on 15 August 2012
'Railway Workshops' is a rather dry-and-dusty title which hardly whets the enthusiam of the general reader, nor perhaps even the general railway enthusiast, but the story the book contains is fascinating cameo of social history over the last century and a half.
Shire Publishing is widely known for its extensive and eclectic collection of slim paperbacks; you'll have seen their point-of-sale displays at museums of all kinds. The characteristic Shire approach is to engage an expert to write the text in accessible language, so that the interested reader can obtain accurate and reliable information about subjects which pique their curiosity but about which they have little or no prior knowledge. As an added bonus, many of the authors have an obvious and infectious enthusiasm for their subject, which adds considerably to the reading experience. In this case, the author - Tim Bryan - was for many years curator of 'Steam - The Museum of the Great Western Railway' and its predecessor, the GWR Museum. He's clearly an expert and an enthusiast, and he delivers an amazing array of fascinating information. He has written several books on transport subjects, including two other Shire books - 'The Great Western Railway' and, more recently, 'Railways in Wartime'.
The 56-page card-backed book is divided into five principal chapters, beginning with a general history, and then looking in turn at independent railway builders, the logistics of locomotive bulding, the construction of rolling stock and items of infrastructure, and finally the development of railway towns. It's well-served by just under 80 illustrations - the detail from a Terence Cuneo painting on the front cover is an added bonus - and, of these, about a third are in colour, the remainder being archive pictures in sepia or black-and-white. There are three appendices, listing relevant places to visit, suggesting further reading and providing an inventory of railway workshops and independent manufacturers operational in 1925. There is also an index.
In the early days of railways, with a multiplicity of independent lines, most locomotives were bought from external constructors, perhaps the best-known being Robert Stephenson & Co, established in Newcastle in 1823, followed in 1830 by Charles Tayleur & Company of Warrington, later to acquire an international reputation as the Vulcan Foundry. As the early lines began to merge and consolidate, the desirability of 'in-house' facilities became obvious. The London & Birmingham Railway opened a locomotive construction and maintenance plant at Wolverton in 1838 (though this later became a carriage and wagon facility) and the other larger railways were quick to follow its example. The first part of the GWR's mighty Swindon complex opened in 1843. The consequent loss of domestic contracts prompted the independent constructors to seek additional markets. Some entered the international market; others focused their efforts on designing and building small locomotives for the private railway systems springing up to serve mining and industrial concerns.
Among the railway companies, the monolithic GWR concentrated its facilities at Swindon. The other members of the eventual 'Big Four' were less fortunate, inheriting a number of workshops from their respective constituent companies. In 1925, the Southern Railway had three major workshops, at Ashford, Brighton and Eastleigh. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway had five, at Crewe, Derby, Horwich, St. Rollox and Wolverton, and the London and North Eastern Railway had seven, at Cowlairs, Darlington. Doncaster, Gorton, Inverurie, Stratford and York. The scale of the largest undertakings was enormous: raw materials went into the workshops at one end and completed locomotives, carriages, wagons, signal gantries, footbridges, and the thousands of other items of essential infrastructure came out at the other. The railways produced all sorts of smaller items 'in-house', including for example upholstery, window-blinds, luggage rack frames and nets, door handles - even the leather straps used to raise and lower windows. Some workshops grew to such an extent that they gave birth to what were effectively new towns, as at Swindon and Crewe, or radically changed existing towns such as Darlington and Derby. In their heyday, these workshops changed the lives of tens of thousands of individuals and had a significant impact upon the social history of Britain.
This slim Shire Book gets to the heart of the matter and the well-written, easily read and reliable text guides the reader through the rise and fall of British railway engineering, distributing along the way a vertitable harvest of nuggets of information which will be new to many readers, as they were to this reviewer. Fascinating and pretty much flawless, at the current (August 2012) Amazon price of £5.24, this is a bargain not to be missed!