THE famous documentary, Night Mail, features a mail train travelling overnight from London to Glasgow, but there was an even bigger night-time railway industry in bygone times.
In the 1960s I was a newspaper lad, delivering papers through people’s doors in the early morning, the last link in a national chain that worked through the night every night. I am thankful for a story in this month’s Railway Magazine that supplied me with so much info.
The world’s first national newspaper, The Daily Currant, was produced in March 1702, by Elizabeth Mallet, who was a printer and bookseller in Fleet Street, a through route since Roman times. The Times was launched in 1788, The Observer in 1791, and the News of the World in 1843, but to deliver them nationally by stagecoach or canal would take days. The Manchester Guardian, first published in 1821, had that advantage over the Fleet Street titles.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway had opened in 1830. The pioneering agreement to convey papers and journals by rail was signed just a year later.
With the rapid growth of railways around the country, WHSmith was not only opening stalls on the new stations but was tying up distribution deals with many of the individual railway companies.
Newspapers were treated as parcels rather than goods, and their cheaper rates meant many canal and stagecoach companies lost trade and disappeared. One consequence was that the turnpike roads, losing their stagecoach income, were much less maintained, and that didn’t really change till the arrival of motor vehicles.
Around the start of the 20th century, The Daily Mail, Daily Express, and the Daily Mirror appeared, adding millions to be distributed.
They arrived at the appropriate London terminus and were loaded on overnight trains, to be split and sorted into bundles, so many of each for the big distribution centres, then for smaller towns, and then for individual shops and outlets wanting them delivered by the time the paper lads called.
Dedicated coaches and trains evolved. It became a huge night-time industry, tabled to be completed with the arrival at each station and for connecting trains. Train splitting with attachments and detachments, with the extra locos needed, were added complications.
From Manchester Victoria/Exchange, there were overnight services to Liverpool, Blackpool, Stoke, Crewe, Leeds, Hull, York, Newcastle and Cleethorpes. Sometimes the trains slowed but didn’t stop, throwing out the parcels.
I presume all our stations received a delivery, and the early morning station staff would take the parcels on the station bikes, a common sight back then, although for busier deliveries a horse and cart/trap would be hired.
In the 1950s and 60s British Rail was running 75 dedicated services with those heavy Sunday papers.
So, the train pulls out punctually, and they sort and collate the load according to the various newsagents’ requirements, and they can change for every night, untying bundles, transferring the contents, making new bundles, and ensuring they are properly labelled, and unloading them as soon as the train stops.
One distribution depot was at Broad Green, which Smiths opened in 1967 to serve almost 500 retail outlets in a 42 square mile area.
The nightly train arrived at 4am and continued to Lime Street for the city centre outlets.
At Broad Green there were roughly 10 tonnes of papers which were loaded onto a platform-level conveyor belt and the staff would sort and repackage them in the depot.
Fortunately there were so few passenger trains in those night hours.
Hazards? Well, in 1942 not only were railway lines to London being destroyed by Nazi bombs but one Ramsgate newsagent was filmed removing an enemy fighter’s cannon bullets out of a bundle of papers, when a train had been attacked.
By 1986 Murdoch had moved his printing to Wapping and signed contracts with road hauliers. Others followed. The loss of such large incomes meant the last newspaper train ran on July 9/10, 1988.
It being night-time meant that few photos were taken.
The changing world means we now get our news and opinions on the internet and from other sources.
I miss having my fish and chips from a chippy, wrapped in a newspaper that travelled overnight from London less than 24 hours previously.
n If you have memories about the night-time trains or morning arrivals to our stations or newsagents, I’d love to hear them.