‘The Works was a forward thinking place…’

Posted 24th April 2020

Today, some of the old Wolverton Works site is derelict, its long structure snaking a track through the town, broken, vandalised and ghostlike. Other parts have made way for new housing developments. But without the Works, Wolverton as we know it wouldn’t even exist, writes Sammy Jones.

When the Works was established in 1838, beautiful red brick Victorian houses built by the London North Western Railway Company that ran the Works, sprung up to house the working army in the new railway town of Wolverton.

Families came from far and wide to take up positions at the important new engineering plant, in the era when rail was revolutionising the world.

Lifting Shop at The Works
Lifting shop viewed from gantry. © Living Archive

During World War One the hub was requisitioned for the war effort, and produced 24 ambulance trains (each boasting 16 coaches). Gun timbers, horse harnesses and various supplies were also turned out by a force of more than 5000 workers. And it was responsible for the mobile Advanced Headquarters Train for the personal use of Sir Douglas Haig, a senior officer in the British Army.

When the war ended, the town’s workforce returned to their usual positions, but 213 employees would never return – lives lost during WWI.

When the country was thrown into conflict again in 1939, the Works played its part.

“There were a lot of skilled people there and they would repair Whitley bombers, and make Horsa Gliders, and they made munitions including shell cases,” recalled Wolverton resident Dennis Young.

“I would say the Works was at its peak during the 1930s and 40s. It was one of the premiere workshops for carriage building and used to build Locos as well.”

Dennis was born and raised in Wolverton because of the Works. His family had moved to the town from their longtime home in Leckhampstead specifically to get employment there.

But people came from much further afield too – it wasn’t unusual for families to relocate from Wales and the North.

Dennis followed in the footsteps of his family, and began as an office boy.

“When you first started work there, that was the job most boys did, or else they worked on the circuit blacking up, or as rivet boys in the shop,” he remembered.

“Then I started my apprenticeship, as a joiner, repairing and making furniture, canteen chairs, and repairing items for stations – Euston, Birmingham and places like that, as well as local stations.

Lunch at The Works
Men leaving The Works, Stratford Road, 1980’s © Living Archive

“The Works was a forward thinking place, and Wolverton was the first railway-built town. There were little two up, two down houses built to house some of the workers.”

They sound like delightful little dwellings, but sadly they were all knocked down in the 1960s and replaced by the areas today known as Glynn Square and The Gables.

Dennis left the Works at 18-years-old to complete his National Service, but two years later he returned to his apprenticeship – but not to the joinery.

“Instead I went back body making, or vehicle building, as it’s known today.”

Interior of Wolverton Works
Interior of Wolverton Works, Painters © Living Archive

Wolverton wasn’t the only hub responsible for making the rail goods, and centres including Swindon, Derby, Doncaster and Glasgow operated doing similar work, but they didn’t house the royal train – that was unique to Wolverton.

Today, the Works is synonymous with the Royal Train which is still maintained in its own secure compound.

The Works’ library and reading rooms, built in 1838, became a favourite for Royal Train passengers, and many Heads of State used the facility as a private resting place while their train was serviced.

It became a particular favourite of Queen Victoria during her trips heading North.

Wolverton also produced Post Office vehicles as part of its significant output and one found itself at the centre of one of the most famous crimes of the 20th century; it was used in The Great Train Robbery.

“After that happened, I had quite a lot to do with the security!” Dennis said.

The Works was the heartbeat of the community that it created – and it even had the apparatus to get its workforce out of bed and into work on time!

“We used to have a Works’ siren,” he recalled, “I was told that originally, before my time, it would go off at 7am to get everyone out of bed and then again signalling that it was time to start work. It would sound when people would start work, and when they would finish, at 5.30pm. Over the years though, the signals got dropped off.”

But it wasn’t all work and no play for those employed there. Dances were savoured, with many popular bands from the area, and nationally recognised, stage-stepping for staff.

Dennis said: “We would have dances in the canteen – old time dancing. There was one of those a month. The Rhythm Aces played and The Bright Knights, Joe Lovesy and Harry Davison played in the 50s – he was with the BBC Big Orchestra.”

“The Working Men’s Club was frequented by Works staff, together with The Royal Engineer and the Top Club.”

Dennis spent his working life at the Works, taking on roles including a progress inspector, until he retired in the mid-1990s.

Wolverton Works is the longest continually operating Railway Works in the world, and in September 2013, it celebrated its 175th anniversary.

Sadly, operators Railcare entered administration shortly before that milestone, and Knorr-Bremse purchased the company, including the Wolverton site. They too have departed, and the site is now operated by Gemini Rail.

The Derelict Carpenters Shop
Mind the gap. The derelict Carpenters’ Shop floor has collapsed into the basement of the building © Phil Marsh

Today, Milton Keynes Museum holds a collection of precious artefacts from the Works, including the original Works’ Boardroom table, and an assortment of crests from long gone railway companies.

In the museum grounds, the full size replica Victorian steam locomotive, officially Number 1009 Wolverton, but universally known as the ‘Bloomer’ commands attention.

The replica had previously spent 21 years outside CMK train station before development saw it stored away. It was donated to the museum in 2017, so that the people of Wolverton and all museum visitors can enjoy her grandeur.

The long-term future of the Works site may be uncertain, but the history she has left behind is first class.

Additional information taken from the book The Full Works by Phil Marsh, available by visiting www.wolvertonworksonline.co.uk 

For more information email: cleekrail@btinternet.com

The Full Works
The Full Works by Phil Marsh

A series of Wolverton Works talks arranged by The Living Archive will take place in September as part of the national Heritage Open Days week.

Milton Keynes Museum is one of the best interactive museums, a perfect outing for all ages, staffed by friendly volunteers, and highly recommended by visitors on TripAdvisor. 

This feature was written by Milton Keynes Museum. Find out more about forthcoming events and see our opening times at: www.mkmuseum.org.uk.