By Phil Marsh

Wolverton - The Lost Railway Town that may find itself hosting the Chinese Railway Corporation

Published: 8th December 2016

Government scrutinises Milton Keynes Council Planning decision to demolish Wolverton Railway Works

Rail.co.uk has reported on the probable demise of the World's oldest and longest continually open main line railway works at Wolverton. It opened in 1838 and is located 53 miles north of London on the West Coast Main Line. Milton Keynes Council planners approved an application from property developers St Modwen, who own the railway works, to demolish it all and build up to 375 dwellings and a new railway works. The existing railway works is entirely within a Conservation Area along with the railway built housing estate next to it.

Local book author Brian Dunleavy has sent rail.co.uk an account from his book, 'The lost Streets of Wolverton' to enable readers to sample why Wolverton was created. And In a complete coincidence, November, a map dated 1840 of Wolverton Works and the first few houses was found in an attic which perfectly illustrates Mr Dunleavy's book.

The Lost Streets of Wolverton ISBN: 978-1-909054-00-4 and he is now working on a new book about Wolverton’s first century entitle Pure Republic - due in 2017.

Wolverton Station c. 1844

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 up as 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 nearby 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 London and Birmingham Railway 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 a century ago, 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 - 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.

Town goes missing?

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.

The future of the first railway town?

Following the Milton Keynes Council decision to grant planning permission to demolish the railway works, Historic England have referred the decision for review to the Government's National Casework Unit planners, a very rare case of testing the validity of the local planners' decision. This department will examine the evidence and have the power to order a public inquiry to challenge the decision and potentially overturn it given the area is totally within a Conservation Area.

New lease, new partners at Wolverton?

The current operator of the railway works is German company Knorr-Bremse and their five year lease now has around 18 months to run. They are negotiating a long-term lease with St Modwen because of the length of future workstreams.

And by chance, locals have seen several visits by a Chinese delegation who are thought to be from the China Railway Corporation who are in the running to help fund and construct High Speed 2 as well as building trains for the line. And just last month, CRRC opened a joint China-UK joint railway research centre in Quingdao.

HS2's first phase is scheduled to open in ten years and so a long lease of say, 15 years would give Wolverton stability and full employment as well as fit in neatly with HS2 phase 1 and 2 train building requirements.

This is of course speculation but it does all add up! And it could be a case of back to the future as Wolverton built high speed steam locomotives to run between Euston and Birmingham Curzon Street in the early days, the same two stations that HS2 will use from 2026.

Local website www.wolvertonworksonline.co.uk will monitor developments in all areas.

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