X Close

It’s the end of the line for Britain’s industrial heritage The magnificent railway works at Horwich in Lancashire are being absorbed into suburban sprawl

The Erecting Shop at Horwich works, 1890 (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The Erecting Shop at Horwich works, 1890 (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)


October 21, 2020   5 mins

From the top of Rivington Pike, rising 1,200-ft from the edge of the West Pennine Moors, the small Lancashire town of Horwich is laid out below you. The parish church, the compass point of most English towns, is not easy to spot through veils of early autumn mist. But, there it is, Holy Trinity, a simple and nominally Gothic Revival affair of 1831.

And then your eye is caught by long, disciplined rows of red brick buildings, a little ragged and battered, under Welsh slate and glass roofs looking like some mighty abbey complex lacking only a crenellated and pinnacled tower to complete the subterfuge. This, though, once the most important gathering of buildings in Horwich, is no half-remembered ecclesiastical foundation, but what remains of the partially abandoned and largely uncared for Horwich railway works.

Founded in 1884 and closed a century later, Horwich Works was the pride and joy of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. This was the “Business Line”, its frequent and tightly timed trains linking an intensity of industrial towns and cities from Liverpool to Manchester and eastwards to Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Doncaster.

From 1889, most of the glossy black locomotives sprinting the railway’s trains through chains of Pennine tunnels were built at Horwich. They took shape in the most impressive of all the many buildings at the railway works, the Erecting and Repair Shop. This, until the wreckers went in recently, was Horwich’s holy of holies, a truly magnificent industrial building, 1,520-ft long, 118-ft wide and formed by a top-lit nave separated from a pair of aisles by rows of lofty cast iron piers.

When finally abandoned, the haunting Erecting and Repair shop had the look and numinous air of some ambitious Romanesque abbey church. Of course it should have. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Britain’s railways were a religion of sorts. They attracted hundreds of thousands of worshippers. The Great Western Railway, the High Church of Britain’s railways, named one its most famous classes of copper-capped express locomotives after saints and planned to name its proposed Pacific locomotives after cathedrals.

Which unholy owner or authority would even think of demolishing the sanctuary of historic Horwich? On your bended knees, Bolton Council. In 2006, the council gave outline permission for the redevelopment of Horwich Works. The proposal, since given a green signal, was for a 150-acre sprawl of 1,700 new homes. On their way up today, these appear to be standard new housing estate “units”, brick boxes, that is, guaranteed free of architecture and local character. The same type can be seen anywhere in the country whether at Halifax, Harrogate, Horwich or Huyton. And these are just Lancashire and Yorkshire towns that happen to begin with H.

Because the thousands of people living in coming years at “Rivington Chase” are expected to need access to the M61 motorway, for commuting — once life returns to normal after the pandemic — and to the enormous Middlebrook Retail and Leisure Park, a £12m link road is to be driven through what survives of Horwich Works to reach the new houses. And this has meant — you might have guessed — the demolition of the Erecting and Repair Shop. As to the fate of its attendant buildings, a part of the dilapidated Horwich Loco Industrial Estate for the past thirty years, the ghost of Sir John Aspinall only knows, although there is little cause for optimism.

As a dynamic 35-year old, John Aspinall, the new Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and later General Manager, took on the task of completing Horwich Works. Here, set across 247-acres, and alongside streets of new terraced housing named after distinguished British railway engineers, among them Stephenson, Gooch, Webb and Brunel, were a wheel shop, bolt shop, spring smithy, boiler shop, foundry and forge and the erecting shop with its overheard travelling cranes. Over there was the railway’s own cottage hospital, gym, 1,100-seat dining room and, all importantly, the Mechanics Institute (since demolished) where skilled working men learned the latest in engineering and technology.

The first handsome red brick building on the way into the works was Rivington House (a survivor), where Aspinall had his drawing office and laboratories. The entire works, powered by gas and electricity of its own making, was threaded through by a 7½ mile narrow-gauge railway, its trains steaming in and out of and in between the regimented rows of hard working sheds fetching and carrying tools, parts and personnel.

Britain’s brightest young engineering talent made a beeline for Horwich, attracted by Aspinall’s innovative and and purposeful regime. Among them were four future Chief Mechanical Engineers of the Big Four railways that swallowed up companies like the Lancashire and Yorkshire after the 1923 “grouping” of the nation’s mainlines. These were George Hughes and Henry Fowler (both LMS), Richard Maunsell (Southern) and Nigel Gresley (LNER) of Flying Scotsman and Mallard fame.

Like Aspinall, Gresley had been apprenticed to the London and North Western Railway under Francis Webb at Crewe before moving to Horwich. At the 1919 dinner held in Crewe Works for former Webb apprentices, these two huge talents sang the Crewe Works Song together:

Last night I lay a sleeping
There came a dream to me –
I stood within a Steam Shed,
A marvellous shed to see.
The walls were clean and spotless,
And smoke troughs white as snow,
And not a spot of grease was seen
Upon the pits below.

 O Loco Men! O Loco Men!
Shout loud for well ye may –
‘Twas the Blessed Steam Shed of Paradise
We all shall see someday.

 One famous Horwich apprentice took off in another direction. This was Alliot Verdon-Roe, to whose aviation company founded in Manchester in 1910 we owe the RAF’s Second World War four-engine Avro Lancaster bomber and the Cold War Vulcan delta-wing jet. During the two world wars, Horwich Works made, among other materiel, artillery shells, field guns and tanks.

Given this distinguished history, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Bolton Council would more than cherish the site of Horwich Works. The council did agree to a Conservation Area Management Plan in 2006, yet this seems to have evaporated since then like steam through a safety valve. As local residents have noted, the Loco Works conservation area must be one of the only conservation areas in the country in the throes of demolition.

Such lack of vision. If the local council and all who work for and with it had only thought of re-using this great building complex imaginatively, it could have been the hub of forward looking industrial enterprise and housing living up to its past. The buildings could have been transformed into workshops, laboratories, test centres, hi-tech offices, spacious and beautiful homes, shops, a clinic, a school, a contemporary technical college. New houses, at all prices, could have been of designs living up to those of Aspinall and Gresley.

People living here might have walked to work, shopped within minutes of their front doors and be proud to live in a place visitors would come to see, a Northern Powerhouse, as exciting and as moving any towns or cities boasting great architecture. Abbeys. Cathedrals. Innovative industrial and scientific complexes.

Instead, they have been given suburban sprawl, what will surely be congested roads and, at Rivington Chase, little more than a folk memory of a Horwich of industrial might, invention and skill.


Jonathan Glancey is an architectural critic and writer. His books include Twentieth Century Architecture, Lost Buildings and Spitfire: the Biography


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

38 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I seem to remember the writer popping up in the Guardian quite often, and he is certainly a metropolitan type. So I assume he voted Labour, and certainly not for UKIP. As such he believes in, and has voted for, mass immigration. He cannot, therefore, complain about suburban sprawl.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Sorry, that’s not a valid chain of reasoning! Just a sequence of ever more tenuous assumptions built on the observation that the author once had articles published in the G – which not too long ago was a much more broad-minded publication.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

The fact is that if you have voted for any of the mainstream parties over the last 20 years you have voted for mass immigration. You cannot, therefore, complain when new housing is built all over the place, perhaps in the fields near to you.

Where do you want the extra six or seven million people to live? On the streets? I have no doubt that Mr Glancy and yourself are hosting a number of the newcomers in your own houses but not everyone has the space to offer this.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Nonsense. Every party has good and bad bits in their offer, one just has to pick the best of a bad bunch. That is still better than not voting, and letting the nutters get in. And yes, we do have immigrants living in our house and neither are we complaining about the village growing.

Paul
Paul
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

His “live in immigrants” no doubt have their own stairs and entry door in the “other” part of the house.

ccityplanner12
ccityplanner12
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

In our election system you don’t get to express much of an opinion because they only ask one question. It’s perfectly possible to oppose mass immigration but disagree with U.K.I.P. in other policy areas. Elections might as well be asking:
“What do you want the government to do? 1 of 1 characters remaining”.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

People are hypocrites? Get out of here!

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Suburban sprawl started in the interwar period. You can’t possible blame migration for that. That is why the current law was passed in 1947.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

He is Also has typical ‘Remain’Pessimism, ”Only trade blocs work,contribute to history” Not….Central Line and other heritage lines are popular tourist attractions..Fred Dibnahs Programmes on BBC4 are still popular on youtube 16 years after his death..If you dont have A Past,you have NO future,thats why ”Cancel Culture” of Right &Left is SO misplaced &dangerous/..

Phil Phil Large
Phil Phil Large
3 years ago

I love the way millennial journalists glibly romanticize Britain’s industrial past whilst never actually having the pleasure of working in it. My father was an apprentice in a privately owned wagon works in Doncaster in the 1940s built in the “glorious” Victorian era. No electricity, no washing facilities ( at the end of a 12hr shift you washed the worst of the coal dust and dirt off in the blacksmiths bosch) and one stinking toilet between 60 men. Horwich locomotive works is just another crumbling relic that probably had equally appalling working conditions. What the North needs are secure, well paid jobs in the new 21st century technology industries not another heritage centre.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

” What the North needs are secure, well paid jobs in the new 21st century technology industries not another heritage centre.”
True, but do you think that the avg. IQ of northern workers is 120 and over?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I saw a story yesterday claiming that Sunderland is the UK’s new AI capital. To suggest that northern workers are less intelligent than southern workers is disgustingly insulting.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

or midlands workers?..

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Did i say that?
“..Sunderland is the UK’s new AI capital” – sarcasm?

Look at IQ distribution curve, how many people have IQs of 120 and over? Those people are in places like London, Oxbridge – not Sunderland.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The real problem is state education, or lack of.

Thanks to that cretin d**k (f..k the Grammar Schools!) Crosland and others, we destroyed over a thousand first class Grammar Schools and replaced them with a plethora of very mediocre Comprehensives.

We are now reaping the ‘benefits’ of that self inflicted wound, that are even worse than our current response to the C-19 fiasco.

Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the two?

Paul
Paul
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

nul

Paul
Paul
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Do you think the IQ of the (now) average Londoner is even single figures. To say it bred, promoted and exalted intelligent females like Dawn & Dianne – the combined IQ not above my size 9 shoes. A stroll along the A13 wearing a Canada Goose jacket, new Nike Air Trainers speaking on an Iphone X which you would be relieved of within 50 yards by a gang of “chirpy Londoners” who’s combined IQ would not reach double figures. Although I bit, when you look to having your backside covered in a conflict the simple low IQ Northern servicemen would make the bulk of the very best.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul

1) People that work for tech firms have very high IQs and those people (in any country) are no more than 2.5% of the population. Look at IQ distribution curve.
2) Because of economic activity those people are far more like to be in London/Oxbridge than Sunderland.
3) I don’t see the connection between war fighting and IQ/Sunderland argument.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Most Londoners Are from EU , But Most Remainers are thick…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The real problem is state education, or lack of.
Thanks to that cretin, the late d**k Crosland and others, ‘we’ destroyed over a thousand first class Grammar Schools and replaced them with a plethora of very mediocre Comprehensives.
We are now reaping the ‘benefits’ of that self inflicted wound, that are even worse than our current response to the C-19 fiasco.
Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the two?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The real problem is state education, or lack of.
Thanks to that Marxist, the late d**k Crosland and others, ‘we’ destroyed over a thousand first class Grammar Schools and replaced them with a plethora of very mediocre Comprehensives.
We are now reaping the ‘benefits’ of that self inflicted wound, that are even worse than our current response to the C-19 fiasco.
Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the two?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The real problem is state education, or lack of.
Thanks to that devout Marxist, the late d**k , Crosland, and others, ‘we’ destroyed over a thousand first class Grammar Schools and replaced them with a plethora of very mediocre Comprehensives.
We are now reaping the ‘benefits’ of that self inflicted wound, that are even worse than our current response to the C-19 fiasco.
Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the two ?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

It seems impossible to answer you on this interesting subject. The Censor is not amused!

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
3 years ago

Hello Phil, obviously you’re Dad and his co-workers should have stayed accepting those working conditions. After all, there are plenty overseas who accept far worse. This is the quandary the West has faced for many decades. The solution. Bring those with a culture of minimal rights into the nation. And people wonder why their rights are being eroded.

C B
C B
3 years ago

I agree, what a load of patronising twod this article is. The scars of industrialisation lie 2 centuries deep on the landscape and psyche of Lancashire. The sooner it’s gone the better. Perhaps the hypothetical heritage visitors could go for the full experience and arrive on our decrepid Pacer trains? – vehicles so antique they would embarrass the Soviet Union. Perhaps we could wave from our backyards after feeding the pigeons? By all means decry ugly new housing, but it’s a cheap way of getting the things middle class people take for granted – a detached house and a drive to park your car on. One of the most loved Boltonians is Fred Dibnah, who made a great start of knocking it all down. And who can forget J.B. Priestley’s observation of the Bolton / Manchester wasteland: “the ugliness is so complete it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there.”

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Jonathan G is 66, hardly a millennial. I enjoyed the article, and share his frustration at the wasted opportunity. I saw no mention of heritage centres. On the contrary, he talks of forward-looking industrial enterprise and housing, workshops, laboratories, hi-tech offices etc, exactly what you say the north needs

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

What has happened to Andrew Derrick, the “devout sceptic”?

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

He’s been kidnapped by his Dutch alter ego, an agent of Disqus. I can confirm that he’s alright, but they’re not currently letting him change his name back. Do you know how it’s done?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Thank God!
No, the powers of Disqus are truly terrifying.
Satan will have to ‘up his game’!

ccityplanner12
ccityplanner12
3 years ago

You don’t have to replicate the past exactly for it to be fruitful.

Geoff Cox
GC
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

In romanticising the past, it is all too easy to forget the appaling working conditions and the overall poverty that extended far and wide. But what I don’t understand is why we have not been able to have our cake and eat it by now. Living standards have increased because capitalism forces companies to produce better and cheaper. Yet all that wealth seems to have been sqandered and I doubt whether anyone in the UK is much happier than they were when the Horwich railway yard was in full flow.

Government has of course quandered millions of pounds employing people in non-jobs and mass immigration has diluted the money still further. Together with the erosion of any sort of binding culture and brotherhood and the picture is a sad one.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

At over 1,500 feet long, the length of 4-5 English Medieval Cathedrals, what can one do with such a building as the fantastic Erecting Shop?

Perhaps reuse as a Detention/Holding Centre for Sinbad & Co, currently paddling across the Channel on Lilos and water wings?

I estimate it could hold about seven thousand souls.

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
3 years ago

The council destroyed Swindon Works without much thought and are still refusing to do up the Mechanics Institute. No money they say.
The L & Y was a fine company but always suffered from the attentions of the Midland and the LNWR . In the end it had to merge with the latter. That was before the Grouping. Like the Great Central it was probably one of the last of the provincial companies to be a real national force. In the end London sucked everything in.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

What, no mention of John Ramsbottom, who selected and ‘built’ the Horwich site.

Previously he had been infamously fired’ by the chairman of the LNWR for asking for a salary increase!

ed martin
ed martin
3 years ago

Do we now worship slums?
Why?

jim payne
jim payne
3 years ago

So in the North they take over our Industrial Heritage!!
Here in West Sussex, they take away our A1 Farm Land.
“Experts”, after jsut going thru my own planning experience, I think councils are shite!

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Jonathan, here’s one distant yankee who appreciates your historical perspective and wistful description. I know that feeling–instigated by visitation in a site such as you describe, of being– mystically, but certainly nostalgically– in deep connection with those past places.
The old haunts almost seem to be, themselves, ghosts.
Over here on the other side, In North Carolina where I live, we have a Railroad Museum, established in an old Railyard near Salisbury, NC, USA.
Unlike certain areas of your Horwich railway yours, this depot and service roundyard did escape the wrecking ball.
So today, one can stand next to one of the grand old steamers, then muse in a restored waiting room, catch a glimpse into the ancient office . .
We Americans have much for which to thank you Brits, connecting that whole, ole Railway heritage that just steamed its way through . . . then was gone into the sunset like a column of smoke.
Speaking of Smoke, I wrote a novel by that name in which the story began in London on May 12, 1937, the day of King George VI’s coronation. But that’s neither here there.
Back to industrial nostalgia. Recently, I was in our nearby city of Greensboro, North Carolina, where, while doing historical research for a novel I may write, I happened upon century old textile plant that had been built and operated by Moses Cone . . . Cone Knitting Mills.
Though eerily fascinating, the place is indeed doomed to the wrecking ball. But I walked away with some good photos and a serious case of deja vu.
And we have some serious appreciation for you Brits in that department as well: textiles.
Ah, but back to Horwich . . . your Horwich railway yard sounds like a serious case of 4000 holes in Horwich, Lancashire . . .now we know how many holes it takes to fill the UnHerd call.

David Wooff
David Wooff
3 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Horwich was actually dotted with many textile industry mills, weaving sheds and bleach works as well as pipe works, brick works, small mines on the moors above etc. Also, Hawker Siddeley had a plant up the road making props and all sorts, later to become part of British Aerospace. Bolton, 6 miles down the road was arguably the Center of the Universe when it came to textiles. It’s the same story told in a thousand industrial towns the world over I suppose.