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Common goods and their containers

These notes were first prepared for the God Son's layout which featured small docks, the idea was to make up goods to appear on the quayside. As a result this is a somewhat eclectic selection based on the needs of his railway and a few odd examples for educational purposes. It is in no way comprehensive and several of the entries are duplicated elsewhere on this website.

Some idea of the range of materials being shipped and the containers used can be gained from a study of Stowage: The Properties & Stowage of Cargoes Thomas, Captain R.E., Extra Master, copies of which can be picked up cheaply (my copy cost six pounds). The 1930 second edition or preferably the enlarged 1947 third edition are probably of most interest to modellers but the 1968 sixth edition may have more relevance to the 'modern era' modeller. The current edition costs in excess of a hundred pounds. The book contains little information on the size shape and colours of the containers but should provide enough ideas to fill any goods yard, docks or factory yard. In the notes which follow I have tried to identify the details of the containers used, much of the information comes from seafarers and particular thanks are due to Captain Perkins, Captain Hatcher and Nigel Blacker, all formerly of the P&O.

The dock required ships and in its later stages a small fleet of ships was produced based on the Thomas The Tank Engine barge Bulstrode. That model is easy to modify to a waterline model and formed the basis of a couple of sailing vessels, a steamer and a convertible steam/motor coaster, two fishing boats and a small tanker that supplies ships in the channel with lubricating oils. There was also a compressed gas carrier but that was technically rather small. Basic information on the sailing ships and the convertible steam or motor coaster were described in Railway Modeller in June 2000 (sailing barge) and December 2000 (convertible steam or motor coaster). The only point I should make is that soaking thread in Super glue for the rigging proved less successful than at first thought, it was okay (if a bit 'bulky') when on the layout but some lines failed to survive being sent through the post. If I re-rig the models I will use mono-filament fishing line.

Notes on specific cargo types

Animal Hides - Three basic types are fur, dry hides (and leather) and wet salted hides. Furs were usually shipped in wooden cases lined with metal foil (and often coated with disinfectant powder) although cheaper furs were sometimes sent tied in bundles. Skins, dry hides and leather (hides with the fur removed) were shipped in bales, bundles and singly. The main risk associated with these hides was anthrax and warning notices advising staff to seek medical attention in the event of a pimple or rash were prominently posted. Wet Salted or Pickled hides were generally shipped in flat bundles tied together, always with the hairy side facing outward. Some were shipped in large barrels. Very wet and very smelly they were an unpopular cargo.

Antimony (a silvery metallic material used for alloy steels) - Cases, each about ten inches wide by nine inches high by eighteen inches long, natural light wood colour.

Asphalt - Barrels, black. Some was shipped in open ended wooden barrels but more conventional closed types were also used. Some was shipped in bulk and had to be literally dug out of the ships holds, this would be piled in wagons on the quayside but the wagons used would probably be PO types (at least some of which were metal bodied) as this material would contaminate them rendering them unfit for other goods.

Basic Slag Fertiliser - A black powdery substance which was a byproduct of steel making, widely used up to the 1970's when the number of steel works began to decline and it has since become much less common. Shipped in closely woven bags and later paper sacks there was always a lot of dust associated with this stuff, staining both the inside of the railway vehicle and the areas where the loading and unloading took place. I have not been able to confirm the size of the bags used.

Beans (green or white) 1lb (0.5 kg) bags, about 225 bags to the ton. The bags were light brown and about a foot long, nine inches wide and four inches thick when full (similar to the military 'sand bag').

Beer - Most beer was made locally but larger companies were certainly shipping barrels of beer before the First World War. I am not sure how far this tended to travel but special wagons were built by several lines to carry barrels of beer and cattle wagons were also used (some being reserved for the traffic in the 1940's and 50's. Bottled beers were shipped in crates but I haven not traced any further information on this trade. Presumably this would have to be van traffic.

Bleaching Powder (aka B-K POWDER, CALCIUM CHLOROHYDROCHLORITE, CALCIUM HYPOCHLORIDE, CALCIUM HYPOCHLORITE, CALCIUM OXYCHLORIDE, CAPORIT, CCH, CHLORIDE of LIME, CHLORINATED LIME, HTH, HY-CHLOR, LIME CHLORIDE) - This was I believe shipped in wooden barrels and caused a lot of white staining due to the nature of the powder and its bleaching effects. By the later 1930's it was usually shipped in coated steel drums however it often ate through the drums.

Bicycles - All bikes had their pedals removed and refitted on the inside of the crank, the handlebars were turned sideways. Individual bikes were often shipped in a light wooden crate to protect them from knocks and scrapes in transit, crating up a model bike using 10x20 thou strip (in N) is possible. Where large numbers of bikes were being shipped, for example in the purpose-built BK type containers, the railways provided quilted canvass covers, designed for the job (there is a photograph of these in the book GWR Company Servants by Jannet Russel (see Bibliography). In Janet Russel's book there is a photo taken in a goods yard showing a large crate holding five bikes, no additional packing seems to have been used to protect the bikes which are clearly visible in the crate.

Biscuits - Up to the 1960's most biscuits were sold by weight and supplied to shops in rectangular tinplate containers about a foot cube. The paper label wrapped round the tin served to seal the lid in transit but often the tins were packed in wooden cases for shipping from the factory. By this time however more biscuits were being sold in paper packets and these were normally packed into cardboard cartons. Being somewhat delicate biscuits were an early users of containers, McVitie & Price had some sturdy wooden containers in use between London and Edinburgh in the early 1920's and went on to employ a range of container types including a specialised purpose built fork-liftable design that, at the receiving end, formed the rear part of a road van (see the section on Container Handling).

Cassia or Chinese cinnamon - Cassia is the preferred cinnamon species from peninsular South East Asia to Central Asia. In Western countries, Ceylon cinnamon is usually preferred for its less harsh taste. Anywhere with a large Chinese population would receive regular shipments. Cassia can be substituted by cinnamon without loss of authenticity. - Bales, 30 to the ton, each bale was about eighteen inches square by two foot long.

Cement - Originally shipped in closely woven hessian sacks which leaked a lot or wooden casks lined with paper which leaked less but cost more. The paper sack, introduced in the 1920's proved ideal for this material and soon dominated the trade. Cloth bags and wooden casks continued in use (mainly for export cement) into the 1940's and in the 1950's and 60's some was shipped in steel drums (again mainly for export to countries where the paper sack was less suitable).

Cigarettes - Oblong packets about ten inches by eight inches by two feet, wrapped in plain brown paper with a large rectangular label on one side, the Players label was white with (I think) blue writing. I believe it was essentially the same as the packet front.

Coconut - Coconut fibre is transported in bales (compressed and uncompressed), in hanks and in rolls. The fibres are sometimes wrapped in jute or bamboo mats or are also shipped un packaged. Steel strapping and coir cordage are used to ensure that packages hold together better. Coconut fibre is used to produce hawsers, ropes, cords, runners, mats, brooms, brushes, paint brushes and as stuffing for mattresses and upholstered furniture.

Coffee - Bags, each weighing 120 lbs (54 Kg) with about eighteen bags to a ton, each bag holding 3.4 cu ft. they were about three feet long by eighteen inches wide and about nine inches thick.

Copal Gum - Baskets or large hampers, 14 to the ton. Copal is a fossil resin obtained from the east coast of Africa. It is dug up by the natives and brought to Zanzibar, where it is prepared for the market by cleaning it from the dirt with which it is encrusted. It is pale yellow to deep reddish-brown or greenish-red colour. It is mixed with a caustic solution to make it soluble in water and used in varnish, floor polish, paper products, packaging coatings of all types, linoleum, oilcloth, printing inks and adhesives.

Corks - Imported ready-cut in very large hessian sacks.

Cotton - Bales, by the 1920's these were about six feet long and two feet six inches square at the ends with eight or more metal bands round them.

Dog Droppings, both locally produced and imported from Persia (Iran) and used in the leather tanning industry as well as for making dyes and as manure. The imported kind was shipped in cloth bags containing about 150 lbs of the material. Smelly. The local variety came from assorted sources, anywhere with large numbers of dogs would contribute, in the uk.railway newsgroup Bruce Fletcher commented -

In J Robin Lidster's book "The Forge Valley Line" he relates that the local Hunt kennels at Snainton used to send dog excrement ("Dog Pures") to Leeds where it was used in leather tanning. The "pures" arrived at the station via lorry in sealed 5 cwt barrels which were transferred to open railway wagons on skids - occasionally a barrel would slip and the lid would come off necessitating an unpleasant shovelling task especially in summer with flies and maggots.

Esparto grass - Shipped in bales bound with rope made of green grasses in the 1920's with some supplied loose for packing on board ship. As it is light weight it was often stacked high on the decks of the ships and formed a large bulging sheeted load on the railway wagons (similar in appearance to hay). By the 1940's it was being shipped in bales. Bales vary in weight and degree of compression depending on country of origin (approx. 70 - 80 kg). The bales were often tied with green grasses certainly up to the 1940's but iron or steel straps or wire were by then becoming the norm. Esparto is used as a raw material for paper making, as upholstery stuffing and as a binding material (coarse material with fragments of plant tissue, such as stalk, leaves or leaf parts, still attached). Esparto paper is made solely from soft esparto pulp or alfa pulp.

Feathers - Britain used to import considerable quantities of feathers, mainly from the Far East. The expensive types (ostrich and the like, used for fashionable clothing) were shipped in metal lined wooden cases, the cheaper types (used for mattress stuffing and the like) were usually shipped in very large sacks, about three or four feet by eight feet by two feet thick at the centreline.

Ginger - One of the oldest known spices, it consists of the root or rhizome of a grass like plant, the product is usually shipped as roots. Prior to containerisation most ginger was shipped in cases (18x15x24 inches, 45x38x62 cm plain wood) or as a liquid in casks (hogsheads, that is large barrels). Ginger from the finest shoots of the rootstock is also imported in crystallized form in earthenware jugs and in syrup in wooden kegs, specially from China and the West Indies. Following the shift to containers most ginger root is packaged in jute fabric bags (36 - 65 kg, also secondhand bags) among other things and less frequently in boxes (60 kg). Queen Elizabeth 1st is said to have invented the gingerbread man.

Dates - Up to the 1950's most were packed in light wooden boxes holding about 28lbs or (13Kg), some were shipped in the familiar round-ended boxes packed in cardboard cartons holding (typically) 5-10 lbs for smaller boxes but anything up to 60lbs following the introduction of pallets. There were (possibly still are) three grades of date, the lowest being 'industrial' (used amongst other things for making boot polish). The industrial dates were packed in barrels or cloth bags as crushing was not a problem.

Hemp - Bales (about 24 x 24 x 48 inches or 61 x 61 x 122 cm). This material when shipped is light brown in colour and bales usually had a light brown hessian covering). About 8 bales per ton.

Jelatong or Jelutong resin from Malaysia . (Dyera costulata) Used for latex production by local people. The latex from the tree is coagulated with acetic acid and purified by boiling with water. Jelutong resin is used extensively in the manufacture of chewing gum. - Cases, (36 inch 1m cube), light plywood sometimes with external timber framework.

Jute - Bales, secured with 'iron' (probably steel) bands, 6 foot (1.8m) long by 3 foot (1m) square, there being 8 of these to the ton. Jute is a fibre obtained from several plants, pale cream in colour and between four and ten foot long. This material was associated with lots of small white butterflies which lived in the jute in their larval stage. At the docks these would be seen all over the surrounding area. Barges loaded high with Jute bales from ships at anchor were a common sight on the Thames. Jute is used to make burlap or hessian (sacking material) and the lighter variant called Gunnie (woven with a single rather than double thread and much more open weave).

Kapok - The kapok is a tree which produces hairs, from a quarter to one and a half inches long ranging in colour from white to grey with some types being a dark brown. This material is brittle and can not be spun into thread unless it is mixed with cotton. It offers a good thermal insulation and is water resistant. Widely used for furniture stuffing and also for stuffing quilted clothing. It is shipped in bales weighing anything up to 200 lbs. As the material is brittle the bales cannot be heavily compressed so they end up rather larger than other bales. In the between the wars era these bales were covered with a light coloured cloth, producing what appeared to be very large sacks but having a distinctly rectangular appearance.

Lampblack - Apparently this material (essentially soot) was shipped in woven cloth sacks, resulting in a lot of black staining of the wagons that carried it.

Latex is a white sticky liquid from which rubber is made. It was shipped in barrels and later in coated steel drums. To keep it liquid ammonia had to be added, hence the coating on the metal drums. After the second world war more latex was shipped in bulk and the railways actually built a few bogie tank wagons for this traffic.

Matches - Rectangular plywood cases, resembling small tea chests with metal strips on all the edges, they were actually lined with very thin sheet metal (possibly tinplate) and they had the makers logo in red or black stenciled on the sides (often this was rather indistinct).

Nails and screws were shipped in barrels perhaps two feet six inches high by one foot six inches diameter at the widest point and sold by weight in the hardware shop. By the 1940's paper card boxes were in regular use for these items, typically six inches long by three inches square. These were packed in plain wooden cases and later (by the mid 1950's) in cardboard cartons.

Olives - Kegs for bulk supplies, otherwise glass jars packed in wooden cases (cardboard cartons after the 1950's).

Paints - Usually shipped in metal 'pails' either about the size of a bucket (but cylindrical not tapered) or the larger versions of the same container about two feet high by a foot in diameter.

Pepper (black or white, unground) - Shipped in sacks.

Potatoes - Sacks about three feet tall by eighteen inches wide and a foot thick with a 'knobbly' appearance. The top was sewn shut leaving two distinct 'ears' on the corners which were used as handles when moving the bags about. When shipped by sea (up to the 1960s at least) potatoes were often packed in wooden kegs, the open end being packed with straw and with a rope lashed over it. On coastal voyages in smaller vessels such as sailing barges they were sometimes shipped in bulk. Seed potatoes require more careful handling, these would ideally be transported in well ventilated vans but were often carried in sheeted open wagons.

Rattans - Stick like material similar in some ways to cane but solid rather than hollow and more flexible. This stuff is cut from a tree-climbing vine into ten to fifteen feet lengths and is shipped in two ways depending on the source. Some are shipped gathered into bundles and bent into a U shape, others are simple straight bundles. The bundles weigh in at about 100 lbs but the number of 'sticks' depends on the thickness. The bundles are held together with more lengths of rattan. The material is used for basket ware and furniture, the stronger pieces are used for walking sticks, carpet beaters's and the like. More recently, since the introduction of containerisation, it has been shipped increasingly in the form of semifinished products, the outer layer being processed into weaving cane, binding cane and rattan split and the core being processed into wicker and round, flat, flat-oval and wedge-shaped weaving strips.

Rice - Sacks, pre war these would have been perhaps four feet long by two feet six inches wide and quite thick when packed.

Rubber, which is latex treated with acetic or formic acid, was shipped as thinly rolled sheets either a pale yellow or mid brown colour, formed into a bale and wrapped in hessian (sack cloth) or since the war in plastic sheet. It is used in this form to make thin goods such as surgeons gloves. The rubber was bound together in bales or blocks about 3 feet (90cm) square by 15 inches 38cm thick, these were heavy (a difficult lift for one man).


Sago flour

Sisal fibre


Tapioca flour - Shipped in large sacks, a lot of white dust was associated with this cargo.

Tea from India was shipped in chests - A chest was a British measurement of tea ranging from 80 to 84 lbs. By the 1960's the standard was the half chest, which is what most people think of as a 'tea chest' - Up to the 1940's the chests were made up from pale wood, usually covered with hessian, typically about the size of two of the more modern plywood tea chests. They were held together with metal bands and were broken down to pack flat when returning as empties. Plywood was being used for the more familiar tea chest by the 1940's. I was not able to find a definite specification for plywood tea chests but Guy King was kind enough to measure some for me. He found two standard sizes; 18 x 18 x 20 inches (46.4 cm x 46.4cm x 50.8cm) and 20 x 16 x 23 inches (50.8cm x 40.6cm x 59.7cm). These are light plywood cases with thin metal strips along all edges, these were shiny metal, possibly tinplate.

Tea came in various types, the three most common in the UK were -Tea (India & Ceylon) , Tea (D.E,I.) and Tea (china). As far as I am aware these were all shipped in standard tea chests.

Timber - Pit Props - Shipped loose, generally about eight feet long.

Timber - Baulk - Heavy timbers, basically trimmed tree trunks (although they would be rectangular in shape if being imported, tapered for home grown timber).

Timber - Deal - This is pre-cut timber and imports started in about 1920. Up to the 1970s this stuff was handled plank by plank but as the fork lift truck became more common shippers began strapping it with metal bands. The average length would be eight feet or sixteen feet and would fit in a railway wagon or van but some was shipped in longer lengths.

Timber - Jelutong timber is popular with wood carvers but it is currently becoming rare and people are advised to seek alternatives. Creamy white to a pale yellow A soft, fine, even-textured wood with straight grain. Pattern making, carving, fret work, picture frames, battery separators, drawing boards, blackboards, toys, packing cases, ladies shoe soles, coffins.

Tin plate - Most was packed in flat timber boxes, the size of the box was determined by the size of the plates being shipped but prior to the 1970s most containers were capable of being man handled, so boxes about two feet long by eighteen inches wide and four inches thick would be about right I believe.

Tobacco - See also Cigarettes - Tobacco is all imported and the bonded warehouses and works dealing with it were located in the ports, very little moving about on the railways in its raw state. Prior to containerisation tobacco from North America was shipped in 'hogsheads', the early type resembled the standard 'hogshead' barrel, 43 inches high and 27 inches in diameter, weighing in at about 400 lbs when packed. By the 1930's (possibly earlier) the tobacco hogshead was a cylindrical wooden container about four feet in diameter and four feet in height and weighing in at about 1,000 pounds. A hogshead is not a barrel as such being composed of two mats and two heads with rings (possibly metal possibly wood) at intervals. South American tobacco is shipped in bales and with the advent of containers the North Americans began shipping in bales as well although hogsheads of the cylindrical kind were still occasionally seen certainly into the early 1980's.

Whisky & Wine - Bottles of spirits and wine were shipped by the case, a plain wooden box holding (usually) 12 bottles. This was not a crate with a lid, the bottles were laid on their side packed in straw, the cases were about fifteen inches by twenty inches by about five inches thick. The makers name would be prominently displayed in red or black stencil one sides and (usually) on the top of the case as well. Some spirits and a lot of wine were shipped in barrels but these were not remarkable.

Wool, brought in from New Zealand, was shipped in bales (also called a truss) in two sizes, eighth of a ton being 3 foot 6 inches square by 6 foot, quarter ton being 3 foot 6 inches square by 9 foot. These were wrapped in hessian (a coarse brown cloth) and secured with rope or from the mid 1920s increasingly with steel bands.

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