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Stourbridge Shed

Notes by
Ian Sixsmith

 

This very interesting article first appeared in the British Railways Illustrated magazine in June 1999, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mr. George Reede of Irwell Press, Clophill, Bedfordshire.

Ostensibly a simple, uncomplicated shed, Stourbridge had something of a tangled history - notable perhaps more for the 'might-have-beens' of its life than for anything else. The story begins back in 1865 when, on 18 October, the GW's Engineer Mr Grierson submitted a proposal to the Locomotive, Carriage and Permanent Way Committee for an engine shed at Stourbridge 'of adequate dimensions to accommodate all the Engines required for working that District the cost of which is estimated at £8,000, less such sum as the Stourbridge Railway Co. may contribute in consideration of their obligations to provide a Shed for two Engines'. This was 'discussed and referred to the Board for consideration'. Quite what was being discussed is not clear; £8,000 would have bought far more than the simple four road shed that, eventually appeared, so was there a prospect of two sheds, the GW and the Stourbridge Co. or, more likely, did the former hope that the latter would simply throw in the money it would have spent on its own shed?

Shed

The original shed of the 1860s, photographed about 1926, cleared of its locos and ready for a new lease of life. At first the new roundhouse was to be a double affair, with room made at the back for possible extension to four roundhouses, akin to Old Oak Common, which really would have been a long way from these 1860s origins. All this was drastically curtailed in the very changed circumstances of the post-Great War years; retaining the 'old shed' was a useful make-weight in the decision to abandon the double shed and settle for a single roundhouse. All trace of doors has long gone but they must have been there once - note the posts at the front, for tying them open...

The next year things become clearer and on 2 May 1866 Armstrong, the GW Locomotive Engineer, presented a report 'relative to the additional Shed accommodation which with a view to efficient working of Engines... should be provided at various places on the Line'. This included a number of proposals - the new shed at Slough for instance, and extensions to existing sheds at Oxford and Bordesley as well as, curiously, a shed for three engines at Victoria station, London, cost £500. This it seems was never built, but the last subject in Armstrong's Report, a new shed at Stourbridge 'to accommodate 15 Engines' was indeed built. It too would cost £500, the same amount set aside for only three engines at Victoria - presumably something of more substantial construction was considered suitable for the big London station. Whatever, £500 was a long way from the £8,000 of the year before; maybe it was a device to terrify 'the Stourbridge Co.' into submission!

Shed

The 'old shed' (or 'motor shed') looking a bit sorry for itself in the 1930s. The railmotors, followed by the diesel railcars, were housed here, though it is said that locos awaiting repair - with wheels out for attention and so on - were also kept in the shed. Later came the diesel cars and provision was made for oil fuelling; by the 1950s locos were stabled there 'when required'.

Inside the four road straight shed about 1926

Inside the four road straight shed about 1926. The left middle road led out of the rear, where lifting apparatus was provided - daylight can be clearly seen around the edge of the door. The shed's great age (it was already some sixty years old by now) is indicated by the complete absence of any recognisable method of smoke removal and the gloriously incongruous gas lamps.

In the event the shed at Stourbridge turned out to be a rather substantial edifice, rather beyond what five hundred quid would have bought (one would think) and it was to have a long life. It was solidly constructed, in local brick and was high and roomy; it was (for the time at least) far from being some mean hovel. Its four roads (only one led through, extending out the back as the engine lifting road) could accommodate about twelve-fourteen locos of the day. After that, it fades entirely from the GWR nineteenth century record, and the next mention I can find only comes in a list of 12 April 1905. Ten new turntables, including 'one at Stourbridge' were ordered from Ransomes Rapier of Ipswich, at a total cost of £9,500. The 'one at Stourbridge', as it turned out, was destined not to appear - see later.

The ancient, blackened 'old shed'

The ancient blackened 'old shed' with the bright new roundhouse forming a contrast beyond, 1926. The lamps outside are (presumably) examples of the 'Inverted Incandescent Burner Lighting' asked for by Churchward back in 1912.

Fortunately, further fragments of correspondence remain to give some faint idea of life at Stourbridge after that. A memo of 6 June 1912 reveals certain developments for instance: 'Owing to additional sidings for motors and the tall coal stage having been installed at Stourbridge, it is essential that the Loco. Yard be better lighted'. Churchward in a personal memo asked for 'Inverted Incandescent Burner Lighting' - gas to you and me - at a cost of £50.

at Man's departure

Full Churchward glory, five years after the Great Man's departure. What became of the famous borehole is unknown - I suspect it was quietly sealed up and forgotten. Certainly nothing much seems to have changed, practically - a BR Inspection note of about 1957 simply says: 'Water for locomotive purposes is pumped from a well and an emergency connection is taken from the local water authority. The main storage tank over the coal stage is of 74,500 gallons.'

There was a protracted period of trouble with the water supply at Stourbridge and late in the year, on 5 December 1912, a new bore was proposed as the answer to the problem of poor quality water in the existing well. This was not a thing to be undertaken lightly, and some £800 of expenditure was in prospect, just to reach the right strata. The unsuitable stuff permeated the first 300ft., and this would have to be fitted with water-proof tubing to stop it contaminating the good water. Things turned out worse even than this, and by May 1914 it was apparent that another 200ft. would be needed, taking the borehole to 1,000ft. This was duly done and the bore taken down to this depth but War broke out, and after all this laborious, inching effort the work was halted, and the well not brought into use! Come 1920, the GW turned its attention once more to water at Stourbridge. The situation in the meantime had not got any better; far from it. Not only was the water still of horrible quality but the vastly increased numbers of engines meant that not enough could be got from the existing well. All this while the new deep well, bored with such labour and all but finished, lay unused beneath the yard. To make matters worse still, the Stourbridge and District Water Board had reopened its own pumping station, further lowering the level of the GW's supply. To add insult to injury the Board was now selling water to the GW, at the then very high rate of 1/6d per 1,000 gallons. There was some unstated problem with getting water up from the 1914 borehole, and it was suggested that ‘an air lift’ (that is, a supply of compressed air delivered down in the shaft to force up the water - I presume...) might be in order. 'Experiments', using a boiler and compressor already available in store at Wolverhampton would cost £1,000 (the original cost of the 1914 bore it will be remembered). 'An alternative ... in order to make use of the borehole' was a second bore 'to accommodate deep well pumps'. If the cost of £ 1,000 for the air lift experiment was a telling indication of inflation over the War years since 1914, this new bore was altogether more startling. Its cost? £9,000! Clearly the borehole project had turned out in a most unexpected and unwelcome way. With this (the GW in a state of some shock, it must be presumed) the matter of the Stourbridge borehole disappears - as is the nature of many subjects in the archives. Few can be followed right through from beginning to end.

Coal stage and water tank

The new tank, built in two compartments as The Great Western Magazine tells us, so that one could be scrubbed out and resealed while the other still worked. The coal platform was 13ft. high; later on an extension was added at the other side, 14ft. high, to serve more modern engines. By the 1950s, with nearly ninety engines on the books, Stourbridge was producing eleven tons of ash a week and consuming nearly a thousand tons of coal.

To return to pre-War times; in January 1913 it was proposed to renew the sand furnace, at a cost of £395, and this at least seems to have been accomplished before War could put a stop to it. But there were much more important developments in the offing... With the growth of industry in the west Midlands Stourbridge was crowded almost from the day it opened its doors. (It did have doors once but they disappeared long before even the Grouping, prey to accident and decay - the only indications to remain were the door securing posts - see the picture.) As early as 1907, the Locomotive and Stores committee had authorised the purchase of additional land close by, in order to erect a new engine shed but, on the traditional timescale of such matters, it was 1913 before the necessary land purchase was complete and proper estimates could be prepared - on 24 July that year the Board heard that: 'The existing engine shed affords accommodation for 8 tender and 4 tank engines only, whereas there are now 50* tank and 13* tender engines, also 8 motor cars, appropriated to the depot, and traffic developments will in all probability necessitate this number being augmented. The working is being carried on under most disadvantageous conditions and very uneconomically, the cost of labour being considerably in excess of what would be necessary with a shed of modern design with adequate accommodation. It is therefore recommended that a new locomotive depot be provided ... at an estimated cost of £67,330, made up as under: Engineering Dept. £55,000 Locomotive Dept. £11,000 Signal Dept. £830 For which expenditure is required.' *later altered (date unknown) in pencil to 46 and 15 respectively.

The original shed, serving for the steam motors in 1932

The original shed, serving for the steam motors in 1932. Photograph W. Potter.

All this too, fell foul of hostilities. Once War was declared most of these capital projects, if yet unstarted, were quietly put aside, to be revived, or not, in the peace - the new Stourbridge shed was officially postponed by a Board of Directors' Minute of 6 November 1914. Effectively it was 1920 or so before thought could be given again to such matters, and a memo of 7 April that year reveals that the 65ft. turntable ordered to be installed back in 1905 never appeared.

Inside the new roundhouse

Inside the new roundhouse. Engines were smaller then, it is true, but this is a wonderful indication of the great size and open, airy quality of the new roundhouse sheds. Doubtless some unpleasant times in one of the cramped, squat, low-roofed Dean sheds had played a part in forming Churchward's grand design.

The shed had soldiered on with a 45ft. turntable, though whether this was installed in 1905 instead of the 65ft unit, or had been there for years before that, who can say? This 45ft. turntable was officially termed 'dilapidated', so its condition must have been truly ruinous. In a prudent measure, the replacement 65ft. turntable ('from stock') was ordered to be 'put down in a permanent position assigned to it in the new engine shed scheme - total estimated cost £8,036'.

oundhouse building

Stourbridge remained a single roundhouse building, for in truth though one or two of the straight sheds were subsequently extended, none of the roundhouses were ever added to, despite careful arrangements for this eventuality. Stourbridge, for instance, despite its downgrading from a double to a single 'Turntable Unit' was so deployed that its enlargement to a quadruple 'Unit' was always perfectly possible - should the need ever arise.

From its inception back before the First World War, until the 1920s, the 'new' Stourbridge shed had been envisaged as a grand double round-house but straitened times saw this cut back to merely a single roundhouse. A Locomotive Committee Minute of 8 February 1923 reveals the changed position: 'owing to the War, provision of a new locomotive depot at Stourbridge had been deferred but the time has now arrived when the work should be carried out. Instead of providing two units as was originally intended, the existing shed should be retained in service and a one-unit shed of the new standard, complete with modern coal stage, should be provided'. Matters still proceeded achingly slow, however, and it was over a year later, on 27 March 1924, that the tender was accepted for the shed, £29,921 9s 2d from A.H. Guest Ltd. On 24 July this sum was revised downward, to £24,413 19s 10d, for unspecified reasons - but still, it was not bad for an original estimate of £31,500. There was no mention of the expensive, presumably still unused, borehole in any of this. Various equipment was ordered as the work progressed - such as an engine hoist on 30 July 1925, part of a job lot of three; Stourbridge, Aberystwyth and Birkenhead, at a total price of £1,926. The Great Western Railway Magazine heralded the opening of the new shed thus (see below).

The Achilles' heel of these great sheds was the roof

The Achilles' heel of these great sheds was of course the roof and all its complications, shown to good effect in these illustrations. Eventually, especially as maintenance declined over the years, all that timber with its myriad joints and fastenings would fall prey to smoke and damp.

With all this activity over (Stourbridge was the last of the Churchward 'Turntable Unit' sheds, appearing well after his retirement) the shed settled down into a life typical of so many like it - next to nothing happened. There was no 1930s modernisation and mechanisation drive, with roof rebuilding and other major changes, carried through to the 1950s under BR. This was case almost everywhere else, but not on the Great Western. The company began Grouping with a better and younger stock of engine sheds, it is true, but few even of the ancient examples were upgraded to anything like the extent seen on other lines.

eration' inhabitants

Stourbridge with one of its 'first generation' inhabitants - typically an open cab, double frame pannier tank. Photograph Roger Carpenter.

At Stourbridge even the slow change of years as reflected in the engine types was fairly muted and the eighty or more engines to be found there in 1947 were overwhelmingly pannier tanks and prairie tanks. Apart from the relative absence of outside framing and open cabs, someone visiting it for the first time since its opening 21 years before wouldn't notice all that much that was different about the place. Remnants of the older inhabitants, however, were not to last long after nationalisation and the first few BR years saw off all the older pannier tanks in the 17XX, 18XX, 19XX and 2XXX series, the older 2-6-2Ts and the one or two surviving 4-4-0s and 'Aberdare' 2-6-0s. Stourbridge remained in essence a freight shed, and the pinnacle of its workings were the main line freights to South Wales, though there was only a single 2-8-0 on its books in 1947. By the mid-1950s there were six, soon rising to seven. By this time the thirty or more pannier tanks and dozen or so 2-6-2Ts and 0-6-2Ts did what they had done down all the years - the pilot work in the yards and sidings round about, and local goods. There was passenger work too, especially for some of the 2-6-2Ts, on locals from Birmingham and Wolverhampton. There were diesel railcars (successors to the steam motors, and housed in the original four road straight shed) and 0-4-2Ts for the nearby Stourbridge Town branch. Usually there were three of these motor-fitted tanks, for the extraordinarily intensive service, and the Stourbridge engines would also substitute for Stafford Road 64XX motor panniers on the Dudley - Old Hill autos.

How it ended up, late into the steam period

How it ended up, late into the steam period; the building, typically, is whole and proud still, though a bit blackened and careworn. The yard is more weedy and scruffy than would have been allowed in the old days and the engines are bigger and more modern (left to right they are 5191, 5165, a 56xx, 6857, a 28XX and 5178). Photograph N.E. Preedy.

The shed operated in much the same way as others which had the same layout, though there were two points of access, from Stourbridge Junction to the south and from the sidings and running lines to the north. Locos ran in onto the coal stage roads, for fire dropping, smoke box cleaning and coaling, afterwards proceeding into the shed. It couldn't be simpler really, and Churchward had in essence worked out an elementary 'cafeteria' system years before it was invented and much-lauded in the 1930s. An ash shelter was put up in the Second World War and this lasted for some years, at least into BR days, a nuisance, doubtless, to all concerned.

of the shed in 1948

Frequently termed 'Stourbridge Junction', the shed had the code 84F under BR; it passed to the London Midland Region as 2C in September 1963 and finally closed on 11 July 1966. By the early seventies the site was cleared and awaiting development.