Full steam ahead

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Excavating the ‘world’s oldest railway roundhouse’ in Birmingham

Archaeological investigations ahead of the construction of a station to serve the new HS2 network of high-speed trains have revealed traces of far earlier rail journeys. Carly Hilts visited the site of the old Curzon Street Station in Birmingham to see what has been uncovered.

Excavation of the site
Overlooking the excavation of what is thought to be the world’s oldest railway roundhouse, on the site of Birmingham’s Victorian Curzon Street Station. [Image: HS2]

During the 1830s, Britain was undergoing a railway revolution, with rapid expansion of the rail network meaning that people, post, and goods could travel further and faster than ever before. The manufacturing powerhouse of Birmingham was among the many Victorian cities to benefit from this boom: its Curzon Street Station hosted termini for two major companies, the Grand Junction Railway (connecting the city to Manchester and Liverpool), and the London and Birmingham Railway, which provided a link to the capital.

In the days of steam, this latter 112-mile journey could take over five hours – a far cry from the 86 minutes that carried CA from London Euston to Birmingham New Street last month. It was railway-related matters that had brought us to Birmingham: we were visiting the Old Curzon Street station site, which is set to be transformed into a station once more, a key link in the HS2 high-speed rail network and the first new intercity terminus station to be built in Britain since the 19th century. Excavation by Headland Archaeology ahead of this development has revealed a wealth of evidence for rail journeys dating back almost two centuries.

A map showing the new HS2 network
The site will be transformed into a new station as part of HS2’s network of high-speed trains. [Image: HS2]

Among these discoveries, perhaps the most significant are the remains of what is believed to be the world’s oldest-known railway roundhouse. These were round or semicircular structures surrounding turntables that were used for rotating locomotives to send them back down the line, with the buildings also used to house locomotives for stabling and everyday maintenance. The architect of Curzon Street’s roundhouse was an illustrious individual: it was designed by Robert Stephenson, son of the celebrated civil engineer and ‘father of railways’ George Stephenson. Contemporary accounts record that it opened for freight on 12 November 1837, although the building was not fully completed until the following year. This date makes the roundhouse the earliest of its kind, the project team suggests, potentially beating the previous claimant to the title – a roundhouse built in Derby – by almost two years.

Robert Stephenson’s plans for the Curzon Street roundhouse. [Image: Science and Society Picture Library]

The Birmingham structure’s turntable was 15 feet wide (according to contemporary accounts) and was surrounded by 16 radiating bays that could have accommodated 32 locomotives, or half as many with tenders. Beneath the bays were 3ft-deep inspection pits, used to check that the engines were in proper working order, and 19th-century records attest that there were even more substantial structures under the building itself. Written accounts speak of a large arcaded coal vault measuring some 20ft deep, 300ft long, and 40ft wide, which was linked by a tunnel to a shipping yard beside Birmingham’s network of canals.

Early locomotives ran on coke, not coal, and it appears that this fuel was being produced at Curzon Street for use at the station; while no physical evidence of such facilities has been excavated at the site so far, archival research undertaken as part of the investigation has uncovered 19th-century minutes in the station records speaking of on-site coke ovens converting coal that had been specially shipped to the site. The site’s extensive drainage system – essential in a low-lying area close to the canals – was also in evidence, with numerous long culverts built from specially designed curved bricks exposed in the area around the roundhouse.

Meanwhile, the excavated remains of the roundhouse itself have proved ‘much better preserved than expected’, reports Jon Millward, Historic Environment Advisor for HS2. At the time that we visited the site, the central turntable pit had been completely exposed, together with the brick circuit of the structure’s external wall (which survived to above knee-height), from which the foundations of the inspection pits that underlay the locomotive bays radiated like spokes on a wheel.

The roundhouse had survived far better than was expected: the project has uncovered the base of its turntable and its external wall. [Image: Carly Hilts]

This level of survival was unpredicted as, at the start of the project, the site, which had become a car park in more recent years, had been covered by eight inches of reinforced concrete since the 1970s, and railway ballast before that– something that had protected the remains lying beneath for centuries, but which also made geophysical survey impossible. Analysis of sketch plans and maps from the 1840s allowed the project team to estimate the location of the roundhouse to within a couple of metres, but the extent to which the structures had survived came as a very pleasant surprise, given that they were known to have been demolished in 1860 to allow expansion of the goods station buildings.

The project has also uncovered the radiating foundations of inspection pits that once lay beneath 16 locomotive bays. [Image: Carly Hilts]

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 362. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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