Canterbury West Shed

This was a modest engine shed, covering just over 100-foot of single track, which was for long synonymous with the Canterbury & Whitstable branch. The latter formally opened as a single-track standard gauge line at 11:00 AM on Monday, 3rd May 1830, becoming England’s second railway commissioned to public traffic, and from the outset used a mixture of horse power, a locomotive, and stationary steam engines. However, the engine shed which stood for over a century at the station we today know as Canterbury West was of later origin, dating from when it was possible to journey between the cathedral city and the capital throughout by rail.

The South Eastern Railway (SER) opened a double-track line between Ashford and Canterbury to passenger traffic on 6th February 1846 and it is likely that the engine shed came into use at this time. From that day onwards the company also closed the Whitstable branch, which it had taken out on a fourteen-year lease, so it could be re-laid with double-headed rail upon new chairs and sleepers, converted wholly to locomotive haulage, and diverted from the original southern terminus at North Lane into the SER’s Canterbury station. Stationary steam engines were originally required, because such were the inclines on the route that a locomotive of the day would not have been able to surmount them. The former North Lane terminus of 1830 was transformed into a goods and coal yard, but retained a direct connection with the branch, and the line to Whitstable was reopened to traffic on 6th April 1846. On 13th of that month, an extension from Canterbury to Ramsgate was opened to public traffic, followed by another to Margate on 1st December.

The SER’s Canterbury station was a spacious affair, comprising two main line platform faces separated by four tracks; a third platform face was dedicated to Whitstable branch services. The engine shed was positioned about 100-yards beyond the Thanet ends of the platforms, on the “down” side of the running lines. It was a brick-built structure with a slated pitched roof and extended just over 100-feet along a single track. The shed was a dead-end building, which could only be accessed from the Ashford direction via the platform track dedicated to branch line traffic. With reference to the branch line, this was afforded only a single, indirect connection with the SER’s main “down” platform loop at the Ashford end of the station.

On the earliest maps, the shed is referred to as an “engine house”. By 1873, a second connection had been made with the small depot, which made it possible for locomotives to access the building directly from both the branch and main “down” platform tracks. The branch platform track had also been extended northeast, beyond the shed, to make a trailing connection with the “down” line. Twenty years previously, in 1853, the SER had purchased Canterbury & Whitstable line outright.

In 1891, there were a series of changes to the layout at the Thanet end of the station, the most notable of which was the abolition of the direct connection between the Whitstable branch and the former terminus station site – by then a goods and coal yard – at North Lane. A single track between the yard and branch had diagonally crossed the SER line since it opened in 1846, and the changes were noted in the November 1907 edition of The Railway Magazine:

As previously mentioned, on the South Eastern Railway taking over the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, the old terminus in North Lane was closed to passenger traffic, and utilized as a coal yard for the accommodation of mineral and merchandise traffic off the Whitstable Railway, and the goods trains ran straight off the branch, crossing the main line on the level, into North Lane yard; but the exigences of modern requirements necessitated the abolition of this practice, and the crossing was taken out some sixteen years ago and a connection made with the main line from the North Lane goods yard; so any train now desiring entrance to the latter has to draw into the passenger bay platform at Canterbury, in the same manner as the passenger trains shunt out on to the main line, and then access is gained to the yard by a “back shunt”. There is no physical “run-through” junction with the Whitstable Branch at Canterbury.

By this time, the engine shed had become a through affair and its connections with the running lines changed yet again. It was no longer possible for locomotives to access the shed from the Ashford direction; instead, new connections were made with the branch platform loop and main line north of the structure. Just to the south west of the shed, a water tank on a sturdy brick base had also appeared.

What locomotives would have been stabled in the engine shed during the first years? The November 1907 Edition of The Railway Magazine provides some insight on those early SER engines used on the branch line:

Owing to the steep gradients on this railway, special engines were required to work through trains from Whitstable to London. Consequently, four were obtained from Messrs. Tayleur and Co. (now Vulcan Foundry, Ltd.) in 1845 and 1846. These were six-coupled goods engines, and were of the long-boiler type, with high fire-box. They were numbered 119 to 122. The tender ran upon six wheels…. the water capacity being 1,000 gallons.

New boilers were fitted to Nos. 119-122 in 1855, and again in 1874. The steam pressure was raised to 130lbs, whilst new tenders were made, which accommodated 1,500 gallons. These engines did exceedingly good service, running until 1883, a period of 38 years, when they were all replaced.

Perhaps the most well-known motive power to ply the branch and use Canterbury SER as an outpost of Ashford were those engines belonging to Stirling’s “R” Class. Twenty-five of these 0-6-0 tank engines were built at Ashford Works over a ten-year period from June 1888, primarily for shunting. These engines were characterized by low rounded cabs and short chimneys, so they could fit within the restrictive loading gauge of the Whitstable branch. ⅔-mile from Canterbury, the single track plunged into the 828-yard-long Tyler Hill Tunnel; noted as being the world’s first railway tunnel, so low was the ceiling clearance that, allegedly, the first SER locomotive which ran through the bore in 1846 had its chimney knocked off. Locomotives and stock no greater than 11-foot in height and 9-foot 6-inches in width could fit through the tunnel.

In an interview with The Railway Magazine in September 1901, the South Eastern & Chatham Railway's (SE&CR) Locomotive Superintendent, Harry Wainwright, did not mention Canterbury as one of the Joint Managing Committee's engine sheds:

[In addition to Bricklayers Arms, Battersea, and Slades Green] We have engine sheds at Cannon Street, Reading, Red Hill, Deptford, Strood, Maidstone West, Tonbridge, Ashford, Dover Town, Ramsgate Town, Hastings, and Purley on the South-Eastern section, and at New Brompton, Faversham, Bickey, Maidstone East, Dover Priory, and Margate West, on the Chatham section.

Indeed, there were other minor sheds at that time in SE&CR territory which escaped attention, such as Westerham and Sevenoaks (Bat & Ball), which more than likely were simply considered satellites of the main depots listed and were not worthy of individual mention.

In 1927, the Southern Railway built a large signal box upon a gantry at the Thanet end of Canterbury West. The gantry crossed four tracks, one of which was that passing through the engine shed. In essence, the gap between the shed and the latterly-built water tower was crossed by the gantry’s framework. The signal box was formally commissioned on 1st January 1928, replacing two existing SER cabins. Shortly afterwards, on 31st December 1930, the Whitstable branch permanently closed to passengers. Thereafter, the line was host to two daily freight workings, the main traffic being coal and grain, and between trains the tank engines would be used to shunt wagons in the goods yard at Canterbury West.

World War II bombing raids inflicted much damage on the cathedral city, the most severe of which occurred on 1st June 1942. During these attacks, the engine shed lost its roof cladding, which was never replaced; thereafter, the walls of the structure stood with the exposed roof beams, parked locomotives being subject to the elements. Additionally, during the war years, three GWR “Dean Goods” 0-6-0 tender engines were kept at Canterbury West shed. These locomotives were driven from the right-hand-side and worked along the Elham Valley Line (ref: Kentish Gazette, 6th August 1998).

Throughout its history, Canterbury West shed has maintained a strong alliance with the large depot at Ashford, the latter supplying the former with motive power. After nationalisation, Canterbury was recorded as a sub-shed of Ashford; however, it never received a shed code in its own right and, from the outset, sat under that of its parent, 74A. The shed survived the original closure of the Whitstable branch, trains ceasing to run from 1st December 1952. The branch re-opened on 5th February 1953 as an emergency measure in response to severe flooding in North Kent and East Anglia, but was closed again from 1st March, and the track lifted by February 1954. Nevertheless, the shed – which by this time was marked on Ordnance Survey maps as a “ruin” – was still listed under Ashford in the Ian Allan ABC locomotive book for winter 1955, the data being current to 10th September of that year. That being said, the May 1955 edition of the RCTS' The Railway Observer magazine states that the shed closed down on 28th March of that year, resulting in the displacement of one "R1" 0-6-0 Tank and two sets of enginemen. It was further remarked that a single "R1" had sufficed at the shed for many years, although a second engine of this type was stationed here at the end of 1953 in connection with the running of a demolition train on the closed Whitstable Harbour line. In addition to this branch, the shed had also been kept busy in the pre-war years by the passenger service along the Eltham Valley line.

"R1" Class No. 10 is seen parked at the back of the engine shed, upon that section of track which originally formed the only access route to the building (see the above diagrams of 1846 and 1873). The locomotive was one of thirteen rebuilt from an "R" to "R1" Class, No. 10 being so treated in 1913, and is likely wearing wartime grey in this view, which would approximately date the photograph some time between 1914 and 1923. The livery was not wholly without decoration, however; note the cast plate on the bunker, reading "SE&CR", which would have been in brass upon a blood red background. Of the rebuilt locomotives, just three retained low rounded cabs and short chimneys to continue working the Whitstable branch. The shed is evident on the right, possibly in the company of the driver having a cigarette. Note behind one of the shed's large timber doors the old grounded carriage body, then in use as crew offices and stores. Prominent is the brick-built water tower with tank, which was a much later addition to the site. In the foreground is a shunt signal, which probably dated from the track alterations made in 1891. The gap between the shed building and water tower was later filled by the signal box's gantry. © David Glasspool Collection