The Roundhouse was first built as an Engine House in 1846-1847 to service goods locomotives which had grown in size and could no longer be accommodated by Camden Goods Station. Peter Darley, founder of the Camden Railway Heritage Trust, explains how and why the Roundhouse was built, 170 years ago.
The London & Birmingham Railway (L&BR) was the first railway authorised to extend into London as far as the New Road (now the Euston Road) for passenger services. The opening of passenger services from Euston in 1837 signalled the decline of longer distance commuting by road.
However, it was goods traffic that was the initial incentive for construction of the L&BR. In response to this threat to their business, the Regent’s Canal Company insisted that the railways take goods traffic no further into London than the edge of the Canal. The L&BR therefore planned a goods station at Camden Town adjacent to the Hampstead Road alongside the Regent’s Canal. From what became Camden Goods Station, rail cargo destined for waterside locations, including the Docks, was transferred to the Canal while other cargo was discharged onto the road system. Camden Goods Station rapidly developed into an important interchange depot.
In 1846 the L&BR merged with two other companies to become the London & North Western Railway (LNWR). It was immediately faced with the reconstruction of Camden Goods Station, dictated by the rapid growth of goods traffic and the increase in speed of passenger trains. The longer, more powerful, locomotives couldn’t be accommodated in the original locomotive shed any longer, a space which was then needed for goods sidings.
The 1846-7 reconstruction was the responsibility of Robert Dockray, who had worked under Robert Stephenson on the construction of the L&BR from 1835, becoming Resident Engineer in 1840, with Robert Stephenson now the Consulting Engineer. As part of reconstruction, two engine houses were built on opposite sides of the main line, near the western extremity of the Goods Station site: a long rectangular one on the Down side (i.e. out of London) for passenger locomotives (demolished in 1966) and a circular one – which we know as the Roundhouse – on the Up side (i.e. into London) for goods engines. Longer goods trains could be assembled by moving the junction with passenger lines from Chalk Farm Bridge up to Primrose Hill Tunnel. Passenger trains were now passing at full speed through Camden station and this arrangement reduced the risk of collision.
The Roundhouse was built in 1846-7 as a shed for stabling and servicing goods locomotives. The structural form of the Roundhouse, 160ft (49m) in diameter, was influenced by the limited space on the north side of the yard. It was the second roundhouse to be built in Britain. The first, which has also survived, was designed by Francis Thompson and built in 1840 at Derby for the North Midland Railway. The architect of the Camden Roundhouse is not known for certain, but Francis Thompson is a strong candidate, although the design must have been influenced both by Dockray and Stephenson. It was admired by no less than Sir George Gilbert Scott, who considered that both the circular goods and rectangular passenger locomotive houses “could hardly be better”.
The Roundhouse is founded on brick vaults at natural ground level that raised the turntable and engine service bays to railway level. Supporting the turntable from below, the Hub is a circular space from which eight passages radiate to an inner circular passage. From this inner circle, 24 passages, corresponding to the locomotive bays, radiated to an outer circular passage (this area now houses the Paul Hamlyn Roundhouse Studios for young creatives). The interior height from the rails to the apex of the roof light was 67 ft (20.4 m).
The Roundhouse could hold 23 engines with tenders, one between each pair of columns. In the centre was the turntable 41 ft (12.5 m) in diameter onto which engines were run to be turned into their service bays. The 24th track was for entry and exit. It had a coking shed, stores, offices and fitters shop.
The North London Railway (NLR) arrived in 1851, connecting the Camden Station with London Docks. The Roundhouse, now separated from the Goods Station, stabled engines working the Dock Line as well as LNWR engines stored out of use. It was taken out of service in c.1855 to permit a second major re-planning and enlargement of the Goods Station, in which the NLR was moved northwards, blocking approaches to the Roundhouse which was converted to a goods warehouse.