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End of the Barrow Road for Steam

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Nov 2017

Steel and steam. What is it that enthuses so many men (and a few ladies) about the old steam engines? Barrow Road steam shed must have been a dirty, black, smelly place in the early 60s when Dave Cheesley was first gripped by its fascination. But thanks to Dave’s lifelong love and dedication (and wonderful collection of photos), the November gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society was treated to a heart-felt and nostalgic shunt down memory railroad.

In 1835 the Bristol and Gloucester Railway Company built a track to haul coal in horse-drawn trucks from Coalpit Heath to Barton Hill in Bristol. Within a few decades this area became a huge complex of sidings, sheds and railway lines to London, South Wales and the Midlands, crossed by the 13 arch viaduct of Barrow Road. The steam engine shed contained a 60 foot turntable and 24 maintenance pits, but nothing now remains of the complex apart from Dave Cheeseley’s photographs.

In 1873 the Midland Railway Company built the huge brick engine shed at Barrow Road to house their eye-catching maroon coloured steam engines. Later in 1923 the Midland became the London, Midland and Scottish, one of the big 4 rail companies. At the zenith of steam trains in the mid-twentieth century Barrow Road shed housed 60 steam engines, with hundreds of carriages and wagons in sidings, and employed some 450 maintenance workers. Nearly all freight was carried by trains in those days and vast quantities of cigarettes, chocolates and bottles of sherry from Bristol’s manufactories (not to mention the coal they needed) was hauled by the Barrow Road engines.

In 1963 Dave Cheesley was just one of hundreds of thousands of schoolboys who spent most of their spare time train spotting with their ‘Ian Allen’ books of train numbers. Barrow Road was his favourite place. He couldn’t get into the shed because it was patrolled at the front by a fire-breathing foreman and the back wall had been liberally greased to prevent climbers, but Dave was just tall enough to watch proceedings over the road bridge gate. If he was early enough he could watch the Royal Mail train on its way from Bristol to Newcastle with its army of travelling post sorters.

Unfortunately, Dave was soon to lose this particular paradise because on November 20th 1965 the last steam engine pulled out of Barrow Road and the shed was closed. It was demolished in 1967 but the site remained derelict for several years – air raid shelters used by the rail workers could still be seen in the 1980s. The whole area was eventually redeveloped, but not before going out with a bang. One Sunday morning at 6:45 a.m. the enormous coaling tower was set for demolition by controlled explosion. Nobody thought to tell the local residents. Now that’s what I call an early morning call.

In 2015, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its closure, Dave gave his Barrow Road talk to the Barton Hill history society. Over 200 people attended, many of whom had worked at the shed, including the man who set the demolition charge. It just goes to show the enduring power of steam.

Our thanks to Dave for his dedication, enthusiasm and photos.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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