A Century of progress; Centenary brochure of the Derby Carriage and Wagon Works by Brian Radford

The recent history of the Derby Carriage & Wagon works (now Bombardier Derby) makes this book all the more apposite. In 1977, when this booklet was published, the Litchurch Lane works was celebrating its centenary as a part of the nationalised British Rail, and looking forward to playing a key part in the future of rail transport in the UK with the building of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT). Just over ten years later, British Rail ceased to exist and its assets were sold off into the private sector. That Litchurch Lane had demonstrated an ability to compete in the market for rolling stock contracts had been demonstrated even at the time that this book was published; but more recent Government actions have shown that there is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to promoting British manufacturing industry. The maddening thing is that it is the British Government that tilts the playing field against its own workers.

But to the book. This is a brief account of the building of the Carriage & Wagon works, one of the earliest and most extensive such undertakings in the country. The Midland Railway was renowned for the quality of its coaching stock, it being the first railway to abolish Second Class and bring all its Third Class stock up to Second Class standard – a very enlightened move for Victorian times. The book is by Brian Radford, a second-generation railwayman and railway historian, whose own father worked at Litchurch Lane – something not uncommon in the days of the “traditional” railway. So it is no surprise that the dry recitation of chief engineers and different types of coach and wagon is leavened by some anecdotal accounts of characters from amongst the workforce from days gone by, some of them from a generation or more before living memory.

The account of the craftsmanship demonstrated by the C&W workers is merely hinted at, as the format of the book is too small to allow adequately-sized photographs to do real justice to the exquisite quality of the coaches in particular that Litchurch Lane turned out. But certainly a sense of the continuity of the Derby labouring community can be found in these pages; something that the railway in particular had and which nearly all British industry has now lost.

There are omissions, and these are a little concerning for a railway historian of Radford’s stature. The major change that the Midland had to make to its coaching stock in the years immediately before the First World War was the changeover from gas to electricity for coach lighting, something forced on them after a string of accidents where the railway company managed, three times in four years, to incinerate the Scotch Sleeper Express (and, unfortunately, many of its passengers). The Garsdale Head and Ais Gill accidents caused many advances in railway safety – the introduction of track circuiting to protect trains and the imposition of the famous Rule 55 in the rule book – and exposed the Midland’s “small engine” policy as an organisational risk. But those are outside the purview of this book; the change to electric lighting is not, but Radford does not mention it.

But this is a fascinating memorial of a way of life that has almost vanished, and we should be grateful that it was recorded at its zenith. I can do no better than to quote from the introduction to the book by Peter Gray, the then-current works manager: “…in many ways we are enjoying the fruits of the labours of those who went before us. We must see that what we leave will be as constructive as what we inherited.”

There can be no greater memorial to the betrayal of British workers by successive governments than those words.

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