At the heart of Wolverhampton's Great Western Railway freight activity, Mervyn Srodzinsky traces the evolution of Oxley's railway infrastructure and vast sidings, as well as covering the engine shed's changing allocation through to closure in 1967.

Opened in 1907 as the primary engine shed for GWR Wolverhampton area freight activities, the lion's share of locomotives using Oxley's roundhouse met this criteria through to the 1960s. This scene, photographed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, finds an ex-Railway Operating Division 2-8-0 at rest inside the shed during its time as GWR No 3030. Designed by J. G. Robinson for the Great Central Railway, these engines were adopted by the ROD and the Ministry of Munitions for use during World War I, with some seeing employment with the GWR in this period. Post-war, many were sold to the LNER and GWR, some after overseas service, the latter purchasing twenty of the nearly-new engines in 1919. In the July of that year another 84 were hired-in by the GWR, but these were returned just prior to the Grouping, the depicted engine being from the batch of eighty subsequently bought in 1925. A number of these engines were allocated to Oxley shed, and they could be found working from here into the mid-1950s. Notice the pull-rings attached to the gas light at the very top centre of the photograph, with circular and diamond shapes for 'on' and 'off'. R. S. Carpenter Photos.

It was during the latter part of the 1870s era that the Great Western Railway management decided to make provision for some goods sidings to be established on a site adjoining each side of its existing main line at Oxley, Wolverhampton. The location chosen for the sidings was about one mile north-west of Wolverhampton (Low Level) station, on the northern side of the Oxley viaduct, as it presented an area of land of sufficient width (subsequent to some additional excavation and levelling), and also allowed convenient access to the main line. Following on-going sale negotiations with the various local landowners, the purchase of the land was finalised and the sidings were laid down. By 1880 there were eight roads in use that were controlled by two signal boxes, which were known appropriately as North and South boxes.

The Oxley viaduct was constructed by the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway (S&BR) in 1847, and it opened for use in 1849. The S&BR was subsequently incorporated into the Great Western Railway from September 1854, and henceforth the viaduct carried the Great Western's mainline route from London (Paddington) to the north-west, serving such places as Shrewsbury, Chester, Birkenhead, and even Manchester, and from then until 1869 Oxley viaduct was the most northern running point of Brunel's broad gauge railway system. The standard gauge former S&BR running lines over the viaduct were converted to mixed gauge, with a crossover near the southern end, together with a junction leading to the former S&BR terminus at Victoria Basin goods depot, which was located back down the line towards Wolverhampton.

The blue brick-built viaduct comprises twelve arches, one of which is a skew arch across the BCN canal (Birmingham Canal Navigation). From post-1854, the immediate approach route from the south was from Wolverhampton (Low Level) station, passing through Dunstall Park station (1896) and running adjacent to the Stafford Road Locomotive Works, and then over Stafford Road Junction and on to the viaduct. The exit from the viaduct, towards Wellington and Shrewsbury, passed through Oxley sidings, with Oxley locomotive shed off to the left-hand side. Oxley viaduct remains in use to date, and it became a listed building from 31 March 1992.

The 1887-dated Ordnance Survey map of Wolverhampton shows that by then the Oxley sidings had been further developed, having almost doubled in size at their widest point. During 1897 two new signal boxes were built and brought into operation (replacing the earlier boxes) in order to deal with the ever increasing amount of goods traffic and through main-line passenger workings. The sidings also evolved, with the various roads being utilised for specific goods train destinations, and by October 1897 major alterations had been carried out in connection with additional goods lines, together with a further expansion of the yard. The two replacement signal boxes continued to be designated 'North' and 'South'. The Down sidings were immediately to the left after crossing Oxley viaduct (heading north), and these sidings were split into the 'Crewe', 'Birkenhead', 'Old', and 'New' yards, and, having been built on a slight gradient, wagons could be moved by gravity. The Up sidings over to the right were not as extensive in width, being restricted topographically by way of a raised sandstone ridge that required extensive excavation work.

The layout of Oxley sidings, as detailed in an Ordnance Survey of 1887.

The bottom right-hand portion of the map shows the GWR main line crossing over the Oxley viaduct, with the Birmingham Canal (often known as the BCN) running beneath it.

The sidings would eventually be expanded outwards to the left by way of the purchase and levelling of various parcels of available farmland.

Courtesy of Ordnance Survey historical map archive.

An 1897 view of Oxley sidings, photographed from a narrow pedestrian footbridge that once spanned the northern end of the site, shows alterations in progress to accommodate the 'Crewe' and 'Birkenhead' goods marshalling yards. Just visible on the far right is a new signal box under construction, and this would eventually replace the earlier box seen to its left. This replacement signal box would be designated 'Oxley North' until the building of the Wombourne line in the 1920s required the erection of another signal box, and at that time the old Oxley North box would then become known as 'Oxley Middle'.

An outside-framed Armstrong 0-6-0 goods engine at work in the yard is of interest, together with the typical early tall GWR semaphore signal. The line of ancient oil-lit four and six-wheeled passenger coaching stock, in the sidings to the left, may include some of pre-GWR origin, and the apparent width across the end of the body of the nearest coach appears to suggest broad-gauge stock. However, as 1869 saw broad-gauge working withdrawn completely from Wolverhampton it would be remarkable if such stock was still lingering after a gap of 26 years, the link being that the extreme northern limit of the GWR's broad gauge system extended across Oxley's S&BR viaduct into some early sidings hereabouts.

Close inspection of the original photograph (which allows extra distance to the left) does not suggest that there is any form of lens distortion to take into account, while perusal of the Ordnance Survey map prepared some ten years earlier does not assist either as all the trackwork appears to be drawn to the same gauge by the draughtsman. There is also the possibility that the illusion of extra width is due to the coach's shadow on the face of the cutting to the rear. Thus the situation remains open to debate. Author's Collection.

An OS map shows the GWR main line from the north-west nearing Oxley, after a period of continued siding expansion, the building of the associated engine shed on the Down side of the main line, and the completion of the Wombourne line in 1925. The original Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway route appears at the top left-hand corner, the line joining this being the through route from Kingswinford Junction via Wombourne. Incoming trains from these routes would pass between Oxley's Up and Down yards before crossing Oxley viaduct, then reach Stafford Road Junction; from there, most would diverge left for Wolverhampton (Low Level) station, but a course straight ahead would lead to the Victoria Basin terminus. Of note is the excavation undertaken for the dead-end sidings on the Up side, while on the opposite side of the line is the locomotive shed. The sidings to the rear of the shed would be used to store large numbers of withdrawn steam locomotives in the mid-1960s. Courtesy of Ordnance Survey historical map archive.

An extract from a 1930s' Ordnance Survey map shows the other end of the yard once Oxley sidings had been enlarged outwards to its final extent. The locomotive shed's coaling bay and elevated water tank are shown on the upper left-hand side of the map, while Oxley viaduct is to the bottom right, Oxley South signal box being sited just to the north of the viaduct. Courtesy of Ordnance Survey historical map archive.

The view looks north from Oxley South signal box, at the north end of the viaduct. Looking right to left, just in view is the 'mushroom' water tank, next to the offices for the sidings staff, then the layout is the Up sidings, the Up main-line, Down main-line, and then the busy Down sidings, the engine shed visible beyond these. Prominent in the foreground is a Sugg's 30-inch hexagon case lamp which would remain in situ almost to the end of steam working, while the nearest line to the signal box gives access to the engine shed. Author's Collection.

It soon became apparent that a separate locomotive shed for goods engines was necessary, and in view of this requirement, Oxley shed was authorised for construction alongside the sidings. From thereon, freight trains arriving at Oxley sidings from the south would come to a stand on the viaduct, the engine then being taken off and allowed to go into the new locomotive depot for service. Shunters, known as 'droppers-in', would then uncouple the train's goods wagons (having previously read the destination labels), shouting to the signalman in the South box which yard was required, and the wagons were then dropped-in as appropriate by gravity. Rough destination sorting was carried out using hand-controlled points operated by the shunters, who were also responsible for braking the wagons, which could be a hazardous operation. The goods train, still waiting on the viaduct's main line, was held in place by its brake van, controlled by the guard until such a time as motive power could be provided to move it onwards following sorting.

On 11 January 1920 the North signal box was re-designated 'Middle' signal box, and by 1930 Oxley sidings had expanded out to their final limit, providing the Great Western Railway with its principal Midlands reception and marshalling area. The final making up of trains was carried out at the north end of the yard by a locomotive and the shunters (some power being required to get up speed) enabling the wagons to be fly-shunted in what was known as an 'Up Hill' yard. In due course some fourteen vacuum-fitted express goods trains were regularly made up at Oxley sidings, some of which were actually given names, such as 'The Cargo', 'The Northern Exchange', and 'The Flying Skipper', and others, such as 'The Northern Flash' from Paddington to Birkenhead, passed through, picking up at Oxley sidings on route.

The only serious damage that was ever sustained by a train from Oxley sidings occurred in October 1928 when the 9.15am Down fitted goods train from Oxley to Bristol was involved in a serious accident on the LMS line at Charfield. In that incident the Great Western locomotive and three wagons were hit by an LMS express over-running its signals just as the goods train was setting back into the refuge siding. As a consequence, the gas-lit coaches of the express burst into flames, leaving fifteen people dead.

An undated photograph of Oxley sidings - probably taken shortly after the depicted '5700' class 0-6-0PT, No 3732, was outshopped new from Swindon Works on 31 August 1937 - shows shunting at the southern end of the yard. Note the shunter's wagon designated for use at Oxley sidings. Author's Collection.

Following the war years very little changed at Oxley. After the Nationalisation of the railways in 1948, normal day-to-day goods operations continued up until the mid-1960s, when the continuing withdrawal of steam locomotives brought additional use of the sidings for the storage of all sorts of former GWR, LMS, and LNER locomotives on their way for scrapping, many of which ended up at local Black Country dismantlers, such as Cashmore's and Cox & Danks. Also during the course of the mid-1960s British Railways submitted outline plans to the Wolverhampton County Borough Council for consideration with a view to setting up a diesel maintenance facility across part of the Oxley sidings site. However, in the event, this proposal was not pursued past the early discussion stage, although the large detailed plans drawn up in this respect still exist.

When the adjacent engine sheds were closed down in 1967, much of the sidings were subsequently taken out of use and lifted. By 1973 the extent of the sidings had been effectively reduced by at least a third, although some alterations during the course of 1976 resulted in some new lengths being laid down, the yard then presenting a more streamlined appearance. What remains of the sidings at Oxley has now been incorporated into a new development, which is used to provide stabling facilities for modern Alstom-built stock.

An undated view of Oxley Sidings (possibly circa 1930) looking south, with the yard developed to its fullest extent. The three open-cab 0-6-0STs actively shunting are likely to be Wolverhampton products built at the GWR's Stafford Road Locomotive Works, across the other side of Oxley viaduct.

During the course of World War 11, Oxley sidings became a prime target for Luftwaffe air-raids being carried out across the industrial Midlands. Already one of the most dangerous jobs on the railway, blackout restrictions made the tasks of the yard shunting staff even more hazardous. To enable sorting and shunting operations to continue, all fixed lighting in the yard was provided by way of 'fully restricted' lighting that remained on, even during air-raid alerts. The term 'restricted' either applied to the use of special-issue low-wattage light bulbs (nicknamed 'gloomy glims'), or otherwise simply by coating two or three of the glass panels on the yard's gas lamps with matt black paint - the job of marshalling a wartime goods train with such minimal illumination was not an easy proposition. In addition, locomotives at work in the yard were provided with canvas anti-glare sheets in an attempt to block out any glow from the firebox. Amazingly, Oxley sidings survived the war unscathed, its ultimate demise coming from within as a consequence of the British Railways modernisation plans of the 1960s, and the ever-increasing competition from road haulage. Author's Collection.

Evening freight workings from Oxley sidings were often taken out by one of the Churchward '4700' class 2-8-0s - No 4700 of that class is seen coaled up and waiting leave Oxley shed. Once out on the main-line near Oxley South box, this engine will reverse into the Up sidings to collect a southbound fitted-freight working. During their first years of use, several of the '4700' class engines were allocated to Oxley shed for use on night-time express freights between Wolverhampton and London, and they continued to be put to use from Oxley on a general freight basis over the years; the class of nine engines would all be withdrawn from service between June 1962 and May 1964. J. B. Bucknall.

A view of Oxley viaduct, looking south from the Up side of the main line on 2 May 1963, with a Hawksworth 0-6-0PT positioned in front of Oxley South signal box. The rear of the ex-GWR Stafford Road Locomotive Works can clearly be seen on the skyline, with less than a year to go before its closure. A short goods train is being held in place by its brake van on the viaduct, its locomotive having already been detached and taken forward on to the shed. The houses glimpsed in the lower left-hand side of this scene are at the start of South Street and Jones Road which had provided homes for generations of local railwaymen since the turn of the century. Author's Collection.

The view as seen in the opposite direction from a similar vantage point, circa 1966, with the sidings area in the foreground, and Oxley shed in the distance. A Fowler '4F' 0-6-0 locomotive is seen temporarily stored in the sidings whilst in transit for scrapping. Note the high ground rising beyond the smokebox of the Midland-designed engine, between the north end of the sidings and the locomotive shed. Author.
The track layout of the modem maintenance facility nonetheless still uses quite a large number of newly laid roads, which are spread across the entire complex. However, most of these are very much shorter in length than those of the original Oxley sidings. Inclusive of a Down goods loop, there are some seventeen service roads off to the left-hand side of the Down main line, the penultimate of which is a single-track route that leads into the maintenance building, which now occupies the entire site of the old Oxley steam shed. Again, including the Up goods loop, there are eight roads set down off to the right-hand side of the Up main line, thus in this way the present-day version of the sidings continues to provide a very useful and major centrally-located railway facility at Wolverhampton.

This 1966 view, looking up from the Birmingham Canal, shows that Oxley South signal box had seen few alterations to the original structure, despite the passage of some seventy years. The closure of the engine shed in 1967 would precede the remodelling of Oxley yard, which would see South box close on 30 March 1969 and subsequently be demolished, a fate also suffered by the six-wheeled 'droppers-in' coach seen on the right of this view. A new modern-style signal box came into operation on the same day the old box closed, the replacement being situated on the opposite side of the tracks leading to the viaduct. Author.

Oxley Locomotive Sheds July 1907 to March 1967

During the Victorian period the running sheds which were situated over at Stafford Road, Wolverhampton had long served for the maintenance of all of the Wolverhampton-based Great Western Railway locomotives. However, in 1905 the Directors of the GWR authorised the building of a separate shed for goods engines, which was to be located over on the northern side of Oxley viaduct, adjacent to the existing Oxley sidings. The detailed building contract for the shed was eventually approved in March 1906 and the building operations were then put in the charge of the company's newly appointed Works Engineer, Walter Armstrong, the resident engineer being W. E. Hart. The building contractors employed for the task were the local Wolverhampton firm of H. Lovatt & Co Ltd. In remarkably short time the construction of Oxley shed was completed, and it was opened for use from 1 July 1907.

The distinctive red brick-built shed was situated on the Down side of the main line. The design of the building itself followed the standard Swindon 'Old Oak' pattern, except that the narrowness of the site dictated that the two interior turntables had to be placed one behind the other. The design also allowed for an extension of the shed and the separate standard GWR double-ramp coaling bay, and for the installation of at least a further turntable at a future date. In the event, such an enlargement was never required. The turntables themselves were each 65ft in diameter with under-support girders. The turntables were each encircled by 28 inspection pits, these varying from 41ft to 100ft in length. The original shed code was OXY, which became 84B on Nationalisation, and eventually the shed was re-coded as 2B in 1963.

Other principal dimensions at the shed were as follows:

Lifting Shop: 84ft x 58ft 6in
Stores (including Office): 72ft x 56ft 6in Mess Rooms: 176ft 6in x 15ft 6in
Lavatories: 30ft x 15ft 6in
Sand Furnace: 59ft x 25ft
Coal Stage: 52ft x 59ft 6in
The total area of the buildings amounted to some 98,960sq ft. 

On the left of the main shed building was the engine lifting shop, which was provided with a 39-ton capacity overhead hoist. The foreman's and administration clerk's offices were situated over on the right. At the northern side of the shed buildings were the enginemens', mechanics' and cleaners' rooms (with kitchen), and the lavatories; a standard sand furnace was also provided. The gloom within the shed was partly dispelled by large nine-burner gas lamps suspended from the roof, these being operated by chain pulls, whilst a number of tall gas-lamp standards provided for the shed yard were converted to electricity in the 1950s, and a powerful overhead electric lamp was also provided for night use at the coaling bay.

Although additional pressure was put on both shed work and goods sorting during World War I, it was during the course of World War II that Oxley sidings were really put to task, dealing with ever increasing amounts of crucial freight traffic, which in turn created a constant upping of the general locomotive maintenance over at the shed. It was often said that Britain's railway system during the war years was the lifeline of the nation, and the contribution to the war effort made by the staff of Oxley sidings and shed cannot be underestimated. It was expected that the GWR's Wolverhampton Locomotive Works, sheds, and the sidings at Oxley would no doubt sooner or later receive a visit from Luftwaffe bombers. As a consequence, during the blackout hours the official Oxley shed fire guards and Air Raid Precautions look-outs would set themselves up on the roofs and other elevated locations to keep watch for any approaching aircraft, or indeed for fires caused as a result of bombs or incendiary damage.

An official GWR photograph from 1907 shows the south end of the newly-completed Oxley engine shed, the general layout of the shed yard and its standard double-ramp coaling bay, complete with its overhead water tank. The left-hand (west) side of the coal stage was for use by goods locomotives, whereby the other side would be much lesser used, it being for passenger locomotives. The door at the bottom left-hand side of the structure was the entrance to the coalman's cabin, and a similar door, out of view, led to the tool house. Author's Collection.

Another scene taken by the GWR photographer (presumably on the same day) captures the interior of Oxley locomotive shed after completion of the building work, but just prior to its opening on 1 July 1907. The moment in time finds the massive building without locomotives to obscure the view, so the arrangement of lines radiating from both turntables is clearly apparent. Author's Collection.

A substantial purpose-built structure with a sloping roof was also erected over the ash disposal pits in the shed yard, so as to prevent any illumination being given out by the hot coals and ash from the locomotives. Photographs showing the ash pit screening in place appear to be somewhat scarce, but one such photograph, taken from some distance away (possibly in the late 1940s) does show the remains of the camouflage painting, which would have been applied to break up the outline of the buildings, making it less conspicuous from the air. Incredibly, such a visit from the Luftwaffe never took place, and therefore Wolverhampton's railway centres all survived the war intact.

Some Italian prisoners of war were also employed at Oxley shed, mainly on coaling duties and other labour-intensive jobs, and some of these Italians decided to settle in Wolverhampton after the cessation of hostilities in 1945. The only incursive aircraft that might have posed any threat to Oxley was hit by a 'secret weapon' located on the Dunstall racecourse, sited below the sheds. The ash pit screening was soon removed following the end of the war, and some concrete panels, which can be seen in many photographs of the shed yard, may be the remains of the larger screening structure, but this is debatable.
At the south-west comer of Oxley shed was the lifting shop.

The 84ft x 56ft 6in building's lifting bay hoist is seen in its manual days, rather than when later electrified. It had a 39-ton capacity, with a clear lift of 19ft; to this was fitted a six-ton swinging jib crane for lighter loads.

The service tools were also kept here, the place being kept spotlessly clean in GWR days.

Author's Collection.

The post-war years and into the 1950s saw little alteration in the normal operating routine at the shed. However, as a result of the modernisation scheme that was now being implemented by British Railways, significant changes were on the horizon. January 1963 saw both Stafford Road and Oxley depots come under the control of British Railways (London Midland Region).

In the September of that year the now rundown former GWR shed at Stafford Road was closed and its stud of engines and all its locomotive servicing (together with most of the shed staff) were transferred to Oxley. Additionally, on the closure of the old LMS (ex-London & North Western Railway) shed at Bushbury on Monday, 12 April 1965, that shed's remaining allocation of engines was also sent across to Oxley, and these locomotives were at first lined up in two adjacent rows at the rear of the shed during the summer months of that year. Some of the staff from Bushbury also transferred over to Oxley, or in some cases they took the option to retire or go and work elsewhere. For a short while Oxley became three sheds in one, providing something of a swansong of steam at Wolverhampton.

A view along the eastern side of the main shed building, looking south after its closure in 1968, shows the rear of the sand hearth and boiler-house building, with the mess rooms beyond that. Hard though it may be to believe, soon the latter's 176ft 6in long lean-to structure along the south end of the shed's eastern wall would be the only part of the building that would survive. Beyond the shed is the eastern side of coaling stage, and Stafford Road Locomotive Works is just visible in the distance. The main line and Oxley sidings are on the other side of the bank to the photographer's left, while close inspection of the sand hearth roofline shows the extended chimneys of two south-facing stationary boilers, as well as the larger chimney of the sand hearth itself. Simon Dewey.

A view of the opposite wall of the same building shows the smokeboxes of two stationary boilers used at Oxley shed to provide hot water and steam for washing out the shed. Of differing vintage, they were previously on GWR locomotives. The building where they were housed was known to Oxley staff as the 'sand hearth', taking its name from an adjoining riveted bunker where sand was dried out for use in locomotive sanding apparatus. These boilers were installed about 1962, and they were last washed out on 17 July 1967. Although the shed had in fact been formally closed down in March of that year, a number of steam locomotives still received light running repairs until the late summer, and clearly the boilers were maintained until at least the last wash-out date. Simon Dewey.

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