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The Brighton engine works and the goods yard, part one

By Guy Hall

It may come as a surprise to many that Brighton once made steam locomotives and boasted an extensive railway goods yard in the centre of the city. This two-part article will give a brief picture of the two facilities. Brighton once had a lot of manufacturing and engineering and these two articles touch on a small section of that history.

The railway came to Brighton in 1840 and it became the headquarters of the London, Brighton and South coast railway, a company that survived until the national groupings of 1923, when it became part of the Southern Railway. A carriage works was started in 1848 and locomotive construction was started in 1852. From 1948 it became part of the Sothern region, the nationalized railway. It covered the area now known as the New England quarter to the left of the station, though today there are very few clues left. The modern office blocks below the station in Trafalgar Street occupy the site of the goods yard and its once large goods shed. The works was expanded and rebuilt and the carriage works moved to Lancing in 1912; the Churchill industrial estate in Lancing uses the old railway buildings and there are still rails under the floor! There was also a locomotive shed for the engines between the two lines going to London and Shoreham respectively, which was just by New England Road, today the engineering department buildings cover that site. The railway works was demolished in 1969 and the engine sheds in 1964.

What went on in the works?

Manufacturing a steam locomotive takes a large pool of skills and machinery with a lot of careful organization. I cannot give you a figure for how long each build took, but if there was a long run of a class, a lot of subassemblies sped the work up. The works contained such workshops as the boiler shop, the erecting shop, the fitting shop, the plating shop, a welding shop, a coppersmith, and a brass foundry. The major tools were powered by electricity, AC and DC, whilst others were powered by compressed air was also used for some of the tools. Specialist tools included a 20-ton press and a 250-ton flanging press. The works made almost everything, some parts would be sub contacted to the other railway company works, or occasionally a specialist engineering firm would make items such as the boiler, but it was mostly an in-house product! Everyone had a part in building each locomotive and up till 1914, they were designed on site in the drawing office. There was no outside recruiting to begin with, so if your father worked there, you could become an apprentice. This did change later, but staying on for further education after leaving school at 14 was a very expensive choice. I know the Brighton Tramways had a connection with local technical colleges, but I do not know if they recruited there.

Where did these people live? Well, a lot of the Southover street area was built as railway accommodation, as well as round New England Street, anything made of bungaresh in fact. Southover survives, but the new England houses, which were very small and cramped, were demolished in the late 50s and early 60s.
It would take too long to describe the work each section, but a lot still depended on muscle power and descriptions of the work and the conditions they laboured in were both harsh and dangerous, yet there was great pride in what they made. If you go the Bluebell railway, as well as other preserved railways and museums round the UK, you can still see the results of their work. As mentioned before, there were offices where parts and whole locomotives were designed. Below the works layout in BR days

What happened to it all?

The works flourished until the 1920s, but the awkward site it occupied meant that it was dificult to expand and to keep efficent. Locomotive production stopped in 1916, the works being used to make munitions. The coach works as mentioned before had gone to Lancing in 1912. Steam locomotive production resumed in the 1920s, but there was talk of all the locomotive work being transferred to Eastleigh in Hampshire, which was a bigger and better site. In fact, during the 1930s a lot of the skilled workmen moved to Eastleigh. Production increased during the second world war and reached a peak just after the war, with production of the famous Battle of Britain and West country class locomotives, as well as other types, including the double-ended leader loco, more on that in part two!. At this time, the works employed 650 men. After that, from the mid 50s, it was run down, until in 1958, the last steam locomotive was built, bringing to an end a 117 years of construction. Over 1200 locomotives had been built there. The works was officially closed in 1962, but from 1957 to 1964, the Isetta bubble car was manufactured in the buildings.

The Goods Yard

The goods yard was immediately below the works and the Green door store is part of the former offices opposite the site of the large goods shed, built in 1894. The picture above shows its size and location. There were many sheds along New England Street, including banana warehouses. If any of you remember John’s camping store, that was an old railway buidling. There were lots of wagon turntables that meant wagons could be loaded, or unloaded in the shed, then pushed back on to the main line and taken away. Note all the old terraced housing in the area, all long since gone. Behind New England street you can still see the pillars that supported some of the engine works buidings. The goods yard was run down from the 60s, but lingered on till 1980. It was then all demolished and cleared in the late 80s and is now covered in office blocks. The combined site of the yard and works covered 44.5 acres.

In the next instalment I will show some of the locomotives that were built there.

Posted in History on Feb 01, 2023