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Warwickshire's Industrial Railways

Birmingham Co-operative Society

Within the vast and often eloquent lexicon devoted to the Midland Railway, little appears to have been recorded that its employees in Birmingham founded the Co-operative movement in that city.

Not that the Midland would have asked for or expected any credit, but for almost half a century the antagonistic attitude of the railway company towards a group of its employees at the Lawley Street Goods Depot could only be described as despicable. In 1877, under the title of The Birmingham Industrial Co-operative Society, they bought wagon loads of coal at ex-pit prices.

The railway company, which would have benefited from the traffic generated and therefore backed the enterprise, flatly refused to co-operate and for four years coal was purchased from local coal merchants until the London and North Western agreed to transport coal in wagon loads to any of six stations on its network from Cannock Chase collieries. Never during the Midland's existence did the Co-op deliver coal from any of its sidings, even though in 1916 it was selling two hundred wagon loads a week. Until the 1923 grouping all of its rail depots were on the rival L&NWR and Great Western.

The Co-operative movement is generally accepted to have been founded in Rochdale in 1863, although there are some references which suggest isolated instances up to thirty years earlier. Almost unanimously they were founded in factories, mills, ironwork and other places of employment in Lancashire and Yorkshire, initially for common foodstuffs or household goods. Coal was an essential item, replacing wood as a basic household fuel as soon as it became available and appliances were adapted to burn it where necessary.

The Birmingham society purchased six wagons from the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, ironically situated on the Midland Railway near Washwood Heath in `1898 and a further six from the Gloucester company in 1901. These were lettered for the Birmingham Industrial Co-operative Society. A further ten came from Metropolitan in 1905. By 1924 the fleet had been expanded to 155 wagons through second-hand purchases followed by another 28 in 1927, partially replacing many of the older wagons that were retired. Eventually the fleet totalled 214 wagons Various liveries are known, some wagons featured a large lozenge emblem and others a five-pointed star. The 'Industrial' was dropped sometime during the First World War, and reflected in the very bold lettering of the later wagons. Standard livery was black with white lettering.

Apart from the railway wagon fleet, the Co-op also maintained stables for over a hundred horses that served 104 delivery rounds and employed 147 men.

Coal supplies were also obtained from the Cannock Chase coalfield by canal, and a large canalside stacking area was laid out at Acocks Green on the Grand Union Canal in 1912. Supplies for the railway coal depots originated mainly from the Cannock Chase, Cannock and Rugeley and West Cannock Collieries via the L&NWR. Post 1923 Leicestershire collieries in Minorca , Ellistown(sixty wagon loads a month in 1936) and Measham and several Warwickshire collieries were also patronised. Finally the ghosts of the Midland Railway were pardoned!!

Shortly after the 1923 grouping depots operated from rail sidings at (ex-LN&WR) Adderley Park, Erdington, Handsworth, Monument Lane, Soho Pool, Stechford, Witton, Aldbury, Smethwick and Marston Green, (ex-GWR) Hall Green, Langley Green, Shirley, Solihull, West Bromwich, and Tysley. In 1925 the Midland was belatedly forgiven with a depot at Camp Hill. The merger with the Soho Co-op Society in 1931 expanded distribution to over twenty depots.

The marketing of coal by a local Co-op may have commenced in 1864 with the hire of a single wagon by the Cheltenham Co-op from the Midland RC&WCo. of Birmingham, but this is an isolated instance. It was the introduction of the compulsory registration of Private Owner wagons from January 1888 that a concerted trade in coal by Co-op societies can be confirmed, the availability of the Wagon Registers of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway providing the necessary proof, although this may also be coincidental.

The first Co-op to register was that of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, and by the end of 1889 a further eleven Co-op societies were running wagon fleets. Ten (Todmorden, Brighouse, Holmfirth, Rochdale, Colne, Mytholmroyd, Holmfield, Crag Vale and Bradford Bowling Old Lane) were in either Lancashire or Yorkshire and the eleventh was the Stroud Co-op in Gloucestershire.

Although not recognised as such, the Co-operative movement was one of the largest coal merchants in the country and the most widespread. The wagon fleet overall may have been in the thousands. Like the City of Birmingham Gas Department and the founders of Wagon Repairs Ltd, frustration in having wagons repaired and returned to service during the First World War was boiling over Accordingly it was decided to create a wagon repair facility to overhaul all of the company's wagons.

Considering that the collieries of the Midlands were at the time the most heavily patronised, the choice of Peterborough was a surprise one. It was located on the former L&NWR branch from Northampton and commenced working in 1914. Ten years later the production of new wagons, which had not been originally envisaged, commenced, coincidentally with the introduction of the 1923 Railway Clearing House standard design, which was followed from the beginning. Between 1924 and 1935, wagons were also obtained from other builders but this trade declined to almost nothing by the mid-1930's

Lack of official records has prevented the recording of the total number of wagons built at Peterborough, a figure of between 750 and 1,000 is suggested. Over 500 were registered with the LM&SR alone. Assuming that the LMS records are correct, this includes three batches totalling 57 wagons for three colliery companies.

For accounting purposes, the C.W.S. based their paperwork on London, Manchester and Bristol, and usually billing from collieries was to one of these centres, the coal being delivered to whichever branch required it direct from the colliery. There were several other C.W.S. branches within the Birmingham/Black Country area which also operated their own wagons, those known were Lockhurst Lane (Coventry), Coventry, Walsall, Stirchley, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Sutton Coldfield.

Keith Turton

Wagon No 13 built by the Gloucester RC&WCo in 1901 and lettered for the then Industrial Co-operative Society
Ref: misc_kt393
Gloucester RC&WCo
Wagon No 13 built by the Gloucester RC&WCo in 1901 and lettered for the then Industrial Co-operative Society
Wagon No 167 purchased from the Lincoln Wagon and Engine Company and lettered as Birmingham Co-operative Society
Ref: misc_kt394
L Bagshaw
Wagon No 167 purchased from the Lincoln Wagon and Engine Company and lettered as Birmingham Co-operative Society