Companion to British Road Haulage History

Article excerpt

John Armstrong, John Aldridge, Grahame Boyes, Gordon Mustoe and Richard Storey, Companion to British Road Haulage History, Science Museum, London (2003), 544 pp., £39.95.

In 1957 the British Transport Film Unit produced Fitted Freight. Portraying the overnight journey of a vacuum-braked freight train from Bristol to Leeds, it showed cinema audiences the crucial role of rail in the carriage of consumer goods. Within a few years making such a film became difficult: it would be impossible today. From playing a supporting role to the railways before 1914, road haulage had replaced them for most non-bulk commodities by the 1970s and the abandonment of BR's Speedlink network in 1991 effectively signalled the end of the railway as a general freight carrier. More positive signs in the late 1990s, such as Enterprise and the use of rail for trunk haulage by some road carriers to avoid motorway congestion, were eclipsed by the Post Office's 2003 decision to transfer all its traffic to road and air: Night Mail would follow Fitted Freight into oblivion. Road-served industrial estates are everywhere: private sidings decay and goods yards have long since become car parks or been redeveloped for housing or retailing. Yet, as Professor Armstrong and his colleagues note in their introduction to this handsome volume, there has been no sustained academic treatment of the haulage industry's history. They disclaim any intention to provide one but they provide the raw materials from which one might be written.

The book is explicitly modelled on Biddle and Simmons's Oxford Companion to British Railway History (1997) and shares a degree of common authorship. Some 600 articles cover the industry from A to Y (the compilers evidently failed to find a Z). The largest group (some 180) cover manufacturers and models, a further eighty-six engineering and design. A hundred and fifty entries survey the history of individual haulage companies; inevitably, the availability of source material means that coverage is biased towards larger concerns in London and major provincial cities at the expense of the 'one man and a WD chassis' operators who sprang up in areas like the Fens in the 1920s. Most of the expected firms figure, although some major operators (e.g. Knights of Old, Prosper de Mulder, Norfolk Line/Lijn) are missing. The politics of an industry that seems to have organised itself with a degree of purpose (and bloodymindedness), and that puts the nineteenth-century 'railway interest' in the shade, account for another 100 entries. Logistics, types of goods and biographies (including two women, equally redoubtable: Alice Walker and Barbara Castle) account for most of the remainder.

The bulk of the book is devoted to motorised transport in the United Kingdom. (CIE is included in the bibliography, but otherwise the Irish Republic is omitted. …