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Minerals and Other Bulk Loads

Coal has always been the single most important load on the British railway system but there was bulk traffic in other minerals and also in bricks, hammerscale, road stone, slag, oil cake, timber, manure and grain. Railway Company and Private Owner coal wagons could be of the 5 or 7 plank type, but for heavy materials such as stone 3 plank or ever lower wagons would be used.


Coal would not be filled right up to the top edge of the wagon, although it might well be piled into a peak showing above the top. Coal is actually not a very dense material, stone chippings weigh more for example, which is why the old 16 ton mineral wagons used for shifting old ballast have `letter box' holes about half way up the sides, to prevent them being overloaded. The coal itself came in various grades, from lumps the size of pebbles up to great slabs a foot or more long. Generally these would be graded at the pit, but a string of wagons might have differing types distributed amongst them.

Generally s peaking if the coal is forming a mound of small sized lumps and dust it would be poor quality coal destined for an industrial location such as a gas works, electricity generating station or factory boiler room. House coal tended to be fairly even 'half-brick' size, the small stuff and dust sold as 'slack' (for banking up the fire at night) came from the coal yard sweepings.

For coal I used to use a lump of coal broken up into scale sized lumps glued to the card with diluted PVA woodworking glue (e.g. `Resin W'). These days coal is not so easy to find unless you live near a mine or smokeless fuel plant, also it may be worth rooting about in the garden of older houses to find the odd bits of coal left where the coal bunker used to be. If you cannot find any coal various materials such as sand and broken up bits of match stick can be used and these produce a satisfactory appearance.

Fig ___ Coal Load Shapes for Inserts

Sketches of coal loads taken from photographs

Something unusual would be a wagon load of coal in sacks, not a common sight but I understand the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ships calling at Fleetwood were bunkered in this way. The coal sacks were piled two (possibly three) high in standard mineral wagons. They were craned from the wagon onto the deck of the ship where men emptied them into the bunkers through rectangular steel hatches.

Something not often modelled is the sheeted over, or 'cottage topped' (peaked roof) PO coal wagon. The coal dust from the mines was separated from the coal by blowing air up through the conveyor into a tall silk bag. In some locations coal was actually deliberately pulverised. The dust or pulverised coal was sold for use in power stations and for manufacturing paint, black lead and compressed with coal tar to form `briquettes'.

The briquette today is associated with smokeless fuels but they have been made from plain coal in the past as this produces lump coal from dust and slack. Scott of the Antarctic carried a large quantity with him, in foot square cubes which could be used to build huts and burned as required, generally in `civilian' trade briquettes were supplied as small nuggets, shipped in standard 'coal' wagons.


Slate was shipped as cut slates, stacked on end in wagons generally no higher than three plank, you can make a removable load by cutting up a sheet of 5 thou card into small oblongs about 3 mm by 2mm, these are then stuck, on edge, to a wagon insert to produce the load. If you want several wagon loads you can use a block of Milliput and press in the 'detail' with a wet modelling knife blade, but the effect (although not at all bad) is not quite as good.


Building stone, such Portland Stone and the stone produced in areas of Scotland, the Forest of Dean etcetera, came in blocks of various sizes which would normally be laid on a bed of bracken or straw in the wagon. Often PO wagons were used for this traffic, generally one or three plank types although there were a number of five plank wagons in quarry liveries that I believe did carry stone. These PO wagons would not have travelled far as the nearest local source would usually be specified for supplies. A single stone from a 'white gravel' drive or a block of Milliput can be painted to suit, but do take care not to over load the wagon, stone is heavy stuff.

Granite, sandstone, limestone and marble were all regularly shipped as large blocks cut more or less square and some slate was also shipped in large slabs but this was usually covered with a tarpaulin. Kerb stones and paving slabs were cut to size at the quarry and shipped, usually on a bed of bracken, in open wagons. As concrete became more common for these items they became smoother finished and the traffic flows were from areas where cement works flourished (see Lineside Industries - Cement & Concrete).

General aggregate (stone chippings or gravel) was not often moved by rail, most demand being met locally, when it was carried it was moved in smaller wagons, typically three planks high. Following nationalisation British Railways used a number of wagon types for this traffic including their standard sixteen, twenty one and twenty four and a half ton mineral wagons and the twenty one ton coal hoppers. The motorway building boom of the 1970's saw a large increase in this traffic and BR allocated quite a few of their standard 26 ton 'iron ore' tippler wagons to carry this traffic. By the mid 1980's crushed stone, all now moved in PO hoppers and tipplers, formed the heaviest trains on the system. Graham Farish offer the modern four-wheeled road stone hopper wagons in their range.

Tarred Stone Chippings

From the 1920's until the mid to late 1930's quantities of tar coated chippings (`Tarmac') were shifted by rail in PO wagons, usually no more than three planks high. This traffic had virtually all transferred to road haulage by the later 1930's. For the wagons use either a cut-down Peco 5 plank, a Graham Farish lime wagon with the top removed and the peaked ends cut down level or a Mike Bryant/Precursor Models iron body on a Peco chassis, for the load use a Peco `sand' insert painted black. The wagon shown below, sketched from a photo in Peter Mathew's book on PO Wagons (see bibliography) is an all steel wagon equivalent to the three plank design built in 1923 to the then new RCH specification. The livery is that of the wagon builder although it may have operated in this livery for a time before being repainted in the owners colours.

Fig ___ PO steel bodied road stone or tarmacadam wagon

Sketch of a steel bodied stone wagon

On arrival at the railhead the tar was transferred into tipping lorries for delivery. Steam tippers were often used and the steam was sometimes used to soften the tar to make the work of digging it out easier. The tar was moved by the lorry crews who used large forks, similar to gardening forks but wider (about a foot or 30cm) and usually seven or eight pronged. The lorry crew would heat the tines of the fork in the boiler fire to help them penetrate the semi-solid tar and this also helped prevent the tar from sticking to the fork. Even so this was hard work.


Sand is also quite heavy and would be shipped in 3 or possibly 5 plank wagons, some railway owned, others PO wagons. As mentioned under Rolling Stock Development sand wagons were often lined with sheet metal to prevent the sand leaking out between the planks. Peco have now released a kit of the low-sided 'tipper' type sand wagon built by British Railways in the 1960's. Sand was also moved in modified ex LNER steel bodied general merchandise wagons, these had a hinged tarpaulin rail and locking bars across the doors to avoid some clot opening them when the thing was full. A kit of the LNER wagon is available from Parkwood, only requiring the addition of the locking bars from 10x20 thou strip but something rather similar could be produced from the Peco Butterly steel wagon, the 'dimples' on the side (where securing rings were fitted on the inside of the wagon) could be produced using discs cut from a length of 0.75mm diameter plastic rod. A kit of the LNER steel bodied goods wagon is now available from Parkwood Models, all this needs is the addition of a locking bar across the side doors (see Fig ___).

Fig ___ BR 'Sand' wagons

Sketches of BR 'Sand' wagons

The only odd thing when modelling the British Railways standard 13T sand wagon is that the marking 'Empty to Congleton LMR' is in yellow on a black patch with a yellow border, but it is so small a few dots of yellow paint would do for the lettering. To get the yellow border the best bet is probably to cut the shape from masking tape and use this to get a neat yellow oblong, then when the yellow has dried very carefully fill this in with black, leaving the border showing. The remainder of the lettering is normal white.

One final purpose built sand carrying wagon was a simple steel body built on redundant oil tank wagon chassis, as this is the chassis Peco used for their fifteen foot wheelbase models this is again an attractive conversion possibility, requiring only a 30 thou card body and 10x20 thou Microstrip detailing. These long wheelbase tippler wagons were also used for stone traffic, a photo I have seen shows one with a load of about five large lumps of white stone, the small white stones used for garden paths would be about right in N gauge. Modelling these 'MTV' tippers is discussed in the section on 'Kit Bashing' (see Fig ___). A model of this wagon is available from Parkwood Models to fit the Peco long wheelbase chassis (which is accurate for this wagon).

Hopper wagons of various types were used for sand, including the British Railways twenty one ton coal hoppers, the twenty five and a half ton iron ore hopper (as available from the N Gauge Society), the twenty four and a half ton payload Covhop and the Prestwin air-fluidised two-silo cement hoppers (see under Lima in Available Models). In the 1980's covered hoppers based on the air braked PGA stone hoppers were built for sand traffic. A model is available from Graham Farish and a detailing kit is offered by Taylor Plastic Models.

China Clay

China clay is another heavy material, mainly shipped wet (about the consistency of cold porridge), often shipped in hogsheads (large wooden barrels about four and a half feet long by three and a half feet wide at their widest point). China clay was also shipped in sheeted five plank open wagons by the GWR and later BR. These wagons had an 'end door' for unloading and the floor was covered in a three-piece zinc sheet floor, which can be represented with Bacofoil for empty wagons. The clay stained the wagons and tarpaulins white, often all but obliterating any markings. My model is a modified Peco five plank wagon, altered to represent an end-door type, the staining was typical on these wagons.

Fig___ GWR/BR china clay wagon model
BR china clay wagon model

BR fitted some of these wagons with a sheet supporter, this had to be fixed and was mounted to the floor of the wagon, inside the body, at the door end. The BR 'clay hood' wagons were only used in Cornwall to supply ships but the wagons without the sheet supporter, similar the model shown above, were used in block trains to supply the potteries around stoke and also paper works in Scotland and Kent.

English China Clays is a major world produce of the materials and they have operated a number of bogie 'tank' type wagons, mostly for export traffic, since the 1980s (possibly earlier). The last major order for wagons by BR before privatisation was for a conversion to a number of HAA hoppers for china clay traffic. Built in 1988 and TOPS coded CDA these have a power operated canvass roof, rising to a central longitudinal roller device. I believe the body of the wagon is painted white but I am not sure about that.

Soda Ash

Sodium Carbonate, commonly called Soda, has always been a significant industrial alkali. Crude soda ash is a greyish white powder and has many uses in industry mainly used in the glass and detergent manufacturing industries but it was also used in oil refineries from the later 1920s. Soda ash is made from salt, the French Leblank process was used up to about the time of the First World War, after which the Brunner Mond 'Solvay' process gained favour. The French process used salt, treated with pure sulphuric acid to produce sodium sulphate, this is then burned in a soda furnace with lime and coal to produce crude soda commonly called 'soda ash'. The Solvay process uses salt, ammonia and limestone and a lot of heat (it was for this production that the famous ICI hopper wagons were built, taking limestone from Derbyshire to Cheshire). Most was shipped in open wagons with a tarpaulin to keep the cargo dry, the LMS built some 12 foot wheelbase wagons (described in the section on Kit Bashing), in BR times the LNER pattern steel bodied open wagons were modified with an additional bar across the lower door for this traffic. Closed hopper wagons were also used, certainly in the BR era the standard Covhop wagon was used for this traffic. Soda ash is a very effective paint remover and wagons in this traffic often had little paint left on them.

Fig___ Early BR Soda Ash traffic vehicles
Early BR Soda Ash traffic vehicles

In the later 1960s ICI tried cylindrical tanks painted a dark colour (possibly very dark blue) with white markings, by the later 1970s this stock was cream liveried. They were the same general pattern as the long wheelbase tank wagons offered by Peco, a simple repaint is all that is required. In practice I gather these proved less than ideal. A related chemical is sodium carbonate, in the mid 1980s a new type of cylindrical tank wagon, fitted with a tipping body to easy emptying, was trialed, although I believe this would only run to private sidings. I do not know if they caught on but for someone modelling the Speedlink era a tip air tank can be modelled using a Peco tank wagon as the basis.

Fig___ ICI Soda Ash tank and 1980s 'tipair' tank
ICI Soda Ash tank and 1980s 'tipair' tank


Hammerscale consists of small pieces of iron and steel ranging from fine dust to pieces the size of small change, the bulk resembling cornflakes. It is produced when the metal is worked and is a fairly uniform blue-grey colour. I would think it could be transported in bulk in unsheeted open wagons and hoppers but I have not been able to confirm this. It would represent a full load for a three plank wagon, two planks deep round the sides with a central peak close to the full height of the wagon.


Slag is the residue from making steel, transported in open mineral type wagons or hoppers, it has a typical stowage factor of 32 cu ft per ton. Loaded into a five plank wagon it would form a pile about six inches down from the edges rising to a peak slightly higher than the side in the centre. Slag in photographs of steel works appears to be a light grey material. I wasn't sure of the colour so I asked on uk.rec.models.rail

Slag chippings are used in road making probably the biggest use is in surface dressing (tar and chip) the colour when first delivered is light grey somewhere between grey primer and Royal Navy frigate grey. There are references to the use in Bill Hudson's Private Owner Wagons (Oakwood) including pictures of the wagons (TARSLAG). The book indicates the trade started about 1913.


Varying shades of grey to almost black. Basic slag was the residue from the initial iron-smelting process, I believe, the 'basic' being as opposed to 'acidic', and was due to the amount of limestone used in the smelting. It's still conveyed by rail, the more so since the aggregate tax came out. Trainloads move from both South Wales and Teeside to the SE. My brother-in-law was project engineer on one of the biggest contracts to use it recently- over a million tons from Llanwern to a site in Cardiff Bay, all delivered by rail. In consistency, the material from the furnaces varies between frothy pumice-like and glassy, and is crushed for its final use. I worked many years ago at a BSC plant that only produced small quantities- there it was sprayed with water as it came out, to produce a glass-like powder.

Brian Williams

Oil Cake and Grains

Oil cake is the dry residue left behind after the oil has been extracted from seeds such as linseed (flax), cotton seed etc. When ground up it is called 'meal' and is used both as a feed for animals and as a fertiliser. It was transported in bulk in sheeted open wagons and hoppers. As far as I am aware no special wagons were built for this traffic and it would form a load with a distinct peak above the sides of a five plank wagon.

A variation on this is 'spent grain' from breweries, which was shipped out for use as fertiliser, the model shown is an N Gauge Society iron ore hopper kit, sheeted for this kind of traffic. This model is based on a photograph taken in the 1970s.

Fig___ Sheeted iron ore hopper carrying spent grain
Sheeted iron ore hopper carrying spent grain


Manure was an important cargo for the railways, produced by the many horses and shipped to the country for use on the fields. Around 1900 London alone was producing over a thousand tons of manure a day, a lot was shipped by sea in small sailing coastal vessels but a lot was moved by rail. Manure was also generated at cattle docks on the railways, mainly those associated with the docks where cattle were imported from Ireland and at the market towns where auctions were held. In the 1950's BR was still moving over two million tons of manure a year. Most was shipped in railway company owned mineral wagons. Some companies built special wagons for manure traffic although these were used for moving their own manure, for example from in-town goods and parcels depots.

Bird droppings, or guano, was an important nitrate fertiliser loaded with ammonia and uric acid from the 1830s until the 1960s although the development of synthetic ammonia in the early 20th century reduced its economic importance. In the mid ninteenth century guano was also important for the manufacture of Murexide (a purple dye). Although the word 'guano' is used to refer to both bat and seagull dung, and is defined in the dictionary that way, it originally came from the Quichua language of the Inca civilization and means 'the droppings of sea birds'. The material has to be recovered from hot dry places (notably South America, the guano from Peru is concidered to be the highest quality, but also from Pacific islands such as Ocean Island and Juan de Nova Island) and is a dark grey to blackish powdery material which was shipped in cloth bags (resulting in a lot of dark staining in the area where the wagon was unloaded). Guano was bought by the wagon load by farmers. There was a firm called The Scottish Fish Oil and Guano Co (one of their tank wagons is illustrated in Peter Tatlows book on tank wagons, see bibliography) however I understand this firm dealt in imported material, not home produced. Guano was also used for making uric acid, it is first boiled with aqueous potassium hydroxide solution (10%) until all the ammonia is removed. Carbon dioxide is bubbled through the remaining liquid to give a precipitate of potassium hydrogen urate. This precipitate is filtered, washed with water and dissolved in sodium carbonate solution. The addition of hydrochloric acid gives a precipitate of uric acid.

A related cargo was 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. In the guide to stowing this on ships it says the cargo is 'Smelly' and the smell may contaminate other cargo. 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.

Finally in this category comes human manure, shipped in various forms in various locations. At one place the two parts of a sewerage works were separate and the railway was used to transfer material in tippler type wagons from one site to the other. Once treated (left to dry out, killing the bugs it contained) this material was a valuable fertiliser, called 'marl' or more usually 'night soil'. The local council provided the collection service and mixed this with ashes from the dust bins (often containing a lot of wood ash) and the unusable remains from the council abbotoir ''slaughterhouse refuse' and lairage manure (cattle dung from cattle pens, abbotoirs etc) and street sweepings (which included a very high proportaion of horse manure). The resulting dried mix was then actively sold off as fertiliser. Looking at old maps you may well note a 'council' siding, normally used for bringing in materials for the direct works department with a separate siding marked 'night soil siding' where the local collections were tipped into wagons to be taken for treatment, bagging and sale. Civic pride and inter-town commercial rivalry was such that in the later 19th century one councillor in Bury, north of Manchester, went on record claiming that-
'Our night soil is of far greater manurial value than that of Rothenstall!'

For more information on this business see also Appendix One - Water Supply, Sewage Treatment & Household Waste Collection

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