Thornaby – Britain's last built steam shed. Gone but not forgotten.

Published: 09:20AM Jun 10th, 2010
By: Web Editor

As Thornaby motive power depot closed its doors for the last time after just 50 years of service, Maurice Burns, who by a twist of fate saw the locomotive shed when brand new prior to opening and also witnessed its winding down, recalls his memories of the steam engines that have played a part in the history in Britain’s last built steam shed.

Thornaby – Britain's last built steam shed. Gone but not forgotten.

The North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group's Q6 0-8-0 No 63395 and J27 0-6-0 No 65894 in Thornaby roundhouse in October 1969 on the occasion of NELPG's first ever steaming of the Q6 in preservation. MAURICE BURNS

Teesside’s once heavy steelmaking, shipbuilding and chemical industries were served by dozens of railway marshalling yards and to handle the huge tonnages of freight and minerals, the area had four steam locomotive sheds. To the north of the river Tees was Stockton (51E) located not far from the station, and Haverton Hill (51G) near Port Clarence and the Transporter Bridge. To the south was Newport shed (51B) next to the once electrified Erimus marshalling yards and Middlesbrough (51D) located just east of the station.

In the mid 1950s, Teesside, along with other major cities throughout the UK, had its marshalling yards centralised as part of the BR Modernisation Plan. Part of the scheme for Teesside was the replacement of the four steam sheds by just one brand new shed at Thornaby (51L) and it was to be the very last shed built for steam in Britain at a huge cost, in 1958 terms, of £1.25-million.

By a twist of fate, as an 11-year-old, my cycling friend Chris Smith’s father happened to be the Middlesbrough shedmaster. As was often the norm, most shedmasters would pop into the shed on a Sunday morning, so it was on one of these visits we accompanied him to Middlesbrough shed. Then, on the way home, we called in at Thornaby to see the recently completed brand new steam shed that still had no locomotives.

There was such a sharp contrast between the general decay of Middlesbrough shed with its roofless roundhouses and cramped conditions as compared to the huge 70-acre site at Thornaby. It was well laid out with immaculate new concrete running sheds, a repair shed with two wheeldrops, a blacksmith shop, coppersmith shop and machine shop. Then there were covered preparation sheds, wet ash pits, a 350-ton mechanised coaling plant capable of coaling four locomotives simultaneously. For watering locomotives there was a huge 200,000-gallon water tank with 15 distribution points and a 70-foot turntable. If that was not enough, it also had a 300-foot diameter octagonal roundhouse – which was a huge steel structure – containing 22 covered stalls and 70-foot turntable and it had the distinction of being the last steam engine roundhouse to be built in Britain.

Mr Smith had a keen interest in the construction of this new shed and the transfer of his men and locomotives from Middlesbrough as he was to be assistant shedmaster at Thornaby when it opened.

The complete closure of Newport and Middlesbrough sheds occurred on 13 May 1958 and that day saw Thornaby’s first steam engines arrive. The official opening occurred 52 years ago on 5 June 1958 but it would be over 12 months later that Stockton and Haverton Hill sheds closed and the bulk of their allocations moved to Thornaby on 13 June 1959.

Many Sunday morning visits took place at this time to see the new huge new shed full of steam engines built in a different century! Among the lines of dozens of J26 0-6-0s and Q6 0-8-0s, many over 50 years old, were some very rare engine classes that somehow had survived the transfer. These included two of the last A8 4-6-2Ts Nos 69860 and 69869 used for Middlesbrough station pilot duties, J71 0-6-0T No 68272, J77 0-6-0T No 68406 and a J25  0-6-0 No 65720. The retention of many of these old shunting engines that varied in age from 60 to 84 years may have been due to the fact that in 1960 the shed had a grand total of 29 pilot duties in the various yards and docks. In addition to some 185 steam engines on its allocation, the shed also had a 25-ton steam crane DE331153.

The shed’s allocation at its height in 1962 was most impressive with 15 different steam and eight diesel types (see this issue 138 of Heritage railway for a full list).


From the day the shed opened, diesels were part of the allocation, indeed roads two and three had special bays for servicing class 03, 04 and 08 shunters. A batch of BR Darlington-built Sulzer Type 2 (later class 25) diesel locomotives, D5151-75 were progressively delivered new to 51L from April 1961. In the following year, the delivery of 24 English Electric Type 3 diesels (later class 37), D6755-78, was rapidly completed along with the BRCW type 3 Bo-Bo (later class 27) design, numbers D5370-78. This rapid influx of new diesel locomotives soon ousted steam turns not only from Thornaby, but also from many other depots in the north east.

Consequently, by February 1963, the steam fleet had been dramatically reduced from 185 to 53 locomotives in only 12 months.

The remaining engines consisted of...  (see this issue 138 of Heritage railway for a full list).

By February 1964, the steam allocation was further reduced to only 17 locomotives, including recent transfers in from West Auckland (51F) shed, which closed that month.

V2    Nos 60859, 60884 and 60952
Q6    Nos 63344, 63361, 63398, 63443 and 63446
J27    Nos 65817, 65859 and 65892
4MT    Nos 43135 and 43140
WD    Nos 90082, 90445, 90588 and 90593

The very last steam engines allocated to 51L were appropriately three types that had long been associated with Teesside. They were NER Q6 0-8-0 No 63443, NER J27 0-6-0 No 65859 and WD 2-8-0 No 90588; and of these No 65859 looked the best and was stored in the roundhouse in immaculate condition where I took my last picture of BR steam on Thornaby shed.

Ironically this J27 was not a local product of Darlington works but constructed by the outside contractor Beyer Peacock.

All the engines were moved away when the shed officially closed to steam on 14 December 1964 and the coaling plant, water tank, second turntable, preparation shed and ash pit were removed after an operating life of only six years. This does not make economic sense  – but then the changeover from steam to diesel had many cases like this!

Various diesel types have been allocated to the shed over the years, including the 03, 04, 08, 17, 20, 24, 25, 27, 31, 37, 40, 47 and 56, but it was the huge numbers of the ubiquitous class of 37s which will long be remembered.

Thornaby and steam preservation

The remaining BR steam in the north east did occasionally call in for repairs, with perhaps the most important visitor being the last A1 Pacific No 60145 St Mungo on 5 March 1966. The final steam working by Thornaby staff occurred on 11 August 1967, just weeks before the very end of north-east steam. K1 2-6-0 No 62005 had been to Thornaby for a boiler exam and was steamed across to Hartlepool for fire cleaning and coaling before heading south to Neville Hill, Leeds, for the Hunslet Engine Company to examine to see if the K1 boiler would fit on the then preserved K4 No 3442, The Great Marquess. Subsequent events saw the K1 preserved in its own right and a return to Thornaby many more times.

Over the next 40 years, preserved steam engines were frequent visitors and indeed many were rebuilt there, such was the impact and importance of Thornaby shed in the early days of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway when it had no facilities whatsoever.

My earlier article ‘Q6 – The Great Survivor’ described the help NELPG received during 1969 and 1970 during No 63395’s return to working order, with volunteers working in the roundhouse (known locally as the Bull Ring) with free use of the shed facilities. Boilersmith Joe Glass passed on his knowledge, while steam driver Stan Hindmarsh and young fireman Chris Cubitt ensured the Q6 was safely moved for the first time. Later Lambton 0-6-2Ts Nos 5 and 29 called in en route from NCB Philadelphia to the NYMR and were vacuum fitted there. The Q6 and No 29 departed for the NYMR on 25 June 1970. In 1971, in agreement with Jimmy Dean, the mechanical foreman, the NELPG’s NER J27 No 65894 had its first axlebox overhaul carried out using the wheeldrops and many axlebox bearings were remetalled by Lenny Sherris, the coppersmith, over the years.

On 10 September 1972, Thornaby shed held its first open day, which allowed the late John Bellwood, traction engineer Newcastle, to move the LNER K1 No 62005 from store at Leeds Neville Hill to Thornaby so it could be used to demonstrate the wheeldrop facility – and by coincidence (!) be handy for restoration by NELPG volunteers at no movement cost to anyone! The open day also featured the newly finished J27 restored as P3 No 2392 and Gresley A4 Pacific No 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley which I believe gave footplate rides. The K1 was retubed and mechanically overhauled by NELPG volunteers in the roundhouse, leaving for the NYMR in immaculate LNER livery as No 2005 in June 1974.

This was followed by LMS ‘Black Five’ 4-6-0 No 44767, which was overhauled from ‘as withdrawn’ from BR at Carlisle to exhibition condition by NELPG members in Thornaby roundhouse prior to naming by the late William Whitelaw at the Shildon exhibition in August 1975. This was to be the last steam overhaul at Thornaby.

A second Thornaby Open Day occurred on 20 September 1992 and featured many types of diesels, but the stars of the show were certainly the three NELPG steam engines NER P3 0-6-0 No 2392, BR built Class J72 No 69023, newly overhauled at ICI and in steam, and Peppercorn A2 Pacific No 60532 Blue Peter. All the locomotives had public access to the footplates and the open day was a huge success.

However, on 1 October 1994, Blue Peter suffered the terrible 120mph wheelslip, when departing Durham working a railtour from Edinburgh, that destroyed all its motion, and it was dragged to Thornaby for inspection. Here, with the co-operation of Thornaby shed staff, NELPG volunteers working in the main repair shop completed a difficult and complex repair, frequently using the wheeldrop facility.

Many other locomotives have visited the shed for tyre turning over the last 40 years, the very last being K1 No 62005, 5MT No 45212 and A4 No 60009 as late as December 2007.

The fact that this once huge shed, which I saw new as a youngster, closed in 2009 after just 50 years use and is being replaced by a mobile repair team working from Portacabins in Tees Yard, with refuelling by road tanker, is almost beyond belief.A last walk round the shed, just a few weeks before closure, brought back many happy memories, in particular the roundhouse, home to so many NELPG loco rebuilds; but it was a sobering experience that shows how quickly time passes.

Thornaby shed may soon be no more, but the memories of seeing the long lines of J26s, and in later years dealing with such helpful staff that were so sympathetic to the preservation cause over such a long period, will long live in the memory.

The author would like to thank Nick Carter, Geoff Scurr, Dave Whitfield and Chris Cubitt for help in preparing this article.

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