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Road haulage – social impact

The UK maintained its status as a major, high-technology manufacturing nation during the ’thirties. We took pride in being up with the front runners and, in that decade, we gained some excellent publicity on the world stage for our products, with machines designed and built in the UK. For instance, we took the world’s speed record on land, sea and in the air, and captured the Schneider Trophy for racing seaplanes. We gained the world speed record for steam trains, a record which still stands and is unlikely to be retaken. Perhaps engagingly eccentric, we took the world speed record for diesel vehicles in 1936 at a creditable 159mph (256kph)! On the aviation front, we introduced one of the world’s most potent fighter aircraft in 1936 and, of the utmost significance although unpublicised, we ran our first jet engine in 1937.

A Tartar articulated outfit headed by an RSW tractive unit.

We took it for granted that converting raw materials into saleable products was essential for paying our way in the world. To this end, our educational and apprenticeship system produced people with the skills needed to design, develop and manufacture a large range of goods in the required quantities, both for the home market and, importantly, for export. Our products, among many other things, included road vehicles - cars, lorries, municipal vehicles, buses, road rollers, motor-cycles, etc. During the first ten months of 1934 we exported 2,024 complete commercial vehicles, 8,677 commercial chassis and 203 tractors, making a total of 10,904 units valued at £1,873,315. This compared favourably with 10,876 commercial units for the whole of the previous year valued at £1,378,670.

Progress of commercial vehicle design

The underlying need on the part of commercial vehicle manufacturers was to provide vehicles which met users’ requirements in terms of performance, safety, reliability, load capacity, speed and, most of all, economical operation. In some respects, commercial vehicle chassis design developed in phases. In the beginning, early last century, touring car chassis were considered suitable for transporting goods. This was a brief phase, after which commercial vehicle chassis developed independently of touring cars and served for both goods and passengers.

Various manufactured parts can be identified in this factory scene.

However, passenger vehicles were discovered to have special requirements and their chassis design diverged from that of goods chassis, encouraged by the introduction of large pneumatic tyres. Then, as the use of pneumatic tyres for goods vehicles gained ground, it was found that many passenger chassis features could be adapted for use on goods chassis, to their benefit. Eventually, many heavy vehicle chassis were equally suitable for goods and passengers.

Perhaps the most significant effect on commercial vehicle progress was the advent of the diesel engine. In the UK, the seed was sown at the 1927 Commercial Motor Show, held at Olympia, when Mercedes Benz exhibited a diesel 5 tonner (5,080kg). Thereafter, the diesel engine progressed in commercial vehicles in the UK as it was more economical than the petrol engine, and, because diesel fuel was untaxed, it cost considerably less than petrol. The government, as soon as it realized its potentialities, imposed a small tax on diesel fuel, and then, following the 1935 budget, diesel was taxed at the same rate as petrol. This policy slowed down diesel vehicle development and, for a while, made diesel engines paying propositions only for vehicles covering large mileages with heavy loads. However, use of diesel vehicles spread and their excellent economy outweighed their greater first cost. At the end of 1937 there were 7,000 diesel goods vehicles in the UK and 13,000 diesel coaches.

The importance of goods vehicles

There was hardly an important area of life during the ’thirties in which commercial vehicles, in their various forms, did not play a part. Even where commercial vehicles did not transport goods to their destinations over the whole distance, they almost always formed a vital link. Simply put, most people lived by a road, but many did not live by a railway station. Goods arriving at ports, canal wharves and railway stations were usually loaded directly into lorries or vans; horse-drawn goods vehicles, while still used, were being steadily replaced. In 1933, the Road Haulage Association had a membership of 2,000 firms.

A Beauty in the colours of The Gas Light & Coke company.

The enormous scope of the UK’s road transport was demonstrated at London’s Commercial Motor Show, held at Olympia. At the 1935 event, held in November, on show were the products of 47 chassis producers, 47 bodywork and trailer builders, 226 firms dealing with components and accessories, 12 tyre manufacturers and 15 in the municipal-vehicle field. Nearly 400 vehicles were displayed, together covering operator requirements in every area of vehicle employment. The event captured the attention of anyone who was seriously in the business of goods and passenger transport, and even of members of the general public. That this was the case was fortunate, as the motor industry, particularly the commercial side, was vital to the nation’s well-being. The road transport industry employed no less than 1,250,000 people engaged directly and indirectly in it, and, by 1935, was beginning to be seen as being of strategic importance in time of war, able to cope with transport problems which the railways would have found difficult to handle.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there was tension between the road transport industry and the railways (then in private hands), both of whom were competing for freight transport in certain areas. Railways were well-established long before IC-engined road vehicles appeared on the scene, and, from a small cloud on the railway horizon at the turn of the last century, the upstart road transport had become a powerful rival to the railways within two decades or so. The road transport industry complained that the railways were being favoured by the government in terms of legislation and taxes, and accused Chancellors of regarding it as a financial milch cow, taxed as the industry was to the tune of many millions of pounds annually. Much of this revenue, the road transport lobby complained, did not go to the legitimate purpose of road building and maintenance, but to the general exchequer to assist other interests – including, perhaps, the railways.

This RSW beer tanker was supplied to the Courage firm at Alton, Hampshire.

Nevertheless, despite all adversity, the self-evident value of road transport to trade and industry ensured its continued survival. By 1938, commercial vehicle numbers in the UK amounted to over 500,000 goods vehicles, over 51,000 buses, coaches and trolley buses and about 35,000 taxicabs. Despite the large number of vehicles and great tonnage carried by hauliers, the majority of commercial goods vehicles by 1938 were owned by ancillary users, i.e. those who operated them for carrying goods in connection with their own trade or industry and were not paid directly for doing so. Thus, of the total of slightly over 500,000 goods vehicles, over 360,000 of them were operated by ancillary users.

Road transport in the building trade

This paragraph shows the vital role played by transport vehicles in the house-building trade during the ’thirties.

An ordinary three-bedroom house needed approximate quantities of materials, as follows:

  • 40,000 bricks (90 tons/91.4 tonnes)
  • 4 or 5 tons of lime (4,064 or 5,080kg)
  • 15 tons of sand (15,240kg)
  • 6 tons of cement (6,096kg)
  • ½ ton of plaster (508kg)
  • 4 tons of roofing tiles (4,064kg)
  • 12 tons of ballast (12,192kg)
  • 5 tons (5,080kg) of miscellaneous items i.e. window frames, glass, doors, door frames, stoves, fireplaces, wall tiles, etc

The above weights made a total of 138 tons (140.2 tonnes) per house, say 140 tons (142.2 tonnes), all of which had to be hauled to site. Also, excavating was needed, involving haulage from site. Sometimes, an old building had to be demolished before building of new one could be started, and the material hauled away from site. Seldom did a building scheme cover just one house, and even a moderate scheme might involve ten houses, requiring the transport of 1,400 tons (1,422 tonnes) of materials to site.

Municipal housing schemes covered contracts for upwards of 100 houses and 200 were far from unusual, needing 28,000 tons (28,448 tonnes) of materials, say 100 tons (101.6 tonnes) each working day, for a contract to be completed within a year. These tonnages exclude further quantities involved in excavation and demolition. If these figures are multiplied up over the whole of the UK, then haulage for house building throughout the country exceeded 10,000,000 tons (10,160,000 tonnes) annually. With such large tonnages, it was not surprising that the building industry’s prosperity was so quickly reflected in that of the road haulage industry.

Some goods vehicle users

Examples of road-transport operations during the ’thirties are given in this paragraph:

Wholesale grocery firm: operating in Maidstone and London, this company attributed much of its success to a sound road transport service, having bought its first Thornycroft lorry in 1916, a 3 tonner (3,048kg). Such was the satisfaction given by this lorry that four more were bought in 1919, and in 1932 the firm increased its fleet to 14 Thornycrofts by adding a Taurus 6.5 tonner (6,064kg). The company distributed groceries and other household lines, mostly perishable, and motor vehicles served so well that by 1933 the trading area had extended throughout Kent and Sussex, much of Surrey and to the borders of Hampshire. This whole area was covered at least once a week, with regular daily services in many districts. In 1933, the vehicle fleet comprised Thornycrofts from 2 tons to 6.5 tons (2,032kg to 6,064kg), and smaller vehicles of various makes. Fleet annual mileage was about 360,000 miles (579,240km), and total tonnage handled was about 18,000 tons (18,288 tonnes). Orders received by 10am were not infrequently delivered that same afternoon at destinations 40 miles (64km) away or even more. Vehicle reliability was ensured by well-equipped maintenance facilities.

This pristine Sturdy milk lorry is displayed at the Milestones Living History Museum.

Photo: Nick Corrie

Biscuit manufacturer: a major household name in biscuit manufacturing, based in Bermondsey, London, with a confectionary subsidiary in Bedford, used motor vehicles for goods distribution to retailers and wholesalers. However, for the shortest journeys horse drawn transport was used as being more economical. The firm reckoned on saving £3,000 to £4,000 per year on transport costs by using demountable containers.

Timber business: a timber business based in Stratford, London was entirely reliant on road transport to enable it to offer the service required. For example, an order for 15 tons (15,240kg) of wood was received at 4.30pm. The wood was inspected, measured, loaded on to a lorry at the Stratford yard and delivered to the customer’s door anywhere in the Midlands at 8am the following day. This could only be accomplished by using a well-organised commercial-vehicle fleet, and the firm had 97 vehicles in 1933. Long-distances deliveries were made at night to such destinations as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Avonmouth, etc. At 5pm night loading staff started operations, stopping at mid-night. Between midnight and 12.30am, a long procession of lorries left the timber works for various destinations, at which time the roads were relatively free of traffic. Most of these lorries were back at the Stratford works between 5pm and 6pm that same day. Each vehicle covered at least 1,000 miles (1,609km) each week, and was repainted or revarnished every 3½ to 4 months in the firm’s own paint shop. Unknown as a maintenance action today, one of the regular maintenance tasks was engine decarbonising! Most of the wood delivered was ash, and 85 per cent of the cargo was taken by road, amounting to over 60,000 tons a year (60,960 tonnes).

Large boat by road: a 45 ft (13.7m) motor cruiser mounted on a special trailer was towed by a Leyland lorry 400 miles (644km) to Lake Windermere without mishap.

A wide variety of user or product groups was served by goods road-vehicles in the UK between 1933 and 1939, some of which are shown below:

  • Agricultural produce and livestock
  • Bakers, millers, corn and seed merchants
  • Brewers
  • Builders and builders’ merchants
  • Chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • Coal and coke merchants
  • Co-operative societies
  • Corporations and local authorities
  • Cotton and wool dyers
  • Engineering companies
  • Estate transport
  • Florists
  • Food retailers and manufacturers
  • Furniture removers and manufacturers
  • Gas companies
  • Government departments (including the Post Office)
  • Haulage contractors
  • Laundries and cleaners
  • Meat, fish, poultry, milk and perishable foods
  • Mineral water manufacturers
  • Mobile libraries, darkrooms, showrooms, shops etc
  • Oil, colour and chemical manufacturers/traders
  • Oil refineries
  • Paper and cardboard manufacturers, stationers
  • Pet food manufacturers
  • Publishers
  • Railway companies
  • Retail stores
  • Salvation Army (food distribution in distressed areas)
  • Shipping companies
  • Steel mills
  • Textile, clothing, footwear and hosiery industry
  • Timber haulage (including tree trunks) and timber merchants
  • Tobacco companies
  • Tyre and rubber companies
  • Whisky distillers, wine and spirit merchants.

UK motorways urgently needed

In 1937, Earl Howe, Chairman of the BRF, said that everyone using roads must have been getting more anxious about the driving conditions which they were experiencing. Experts agreed that unless something was done, then in a few years our roads would become unable to cope with traffic, if the rate of increase of 150,000 vehicles annually was to continue.


A forward-control Trusty outside the factory, probably during WW2.

So far, local authority efforts, with government help, were mostly limited to the leisurely construction of bypasses. Even when their value was not compromised by ribbon development, there was congestion when traffic returned to the ordinary road system at some bottleneck. The BRF deplored the continuing high road casualty rate, with 500 people losing their lives every month and thousands being injured. Efforts by Parliament and the Ministry of Transport to reduce the toll were ineffective, and the BRF considered that at least 50 per cent of accidents were due to the inadequacy of the road system.

Drastic action was required. The government’s response had always been to impose severe traffic restrictions, with heavy penalties which had little or no effect on the casualty toll, but which inhibited the usefulness of road traffic. The BRF considered that an entirely new trunk road system was needed, featuring motorways as in other countries and freed from speed restrictions. Only a limited mileage was required, with motorways running north, south, east and west using London, for the most part, as a centre. During the preceding 40 years less than half of one per cent had been added to road mileage existing in Victorian times, even though traffic was growing at 35 per cent every five years.

A Dreadnought NF 5LW with a Gardner five-cylinder diesel engine.

Objectors to the BRF’s motorway proposals claimed that costs would be prohibitive, the railways would be disadvantaged, and motorways in other countries had been built for strategic rather than commercial reasons i.e. to facilitate the movement of military assets in time of war. The BRF argued that modern road-building methods on a large scale would reduce costs and, anyway, road users had a right to ask for a safe and adequate road system in return for their annual road taxes of £75,000,000. The BRF also countered the pro-railway lobby by arguing that:

  • roads were complementary to railways and vice versa, and that in the event of another Continental war, the existence of an efficient road system could be vital if the country had to be supplied from Western ports
  • strong strategic reasons might exist for a motorway system in the UK
  • certain classes of goods could probably only be moved by rail
  • even in the unlikely event of motorways adversely affecting railways, it was unsound to prevent road transport reaching its full potential simply to maintain the vested interests of another form of capital. Also, many railway branch lines were redundant, uneconomic and should be closed down.

In the BRF’s view, there was an urgent case for the government to set up an expert enquiry to look into the road issue.

Another dissenting voice in 1937 came from Viscount Wolmer at a lecture to the Associated Road Operators. Among other things, he spoke of his deep sense of humiliation at the UK’s roads and pointed out that Germany had a single plan, grandly conceived, energetically and systematically carried out to a timetable. Viscount Wolmer said in his lecture that German roads provided for safety, growth of traffic and the strategic needs of the nation, while preserving the beauty of the country. People who said that we did not need strategic roads were making big mistake. The USA and Italy, he noted, were also tackling the road problem on a scale not appreciated in UK.

Note: The UK’s first motorway was opened in 1959, the London – Birmingham M1, 22 years after Earl Howe’s lecture to the BRF in which a system of motorways was advocated.


Note the absence of human operators in this pre-robot age machine shop!

Lorries in the making on this assembly line at Basingstoke.