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 .

Wolverton Works and WWII Aircraft

Just as had happened in the 1914-1918 War. Wolverton Works was requisitioned for more important work than building railway carriages. Technology and engineering had moved on over 20 years and greater skills were required of Wolverton workers. Carpenters shaped and framed the wings for Horsa gliders and repaired the wings of Hawker Typhoons. Machinists built gun sights and parts or tanks, including the large tank wheels, something the works could easily adapt to. Woodworkers shaped rifle butts.

Larger projects included the building of Bailey Bridges. These bridges, named after their designer, came in component parts which could be transported and assemble quickly over streams and rivers. Wolverton also built over 8,000 assault landing craft for the D Day invasion.
The Horsa gliders, shown in this photograph, were built for D Day to carry  men and equipment across the Channel. They were substantial aircraft with a wing span of 67 feet, Some concept of the scale is shown here. They were towed into the air by airplanes. The craft was named after the 5th century Saxon invader Horsa.
This last photograph show men and women who worked on the repair of a Whitley bomber. The wings have been cut (presumably to be reassembled later) to allow the huge aircraft into the narrow workshop designed only for railway carriage manufacture. A number of women in the photograph are in overalls, presumably doing mechanical work. Such an idea may not have been imagined in pre-war years.

These photographs are on display at the Milton Keynes Museum. They were probably taken circa 1943-4, prior to the D-Day invasion of France.

Railway Land Purchases

These plans here give some detail about the growth of the railway and Wolverton Town itself in the first 25 years.

The section marked AA was the original purchase, essentially just the line itself because there was no firm intention to build workshops at Wolverton. 27 acres in 1837, one year before the completion of the railway.

Section B was an 8 acre parcel which was for the workshop and some housing. The B is not accurately placed on this map as it is really the part north of the Stratford Road.

Section C, south of the Stratford Road was a 13 acre parcel used for the second station and housing. This land accommodated the “Little Streets.”

No more land was made available by the Trust until 1858 when the strip that you would recognise as Church Street and the Stratford Road was purchased. Building started here in 1860. At the same time more land was purchased north of the Stratford Road for workshop expansion. It was about this time that some of the early northern cottages were demolished to connect the workshops.

At the end of 1866 the Company purchased another field which was to become Buckingham Street, Aylesbury Street, The Square, Radcliffe Street, Bedford Street and Oxford Street.

I am intrigued by the little yellow square at the western end of the new railway works land which is designated “Foreman’s House”. I have looked through the 1871 Census but can find no reference there, so I wonder if it was ever built?

The Reputation of Wolverton Carriage Works

After yesterday’s post about the downgrading of the Carriage Works in 1962, I reproduce this assessment of Wolverton from Edgar and John Larkin’s book The Railway Workshops of Britain 1823-1986. 

In 1962, following the rationalisation of all the main works, Wolverton ceased manufacturing new carriages, except saloons for the royal train. Wolverton’s record for building specially fitted coaches is unrivalled. The most impressive have been for heads of state, and the greatest variety in coach construction is shown in the royal trains of several generations. The longest continuous story is that of the British Royal Family, whose first saloons were produced in the 1840s. These coaches, from various railway companies, reflected contemporary fashions, and appropriately some are preserved at the National Railway Museum, York. Queen Victoria’s 1869 saloon, built at Wolverton, consisted of two six-wheelers connected by a bellows gangway, the first example in Europe of such a feature. The coaches built for King Edward VII’s train of 1903 used the best of traditional crafts­manship, but Queen Elizabeth II’s 1961 saloon incorporated the fashions of the period of its construction, just as its air-conditioned 100 m.p.h. successor reflected those of the 1970s.

The Queen has visited Wolverton Works on several occasions. One such visit was on 17 December 1976, when she went to inspect the new royal train, comprising eight refurbished inter-city coaches built in 1972 as prototypes for the 125 m.p.h. High Speed Trains, and two new royal saloons, No. 2903 for the Queen and No. 2904 for the Duke of Edinburgh. The modern royal train is spartan compared with the luxury of Queen Victoria’s. Lavishly decorated compartments with satin furnishings have given way to carriages which are elegant but plain and functional, with full air-conditioning. The Queen’s saloon has a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom, and a bedroom and bathroom for her dresser. The ceiling panels are white melamine, the main wall finishing is a cream patterned PVC and the furnishings are in shades of blue. Prints of Queen Victoria’s first train journeys were chosen for the Queen’s saloon. Prince Philip’s carriage is slightly smaller, with a kitchen, and a shower instead of a bath. Work on the train began in 1974 and the Queen revisited Wolverton to inspect the completed coaches on 16 May 1977.

It is not always appreciated that most special saloons were actually owned by the railway, and the VIP travellers paid to travel in them. The Duke of Sutherland’s coach, built at Wolverton after the first world war in bird’s-eye maple and owned by the Duke, was a masterpiece of Wolverton craftsmanship.

Wolverton men were proud of their craftsmanship and this neutral assessment underscores the reason for that pride.

Wolverton Works

You would have to spend your life in a bubble not to be aware of the importance of railways growing up in Wolverton. In fact, for the first 110 years there was nothing else. It was a railway town. Railways were life and bread an play.  Oddly, as I see it now, the works had no direct impact on my life as a growing boy in the 40s and 50s. What went on behind the wall was, well, unknown, and I had no curiosity to learn. I might have learned my father’s position and job title but I had no inkling about what he actually did between the daily signals of the works hooter. There was a time to learn what went on behind the wall and that would be when you undertook an apprenticeship. It was I suppose a rite of passage like a bar Mitzvah.
I have been thinking about this because of a request for photographs of the works and my subsequent discovery that the works was something I knew almost nothing about. It was not part of my world.
The wall which extended for about a mile was dominant and rightly criticized by Sir Frank Markham in his history. The aesthetic impression for any visitor to Wolverton was terrible.
The only visual relief was a gate at the bottom of Cambridge Street and a cluster of buildings beyond Radcliffe Street. These were the Public Baths, the Main Gate and Offices, the Fire Station and another set of offices at the Ledsam Street end.
The Public Baths building remains, as does the exterior of the Fire Station built in 1911. All other buildings have now been demolished to make way for the Tesco shopping complex.
There are surprisingly few available photographs but this one, taken before the building of the Fire Station, shows the big building which accommodated the Canteen and presumably offices above. The Canteen, apart from its lunchtime function, was used for all large functions like the Remembrance Day concert and the children’s Christmas Party.

The second photo, taken fifty years later, show the buildings as I remember them. The Stratford Road was still relatively traffic free in those days, but at 7:30 am, 12:30 and 5:30 pm the road would have been heaving with men (mostly), buses and bicycles.

So the triple-gable building which became the main gate must have been built in or after 1911. The clockin the centre was the only public clock in Wolverton that I can recall, other than at the station. Watches were relatively expensive and often regarded as a luxury item. In fact the usual gift for a retiring employee, after 40+ years of service, was a timepiece. The irony that it would no longer be required was probably lost on the givers. “Knocker-uppers” were still employed in parts of the town in the 1940s to get people out of bed in time for work.