Set between the Rivers Severn and Wye in the west of Gloucestershire bordering Wales and Herefordshire, the Forest of Dean once had an extensive railway network, not least to serve the numerous collieries and iron and tinplate works located on its coal-bearing syncline. The last of the deep collieries – Northern United – closed in 1965 but names such as Princess Royal, Parkend, Foxes Bridge, Cannop, Wimberry and Parkend survive on the sides of scale model railway wagons – and in some cases on 12″ to the foot vehicles on the Dean Forest Railway which by 2008 ran from Lydney Severn & Wye Platforms via Lydney Town and Whitecroft to Parkend. This article however focuses on the Berry Wiggins bitumen wagons which would have run via Newnham on Severn, Upper Soudley and Ruspidge to Whimsey.
THE LAST PRIVATE OWNER WAGONS IN THE FOREST
The London offices of Berry Wiggins were in Stratford E15 and Field House, Fetter Lane EC4 and the company produced bitumen from a plant at Sharnel Street on the Isle of Grain as early as 1924. Although it was not until 1949 that their cylindrical tank wagons began to be shunted on the siding behind the goods shed at Whimsey the whole site belonged to Berry Wiggins soon afterward. The asbestos lagged tank wagons would then be heated ( as described in Gloucestershire’s Chemical Romance ) to offload the otherwise solid bitumen either to storage tanks or directly to road tankers for onward distribution around west Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Six or seven loaded wagons would arrive at Whimsey every day – and a corresponding number leave empty – until the depot closed along with the branch from Newnham – which had once run through to Mitcheldean Road between Gloucester and Ross on Wye – in 1967. Also seen at Berry Wiggin’s Whimsey depot were South Eastern Gas Board tank wagons with red oxide barrels, white lettering and black solebars and running gear.
WAGONS COMMISSIONED BUT ALSO NON-COMMISSIONED
Berry Wiggins ultimately operated a large fleet of both Class A (highly inflammable) and Class B (less volatile liquids including bitumen) tank wagons obtained over a long period of time from builders such as Charles Roberts of Wakefield and The Cambrian Wagon Company. Many Berry Wiggins operated railway wagons were also later leased from British Railway Traffic and Electric Company Limited (BRT & E) of 13 Grosvenor Crescent, London. Historians usually accept that these wagons were painted black and definitely had white lettering in a range of formats. The circular plates on the sides were pale yellow with (in many cases but excluding wagons 28 and 82) red sergeant’s stripes and in many cases (including Charles Roberts built wagon 96) also included the words “British Made” and “Liquaphalt” – Berry Wiggin’s own trade name for liquid ashphalt, or bitumen. Next to the circular plate, the single contrasting star denoted clearance for the wagon to travel at up to 35 miles per hour.
BERRY WIGGINS FOR SALE
Berry Wiggins survived into the 1970s but although they are no longer with us their legacy lives on with N gauge models from Robbie’s Rolling Stock. Among the early rectangular tank designs (not used at Whimsey) the white Class A markings are most interesting. The sergeant’s stripes are absent and the address is given as Kingsnorth, Hoo, Kent. This was the location of a major Berry Wiggins Depot and was also inadvertently responsible for Berry Wiggins gaining free prime time television publicity.
In early 1970 a location scout was travelling to nearby Kingsnorth power station on behalf of TV science fiction series Dr Who – which had just begun its first season in colour with Jon Pertwee in the title role. Instead the BBC man found Berry Wiggins and as a result millions of viewers saw Berry Wiggins railway wagons, tanker lorries ( with the ergonomic cabs of the era ) and storage tanks as Dr Who, his glamorous assistant Liz Shaw ( played by Caroline Johns ) and such United Nations Intelligence Task Force members as Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart ( Nicholas Courtenay ) and Sergeant Benton ( John Levine ) battled Primords, hairy green human mutants created by a scheme to drill through the Earth’s crust to release energy.
Another variation on the Berry Wiggins livery has been applied to this N gauge Peco Wonderful Wagon pictured at Platform 1 of Terminal 1. Numbered 118 it gives the company address as Field House, Fetter Lane but otherwise more closely resembles the markings of the rectangular tank wagon above. Paul Elliot tells me that this is one of only 2000 such wagons produced by Peco of Beer, Devon, to celebrate the 35th Anniversary Exhibition of the N Gauge Society in 2002. The silver colour was first applied to rail tank wagons carrying highly volatile Class A liquids in March 1939 but then replaced by matt dark lead grey upper surfaces from 1941 as it was highly visible from the air. Silver did however return with the outbreak of peace in Europe in 1945.
Bringing my connections right up to date however is a rake of six N gauge Berry Wiggins bitumen tank wagons – custom made by Robbie Burns of Robbie’s Rolling Stock with individual numbers and now in service on Church Hislop. This was prompted by a suggestion from a visitor to the Jet Age Museum’s outreach layout when it was first displayed at the Model Steam Road Vehicle Society Rally at Tewkesbury in 2014. Since then, the smart looking rake has been delighting visitors to the Jet Age Museum itself on New Years Day 2015 and beyond.
It is seen here in charge of a British Railways Derby Built Type 2 Class 25 diesel electric locomotive with a Bo-Bo wheel arrangement powered by a 1 250 brake horse power Sulzer diesel engine operating at 750 revolutions per minute and controlled by AEC equipment. Introduced in 1961, these locomotives were an improved version of the similarly engined Class 24 Bo-Bos which had first been constructed at the former Midland Railway works in 1958 as part of the Pilot Scheme of British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955.
While the cast and crew of Dr Who have long since checked out of their hotels in nearby Rochester, the former Berry Wiggins oil and bitumen site on the Medway Estuary survives as the Kingsnorth Industrial Estate.The northern part, where the Berry Wiggins rail depot stood is now an oil recycling plant, whilst the southern side is now home to Kingsnorth Bitumen Products Ltd.
However, this part of the southern edge of the Hoo Peninsula served as a Royal Flying Corps airfield from 1914 and after The Great War became a base for airships. The arrival of Berry Wiggins in 1930 saw it develop as Hoo’s first oil refinery and on completion in 1932 a connection from the refinery was made with the Southern Railway’s single-track branch across the bleak marshland. The connection trailed off in a south-westward direction, which required trains to be travelling towards Hoo Junction in order to access the site. The private spur was separated from the SR line by a gate and beyond this, it split into numerous sidings.
By 1964, Berry Wiggins & Co’s oil refinery at Kingsnorth had an annual capacity of 190,000 tons; the company also had a complex established at Manchester (Weaste) which, during World War II, had received a direct hit during a bombing raid in 1940. New builds of tanker wagons came into service for Berry Wiggins after the war, and the Kingsnorth establishment had been joined in 1951 by the BP refinery on the Isle of Grain. The Berry Wiggins complex ceased to refine oil in 1977, its ”Kingsnorth” name now being associated with a power station, but refining at the comparatively newer Grain complex stopped only half a decade later. Subsequently, oil was shipped into the country in an already refined state, but deliveries were still made to Grain thereafter, the last oil train not departing until 1999.
TAKE THREE WAGONS
Berry Wiggins fleet number 68 was built by Charles Roberts in 1927 and registered as number 38398 by the London and North Eastern Railway. Most British based oil companies of the time operated similar tank wagons with a 14 ton capacity, many of which lasted into the 1960s. Overall black fleet number 68 – used to carry fuel oil – was photographed at Hoo Junction in 1968 and features steel wires wrapped around the cylindrical tank body to anchor it to its wooden cradle.
From the mid 1920s the wire ropes on cylindrical tank wagons were discontinued and a horizontal tie rod was introduced between the end stanchion beams. Later on various bracket mounting techniques and welding were adopted which ultimately led to the monocoque bogie-mounted 100 ton oil wagons that run on Britain’s railways in the 21st Century. Berry Wiggins fleet 11, also photographed at Hoo Junction in 1968, is interesting in having no horizontal tie rod but diagonal rods to link the end stanchions with the centre of each solebar and pairs of hold-down rods linking the cylindrical body vertically to the solebar. Similarly, fleet number 11 – again built by Charles Roberts of Wakefield but later, in 1931 – has four wooden saddles to support the cylindrical tank rather than a two section longitudinal cradle. Again registered with the London and North Eastern Railway as number 134, this wagon was lagged to retain the heat of hot-loaded bitumen and was painted black with white lettering and red chevrons. It and similar wagons would have been a familiar sight on the Great Western Railway main line west of Reading as they plied between Kent, Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Berry Wiggins fleet number 120 meanwhile was the last of the company’s five strong fleet of 14 ton petrol tank wagons numbered from 116 and built by G.R. Turner in 1942. 120 was registered with the London Midland and Scottish Railway as 162603 and, like the Peco model illustrated above, was painted silver with mostly red lettering although the words Kingsnorth Petroleum in the Berry Wiggins roundel were picked out in blue and the speed restriction star was black. The solebar was red with white lettering with black springs and brake gear. Note in this case the horizontal tie rod between the stanchions and twin saddles but the absence of any access ladders when pictured at Hoo in 1968.
ON THE TRAIL OF BERRY WIGGINS
After closure, the branch line from Newnham on Severn to Upper Soudley, Ruspidge and Whimsey became a linear park for the expanding town of Cinderford and near the site of the former Ruspidge Halt Berry Wiggins wagon 171 has been preserved as an historical feature.
With a tare weight of 11 tons and load of 20 tons, 171 also has TSL (Tank Services Ltd ) markings on its anchor mounted barrel and a solebar plate with the cast characters B-1964 and 749652. 171 was also one of the last unfitted private owner wagons built, although some of the final Berry Wiggins tank vehicles had roller bearings. The fleet was condemned 1971-2 and did not receive TOPS numbers.
While the schematic map at the top of this feature focuses on the area immediately around the Berry Wiggins depot between Whimsey and Nailbridge, the geographic map above shows the full extent of the railways once operating in the Forest of Dean.