For enthusiasts, researchers and modellers of the Great Eastern Railway

6. Transition from Contractor to Stratford Works


It was the policy of the GER in its earlier years to use contractors to supply all carriage and wagon stock requirements. Sinclair had been a particular advocate of this policy right from the start of his service on the Eastern Counties in 1856. He believed that better value for money would result by getting private builders to compete for work. It also saved the GER capital expenditure in not having to provide workshops and machinery for stock construction.   These were the conditions under which Johnson and Adams, Sinclair's successors, operated.   The wagon department at Stratford Works was thus mainly devoted to repairs, maintenance and relatively minor alterations to existing stock.

Nonetheless some specialised rolling stock had always built at Stratford, such as gunpowder vans and the first machine trucks. It also probably built 'pattern' wagons, made when new designs were introduced to assist firms in the tendering process and then sent to the successful contractor's works to guide subsequent construction.

Although stock was built by a wide variety of established wagon builders, from at least 1856, if not earlier, they were all to GER designs and specifications. The notion that private builders had their own standard designs to sell off the shelf (or should it be off the siding?) to the railway companies is a myth.

It appears that Charles Parkes initially spearheaded the drive towards Stratford undertaking its own construction. He was elected to the Board in 1869 and became Chairman in November 1874. In March 1873 Adams had been asked to report to the Locomotive Committee on a scheme to increase shop accommodation with a view to all locomotives and rolling stock being built at Stratford. This was not to be achieved for a good number of years but one early result was to authorise the purchase of additional machinery, a process that was to be repeated.

In 1874 the GER suffered gross delays in stock delivery from four well established firms. Some vehicles arrived no less than a year late whilst one firm eventually became bankrupt leaving Stratford the job of building the remainder of the order.

This sorry episode was probably the main reason for the GER purchasing much of its stock during 1876-77 by hire purchase, whereby half yearly payments for new stock extending over 5 years were made.

Gradual progress was made with increasing the capacity of Stratford Works, but not only had extra workshop space and machinery to be found but also a stable workforce with the necessary skills.

Building at Stratford

The appointment of Thomas Worsdell as Locomotive Superintendent in January 1882 marked the start of wagon building at Stratford in appreciable quantities. Over 200 wagons of several types were ordered to be built at Stratford out of total 636 for that year. By December the order to Stableford & Co. for six machine trucks was to be the last contract let to a private firm for many years. It is fair to say that Worsdell was able to do this work at Stratford largely through the efforts of his predecessors William Adams and Massey Bromley who had been able to steadily increase and update the manufacturing capacity of the Works.

A strong indication of the future role of Stratford Works as seen by the Directors was given in September 1883 when Worsdell was instructed to build high sided wagons, suitable for goods or coal, at the rate of twenty a week to a maximum of 1000 per year. The reasons for placing this order and its effects will be explained later on.

The Process

At this point it is interesting to examine just what the GER did as wagon builders, as compared to the work performed by contractors.

When contractors tendered for wagons the price excluded wheels and axles. These were made by specialist firms and were by far the most expensive components of a wagon, about 20% of the total cost.   Usually GER tendered for these separately when inviting bids for wagon construction. The agreed price for sets of wheels and axles included their delivery by the supplier to the works of the successful tenderer.

The initial years of wagon building by the GER was akin to what the present day modeller would call a 'kit bashing' exercise. As before the wheels and axles were obtained separately but so too were many other components. Contracts were let for ironwork for specific wagon orders and this comprised all the body ironwork, brake components, buffers, couplings, axleguards, chains and pins, sheet rings and the multitude of bolts of numerous sizes needed to assemble the complete wagon.

Other components such as buffer guides, bearing springs, spring shoes and stops, brake blocks, drawbar plates and axleboxes were to standard designs. These were common to most wagon types with the exception a few specialised wagons, so they were obtained separately as a stock item since they were used both for constructing new stock and to replace broken components on existing wagons.

The timber for underframes and bodies was usually obtained as cut wood for conversion at the Works to the dimensions required, but some early contracts were for timber already cut to size. Later, when steel frames began to be increasingly used, contracts were also let for supplying the prepared components which the GER assembled.

Steel Frames

When James Holden arrived in August 1885 it was to a railway that had been constructing all its locomotives and rolling stock for some three years.   His most visible contribution to wagon design in his earlier days was to introduce steel framed stock, a type with which he was already familiar. Progress away from all wood construction was slow as the machinery at Stratford was designed for building wood framed stock.

Holden managed to produce 50 high sided and ten machine trucks in 1886 with steel frames but only because contractors supplied the necessary components already cut to size and drilled for assembly.

In the following year another 10 machine trucks were completed together with orders for 20 timber and 25 ballast wagons. Again this was achieved by buying in sets of components, mainly from firms which had previously tendered for complete wagons.

Although the proportion of steel framed stock increased thereafter it was not until Temple Mills Wagon Works opened in 1896 that the construction of wood framed stock ceased.

Temple Mills

The emergence of this site as a fully fledged works was a slow process. The first sidings north of Stratford were laid down in the early 1870's and progressively added to in subsequent years, being the basis of the later marshalling yard. By 1884 Temple Mills sidings were already quite extensive and being close to Stratford had also become the natural resting place for wagon cripples and condemned stock. No less than 50 men were employed in repairs and as they had no shelter or equipment at all; a forge and some machinery was provided, thus laying the first foundations of a fully fledged wagon works.

The impetuous for establishing a new works was the lack of room for expansion at Stratford where both carriage and wagon construction and maintenance was becoming increasingly difficult. It was these difficulties that led, in 1893, to authorisation being given to the use of the old carriage shed at Felixstowe for painting repaired carriage stock. This provided some relief at Stratford and this was followed by approval in July 1895 for the removal of all wagon building and repair to Temple Mills.

The space released at Stratford on the completion in 1896 of the new works was given over to carriage construction. Temple Mills had a much increased building and maintenance capacity and the equipment to construct steel framed stock. By 1899 sufficient machinery was in place to enable all the steel frames required for new carriages and bogies as well as wagon stock to be manufactured.

Yet even Temple Mills never became totally self sufficient. Contractors continued to supply varying amounts of components to supplement the material made by the GER and to meet demands when construction levels were high.