Demolishing Wolverton Works

It was reported last week that the proposed demolition of most of the remaining original parts of the London and North Western Railway’s Wolverton Works had been given the go-ahead. This is a good moment, then, to think a little about an intangible part of the Works’ heritage: the experiences of the staff, without whom the site could not have functioned.

Wolverton Works seen from the air, 1928.
Courtesy: Britain from Above

Of course, we can’t capture a fraction of the variety of experiences that would have made up working life at Wolverton – this goes far beyond our project. But we can look at where the accidents appear in our database. We’ve covered some of the Wolverton accidents in previous blog posts: 1 case which involved 2 individuals here, and a 19th century case (not in our database) of a one-legged engine driver, here. In this short post, we wanted to look at 2 more cases.

The first occurred on 1 August 1911. Joiner George Wakefield was at the Carriage Works, making his way from the old material stores to the joiners’ shop when he tried to pass between a wagon and a carriage stood on lines next to each other that were converging. As he did so, the carriage was moved ‘about one yard’, just enough to catch Wakefield between its footboard and the side of the wagon. His ribs were injured. Inspector JJ Hornby determined that Wakefield ‘displayed a great want of care’ as he hadn’t looked to see if it was safe to get between the wagon and carriage, ‘and to his failure in this respect the accident must be chiefly attributed.’ However, he did also note that the wagon had been left in a dangerous position, foul of the other line, so when the carriage was moved there was insufficient space for it to pass safely. The Company was therefore recommended to ensure the rules about this were ‘strictly adhered to’ in the future at this place (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix C).

A portion of the Wolverton site, c.1900.
Courtesy: National Library of Scotland maps

The second case was also an injury, and also in the Carriage Works. On 9 February 1912 painter J Luing was working on a coach standing about a yard apart from another on the same line. The predictable happened: he attempted to pass between the two, and at that exact moment it was accidentally moved, crushing him between the buffers, injuring his chest and shoulders. The shunter in charge of the movement (which was being made using a capstan) had taken precautions to stop the coach he was moving from hitting the one that went on to crush Luing but as Inspector Hornby discovered, ‘unfortunately the wood scotch that he was using to stop the vehicle skidded and fell off the rail.’ The shunter had issued a verbal warning before making the move, and checked to see no-one was present. However, ‘as Luing was only taking small transfer arms off the outside of the coach [a lovely period detail], which would only take a very short time, he was probably not working at the coach’ when the warning was given. In the end the responsibility fell on Luing – at least in Hornby’s eyes – for being ‘remiss for failing to satisfy himself that he could pass between the two vehicles in safety’ (1912 Quarter 1, Appendix C).

It’s worth noting that for something the size of Wolverton Works and employing a great many workers, it only appears on 4 occasions in our database, involving 5 people in total. There will have been far more accidents – as an examination of the Wolverton records held at the National Railway Museum’s ‘Search Engine’ demonstrates. The reason they don’t show up in our project is because workshop accidents were not reported to the Railway Inspectors but to a different body – something discussed in this blog post.

Like so many locations, then, it looks like the physical remains of Wolverton’s early connection with the rail industry will all but disappear in the coming years. It’s not absolutely guaranteed – there are still potential legal challenges being explored, but it would be a hard fight to succeed. Whilst recognising the difficulty of juggling competing pressures around redevelopment, re-purposing remaining buildings, the site’s heritage and maintaining a working site, the likely demolition still feels rather sad. The extremely token parts of the Works that are planned for retention (according to reports, the lifting shop and a retaining wall, plus gable ends of 3 buildings) will barely nod to the once-extensive site – or to those who worked, and in some cases were injured or died, there. How we might deal with this intangible and often difficult heritage is a vexed question indeed – and one it is easy to overlook.

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