Does Wolverton Destroy its Past?

The recent announcement that the remainder of Wolverton works will be redeveloped , leaving little but a vestige of the former railway town, has prompted this question. Those of us who grew up in the town in the middle of the last century knew only a town which was, at most, 100 years old. The house that I grew up in was built in the 1890s and, relatively speaking, was quite young. Those of my contemporaries who lived in houses in Eton Crescent or Stacey Avenue, enjoyed houses that were less than a decade old. We were living in a very modern town.

The 1839 Engine shed on the left.

Time changes our perspective. What was new becomes old. What is old is to be treasured. It becomes our heritage. In my lifetime all of the cottages built in the 1840s have disappeared, along with the original railway works built in 1839. The second and third station have been demolished, together will the Gables and a good section of Church Street and Buckingham Street. The Science and Art Institute suffered a disastrous fire and was subsequently flattened. The works drafting office suffered the same fate. McCorquodale’s print works has also gone.

The Little Streets in the process of demolition

So much for our recent past, but if you look back over a longer period you can see that this is not unusual for Wolverton; it seems very much the norm.

The Wolverton Manor, an area of 2500 acres bounded by the Watling Street in the west, the River Ouse in the north and Bradwell Brook in the east and south, has a history that goes back to Saxon times. The Normans simply took over the existing structure in 1066. By this time, the original village  by the Happy Morn had been abandoned and a newer village settlement made nearer to the castle and church. Oh yes, Wolverton had a castle once and all that remains of that is a mound near the church. It has never been excavated. The Saxon church was replaced in the 12th century and had some later additions, but this church was almost completely replaced in 1815 by a modern church. Bradwell priory, also built in the 12th century, lost most of its buildings in the early 16th century, although some parts survived as farm buildings. On the Watling Street it is possible that some medieval foundations survive in the present buildings, but the comprehensive fire of 1742 destroyed most of the town from the Bull northwards. Earlier buildings include the tower of a late 13th century church (St. Mary Magdalene) and a late 15th century or early 16th century building (Rose and Crown). The 18th century is well-represented along the High Street, with the Bull, the Cock, and the former Three Swans, but much of the former building stock was replaced in the 19th century. Wolverton also retains a few 18th century houses: the Vicarage, Wolverton House and Wolverton Park House, and some 18th century cottages (Manor Farm).

An awful lot of buildings have been lost along the way and you can’t help but observe that many other communities across the country manage to keep some ruins of their castle, their medieval churches and their 16th and 17th century great houses. Wolverton, however, has contrived to lose these buildings and indeed the process continued into the 20th century where most of 1840s Wolverton was demolished.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. You could argue that this betrays a progressive spirit of continual improvement, sweeping away the old to make way for the new; or it can be regarded as rather sad that we are left with so few visible signs of Wolverton’s long and rich heritage. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind. This post will be a survey of what has been lost.

Pre History and Early Medieval

It would be too much to expect much survival from this period, and indeed there isn’t. Archaeological work has revealed traces of settlement all over the manor – the Romano British villa farm at Bancroft is the most spectacular example, but there is also evidence of another villa at Manor Farm and traces of Bronze age settlements in the area known as Wolverton Turn. It also appears that the first Anglian settlers may have chosen this site when they arrived in the early 6th century.

Medieval Wolverton

In the 9th century they moved the village northwards to lower land. The reasons for this are unclear but this remained the medieval village of Wolverton until enclosure was finally effected in 1654. From a high enough vantage point you can see the ridges and furrows of the land where the village once stood.

A surviving building from Bradwell Abbey

As far as the larger houses go there was a castle and evidence of it once being surrounded by a wall. It is suggested that this motte and bailey castle was built of wood, and initially there is every reason to accept this. But it is hard to imagine that as time passed the fortifications were not strengthened by stone walls. Stone after all was readily available from local quarries. Admittedly not a high quality stone, but suitable enough for buildings and defences.

Medieval Old Wolverton

This should immediately provoke the question why is there no remaining evidence? All I can say is that a succession of buildings in different periods may simply have re-used the quarried stone from redundant buildings. Closer to our own time there was apparently a very fine mansion in the 16th century. This was completely rebuilt in 1586 and this house in turn was demolished in the early part of the 18th century. Not a trace today remains. Some of the stone was undoubtedly use to build the new vicarage and some was carted off to various parts of the estate for farm buildings. It is not unreasonable therefore to belive that earlier stone structures, possibly even the castle itself, were recycled. If and when an archaeological dig is undertaken on the site perhaps these questions will be answered.

16th and 17th centuries

The 16th century building known as the Rose and Crown

In Wolverton itself there are no remnants of any 16th or 17th century buildings. On Stony Stratford High Street is the former Rose and Crown building which dates to the 16th century. Everything from the Bull north was destroyed by fire in 1742 and most of the southern part of the High Street was rebuilt in the 19th century. The George is an early 17th century building and the highway has been built up so much over the years the at George’s ground floor is now below ground.

18th Century

Stony Stratford High Street’s 18th century facade

The survival rate gets better in the 18th century and most “old” buildings in Stony Stratford date from the second half of the 18th century. The reason fro this was two great fires, one in 1736 which destroyed Church Street and part of the west side of the High Street, and, far more disastrous in 1742, the fire which started in the Bull and raged northward destroying everything in its path. The church tower of St Mary Magdalen was restored, but there was not the money or interest to replace the church, so only the tower remains. All of the inns were rebuilt to 18th century standards and present this face to the world today.
In Wolverton itself, the vicarage was rebuilt in the mid century using materials from the old manor house and it seems that some of the se materials were used in the Manor Farm cottages which date from the same period. The farm hues at Wolverton Park was built later in the 18th century and the mansion of Thomas Harrison, Wolverton House, was built between 1781-4.
The church was almost completely rebuilt in 1809 retaining only vestiges of the medieval church.

Early 19th century
Wolverton itself started to rebuild in the early 19th century. The canal brought new work to the area and the population of Old Wolverton doubled between 1801 and 1831. Slated Row dates from this first decade.

Early Victorian

Ledsam Street

Some of the first-built cottages on the north side only lasted 15 years before they were pulled down to make way for workshop expansion. The same process ate away at Bury Street until it too had gone by 1895. Gas Street also disappeared at around this time.Only St George’s church and vicarage and part of the school (now the library) and the former Royal Engineer survive from the 1840s. You could argue that some parts of the Reading Room and the Vets Institute (built on the site of the first Market House) survive from that time, but the original architecture has been lost.

Mid Victorian
Wolverton entered a new building phase in 1860 when the Stratford Road and Church Street were constructed up to the Cambridge Street back alley. Most of these buildings survive, including the North Western and the Vic. Some houses were pulled down in the 290th century on Church Street to accommodate the former Empire and the former GPO. Some parts of the south side of Church Street were demolished to make way for the Agora.

Church Street: These houses were replaced by the Empire Theatre and the GPO in the 1920s and 1930s

Late Victorian

Osborne Street

Green Lane, Victoria, Moon and Osborne Streets, Cambridge Street and Windsor Street were built in the 1890s.


Girls and Infants School opened in 1906

The Church Street school was opened in 1896 and the Aylesbury Street school in 1906. Both buildings are still in use today as school. Around them the Radcliffe Trust developed the housing stock in the first two decades of the 20th century. Nothing much has changed. The Craufurd Arms, the Palace and the West End Methodist Chapel were part of that development.

The Elms, built for the doctor c 1905

Wolverton Today

Anyone driving today through the relatively narrow older street of Wolverton will recognise that these houses were not built with cars in mind. Back gardens have been adapted over time to provide some sort of accommodation. However, most of the late Victorian and early 20th century houses were and are substantial 3 bedroom homes and will remain as such for the time being.
One thing we can be sure about is that there will be change. As I have tried to illustrate here, there have been dramatic changes over centuries and in general only a few fragments are left to show us what buildings were like in centuries past. Railway Wolverton had now had its time and I suspect that if I were here in 100 years time, I may have even less of redbrick Wolverton to write about.
The former Manor House at Old Wolverton, pulls down in the  1730s.

The lost Railway Town

178 years ago work began on a maintenance depot on a green field site about a mile away from the old village of Wolverton. It was called the engine shed but it was in fact a large complex of workshops and offices built around a quadrangle. After it was completed in 1839 work began on new housing stock and a new community started to emerge. There was a sense at the beginning that they were making it upas they went along, but in 1840 the LBR hired a company of Birmingham surveyors to properly lay out the new town on the available 22½ acres. Soon the new redbrick town became something of a wonder for travellers who stopped at the station for refreshments while their engine was being changed. Indeed the Refreshment Rooms as they were known, employing 30 busy women,  became the subject of articles, letters and even one romantic novel. By the mid-1840s this new town had a variety of housing stock, shops, schools, a church, pubs, a market house, a reading room and the second Mechanics Institute foundation in the country.
This was Wolverton Station and before the end of the first decade the population dwarfed the old village and overtook the established towns of Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell. Today we learn that the slow erosion of the railway works will now become complete and that no vestige of its former railway presence will remain.
The Wolverton works underwent considerable expansion in the 19th century. After J E McConnell became superintendent in 1846 (more or less at the same time that the L&BR merged into the larger L&NWR) the plant began to manufacture locomotives and this continued until 1871 when an L&NWR rationalisation concentrated carriage building at Wolverton and locomotive building at Crewe. Even so, the works continued to expand, eventually stretching almost a mile along the banks of the canal. At its peak the works employed 5,000 men and supported an urban population that was rare in rural Buckinghamshire. It became the second largest town in the county and only High Wycombe was larger. Wolverton people could feel justly proud of their railway heritage, and despite the burdens of two world wars, Wolverton was still very much a railway town at the time of nationalisation in 1948.
The railways lost their way in the post war period and ironically, road traffic, which had been seen off by the railways in 1840 was making an unstoppable comeback a century later. Wolverton became part of the general railway decline.
The original engine shed disappeared some years ago and was replaced by a Tesco car park. Some of the first houses gave way to workshop expansion in the 19th century and the rest of the 1840s housing stock was demolished in the 1960s to make way for something more modern, although that project, now over 50 years old, is beginning to show signs of age. The late Victorian town, built after 1860, largely remains intact.

What will now be missing is any visible evidence that this was ever a railway town. Does this matter? Perhaps not and in any case there is no purpose or point to winding back the clock. Nonetheless, the historic importance of this railway town lingers. When the new town of Milton Keynes was conceived the very existence of Wolverton and the post war development of Bletchley provided an anchor point in the north and the south as the basis for the development of virgin fields. Had there not been this urban concentration, it is doubtful that the new city planners would have paid much attention to the area. If Robert Stephenson’ s preferred route through Buckingham had not been blocked in the 1830s we might be thinking of that small town as a new city today.

The end of Wolverton’s Railway history

This article has just been published in
Reproduced here in full.

Wolverton Works to be demolished by 2020 – will it also bring the end of the Royal Train?
Published: 22nd November 2016

Milton Keynes Council approves demolition of the World’s oldest railway works
Wolverton Works, the World’s oldest longest continually open standard gauge railway works is to be demolished within the next four to five years. The decision was made at a Milton Keynes Council Planning meeting on 17 November amidst some controversy when considering the St Modwen, Works’ owners, application.

This was because following a local planning referendum 18 months ago, Wolverton’s residents overwhelmingly voted to retain the buildings in any redevelopment. The whole Works forms part of a Conservation area, thought to be one of the UK’s largest as it includes a huge railway-built housing estate for Works’ employees.

Historic England refused to ‘list’ the buildings saying that they were already protected. Planning Conditions attached to the decision also breached more planning policies with only 10% affordable housing and a below par Section 106 planning gain fund demanded.

A brief history
The Works in its heyday a century ago, employed over 5000 people and was the very reason for Wolverton’s existence. It was built to service the World’s first long distance intercity line, the London to Birmingham Railway, who chose the greenfield site to locate their main Works in around 1836 because it was roughly half-way between London and Birmingham. It was also adjacent to the Grand Union Canal making it easier for building materials to be brought to site and ironically started the demise of the canal’s fortunes as railways transported goods.

The Works was also heavily involved in three war efforts, the Boer War and both World Wars. It built General Haig’s train and ambulance trains as well as repairing planes in WW2.

After British Rail ownership, Wolverton Works was bought in 2001 by Alstom to carry out acceptance and reliability modifications to their new train fleets such as the Pendolinos. When this work was complete, the French train builders sold the Works to the property developers St Modwen who leased the works to Railcare. They in turn entered administration in July 2013, just weeks before the 175th anniversary.

In September 2013, the Administrators sold the business to Knorr-Bremse, (KB) but only after half the 250 strong workforce had been made redundant. Since then, KB has quadrupled the workforce on the strength of a five year lease, which expires in 2018. The latest projects there include manufacturing Crossrail platform screens, in a refurbished workshop, and replacing every external Pendolino door. A new contract re-engineering Class 321 electric trains for Voith is about to commence bringing the overhead cranes back into use in the Lifting Shop.

Other workshops have been modernised and include a new carriage corrosion treatment unit while the traversers have been brought back into full use following electronic control panel upgrades. A new staff car park has been created near the Royal Train Shed.

Royal farewell?
The Royal Train has been constructed and based at Wolverton since 1869 and is now likely to be relocating after 150 years there. The existing Royal Train Shed was built in 1988 and will also be demolished to make way for housing overlooking the canal.

Some of the Royal Train staff now fear that the train will no longer operate if relocated from Wolverton but if it carries on, it is understood that Derby could be the new home – but the train may be retired and enter preservation.

Milton Keynes 50
Milton Keynes will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in under eight weeks time. The Council is looking to celebrate this throughout 2017 using the town’s heritage but curiously agreed to lose most of it! But the debate seemed to centre on the Council’s squeezed finances and the need to try and catch up on their housing targets set by Government.

Andrew MacLean, Head Curator of the National Railway Museum sent a statement to the planning meeting emphasising just how important Wolverton Works was to UK history, but to no avail.

They said:
St. Modwen said that the £100m Wolverton Works regeneration plans will support hundreds of current and future rail-related jobs for the town and deliver much-needed new homes and community facilities for Wolverton. In September, planning was approved for the construction of a Lidl store in an early phase of St. Modwen’s wider masterplan and construction will commence in spring 2017.

St Modwen say that the key features of the regeneration plans for Wolverton Works are:

• Jobs: Provision of business space for Knorr-Bremse RailServices Ltd, protected for future rail-related employment use only

• Supporting small businesses: New business space providing premises for small/ medium size businesses and start-ups

• Homes for all: Up to 375 new homes – a mix for all ages, family sizes, needs and pockets

• Funding for social infrastructure: contribution of c.£4m towards vital services of which £3m is allocated to education

• Heritage value: Opening up what is currently a closed site, existing buildings’ facade retention and heritage features throughout public spaces

• New community space: The potential to create a railway heritage centre – St. Modwen is discussing opportunities with Milton Keynes Museum

• New open spaces: Provision of a new public square and multiple landscaped spaces equivalent, in total, to the size of 2 football pitches

• Architectural identity: Use of a ‘Design Guide’ to ensure new buildings reflect the Conservation Area with pitched roofs, use of brick, terrace housing and other key features

• War memorial: Publically accessible space allocated for a memorial

Gary Morris, Senior Development Manager at St. Modwen said: “ We have worked closely with Milton Keynes Council, local stakeholders and the Wolverton community to develop a sensitive design for the Works. Not only will these plans enhance the unique identity of the town and reflect its much-loved railway heritage, but they will also encourage further economic growth and regeneration for the town.”

Further planning applications will be brought forward in due course, to determine the exact designs of the new buildings. comments:
In April, St Modwen wrote to Phil Marsh they would not get involved in the War Memorial and that it was for Knorr-Bremse to attend to. This was included into the planning application at the last minute to help garner votes. St Modwen also still says that only 300 jobs are at The Works. It is in fact around 480, Knorr-Bremse’s figures. Initially, there was to be provision for a Heritage Centre either. Network Rail has confirmed it is looking at the future of the Royal Train.

St Modwen also said that safeguarding jobs could only be achieved by demolishing the Works and building a new one. Nick Brailey, Communications Manager for Knorr-Bremse told Phil Marsh in February 2016 that they would ot be relocating if they had to remain in the existing buildings.

The future?
Whatever the pressures on the Council brought by St Modwen and Knorr-Bremse behind the scenes, it emerged in the planning meeting that Knorr-Bremse had not yet told St Modwen their requirements for a new Works. Once this has been established, a detailed planning application will be submitted for approval and no demolition will take place until all Approvals have been obtained. This will take up to two years.

The development will be delivered in phases to avoid business interruption to Knorr-Bremse. Once the foodstore has been built, phase two will see Knorr Bremse move to the west of the site say St Modwen ( where they already work ) and a new premises can be built for them. The final phase will be the new homes, and what is described as ‘potentially’ a community/ heritage centre and public spaces on the west part of the site in around 3-5 years’ time.

And finally
One key point which the Council, Knorr-Bremse and St Modwen are all silent on is the provision of a level crossing for HGV’s to access the site. It is known that the Office of Rail and Road do not sanction any new level crossings but as the new one will be inside the Works curtilage, it will be the Health & Safety Executive that approve it or otherwise. This was brought up at the Planning meeting by a local councillor but ignored by the rest of the meeting.

This also ignored locally agreed planning policies and any protection afforded by being inside a Conservation Area. Progress can be followed at .