How One Thing Can Lead to – Who Knows Where?

Collated by Gerald Lloyd Williams

One of the delights offered by the DOGA chat-line is how the discussions ramify, how a straight-forward, innocent request for some technical information can lead off into arcane fields, along tangled paths of memory. Oh, and it usually provides a definitive answer to the original question too, somewhere along the way!

Not very long ago, Mike Derwent posted:
OK, a strange question! What size are (were) traditional 1cwt coal sacks?
The Peco /Modelscene offerings scale out at 3′-9″ high, which looks too tall, whilst the sacks on the Harburn Hamlets coal sack load work out at 2′-0″ high which seems too short but somehow look alright. Maybe the Harburn sacks are of a more modern style?
Perhaps I should get out more!

John Harrat was first off the mark with:
If the sack was required to carry 1cwt of material, then sacks for differing substances would be different sizes depending what was going into them ,so I feel there was probably a choice of sacks sizes hauliers.
Big john
I have never seen any coal sacks except those used on the horse drawn drays and the were about 30 inches high and open top the railways transported their coal lose in trucks.

Gerald Lloyd Williams and Stuart May both agreed (in Stuart’s words):
I recall that our coalman had the sack top up to near the top of his head and the bottom of that sack was about level with his waist/top of buttocks.
Stuart pointing out initially Don’t forget that sand and cement, and any other fine-particled material requires less volume for a similar weight to larger, coarser material;although Gerald’s coalman was a little lower slung – from about half way down the back of his head to rather below his buttocks (he was of course bent well forward under the load)

Both gave the vote to 3′ 9″ (ie. Peco); and this was supported by Mick Allison and Richard Bourne, the latter adding:
I can remember being given the job of counting how many were delivered. Our house was up an alleyway off the main street and a long trudge for the coalmen. Nowadays they’d have to have some mechanical contrivance, probably energy-consuming, to shift them. Health & Safety y’know.
Afterwards was the real fun. When the best part of a ton of coal had been tipped down the hatchway into the cellar I was allowed to go
down and trim it up, pretending I was firing a loco. This was called imaginative play. Can’t do that on a computer!

The discrepancy between 3′ 9″ and John Harrats’s 30 inches high (the first response above) came up again in Mick’s contribution:
I am old enough to remember coal sacks mainly on flatbed lorries & they had to be nearer 3ft 9ins, 2ft would probably be the new sizes following health & safety regulations

This was amplified by Alvar Yorke:
On reflection, I seem to recall some EU (probably added to by the UK) law about maximum weights for lifting being set at 25Kg. All sand and cement sacks for example are set at this weight. They are also only about 2 feet high.

Peter Rumbelow was definitive:
I have been googling. Modern coal sacks for sale on the net to hold 50 kilos (nearest modern equivalent to 1 cwt. or 112lbs.) are 28″ x 32″ presumably when empty and flat. There seems to be a comprehensive website on historic coalbags but it is currently unavailable due to exceeding its bandwidth (too much information!). A Google image search reveals thumbnails from this website with pictures of 1950s looking coalmen carrying sacks with separate pictures of the sacks and the back of the coalman. As to the question ‘which of the model sizes is correct?’, the answer within ’00’ tolerances (this answer is not applicable to P4) appears to be ‘they both are’. The shorter ones are coal sacks, the taller ones are coke sacks, coke being less dense than coal.

By now the discussion had branched off into several directions Mick Allison’s flatbed lorries contrasting with John Harrat’s original reference to horse-drawn drays brought forth many reminiscences of horse-drawn deliveries of milk, bread and beer in addition to coal: from Ireland (Alvar), the Outer Hebrides (Alan ??), Orkney (Bruce Fletcher), thence further afield from South Australia (Ron Solly) and Beautiful Tasmania (Steve Otterman), as well as nearer home – the Derbyshire Peaks (Bruce in an earlier incarnation) and West Sussex (Gerald)

These included disquisitions on the ladling of milk from churn to household jug; the nearest station to Young’s late lamented brewery; and on equine flatulence (wouldn’t that be Alvar again?)

Almost the last word must go to our revered Chairman who, with his usual thoroughness, went into several of these considerations in judicious depth:
Interesting! I’ve spent a couple of days trying to find a coal man from the fifties era to ask. At long last I discovered one Mr. Wilkins (Wilkie) who had an ex army Austin and did occasional coal drops if you needed a bag or two. Major deliveries came from Cade’s, RACS (the Co-op), Charringtons,the major companies and Smiths a small local set up, they delivered to pre order whereas a stroll down Thornford road and a knock on Wilkie’s door would see a bag dropped off in about an hour.
Wilkie still had some old sacks in his garage and we measured them after a reminisce over a couple of Brown ales. A local speciality was a Wilkie seaside where we had a whip round for fuel swept out the truck loaded a couple of park benches for the adults and Wilkie drove us to the sea along with the odd crate or two of Catfords amber nectar.
So now to the final denouement The bags I measured came in three types Coal, Coke/smokeless, plastic coke/smokeless. The first two types were made from a sort of tarpaulin closely woven material which seemed to have a rope sewn into the seams(sowing being with a fine twine). Coal sacks were 890m.m. X450 m.m. Smokeless larger at 950 X 550. The plastic sacks were 1000m.m. X 600m.m.and were a silver grey colour. The sacks when full went into a round shape not square like a cement sack this meant it fitted into the curve of a drayman’s back and according to Wilkie was emptied over the shoulder into the bunker.

Now to the transport. Coal is not delivered by Lorry (unless you are Wilkie) it comes on a Dray either horse or motor. A horse dray has a seat for the drayman to drive from whereas a horse lorry has the driver on the shafts or on the flat bed. A horse dray has a headboard and frequently a tail board a lorry doesn’t. Slaters make a horse lorry not a coal dray. Motor drays have a double Height head board allowing sacks to be stacked double height (this can also happen on Horse drays but not in hilly areas unless you provide a chain horse for the hills). I know this because a commercial vehicle follower told me about it when Batcombe was on show. He also pointed out that No coalman delivered anything without a set of scales on the truck and a spare sack. If a customer complained of short weight in a sack it was reweighed into the spare sack using the scales in front of them. You need the spare sack in case the first delivery wants the coal weighed. The scales had a quarter weight (28 pounds 112 lb equals one cwt) so four weighs to the sack.

Now as in all things this is not diffinative in rural areas a coal merchant might also deliver lime or indulge in light haulage (sugarbeet, grain, etc) during the appropriate season to cover light coal trade. They would be more likely to use a sided motor lorry very much like Wilkie who had used his war gratuity to buy a surplus lorry and did haulage, removals, etc ( the truck had a tilt so we didn’t die of exposure on our trips). You need to research on this one. As to types of vehicle Cade’s and RACS used bullnosed Bedford drays (RACS with a red cab) I can’t find out what Charringtons used but they painted vehicles green. Smiths used an ex army Dodge with a mid green cab.

One thing to remember was that urban deliveries were pretty labour intensive Smiths for example had a driver a foreman who sat next to the driver and another three men who travelled on the load. This is a contrast to the last time I saw coal delivered where one man turned up with an auto bagger truck and one plastic sack which he used to take coal from the truck measure device to the bunkers.

I liked to use the old cotton insulating tape to model coal sacks formed round a drinking straw for full sacks or pressed flat for stacked sacks.
Reference horse deliveries round my way Price’s bakery delivered by horse until they closed in the mid fifties, their bakery and stables have only just been demolished. The RACS bakery delivered by horse (feed the horse stale buns from the driver one farthing a bun) until they went to electric vans around 1956. Our milk rounds men all used electric floats except costers the local dairy which used a 100E van. However my local roundsmen have all disappeared.
Hope this is of use

There is little to be said after that! But nevertheless the very last word must be given to Tony Riley:
Some might think my contribution to this debate is the most useless to date. [has there ever been a DOGA prize for this field of human endeavour i.e. useless contibution to solve a members query?]
Being brought up in a mining village at our schools annual sports day included a sack race. Naturally coal sacks were used, turned inside out so that the ‘clean’ side was against our clothes. Open weave hessian sacks don’t really have a clean side my mother said! I remember my sack came right up to my armpits and was quite heavy to hold up there. The height of a coal sack is therefore the distance from my feet to my armpits when I was eight years old. I was quite tall for my age.
I hope that helps

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This article was first published in the Summer 2007 Double O Gauge Association Journal
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