Each of the pre-Grouping railway companies had a town which was considered their spiritual home. The Great Western Railway’s strongest links were undoubtedly with Swindon; Crewe was the epitome of all that the London & North Western Railway stood for; and Derby was the beating heart of the Midland Railway. No town has a closer association with the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (SE&CR) than that of Ashford. Located deep in Kent, the town virtually owes its entire existence to the railway, the latter of which was for long the area’s largest employer. An important junction, where the main line from the capital split for Dover, Thanet, and Hastings, Ashford was host to the principal locomotive, carriage, and wagon-building works of the SE&CR, and was later the site of the county’s largest engine shed.
The South Eastern Railway (SER) commenced scheduled passenger services to Ashford on 1st December 1842, after an extension from Headcorn; Folkestone and Dover were reached in June 1843 and February 1844 respectively. Ashford became a junction with the opening of the branch to Canterbury in February 1846 and, in the same month, the SER purchased an area of land on the southern side of the main line to establish a locomotive works:
In February, 1846, the directors of the South Eastern Railway decided to buy 185 acres for £21,000 [£2,049,000 at 2019 prices] on which to build a "locomotive establishment" on the Folkestone side of Ashford. Work was put in hand rapidly, and from the beginning of 1847 a limited amount of locomotive repair and maintenance work took place. [Railway Gazette International - 10th October 1947]
Ashford had been chosen for its strategic positioning on the SER network; Canterbury and Dover routes diverged, and the SER had secured powers in August 1845 for a line from there to Hastings, across the Romney Marsh. Indeed, this section concerns the town’s motive power depot, rather than the railway works; however, the first major engine shed here was incorporated into the sprawling cluster of buildings which made up the works. The construction of this colossus had been hastened by the upcoming completion of the through route from Paris to Calais (opened to public traffic on 2nd September 1848), on the other side of the Channel, and the SER's plans for a North Kent Line via Dartford. Both routes would see traffic on the SER increase, whilst the North Kent Line would require a new production line of locomotives and rolling stock.
The Locomotive Establishment at Ashford
The approaching completion of the Paris line to the coast will materially increase the traffic of the South Eastern Railway. It is not alone for this increase of traffic that the company are, by the erection of an immense locomotive establishment at Ashford, preparing. The North Kent line to Gravesend will require a very large carrying stock.
The works consist of a large engine shed, a repairing-shop-smiths, and boiler shops and tender shed &c. The engine-shed which is for the accommodation of 16 locomotives, with their tenders, is 208-feet 9 inches, by 63 feet. It is at the western extremity of the buildings, and runs parallel with the railway. Four lines of rail extend longitudinally through the whole length of the building. [Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 15 December 1846]
The shed mentioned above was made from the same yellow brick as that which can still be viewed today within the surviving works buildings. Period Ordnance Survey maps of various scales from the 1870s in fact mark two buildings west of the works complex as "engine sheds"; in addition to that described above, a second structure covering three London-facing dead-end tracks, 80-feet to the south, was present. Your author accepts that building descriptions on Ordnance Survey maps are not always accurate, and on much later editions the second building mentioned is marked "Paint Shop", which may have been its function all along. Indeed, as part of an interview with The Railway Magazine in September 1901, Harry S. Wainwright – Locomotive Superintendent of the SE&CR – stated that Ashford had a "paint shop and a large running shed as well as good accommodation for stores", suggesting that at least by that time, only one engine shed building existed. The diagram below indicates these buildings' positions in relation to each other and those of the rest of the works.
The works complex was reported in the press as nearing completion in September 1847, although in March of that year it was stated that the SER had already moved its engineering operations from New Cross to Ashford:
The directors gave up the possession of the New Cross Locomotive works on Jan 31, in accordance with the agreement which had been entered into, and removed the South Eastern Locomotive establishment to the new works, at Ashford. The amount due to this company from the Brighton company, on giving up the New Cross works, amounting to nearly £40,000, has not yet been paid. [London Daily News, Thursday 18th March 1847]
After the formation of the SE&CR Joint Managing Committee in 1899, it was decided to consolidate erstwhile separate SER and London Chatham & Dover Railway (LC&DR) operations in Ashford. Until this time, the latter company had its own terminus and two-road engine shed in the town, 700-yards north west of the SER's platforms; closure of the site was effective from 1st January 1899. In the following year, the Directors agreed to enlarge the works site at Ashford; the long-term goal was to concentrate all locomotive and carriage building and heavy maintenance on the town, rather than having it split between there and the LC&DR's works at Longhedge, Battersea.
On the merger of SER and LC&DR locomotive operations, no enlargement was made to the engine shed at Ashford Works. Admittedly, by comparison, the LC&DR shed on the western side of the town was a small affair, and it was not until after the Grouping that an effort was made to provide a sizeable, modern replacement for the SER's 1847 structure. This formed part of a network-wide improvement scheme by the Southern Railway (SR), which included new rolling stock and a series of infrastructure upgrades, the latter heavily concentrated on the Central Section.
Southern Railway Plans
For 1928, the Directors of the Southern Railway have authorised over £2,000,000 to be spent on locomotives and trains, new works, improvements at stations, new steamers, etc.
Among the new works are the following: -
- Horsham. Alterations to the Locomotive Yard, and new turntable, £6,000.
- Barnham Junction. Station alterations, £27,300.
- Brighton. Station alterations East side, £86,000.
- Newhaven. Reconstruction of East Pier, £85,000.
- St Leonards (West Marina). Locomotive Depot, £20,000. Carriage Depot Offices, etc., £39,000.
- Ashford Works, new Locomotive Depot. £81,150 [£4,700,000 at 2019 prices].
- Plumpton general improvements. £11,000.
[Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, Saturday, 4th February 1928]
Track diagram of the engine shed in 1957, including part of the works. The descriptions of the works' buildings must be considered timeless and do not necessarily represent their functions on the date given. Click the above for a larger version.
© David Glasspool
This south eastward view towards Folkestone was taken from a train coming off the Thanet branch via Canterbury West, and just about includes the edge of Ashford "E" Signal Box on the extreme left. Sandwiched in-between "E" Box and the double-track main line is an ascending single track which at that time led to six goods sidings, as shown on the above diagram. The goods sidings terminated near Willesborough Level Crossing, and the single track in view also provided an alternative route to the engine shed, which involved a reversal at its rear. On the right are the remaining structures of Ashford Works, which had ceased locomotive construction during World War II, but was still building wagons and repairing engines; the latter transferred to Eastleigh in 1962. The group of locomotives to the left of the main works buildings, which includes a Fairburn 2-6-4 Tank and an 0-6-0 diesel shunter (later Class 08), were upon those tracks which were once covered by the SER's engine shed.
© David Glasspool Collection
A second view from the Canterbury West line, looking south across the running lines to the works, again shows the former site of the SER engine shed, packed with withdrawn steam locomotives. On the right is Ex-LB&SCR 0-6-0 C2X Class No. 32546, which had only been withdrawn in April, behind which are a collection of "D1", "E1", "N", and "H" Classes. The main building behind the lines of engines was at one time the "Fitting Shop", as marked on the above diagram. Third rail is evident on the running lines, and the overhead wire and mast had been installed for use by the E5000 series electric locomotives in sidings.
© David Glasspool Collection