This brave o’erhanging firmament

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: auditorium ceiling (2013)

The legal stalemate over the leaking roof of the Abbeydale Picture House threatens to bring down the ornate plaster ceiling of the auditorium.

A recent press-release from the lessee of the cinema, CADS [Creative Arts Development Space], stated that the building must be made weatherproof without delay, and the financial loss from the closure of the auditorium is becoming unsustainable:  The uncertain future of a century-old Sheffield landmark (sheffieldtribune.co.uk) [scroll to ‘The Big Story’].

Subsequently, the Theatres Trust has added the Abbeydale to its register of theatres at risk:  Theatre at Risk Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield (theatrestrust.org.uk).

An alarming incident at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End in 2013 [‘Apollo theatre collapse injures more than 80 people in London’s West End | London | The Guardian] injured over eighty theatregoers and raised concerns about health-and-safety issues with plaster ceilings in historic theatres across Britain.  The Society of London Theatres quickly established that at the time of the incident all the West End theatres were up to date with their safety inspection routines.  Further precautions led to a tightened, systematic routine of inspections:  No prosecutions over theatre roof collapse | Theatre | The Guardian.

A detailed examination of the damage showed that the Apollo ceiling was weakened by the deterioration of hessian ties, called ‘wads’, that anchored the plasterwork to the roof structure:  Apollo theatre ceiling collapse blamed on failure of old cloth ties | London | The Guardian.  Water ingress was apparently the basic problem, weakening the hessian and adding to the weight of the plasterwork.  There’s a partly redacted technical report on the Apollo collapse at Apollo-Theatre..pdf (abtt.org.uk).

There’s been no public statement to indicate exactly what is wrong with the Abbeydale Picture House roof, but it’s clear that if the ceiling collapsed its reinstatement would be costly and would delay plans for a full restoration.

In a recent blog-article I highlighted the successful restoration of Wingfield Station in Derbyshire after years of neglect.  This came about because of a combination of forces.  Local residents and the Amber Valley District Council worked with English Heritage and the not-for-profit Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust to put the station back in excellent order which will enable it to earn its keep in future.

Sheffield City Council has already played that card by channelling Levelling Up funds from central government to make the Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe suitable for a lessee’s occupation, but the Abbeydale Picture House is a different proposition.

Firstly, it’s much bigger than Wingfield Station and though it’s structurally complete its integrity is seriously threatened by the ceiling vulnerability.

Secondly, it’s not the only landmark building in the city that presents a major conservation challenge.  The Old Town Hall is older, more central, more complex, in far worse physical condition and extremely difficult to adapt to a practical future use.

Sheffield City Council is desperately short of money after years of budget cuts, and to finance non-essential services it’s forced to scavenge for ringfenced grants that can’t be spent on other priorities.

I spoke to someone who knows about such matters, and he said that the only solution was money – more money than ordinary individuals might raise in a hurry.

But the support of ordinary members of the public will help CADS, a not-for-profit organisation with a strong track record in repurposing redundant buildings for use in a variety of art forms.

And reminding local politicians that people care about landmark buildings like the Abbeydale wouldn’t go amiss.  The Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler, is at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

Update: Within days of this article going online, on February 22nd 2024 CADS announced the immediate closure of the Abbeydale Picture House for lack of resources to make the auditorium safe, though they retain the tenancy agreement and hope to restore the building in the future: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-68371502.

Jane Austen’s House

Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

I’ve always wanted to visit the house in Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire, where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent the last eight years of her life and finished the six novels that immortalised her name, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), together with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (both published posthumously in 1818).

Of course, the house doesn’t look like I imagined it.  The building had been a pub, the New Inn, which closed in 1787, apparently following the second of two murders on the premises, after which it was adapted as the bailiff’s residence by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight (1767-1852), who had inherited the Chawton estate.

In 1809 Edward moved his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Cassandra (1773-1845) and Jane, into the house.

Here Jane Austen quietly wrote her fiction, in between domestic duties, letter-writing, socialising and being Aunt Jane to an extensive troop of nephews and nieces.

The insight, irony and elegance of her fiction-writing places her in the first rank of English writers, and her surviving letters have the same wit and charm.

My favourite is the comment in a letter to Cassandra written in 1800:  “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne;  I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.”  I know the feeling.  (The complete letter can be found at I drank too much wine last night – Letters of Note.)

The house opened as a museum in 1949 and is a place of pilgrimage to admirers from all over the world.  One of the most precious items is the tiny twelve-sided writing table on which she worked.

It’s understandable that pre-booking is encouraged to prevent overcrowding of the tiny rooms, and the Museum website plays down the alternative of walking in: Plan Your Visit to Jane Austen’s House Jane Austen Museum | Hampshire Days Out Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house).

There is a phone-number, but the outgoing message offers no facility to speak to anyone at the Museum.  All the necessary information, we are told, is online. 

However, I discovered that if you hang on at the end of the message eventually someone might answer.

In fact, walk-ins are possible, but not encouraged:…

The Watercress Line

Mid-Hants Railway, Ropley Station, Hampshire

You might not think that such an insubstantial commodity as watercress would generate sufficient trade to keep a railway line busy for decades from 1865 until the middle of the twentieth century.

In fact, watercress thrives best in fast-flowing chalk streams, and it remains fresh after picking for only two or three days.

The Mid-Hants Railway opened in 1865 to provide a link between two important London & South Western Railway routes at Winchester and Alton. It also enabled Alresford on the Hampshire Downs to become the centre of the watercress trade in Britain.

The line had other purposes.  It was a useful alternative route for passenger services from London to Southampton and Portsmouth and as such, with its proximity to the militarised area of Salisbury Plain, it was strategically significant in both World Wars.

The Southern Railway, successor to the L&SWR, electrified the line from London Waterloo as far as Alton in 1937, severing through passenger services by obliging passengers to change trains to travel further west.  When the entire London-to-Southampton main line was electrified thirty years later, leaving the Alton service as a lengthy branch line, the Mid-Hants Railway practically lost its remaining importance.

After British Rail closed the service from Alton to Winchester in 1973, an enthusiast group bought the section between Alton and Alresford and developed it as a heritage railway, branded by its popular name, the Watercress Line, between 1975 and 1985.

It’s a popular tourist feature in a pretty area of Hampshire, catering for a broad clientele, from children crawling over a full-size climbing-frame mock-up of a steam locomotive to devotees of fine dining, paying a three-figure sum to glide through the countryside tickling their palates. 

There’s much to interest rail enthusiasts along the ten-mile route, and casual visitors can find amusement and refreshments at each of the four beautifully restored stations. 

Alresford is the best place to park a car;  Ropley has excellent viewing facilities for passing trains and rolling stock stabled in and around the workshops;  Medstead & Four Marks has an exhibition ‘Delivering the Goods’ about freight operations in the age of steam.

Best of all, if you’re a Londoner, a seventy-minute journey, running a half-hour service most of the week, will take you from Waterloo to Alton, where you simply cross the platform from a swish South Western Railway electric multiple unit to a rake of 1950s Mark I carriages in Southern malachite green, complete with buffet car, that transports you back seventy or more years in an instant.

For everything you need to know about the Watercress Line, go to Watercress Line Enjoy A Trip At The Watercress Line.

American Church Berlin

Luther Church, Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany

Public transport in Berlin has several layers. 

There are buses, though in two visits I’ve only ever boarded one.  Rail is faster and more comfortable – trams in the former East Berlin, alongside the U-Bahn (underground railway) and the S-Bahn (overground railway).  Some services duplicate each other’s routes in places, and I found it easier to rely on signage at stops and on vehicles than to try to interpret the incompatible maps.  Ticketing is simple:  the day ticket [tageskarte] offers the run of the system.

I like to take time in any big city simply to hop on a bus, tram or train and see where it goes.  Serendipity takes over at such a point. 

With a couple of hours to spare one afternoon I took a westbound U2 train, trusting that I’d see something interesting when it eventually surfaced outside the central area.  Sure enough, shortly before the train entered Bülowstraße station it passed close by a spectacular brick Gothic church. 

The line went underground shortly afterwards, so I left the train at Wittenbergplatz and backtracked.  Bülowstraße station is a fine Art Noveau structure dating from 1902, part of the city’s first U-bahn route, designed by Bruno Möhring (1863-1929). 

Train services were severed when the Berlin Wall was built, and subsequently the station opened in 1980 as a bazaar and music restaurant which became a vibrant centre for the city’s Turkish community.  The tracks within the trainshed were covered over, and for a few months a vintage streetcar shuttled along the viaduct between Bülowstraße station and a flea-market at Nollendorfplatz station.  The station reopened in 1993.

The tall spire of the church I’d spotted is immediately visible from the street outside the station, though the building itself is difficult to photograph because of the surrounding trees.

It was originally built as the Luther Church [Lutherkirche] (1894), a rich and complex design by Johannes Otzen (1839-1911).  It’s a cross between the Scandinavian Church in Liverpool and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras. 

The external detail is of the highest quality, though it’s one spire short of a full set of turrets because of wartime bombing, and the interior, rebuilt in 1958-59, is simple and tasteful:  American Church in Berlin – Church in Berlin (foursquare.com)

The church is occupied by the American Church Berlin [https://www.americanchurchberlin.de].  Their pre-war building at Nollendorfplatz was destroyed in 1944, though a vestige survives as a monument. 

If ever I return to Berlin it’ll be at the top of my list to revisit, preferably in the morning when the sun will be better placed, and if possible in winter when the trees are bare.

41241

Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, Keighley, West Yorkshire: British Railways loco 41241 (1975)

Among the locomotives to be seen at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire a post-war British Railways tank engine, no: 41241, has a unique significance in the history of the K&WVR.

These compact, efficient and easily maintained 2-6-2T engines were designed by George Ivatt (1886-1972), Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London Midland & Scottish Railway, in 1946.  The LMS built ten before nationalisation, and British Railways produced a further 120 by 1952.  No: 41241, one of four survivors in preservation, was built in 1949.

41241 is immediately noticeable because of its red livery.  The exact shade of red is variously described – maroon, crimson lake, or carmine red derived from the early BR passenger-coach livery that was nicknamed “Blood and Custard”.

When British Railways ceased using steam traction, its managers firmly turned their backs on the past.  From 1966 to 1972, the years of the so-called “Steam Ban”, the only steam locomotive that had freedom to roam was Flying Scotsman, because of a clause in its unique sale contract.

When the nascent preservation groups bought locomotives from BR and scrap dealers they were forbidden to run them in BR identities.  This is the reason for 41241’s inauthentic livery.  Though the fleet numbers on the smokebox and the bunker are BR standard, the initials on the tank sides read “K&WVR”. 

41241 drew the Reopening Special passenger-carrying service out of Keighley in red, along with Southern Railway USA tank 72 in a different livery, on June 29th 1968, and it still bore the anomalous livery at the Shildon celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975.

In 1980 it was repainted in the authentic lined black that it wore throughout its BR service, until it reverted to the 1968 red livery in preparation for the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Reopening Special:  55th Anniversary of Re-opening Special – Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (kwvr.co.uk).

There’s another less well-known story about 41241 that I owe to a sharp-eyed researcher in the compendious Preserved British Steam Locomotives website.

Apparently, 41241 was relocated from Llandudno Junction depot to Skipton specifically to work the Worth Valley branch goods trains after passenger service ended in 1961.  When the necessity of this manoeuvre was questioned by a Euston manager in a memo, someone added the comment “send in any case; will employ at least two men and use some coal”.

Fortunately, a K&WVR supporter was at school within sight of the railway and regularly observed 41241 arrive at Keighley from Skipton about noon, wait near the site of the demolished goods shed for 3½ hours and then return to Skipton.

Mr David Pearson, referring to the memo, comments,–

It did this utterly pointless exercise for at least two years, presumably employing at least two men and burning lots of coal; a remarkable comment on the objectives of a nationalised industry.

[Steam Memories: Ivatt Tank 41241 in BR days]

The current chorus of disapproval about our privatised railways is well deserved, but we must remember that British Railways was anything but streamlined.

There are accounts of 41241’s career at 41241 LMS Ivatt Class 2MT 2-6-2T – Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (kwvr.co.uk) and 41241 – Preserved British Steam Locomotives.

Old Town Hall on the brink

Old Town Hall, Sheffield (2023)

Photo: Simon Hollis

At the end of November 2023 Sheffield’s digital news site Tribune published an in-depth article [The Old Town Hall has had some terrible owners. Is Gary Ata the worst? (sheffieldtribune.co.uk)] about the lamentable state of the Old Town Hall, one of the largest, oldest and most significant historic buildings in the city centre, which though Grade II listed is deteriorating inexorably.  Tribune had previously reported on the building in August 2021:  Sheffield’s Old Town Hall changes hands again (sheffieldtribune.co.uk).

I posted blog articles about the Old Town Hall in 2011 [Court adjourned | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times], 2015 [Friends of the Old Town Hall | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times] and 2019 [Old Town Hall at risk | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Ownership has long been a problem with this building.  It was never owned by the City Council or its elected predecessors.  It was built in 1807-08, before Sheffield was even a borough, by the Town Trustees, one of the three ancient foundations that administered the town from Tudor times. 

Through the nineteenth century the Trustees leased space to the borough authorities until the new Town Hall was completed in 1897.  After that the building became the city’s law courts until 1995 when the new Crown Court building opened on West Bar. 

The Department of the Environment bought the Old Town Hall in 2000 and passed it to a succession of property developers who allowed the place to rot.  The intentions – and sometimes the identities – of these shadowy figures have not always been apparent to the media or the public. 

By 2007 it featured as one of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings, and in 2014 the Friends of the Old Town Hall group was established to promote its significance.

The only owner who made a positive effort to put the Old Town Hall to commercial use was Mr Efekoro Omu, whose 2019 scheme for serviced apartments, hotel rooms in the old cells and a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” – would have severely compromised its historic integrity. 

That idea sat uneasily with the scheme that the Friends had created using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund.

Mr Omu’s scheme collapsed during the Covid lockdowns and led to his bankruptcy in 2021.  When the Old Town Hall was sold, the Friends estimated that restoration might cost £15 million.  That figure has undoubtedly risen since, as weather, inflation, vandalism and neglect take their toll, perhaps to £25 million.

The problem is conservation deficit, the gap between the cost of restoring a neglected building and its market value when fully restored.  Consequently, commercial use almost inevitably compromises historic integrity, so a prominent historic structure like the Old Town Hall needs to be supported by scarce grant aid.

Urban explorers may yet be the saving of the building because they have chronicled and publicised its increasingly miserable condition.

In Bradford the New Victoria Cinema might have gone by now if urban explorers hadn’t publicised the fact that behind post-war modernisations the original 1930 décor was intact and retrievable:  Our History Timeline | Bradford Live.

In Sheffield, two more modest cinemas bit the dust, as I chronicled in my book Demolished Sheffield [Demolished Sheffield | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times], because their intact interiors weren’t recognised until the roof was off.  An English Heritage inspector apparently declared that the ornate Electra Palace (1911), Fitzalan Square, did not merit listing shortly before it burnt down in 1984.  The Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road (1915) was unrecognised as an intact silent-movie picture house until part way through its demolition in 1986.

I’ve met a number of building owners who are wary of the “risk” of having their buildings listed because they fear it will prevent them from using the site as they wish, but Sheffield can be proud of buildings at risk that became thriving assets to their owners and the community, such as Carbrook Hall (17th-century, II*), Greentop Circus (1876, II) and the soon-to-be-opened Leah’s Yard (mid-19th century II*).

The ultimate player in the process of rescuing buildings in distress is the City Council and it’s true that they have in the past missed chances to wrest the Old Town Hall from negligent owners.  At one time the Council had a team of planners whose brief was to monitor the city’s stock of historic structures.  Now there is only one conservation officer, and he works part time and lives outside the city.  His workload is unenviable.

For this reason, when I raise an issue about a historic building, as I did recently with the listed Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, I present a concern but I don’t hold my breath waiting for action.

In particular, after decades of financial strictures, the Council’s priorities are rightly prioritised to supporting essential services and helping vulnerable people.

For the immediate future, whether an old building that’s lost its purpose stands or falls depends on community stakeholders and imaginative benefactors who can work together to make the city a better place for future generations.

The least any of us can do as individuals is to express concern about the Old Town Hall, the Adelphi Cinema or any other Sheffield building that we don’t want to lose.

A good place to start is by contacting the Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler:  Sheffield Council makes ‘small but significant’ steps for heritage (thestar.co.uk) at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

No fire without smoke

Blackpool Tower: access stair to the Crow’s Nest

A false hue-and-cry created post-Christmas entertainment in the centre of Blackpool on Thursday December 28th 2023 when passers-by thought they could see flames shooting from the top of the Tower.

Phone footage does indeed look convincingly like a fire – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-67836123 – but it was an illusion caused by orange netting flapping in the wind.

Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service deployed six fire-engines, a helicopter and a “rope rescue” team to inspect the upper levels of the structure leading to the “Crow’s Nest”.

The excitement was over before teatime.

It wasn’t the first alarm about a fire at the top of the Tower.

There was a real fire above the 380ft landing, where the passenger lifts terminate, late in the evening of Thursday July 22nd 1897, three years after the Tower was opened.

It was a time when there was no possible way to put it out.  The wooden decking was simply left to burn itself out while crowds watched from the Promenade.

All the fire brigade could do was to protect surrounding buildings from catching fire from falling debris.  The Liverpool Mercury (July 24th 1897) reported –

Showers of sparks flew around in all directions, and large pieces of blazing wood dropped away from the burning mass, and sped through the air like rockets.  As the flames got better hold of the woodwork, the heat became more and more intense, and long before midnight the iron framework on the east side of the platform was white heat.

The most dramatic moment came when the wire rope attached to one of the lift cars burnt through, and the eleven-ton counterweight dropped the full height of the Tower, burrowing into the foundations within a private box in the Circus auditorium, where it still remains. 

The noise of its fall was heard all over Blackpool and brought people out into the streets.

The fire burnt itself out shortly after midnight, and at daybreak it was apparent that below the seat of the fire the paintwork was barely scorched.

The following day Blackpool’s entertainments carried on, profiting from additional visitors drawn in by the news reports.

It’s an ill wind…

The Liverpool Mercury news article can be found at https://amounderness.co.uk/blackpool_tower_fire_1897.html.

Whitelock’s, or the Turk’s Head

Whitelock’s, Briggate, Leeds

My friend Simon has worked for three separate employers in Leeds and had never visited Whitelock’s, the celebrated Victorian pub up an alley off Briggate, so we took a train to Leeds, had coffee in the Tiled Hall Café at Leeds Art Gallery, presented ourselves at Whitelock’s for a substantial, totally traditional pub lunch in Victorian surroundings, and whiled away the afternoon over coffee at the Queens Hotel, which has been impressively refurbished.

There has been a licensed ale house, the Turk’s Head, on the Whitelock’s site since 1715, serving merchants and traders from the market in Briggate on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Tucked up one of the narrow medieval burgage plots that characterise the centre of Leeds, its opulent interior dates from 1886, a feast of tiles, mirrors, stained glass and brasswork, and has been improved by successive owners. 

John Lupton Whitelock (1834-1896) held the licence from 1867 and purchased the freehold in the 1880s.  His son William Henry Whitelock (1856-1909) employed the Leeds architects Waite & Sons to extend the facilities and install electric lighting and an electric clock.  He renamed it Whitelock’s First City Luncheon Bar.

The brothers Lupton (1878-1941) and Percy Whitelock (1889-1958) took over in the early years of the twentieth century.  Lupton Whitelock was an accomplished flautist, playing with the Leeds Symphony and Hallé orchestras, and he encouraged his musician friends such as Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent to visit.

Over the years it has entertained entertainers as varied as Peter O’Toole, Margot Fonteyn and Dame Anna Neagle.  It was a favourite haunt of writers from the Yorkshire Evening Post such as Keith Waterhouse.

In time its connections brought celebrities who valued its intimacy and formality:  for years dinner jackets were obligatory and only gentlemen were served at the bar.  Women customers were served by waiters. 

HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, held a private party at Whitelock’s, perhaps while staying with his sister the Princess Royal at Harewood House.

The family ownership ended in 1944, when the pub was sold to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries but its character has survived several changes of ownership.  Sir John Betjeman called it “the very heart of Leeds”;  it was listed Grade II in 1963 and upgraded to Grade II* in 2022.  Its Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque, the hundredth to be awarded, was unveiled by Lupton Whitelock’s granddaughter, Sarah Whitelock, in 2008.

The current owners, Mason & Taylor, made a huge effort to restore Whitelock’s to the very heart of Leeds after a marked decline:  Mason & Taylor: A White Knight For Whitelocks? | the CULTURE VULTURE

The mission was duly accomplished:  Whitelock’s Ale House Is at the Heart of Leeds and Its Story | Craft Beer & Brewing (beerandbrewing.com).

The most perfect of all station houses 3

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)
Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)

One summer’s evening in 1965 I caught a train from Wingfield Station to my home in Belper.  I’d no idea of the timetable and I was lucky that a steam-hauled passenger train showed up promptly.  It’s a long walk from South Wingfield to Belper.

The station closed to passengers in 1967, and by the time I photographed it in 1976 it looked distinctly neglected.  A succession of private owners allowed it to become a wreck until the South Wingfield Local History Group successfully campaigned to lift its listing from Grade II to Grade II* in 2015, and prompted Amber Valley Borough Council and the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT) to plan a thorough, practical restoration.

I visited the site in 2021 when work was about to begin, and returned in late October 2023 when the Trust ran a series of public events to celebrate the completion of their work. 

The result is impressive:  the building is at last not only weatherproof and structurally sound but restored to the highest standard – a remarkable achievement on a site that stands a few feet from a busy main-line railway.

The new lessees will be grateful for the underfloor heating beneath the stone flagstones.  Visitors will be fascinated by the detailed recreation of the ladies’ waiting room based on the discovery and salvage of original wallpaper. 

When the building begins to earn its keep as office accommodation, public visits will be arranged six times a year.

The DHBT website points out that “Whilst Wingfield Station is not the earliest pioneer railway station to survive, it is one of the least altered surviving examples worldwide”. 

As such it has national and international significance, and local volunteers and historians are building a significant resource that will be useful to online visitors:  Our Project | dhbt-live (derbyshirehistoricbuildingstrust.org.uk).

Exciting new discoveries about the context of the station in the development of travel, coal-mining and the growth of neighbouring towns and villages and personal stories of people who worked there are already uploaded and the site has considerable potential for further development.

Already the website offers – as far as I know for the first time – images of all of Francis Thompson’s stations for the North Midland Railway at the end of the 1830s, drawn by Samuel Russell.

Without the DHBT and its partners, on the ground and online, almost all of Francis Thompson’s work for the North Midland Railway would have disappeared, and the talent of a young, pioneering architect of the early railway age could not be fully appreciated.

Derby Roundhouse

Derby Roundhouse

While the architect Francis Thompson was designing the Trijunct Station in Derby and all the other stations up the North Midland line to Normanton in the late 1830s, the engineer Robert Stephenson was laying out repair and storage facilities alongside.

This was the beginning of the “Works”, where locomotives were built and maintained, and the “Carriage & Wagon Works” (1873-76) on Litchurch Lane, a complex of which vestiges survive under the aegis of the rolling-stock manufacturer Bombardier Transportation.

The singular monument of the Works is the Derby Roundhouse, a sixteen-sided locomotive shed built around a turntable within a prestige building by Francis Thompson.  (There were other roundhouse buildings at the Works, all now demolished.)

Francis Whishaw, in The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland practically described and illustrated (2nd ed, 1840), gave this description:

The engine-house is a polygon of sixteen sides, and 190 feet in diameter, lighted from a dome-shaped roof, of the height of 50 feet.  It contains sixteen lines of rails, radiating from a single turn-table in the centre:  the engines, on their arrival, are taken in there, placed upon the turn-table, and wheeled into any stall that may be vacant.  Each of the sixteen stalls will hold two, or perhaps more, engines.

This innovative structure served its original purpose past the age of steam, but eventually became derelict and was threatened with demolition until Derby City Council acquired it in 1994.  Its Grade II listing dating from 1977 didn’t reflect its importance as the oldest surviving locomotive roundhouse in Britain.  It was subsequently regraded to Grade II*.

Maber Architects skilfully refurbished the Roundhouse as part of a flagship campus for Derby College, preserving the track layout, the elegant supporting columns and the complex roof structure. 

Opened in 2009, it now forms a well-used facility for students and conferences, referencing the significance of the rail industry in Derby’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century growth.

The earliest locomotive roundhouse is thought to have been at Curzon Street, Birmingham, dated 1837;  the better-known Camden Roundhouse in north London dates from 1847.  The Barrow Hill Roundhouse (1870), north of Chesterfield, continues to function as a heritage operation where locomotives and rolling stock are stored and repaired.