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The wagon now leaving...the 20th century; ARCHIVE Forget Virgin Trains they were branding locomotives more than 100 years ago, says Chris Upton.

However the business gurus dress up the secret of the success in the marketplace, a lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Take the railways for example.

The Birmingham Wagon Company was founded in 1854 to take advantage of the bewildering mixture of private operators on the Victorian rail network. If you've lost touch with who owns what on the British railways of the 1990s, it's plain sailing (not litera lly, of course) compared with the situation 150 years ago.

Once the railway companies were up and running in the 1840s it was clear that they had their hands full coping with the passengers, without having to deal with freight as well. So the mineral and coal companies who wanted to take advantage of the new mea ns of transport had to buy their own wagons and arrange for them to be attached to a train. However, it's complicated enough owning a coal mine or manufacturing zinc without having to run a transport business as well. Such companies were therefore crying out for someone to take the strain for them.

Enter the Birmingham Wagon Company. Now, if you believe that the Victorian economy was principally successful because it made things (as opposed to shifting invisible assets around the Stock Exchange), then the BWC may come as a surprise. This was a rema rkably early example of the service sector entering the industrial market. The fact that the company was based in New Street (101 New Street, in fact) is proof enough that they were unlikely to be knocking up railway wagons at the back of the shop.

What the BWC was doing was financing collieries and metal merchants to enable them to have their own rolling stock, and then offering to provide the wagons, service and maintain them for an appropriate fee. As for the vehicles themselves, the company bou ght them from Brown & Marshall's of Saltley. Everyone, under this arrangement, was happy. What happened when a wagon broke down, or was derailed, I do not know, but I imagine that every company involved blamed someone else, much as they do today.

So modern was the company that it swiftly spotted the desirability of having a logo - a loco logo, if you like. With carriages flying past at an alarming 40 mph, a logo was easier to spot than a string of words. That, at least, was the argument. The devi ce they used was a five-pointed star, not because any of the founders were Jewish, but because one or two of them were Freemasons, who also used such a symbol.

Quite how long the Birmingham Wagon Company would have remained a part of the railway business and yet aloof from it is difficult to tell, but it rapidly became obvious that Brown & Marshall could not cope with the ever-expanding demand for carriages and wagons. The BWC was forced to enter the manufacturing market themselves. The absence of ten acres of spare land behind New Street meant relocation as well, and the company found an appropriate field adjacent to the Great Western line in Smethwick. This was in 1864.

Whatever reasons lay behind the move into manufacturing, it was a good time to do so. Having been the pioneers of a railway system, the British were now exporting the idea to all corners of the Earth, calling at Buenos Aires, Santiago, Johannesburg and K uala Lumpar (change at Reading). Within the space of a few short years the five-pointed star could now be spotted not only in the station yards of Oldbury, but on the pampas of South America too. Not a bad piece of expansion.
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Author:Upton, Chris
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 31, 1998
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