24th April 2014:

An excavation by OA North at Gorton, east Manchester, has brought to light to one of the forgotten centres of engineering from the golden age of British industry.

In its heyday in the mid 19th century, Ashbury’s Carriage Works, established by John Ashbury in the 1840s, was the largest manufacturer of railway carriages, wagons, horse drawn trams, boilers and plant in the country, exporting rolling stock, cast iron railway bridges and water towers worldwide. The works occupied over 20 acres and employed upwards of 2000 workers.

The engineering process was so refined at the works that raw materials could be brought in to the Manchester site at 07:15 AM and the finished carriage would be at Kings Cross, London, by 10:00 AM the following day. When, in the late 1860s following the American Civil War, an American Army engineer invented the refrigerated boxcar for the shipping of meat, it was Ashbury’s works that were commissioned to build and export it.

An entire area of the works, known as the Far East Shed, was devoted to the manufacture of carriages and other railway plant specifically for export to the far east. Ashbury’s produced almost all the rolling stock for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway and for the Great Central Railway. It also produced stock for the Metropolitan Railway and the first 30 underground carriages for the City and South London tube. Water towers manufactured at Ashbury’s works still exist in Tasmania and carriages are still in use on the North Borneo Railway, running a leisure steam locomotive from Tanjung Aru to Papar.

Much of the works had been removed by later construction and the excavation concentrated on the last remaining area covering some of the heavy engineering sheds and the assembly and finishing sheds, with a series of rail tracks and cranes linking the different processing areas, and a siding leading onto the main Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. The offices and canteen, designed and built in 1859 by the eminent architect Edward Walters, were at the north end of the site.

The works ceased production in 1928 and subsequently became a freight marshalling yard for Cammell Laird. The factory was fully decommissioned by 1975, by which time many of its archive records had been lost. However, thanks to the excavation by OA North, the story of the carriage works is now beginning to be revealed.