Friday, November 25, 2016
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.