Although the edible banana (from the botanical sub-genus Musa sapientum – “the fruit of the wise men”) had been known in Great Britain since the seventeenth century, the fruit was first imported in quantity by Edward Fyffe in 1901. Bananas grow on a large plant with a single flowering head which bears around 6 to 9 clusters or “hands” of between 10 and 20 bananas. Most of those sold in the UK used to come from the West Indies or the Canary Islands where the fruit had been grown, with the similar plantain, as a subsistence crop since its introduction at the end of the fifteenth century.
The easily perishable fruit is picked when green and unripe and transported by sea in ships with insulated and refrigerated holds. These vessels used to dock (depending on the customer or shipping line) at a variety of British ports. Avonmouth (Bristol), Hull, Southampton, Garston (Liverpool) and Preston (Lancashire) were among them. A large trade with Britain existed in the 1920s and 1930s. An average shipment would be 4000 bunches, these being a large stem containing four or five hands. The bunches of most varieties had to be straw packed in returnable wooden crates, while the tougher variety from Jamaica could be carried loose. With the need to quickly transport a large volume of the fruit to the ripeners and wholesalers throughout the country, the railway was the obvious choice for many years. However, the fruit required special handling and heating and ventilating conditions en route.
Therefore, from the pre-Grouping days of the early 1920s, dedicated banana vans were designed by several railway companies (LNWR, GWR and LSWR) in conjunction with the trade to work in complete trains or rafts (groups of wagons) to carry the fruit by rail from the ports to its destination.
For most of their life, these vans were insulated and fitted with steam heating pipes on the ceilings and adjustable ventilators to allow the ripening process to continue en route. The sides were usually marked “Steam Banana”. When the vans were emptied at the ripening shed, railway staff had to sweep them out and burn any loose straw left inside, always keeping a watchful eye out for any tropical spiders that may have accompanied the bananas!
World War Two saw the suspension of the British banana trade in November 1940. The wartime Ministry of Food decided to focus on maintaining a good supply of fewer varieties of fruits rather than a poor supply of several. Citrus fruits were chosen and the banana ships, which had refrigerated holds, were allocated to other cargoes. The growers in the West Indies were given basic compensation for the loss of trade. The railway vans were allocated to other traffic.
At the end of hostilities and following pleas from the colony to the Ministry, the first shipment from Jamaica (containing ten million bananas) on the Fyffes ship S.S.Tilapa docked at Avonmouth in December 1945. As a new generation of Britons sampled the fruit, the trade was rebuilt to its pre-war level and beyond. In the 1950s, more bananas were imported from the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, St.Lucia and St.Vincent). This group of islands is around 1000 miles closer to the UK than Jamaica.
To cope with the increased traffic, 100 new insulated and steam heated banana vans (570000-570099) were built by the London Midland and Scottish Railway to diagram D2111 under Lot No.1421 in 1946. They had a 10-ton load capacity and were fitted with vacuum braking but, as their wheelbase was only nine feet, they could not run at passenger train speeds. Their tare (unladen) weight was 9 tons 2 cwt. British Railways built 1550 more to this and similar designs between 1951 and 1958, the last batch being built without steam heating.
From 1954, the ventilators (on those railway vans fitted with them) were removed and the apertures sealed up as the vehicles passed through workshops. The branding “Steam” was removed from all vans so marked at the same time. From 1956, the steam controls on individual vehicles were removed. By the late 1950s new, more disease resistant varieties of banana were being developed which yielded heavier crops. However, these were of a more delicate variety and prone to damage and bruising than existing varieties.
This problem was overcome by cutting the hands off the stem and packing them in cardboard boxes at origin. “Tropical Packed Bananas” allowed more fruit to be housed in a smaller space. The problem of returning empty wooden crates was also thus eliminated.
In the late 1950s a new British Railways standard 12-ton capacity insulated banana van was designed in conjunction with the trade to reflect their contemporary requirements. This van was more heavily insulated than previous designs and was not steam heated, although it was fitted with a through steam pipe so that it could run with older vans. The steam heat pipes were removed from all banana vans from 1963.
During the 1960s, the banana trade’s use of rail transport steadily diminished due to changing distribution requirements and the increased efficiency of road transport following changes in road regulation. This saw the withdrawal of many of the pre-Nationalisation vans. The final move from rail was made in 1979, rendering the last seventeen operating banana vans redundant.
The Ribble Steam Railway hopes to restore one of its vans as a Banana Van in the near future to reflect on the heavy traffic that passed through Preston Dock in its heyday.
Original article by Martin Skrzetuszewski for the Bluebell Railway – with thanks to Fyffes PLC for supplying information for this article, from “Fyffes and the Banana, 1888-1988, A Centenary History” by Dr. Peter N. Davies, published by Athlone Press.