Leeds Engine:Today: Hunslet

Hunslet – the Engine Building Neighbourhood

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Shepheard & Todd, Kitson and Co, John Fowler, J&H McLaren, Hudswell Clarke, Manning Wardle, Hunslet Engine Co and E.B.Wilson are names which many who are interested in steam engines will recognise at least a few of. These companies all operated next door or across the road from each other making Hunslet very much a neighbourhood of engine builders. To understand why this happened we need to look at a little of the history of these companies, and ideally to look at the area itself to try and get an idea of how it might have been years ago when the whole area was a mass of engineering companies.

The beginning of engine building in Hunslet
In 1837 Charles Todd left Fenton, Murray & Jackson's of Holbeck to establish a new firm with James Kitson and financial backer David Laird. The first engine works is said to have been established in old mill buildings on Pearson Street leased from John Fretwell. The reason the firm was established here was largely due to family connections. John Fretwell had a great niece called Ann who was married to James Kitson and a niece called Isabelle who was married to Charles Todd. The firm built 6 locos for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, of which Lion still survives in Liverpool Museum. Legend has it that when the first engine was built it was too big to get it out of the mill’s doorways and a hole had to be knocked in the wall. The use of old mill buildings must have been very short lived however as on the 1st September 1837 the firm advertised in the Leeds Mercury that they were working in 'entirely new buidlings erected for the purpose.' The Todd Kitson & Laird partnership was short lived and in late 1939 Kitson & Laird formed the Airedale Foundry on the north side of Pearson street while Todd teamed up with John Shepheard to form Shepheard & Todd’s Railway Foundry on the south side of the street.

Shepherd & Todd / E. B.Wilson’s Railway Foundry
The Shepherd & Todd partership also didn’t last very long as Todd departed to set up another firm, The Sun Foundry on Dewsbury road. Todd's place at the Railway Foundry was then taken by Edward Brown Wilson.
E. B.Wilson recruited David Joy, another apprentice from Fenton, Murray and Jackson. With Joy's skills as designer The Railway Foundry produced successful, fairly standardised designs of engines for many early railways, most notably the famous Jenny Lind class. Their method of producing engines speculatively meant they were able to supply locos quickly, just what was needed as the railways went through their greatest boom of ‘the railway mania’. The old mill buildings had very soon proved inadequate and the Railway Foundry expanded considerably. At one time E.B Wilson’s plant was the largest engine builders in the country. The firm closed in 1858 after a dispute between E.B.Wilson and his stockholders resulted in chancery action. Plans to sell off the whole site failed and in the end the site was split up in to smaller lots and sold off separately, this lead to a number of separate companies building locos in and around E.B Wilson’s site. Hunslet became a neighbourhood of engine builders and a scene of sometimes bitter and sometimes friendly competition. The map below shows the area in 1906

Compare this map with more recent ariel photography from Google Maps
The first Railway Foundry works which can be seen in the centre of the map, the quadrangle as it became known, survived as stores for many years after it had been superseded by newer buildings, though it was in a very dilapidated state. All that remains to this day is an archway on Pearson Street through which locomotives would have emerged from the old Railway Foundry.

Picture of the former Yorkshire PSW Co works

Several books have been published about the Leeds engine building industry, a list is displayed in the Links and Further Reading section.

External Website Links
This site features a comprehensive list of loco manufacturers and includes greater detail about the history of the local firms
Hunslet Remembered's section about the locomotive building industry and about steam road vehicle manufacture
The current Hunslet Engine Company website

This article was produced by Kris Ward, any feedback or contributions about the Leeds engine making industry would be greatly appreciated.