The Construction of the Engine Shed

In order to ensure the smooth running of the trains that ran on its new line, the Midland Railway needed to build an engine shed near each terminus.

This shed was built in 1872 to service the locomotives that had completed their journey at St John’s station. It is what’s known as a ‘dead end’ two line shed, meaning it only had one entrance and exit and contained two sets of rails. Up until the 1870’s the Midland Railway had predominantly built larger roundhouse style sheds, but in smaller locations favored this more economical straight shed, usually capable of holding up to four engines.

The Camden  Roundhouse 1847 (Illustrated London News, 4 Dec. 1847)

This was what is known as a ‘running shed’ designed for basic daily preparation of locomotives for their service runs, rather than a ‘repair shop’ where more heavy maintenance was done. The Engine Shed cost a total of £4,824 13 shillings and 3 pence to build. That is approximately £392,300 in today’s money. To put this in perspective, the average labourer in 1871-3 earned somewhere between 64 and 72 pence a day (around £69 a year and £3,000 in today’s money). This shows that, although it was an industrial building, the Engine Shed was not cheap.

land plan
Midland Railway Land Plan of the Engine Shed c1905

Midland Railway Style

During the railway boom of the 1800’s each competing railway company developed its own distinctive style and identity to try to stand out from each other. The Midland Railway stood out for the quality and richness of its designs, even for functional buildings like the Engine Shed.


Until the late 19th century the difficulties of moving heavy materials long distances

Beckets Well, Northampton shows the distinctive colour of the local sandstone.

meant British architecture was defined by the use of local building materials. This means that the buildings in each part of the country had a distinctive style. In Northampton builders have been using locally sourced sandstones since Anglo-Saxon times, giving our local buildings their distinctive sandy colour.


This all changed with the Industrial Revolution and building of the railways. Possibly the first successful brick-making machine was patented by Henry Clayton, employed at the Atlas Works in Middlesex, England, in 1855, and was capable of producing up to 25,000 bricks daily with minimal supervision. This ability to mass produce and transport bricks long-distances cheaply on the railways meant bricks were increasingly preferred as building material to stone, even in areas where the stone was readily available. The Engine Shed is evidence of this.

The use of rail to transport material such as mass produced bricks, allowed The Midland Railway to develop a corporate style, effectively an architectural ‘pattern book’ of designs for its buildings that created a uniform appearance not just used for its public facing buildings like stations, but also for its functional properties like the Engine Shed.

Brickwork at St Pancras Station, the Midland Railway Company’s London Terminus.

One way the Midland Railway stood out from other companies was its use included a polychrome style of brickwork, with red bricks for the main body of the buildings, with certain architectural features such as windows, doors and archways picked out with cream bricks. The red bricks were made by a company called Butterley Brickworks based in Waingroves, Derbyshire; the cream bricks from Coalville, Leicestershire. It is likely that these bricks would have been brought onto the site by the railway itself.

A Butterley Company brick from the Engine shed taken during the restoration.



A common feature to Midland Railway buildings was the use of blind arcading along the length of the building. This is an architectural term meaning the use of arches without openings as a decorative feature. To complete the look the builders installed elaborate iron framed windows incorporating diamond and lozenge shapes.

Before the introduction of modern glass making techniques at the start of the 20th century all glass for windows had to be hand blown. It was impossible to make large whole planes of glass using these techniques, so all windows had to be made up of metal frames and small panes. It is likely the windows for the Engine Shed were made of cylinder glass. This involves a glassmaker blowing glass into a large tube shape. The ends are then cut off and the tube slit down the middle. The tube is then placed in a warm oven to soften and flatten into a flat sheet. It would then be cut into the required sized panes for the window. These handmade types of glass always had imperfections such as dimples, bubbles and waves. Although the glass in our windows is not original, it has been made with the same techniques; this is why they look so different to modern windows.

Diagram showing the stages of cylinder glass making (Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

It is likely that the Iron frames were made by the Butterley Ironworks in Derbyshire, as this company was the main contractor for the Midland Railway Company.

Advert for the Butterley company (The Engineer, 1853)


The Roof

Engine Sheds such as this were purpose built to service steam trains. This meant that they were generally designed with very specific requirements in mind. Firstly they had to be light so that the crew could see what they were doing as they worked; secondly they needed to be well ventilated so that all the steam and smoke from the trains could escape.

Light was partly provided by the large number of windows along each wall, but was also provided by skylights. During the Victorian period, it is likely that further lighting was provided by gas lamps suspended from the roof frame. Later this would have been improved with the addition of electric lighting.

This glimpse inside the engine shed at Stourbridge in 1926 shows a typical roof and lighting structure for a small engine shed.

In larger sheds ventilation was often improved by the use of smoke hoods which funnelled fumes up through a chimney. In this shed however, ventilation was provided through the elaborately engineered roof. This was a pitched, slate tiled roof with a ‘clerestory’ design which provided vents for smoke and steam to escape along the length of the roof.

Cross Section of the Engine Shed, which shows the structure of the clerestory roof.

This roof was replaced at some point between 1939 and 1963 with a corrugated asbestos one. By this stage the Engine Shed was no longer servicing steam trains, and therefore did not require such an elaborate roof. The original frame was retained.


Laying out the Shed

The Midland Railway ‘pattern book’ approach to construction also created a set of standard designs for each type of building which could then be adjusted to meet the operational needs and fit into the geography of specific locations. This meant that there were a group of Engine Sheds, similar in appearance to this one, but each with their own individual characteristics.

Overseal Engine Shed, Derbyshire ( Bill Wright 1965)

This Shed has several quirks which were caused by the limitations of the site. The eastern end includes a decorative arch within the brickwork picked out in cream bricks. It is thought that this is because the pattern included an exit for a ‘through and through’ shed. But on this shed the arch is bricked up to make it a dead-end. It is also possible the arch is there for structural reasons.

Although on all the historic plans and Ordnance Survey maps the Engine Shed is drawn as a perfect rectangle, it was built with an irregular shape, with the last bay on the south wall was built at an angle.

It was built this way to fit into the layout of the track between the shed and the water tower which sat directly outside the entrance. The water tower was located there because there is a well down to a natural spring, and the Midland Railway had to place the line into the Goods Yard between the tower and the Shed. The problem was that if the wall was straight there would not have been enough room for locomotives and carriages to fit between the two. The solution was to angle the wall to provide the necessary clearance.

Section from 1887 Midland Railway Chain Plan. showing the layout of the tracks between the Engine Shed and Water tower. This shows how close the line would pass if the wall had been kept straight.


plan 2
Pencil annotations from the 1887 plan show the distances between the shed and the water tower. By building the wall at an angle the engineers managed to provide a 10ft gap, wide enough the average 9ft carriage to pass between them.


The running of a railway line was a complex process and the Engine Shed itself was only one part of Northampton’s railway network.  Hardingstone Junction and the Cotton End Goods Yard were home to a wide variety of railway buildings and equipment essential to the smooth running of the Railway. The layout of these facilities was paramount to the efficient running of the yard, and was designed so that everything needed to empty, clean, maintain and refill a train for its next run was in close proximity and could be completed in the correct order.

Annotated plan of the Engine Shed layout

One of the main requirements of a steam locomotive is a supply of water. All engine sheds therefore had a water tower near their entrance. The water tower here was, like the shed, built to a standard design and in the Midland Railway polychrome brick style, with a plate iron water box on top of the brick base. The water from the adjacent well could be drawn up into the tank and would then be gravity fed into a water column or standpipe. It is likely that the proximity of the water source to the Junction is the reasoning behind the location of the Shed. Water columns were usually placed at the end of the ash pit so that the engine could be watered at the same time as fire cleaning. As well as supporting the water tank, the brick tower had a secondary function as a ‘Tank House’. This means it contained a ‘stationary boiler’ designed to provide heating to the Shed in the winter.

The Engine Shed, water tower and office building (1963)


Built at the same time as the Shed, and in the familiar Midland style, the external office demonstrates the need for administration near to the shed to regulate the operation. The office accommodated the Running foreman, the man in charge of the shed, so he had enough space to complete all the administrative tasks associated with the shed. The office was specifically located in front of the shed so that the Foreman should always have a clear view of the entrance and monitor activity. Such offices usually had an ‘enquiry window’ so that the shed staff could not enter into the office space directly. A special box was provided for drivers’ tickets and daily returns. Offices were equipped with a large slate board on which would be written important notices of the day, such as which engines were to be washed out, the time particular engines would be available and other similar details essential to maintaining a strict timetable. The building also included a small mess room where the staff could take their breaks. Usually these messes contained a dining table and a small range for the heating of food. Usually a member of the shed crew was allocated to cook a communal meal. At the rear of the shed was a latrine block.

Directly in front of the Engine Shed was an ash pit and coaling stage. Midland railways preferred a high, elevated platform for coaling manually, so that labourers could directly load coal into the tender.

The coal stage at the Engine Shed was a simple raised platform, much like this one at Redditch

Ash pits, where the ash from the locomotives engine were emptied at the end of a run, were lined with fire bricks as ordinary bricks will quickly be damaged by heat. Ash pits had to regularly be emptied by labourers and moved to a designated ash heap. This heap would then be disposed of by the Engineering department.

Workers shovelling ash from the pits at Newhaven depot

There was a second phase of construction to the Engine Shed itself. Around 1885 a porch and several brick outbuildings were added to the Eastern end of the shed. This included a sand furnace. But why did they need to heat sand?

This photo of the rear of the Engine Shed shows the chimney of the sand furnace. (1939)

Ever wondered why leaves on the line should be a problem for a train which weighs hundreds of tons? The answer is friction, or rather the lack of it. Friction is the force resisting the relative motion of solid surfaces, fluid layers, and material elements sliding against each other. The rubber on car tyres and the soles of your shoes are designed to have a high coefficient of friction, which means they grip on to road surfaces. Steel wheels on steel rails have a low coefficient of friction, which is a problem for trains. Ordinarily the sheer weight of the engines enabled the train to grip onto the track so they can pull loads of 1000 tons or more.  However, this Friction can be reduced by steep gradients or overcome by lubricants; wet leaves or ice provide just enough lubrication to cause problems.

In order to solve this problem the railways came up with a simple solution. By applying sand between the driving wheels and the rails, they could increase the friction and improve the grip of the wheels on the track. When first introduced, it became the Fireman’s job to climb down from the engine with a bucket of sand and apply it directly to the rails. However this was slow and inefficient because the engine could only able to go at the speed of the Fireman applying sand to each side of the locomotive for the length of the affected section. The solution was the introduction of a pipe from a sandbox down to the wheels, so a driver could drop sand directly as the train was in motion. Gravity fed, the process depended on a supply of dry sand to pass freely through the pipes.  Any sign of dampness and the sand would stick together and clog the pipes.  Consequently sand furnaces were added to all engine sheds so that they could dry the sand out before it was put in the sandbox.

Sand furnace
Midland Railway plans for the sand furnace at Ilkley Shed, are identical to those at Northampton.

Sand would be distributed to the site in 10-12 ton open wagons, sieved and dried on site. Sand furnaces consisted of a firebrick lined furnace where a fire was set; the sand was fed into an oven about the furnace and dried.  Once dried the sand was stored in metal bins on site ready to use. Nearly 50% more sand was used in the winter than the summer months.  Each locomotive used approximately 5 tons of sand in a year. Sand furnaces were monitored by a dedicated furnace man, who kept the fire going. This furnace would also provide hot coals for the lighting of engine fires and the disposal of waste matter and refuse.