Last night one billion pairs of eyes worldwide watched the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad,  culminating with the lighting of the ceremonial flame that will burn until the closing of The Games in mid-August, when it will be extinguished.

Stratford Jubilee Shed 1900-1907. Photograph © Public Domain.

Sixty years ago, a mile and a half east of Basilica Fields, the flames of the Great Eastern Railway company finally went out at Stratford shed on a site adjacent to the 2012 Olympic Stadium, having burned there continuously in the fireboxes of the locomotives of the Great Eastern, its successors the LNER and British Railways, and its antecedent companies, the Northern and Eastern Railway and Eastern Counties Railway, for over 122 years.

The railway first came to Stratford in 1839, and a year later the first locomotive shed was built on the site.  The Polygon – a 16-sided, 16-road shed – was built in the marshland giving birth to what was later to become the largest steam locomotive depot in the world.

Around the Works grew Hudson’s Town, built by the Railway King himself.  Initially some 300 houses for railway workers were constructed, but within a decade over 1000 men were employed at the Works, and the number grew exponentially. With the formation of the Great Eastern Railway in 1862, plans for development were mooted and in 1871 the ‘New Shed’ was opened large enough to hold 30 locomotives, but by then even this was too small and did little but to slightly ease the worst overcrowding.

By 1878 the situation was dire and plans for yet another shed were drawn up, but finances delayed progress for almost a decade.   In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a new running shed – the Jubilee Shed – a massive 12 road building double the size of the New Shed was opened along side it capable of holding up to 60 locomotives. Nevertheless, within two years the locomotive department was again vocally critical of the lack of space and in the mid-90s the Jubilee Shed was extended in length by half as much again.

Concurrent with these ongoing developments other buildings rose up out of the marshes; vast swathes of locomotive and carriage erecting and machine shops, foundries, stores, boiler shops, smithies, painting shops, offices and even dormitories with two dedicated cooks and bedroom stewards with beds enough for 38 men each night and catering for a weekly throughput of 350 loco men making use of the dining room, kitchen, rest room, smoking room and clothes-drying room after working long distances from the furthest of the Company’s outstations.  In time, one of the country’s largest coaling facilities was built here, able to deliver 240 tons per hour, and the liquid fuel plant, of which the GER was a pioneer with as many as 60 locomotives fitted with the oil burning apparatus at any one time, had a capacity of 88,000 gallons.  At it’s height 555 locomotives were allocated to Stratford with 110 of these  sub-shedded locally.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll see many ‘firsts’, and world records broken, but Stratford Works saw many ‘firsts in its own lifetime. Among other feats, in the 1850s the first compound-expansion engine was built; the first 0-4-4 side-tank engines were built here by S.W. Johnson in the 1870s along with the first inside-cylinder 4-4-0’s  in England;  William Adams designed his famous radial bogie here along with ‘Mogul’, the first 2-6-0  in Great Britain; in 1884 the first two-cylinder  Wosdell-von Borries compound was built; the infamous 0-10-WT ‘Decapod – designed with the sole intention of stopping the onset of electrification of the suburban lines was built and quietly retired without entering revenue-earning service – job done;  standardisation preceded Churchward’s policy on the Great Western by more than 15 years, and in December 1891 the Great Eastern Railway set its own world record at Stratford Works when a Y14 class (LNER J15) locomotive, No.930, was constructed and steamed  in 9 hours and 47 minutes – a feat never matched or broken.

So, at a time when the eyes of the world are on a little corner of East London, here is a torch raised to the memory of that most exciting and greatest of Locomotive Works, rich in history and innovation and courage, thick with steam and smoke and coal dust and smog and smell and noise and industry, home to glorious ultramarine blue locomotives lined vermilion with brass trim and the panting staccato bark of hundreds of Westinghouse pumps, all now gone forever;  Stratford.

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