4s (£8.20), £11 in Italy, £11 14s (£11.70) in France, £16 in Belgium and £39 12s (£39.60) in Germany. It was feared that increases in taxation would drive thousands of UK hauliers out of business, adding to unemployment.

 

1930 A10 2 tonner was bought new by Boots and is now displayed at Milestones. Photo: Nick Corrie

This Speedy 3 tonner looks very businesslike and ready to go

The Coulsdon and Purley UDC owned this Speedy municipal vehicle

The Great Western Railway was a major user of Thornycroft vehicles. This is one of the GWR’s JC 10 tonners.

A refuse body was fitted to this small Thornycroft