The Engine Shed Story
The story of the Engine Shed begins in 1864, when a group of local landowners and investors formed the Northampton, Bedford and Leamington Railway Company with the intent to construct a line connecting these towns. After several years of financial problems and delays, plans were finally drawn up by the surveyor Charles R Cheffins and engineer Charles Liddell in 1868 and the Bedford to Northampton railway was born. Read on to learn more about the history of this fascinating piece of Northampton’s railway heritage.
The Bedford to Northampton railway is built by engineering firm Edwin Clark Punchard and Company. A temporary wooden shed services trains bringing in building materials during construction. The Engine Shed and out -buildings are completed in 1872 and cost £4,824 13s 3d, this is the equivalent of approximately £392,300 in today’s money. The line is officially opened to trains on 10th June 1872.
1872 – 1924
The Midland Railway Company operates the Engine Shed as a ‘Running Shed’ for the locomotives working the Bedford and Northampton line. A crew of labourers maintain and fuel the locomotives, supervised by a Running Foreman who is based in the exterior office building, next to the mess room.
1924 – 1939
After the national re-organisation of the railways into four larger companies, Northampton becomes part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). To save costs, they close the Engine Shed and move its allocation of locomotives to a larger Engine Shed in Far Cotton. The shed becomes a wagon workshop. The exterior office building falls into disuse. St John’s station, located at the site of the University’s St John’s Hall of Residence, is also closed in 1939. Traffic is re-routed to Northampton Castle Station, now known simply as Northampton Station.
1939 – 1945
During the Second World War the railways help keep the nation fighting by moving soldiers, equipment and food around the country. In order to protect this vital infrastructure, the Engine Shed becomes part of a fortified position operated by the Civil Defence Service and Home Guard. Many of the volunteers for these organisations are
workers from the LMS Railway and employees of the Northampton Electric and Power Works, who are exempt from serving in the armed forces because of their vital skills.
Following the nationalisation of rail transport under British Railways in 1948, the Engine Shed continues to be used as a workshop. Several alterations are made to the building. The original tiled roof is replaced with corrugated asbestos and a girder for lifting equipment is installed. The northern inspection pit has its rails removed and is covered over. The Northern entrance to the shed is bricked up and a pedestrian door installed.
1969 – 1994
The Engine Shed is converted into a Civil Engineers Welding School by British Rail Engineering Ltd. They install a portable building as an office, a concrete floor, a raised welding platform, welding booths and a store room constructed out of breeze blocks. The exterior office is converted into toilets and the water tower is demolished. The Engine Shed is given listed building status by English Heritage in 1995 after a campaign by local history enthusiast John Downing.
1994 – 2000
After the privatisation of the railways in 1994, the Welding School becomes part of Railtrack. They close the school in 1998 as evolving techniques in track laying make it obsolete. On the 17th July 2000, three men inspired by the film ‘Towering Inferno’ decide to commit arson. They break into the Engine Shed and light a fire in the office. The resulting blaze guts the building and destroys a large section of roof at the eastern end of the building. The three arsonists are sentenced to between two and two and a half years in prison for their crime.
With no practical use for the building, Railtrack sells the gutted Engine Shed and its office to Avon Cosmetics whose factory is next to the shed. Avon closes the factory in 2003 and the site is kept vacant. The Engine Shed and office are left open to the elements. They fall into decay, attracting squatters, graffiti, crime and extensive plant growth.
The Avon Cosmetics factory is demolished and the site, including the Engine Shed, is designated part of the Waterside Enterprise Zone by Northampton Borough Council. When the site is bought by the University of Northampton for the construction of a brand new campus, the Engine Shed becomes incorporated in the Waterside Campus Development. After initially struggling to find a viable and sympathetic use for the building, it is decided to turn the building into the new home for the Students’ Union.
The University of Northampton agrees to provide £3.8 million for the restoration and conversion of the Engine Shed and exterior office into the hub for student Sports, Societies and Volunteering activities on-campus. However, it becomes clear that more funding is required. The University of Northampton Students’ Union applies for, and is awarded a £1.3 million Enterprise Grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help complete the work and provide money for further heritage projects.