Goole's success as a port came from its ability to compete with the railways to export coal from the Humber. This was achieved by a system of compartment boats developed by William Bartholomew in 1863. They were locally known as "Tom Puddings" ("Tom" meaning something large and "Pudding" because they compartments looked like intestines or a string of sausages or black pudding) and consisted of long trains of compartments which could hold around 40 tons of coal each. The compartments were lifted into awaiting ships at Goole via hydraulically operated hoists. Between 1863 and 1912, five hoists were used at Goole to cope with the enormous tonnage of coal. The system continued to be used up to 1986.
Normally trains of 21 compartments were used, although sometimes up to 38 could be carried in one go. The compartments often floated at different levels depending on the type of coal being carried. The front few compartments were usually not fully loaded to make the barge propeller more efficient. The limiting factor was the size of the locks (trains often had to be split) and any side winds which could skew the train too close to the bank.
Originally locks were between 215 and 265 feet long which allowed about ten compartments through in one go. Eventually all the locks from Goole to Castleford were increase to 450 for a maximum of 19 compartments. Sometimes union agreements limited the size of the boats.
A large number of empty compartments and tugs were based at Goole. Collieries would inform Goole daily with their requirements. This allowed empty trains to go from Goole and be efficiently distributed between the different collieries and to ensure there were enough spare compartments to go round.
In the busy periods a tug would only have to visit one colliery, but later they had to call at two or three to be economical.
At the colliery, each compartment was dragged up from the canal onto a railway bogey running on an underwater railway track. These were then taken by an engine to the colliery for the coal to be loaded.
Once it was loaded, the locomotive would push the compartment back into the canal where it would float off the bogie and could be shackled together into a boat train and towed to Goole. The system became known as the "Railway on the Water". It was so economical that the cost of transporting coal this way was far cheaper than the railways or other canals in the country.
When they were towed, the compartments were held together by chains. An axe was kept handy to cut the chains as if one compartment sank, it could drag the others down. Each compartment had a walkway to allow the boatmen to move around. A leader or jebus was attached to the front of the tug to act as a breakwater. The tugs were originally steam-powered and just given numbers, but were later powered by diesel and named after the collieries they served.
Once the compartments arrived at Goole, they were split up and stored ready to meet the demands of the outgoing ships. At peak times over 200 compartments could arrive at Goole each day. South Dock and Ouse Dock were used as storage places and could hold up to 800 loaded compartments sorted on the grade of coal they were carrying.
The hoists at Goole were 90 feet high. No.1 was built of wood and the rest of steel. A cage was lowered to below the water level and a loaded compartment was moved over it. At the same time hydraulic pistons could move the empty one out of the way. The loaded compartment was then secured to the cage and the whole thing raise to the required height for the ship. Another pair of pistons then rotated the case 125 degrees to allow the coal to tip out into the ship's hold. Two "spout men" would use shovels to ensure no coal was left behind.
In the early days the hoists could handle around 100 tons of coal per hour. This increased to around 300 tons per hour as the design of ships' holds improved. The fastest loading was in 1947 when the "Lady Sheila" loaded 251 tons in half an hour and arrived and sailed on the same tide.
Sometimes the compartments would carry bunker coal for the steamship itself. In most cases this had to be shovelled manually into a skip which was then loaded into the ship's bunker. It would take four men half a day to empty a compartment.
Hoist work was controlled at Goole by a Coal Inspector, two assistants and six Hoist Foremen. The Foremen checked which compartments needed tipping and would write the name of the ship with chalk on the side of the compartment. The spout men would then know which order to do the work.
It was often a Health and Safety nightmare, with the hoist operator having instructions shouted to him which he could not hear and inadequate lighting when working at night. The tug men were notorious for turning up to work drunk and they often went poaching on the riverbanks to try and supplement their income.
No. 4 hoist was originally a floating hoist that could be moved from one part of the docks to another. It was built in 1910 and dismantled in 1968. Various devices were used to keep the coal in good condition. These ranged from devices at the collieries to covers on the compartments which were important to keep certain types of coal dry. Most coal damage came when it was tipped by the hoist into the ship's hold. Anti-breakage devices were tried at the end of some hoists, which would gently lower the coal on small conveyor belts, but they were fiddly to use. In the end the cheapness of the system was more important than the quality of the product.
Coal was not just transported via compartments. Railway Dock had a high-level railway coal drop run by the L&YR. Wagons would enter along a high-level railway line, be tipped in to ships, and returned via a low line.
The use of Tom Puddings ceased in 1986 due to reduced markets. The final shipment was made to the MV. Dimple with coal from South Yorkshire ending a system with 122 years of use carrying 55 million tons of coal. Of all the five coal hoists that Goole had, only hoist No. 5 remains intact and is now a preserved building used as part of the waterways museum. There are also the diesel tugs, two jebuses and four compartments in existence. Hoist No. 3 was demolished in 1993 as part of dock expansion, although the controls were preserved for display.
The last compartments were built in 1977. Accidents sometimes happened with ships hitting loaded compartments and sinking them. This was made worse if they were tied together in dock as one sinking could bring down many others. In the worse accident, sixty loaded compartments sank in Ouse Dock in 1960. Sunken compartments were recovered by lifting them up with chains or screws, or in extreme cases by lowering the water level in the docks.