A spacious site in the fork of the diverging Canterbury and Dover routes was chosen for the location of the new engine shed. Ten tracks numbered in ascending order from north to south, eight of which were dead-end, were accommodated within a shed structure which measured 165-feet by 210-feet (excluding side offices). As per those then recent SR builds at Ramsgate and Exmouth Junction, the shed structure was of reinforced concrete construction and the roof comprised a succession of ten angles in a sawtooth formation. Along the shed’s south western elevation were offices and a huge water tower; of the latter, this was near identical to that which survives today at Ramsgate, although the example at Ashford lacked a decorative balustrade. On the opposite side of the shed, single-storey stores were attached. Each pair of shed tracks was served by a water column, and 165-yards north west of the building was situated a 65-foot turntable. The north eastern perimeter of the site was lined by a single-track elevated coal stage, which served a pitched-roof shed clad with corrugated asbestos. The coal stage shed sat upon a concrete base, but the single-track ascent to it was by means of an earth embankment. The opportunity was also taken to lay six westward-facing goods sidings on the northern side of the departing Dover line, south of the engine shed’s site.
The SR’s shed at Ashford came into use in 1931 and, by the end of World War II, had an allocation of around sixty engines. Of this amount, about half were tank engines, legacies of the previous depot. The majority of these were Wainwright’s "H" Class 0-4-4 locomotives; the rest were made up by the small fleet of ex-SE&CR "J" Class 0-6-4 locomotives and the same company’s "R1" 0-6-0 tanks. A few of the latter were typically stabled at Canterbury West, a subshed of Ashford, for use on the single-track branch line from there to Whitstable. Pre-Grouping tender types included "C", "D", "L", and "N" Classes, a similar consist to the allocation of the contemporary shed at Dover, twenty-miles east. Both the latter and Ashford were also recipients of a handful of "N15" 4-6-0 "King Arthur" express passenger engines, which had originally been built to front Folkestone and Dover boat trains.
The site of the SER’s 1847 shed was absorbed into the works complex; however, the structure had been flattened by 1940 and the exposed tracks used to store locomotives awaiting repair or scrapping. By the same year, a track had been laid to make it possible for locomotives to access the 1931 engine shed’s rear from the Dover main line, as an alternative to the approach tracks from the Canterbury branch. This is better shown in diagrammatic form on the previous page, but a single line linked the tracks which passed through the back of the SR’s engine shed with the main line to the Channel Ports.
During World War II Ashford, like many towns and railway establishments in the south east, was hard hit by bombing raids. There were 4,000 air raid alerts in the Ashford area during wartime; the most significant attack was a daylight assault by the Luftwaffe on Wednesday 24th March 1943, which inflicted considerable damage at the works, engine shed, and in the town, causing fifty casualties:
Fast bombers of the Luftwaffe made a daylight attack on the traffic junction of Ashford in southern England. Direct hits were observed on the railway station and supply installations. [Birmingham Gazette, Friday 26th March 1943]
In the engine shed’s yard, near the coal stage, a bomb from this raid caused a 40-foot-wide crater. The explosion was after a delayed fuse; on its way down to its final resting place, the bomb struck the boiler of ex-SE&CR "E" Class 4-4-0 No. 1515, which subsequently exploded. Both the driver and fireman of the locomotive were fatally injured. As for No. 1515, the engine was later repaired and remained in service until summer 1951.
On nationalisation, Ashford shed was designated "74A" and motive power depots at Ramsgate, Dover, Tonbridge, and St Leonard’s came under the same coding series. A small sub-shed to Ashford still existed at Canterbury West; it lacked any independent shed code and was used as an outpost for those "R1" tanks which plied the Whitstable Harbour branch. The latter was closed to traffic from 1st December 1952, although was granted a brief reprieve in the following February to act as a route for supplies to reach Whitstable after serious flooding on the night of 31st January 1953. The small shed at Canterbury West was still on the books as late as September 1955, but had disappeared from lists by 1957.
The allocation at Ashford in 1955 totalled fifty-three locomotives: a single 0-6-0 diesel shunter (later Class 08); four N15 "King Arthurs"; one "Z" Class 0-8-0 Tank; seven "H" Class 0-4-4 Tanks; three 0-6-0 "R1" Tanks; seven "C" Class 0-6-0 engines; three O1 Class 0-6-0 engines; seven "N" Class 2-6-0; one "D" Class 4-4-0; one "P" Class 0-6-0 Tank; four "L1" 4-4-0 engines; six "L" Class engines; four Ivatt 2-6-2 Tanks; and four Fairburn 2-6-4 Tanks. By 1959 that total had increased to fifty-five, but of that number, fourteen were diesels.
In October 1958, Ashford Shed’s coding was downgraded to 73F, and those depots below it were also brought into the "73" series. At this stage, all remaining South Eastern Division steam depots came under Stewarts Lane’s (73A) wing in the run-up to the Kent Coast Electrification Scheme.
At the start of 1959, work was already in hand to convert part of the shed at Ashford into a diesel depot. The roof over track Nos. 1 to 3 inclusive, at the northern end of the building, was renewed, and fuel tanks were installed midway between the shed and turntable. A then new pitched-roof corrugated diesel locomotive refuelling shed, accommodating a single track, was erected immediately north of the existing depot building. The end of steam at the site finally came in 1962 when, on 18th June of that year, the full accelerated electric timetable to the Kent Coast via Tonbridge and Ashford came into force. Some sources suggest that the shed remained open to steam into 1963, but your author cannot at this stage fathom what engines would have been using the depot that late on – London, Dover, and Thanet routes were electrified, the Romney Marsh line to Hastings had gone over to diesel-electric traction in 1958, and Type 3 diesels (later Class 33) and E5000 series electrics had arrived in force for freight workings. Indeed, Tonbridge to Redhill was still steam-hauled, but it would seem most likely that the shed at the latter would have supplied the motive power, rather than a light engine move being made over the 27-miles from Ashford. The 1963 Ian Allan ABC Locoshed book, with data as of 30th January of that year, still lists Ashford as a shed under the code "73F", but no steam locomotives were in its allocation. Instead, the fleet stationed at the depot was comprised entirely of diesel shunters (for convenience, I will quote the later TOPS classifications): ten of Class 04; a single Class 08; four of Class 09; six of Class 12. Still with a sense of intrigue at the 1963 steam date, your author decided to consult his father who, as a thirteen year old, attended the Chart Leacon Open day on 14th August 1963. He remarked:
The only thing I can recall reasonably accurately is that my friend Geoff and I were taken by two other lads [local trainspotters] to either the shed or works to see an old steam loco [a withdrawn pre-war type] that was there. There was much pleading with the elderly security guard who eventually gave in and allowed us entry.
Based on the above, it appears that by August 1963 there was no active steam presence at Ashford, but an out-of-use steam locomotive was still lingering at the site.
Tracking down a closure date for the depot to diesel traction has not been any easier. Some sources suggest Ashford shed remained open to diesels until 1968, whilst others indicate that the remaining allocation of shunters was transferred to Chart Leacon in 1964.
In 1968, the former engine shed site was rented by Mr Esmond Lewis-Evans, who established the "South Eastern Steam Centre". By this time, only those three tracks which had been converted for housing diesel locomotives retained a roof. The covered lines were used to store the steam centre’s operational engines, which included ex-SER O1 Class No. 65, ex-SE&CR "H" Class 0-4-4 No. 262, and ex-SE&CR "C" Class No. 592. An ex-SE&CR "Birdcage" carriage and a couple of Pullman cars – "Lucille" and "Phyllis" – were also on site, and later arrivals included Merchant Navy Class No. 35028 "Clan Line", "Black Five" No. 45110, and Bulleid double-decker unit No. 4002. The relationship between the Steam Centre and British Rail was acrimonious, and the operation eventual fell foul to a prolonged dispute over rent payments and the latter’s desire to retake possession of the former engine shed site. Your author has 1984 noted as the ultimate year of site clearance, when the final stock exhibits were dispersed elsewhere and, in some cases, tragically scrapped on site. The outer walls of the former engine were left standing, as was the water tank and the offices adjacent to the latter, but the remaining section of roof over track Nos. 1 to 3 was taken down. The structure lingered on in this state, eventually being demolished in 2005 when the site was sold for housing.
Part of the Southern Railway's shed of 1931 is evident in this view, which depicts "Schools" Class No. 30921 "Shrewsbury" and a Maunsell "Z" Class 0-8-0 Tank. Above the engine's cab can be seen the shed's huge water tank, which was based on the same design as that which can still be found today at Ramsgate. The black triangles (coloured that way as a result of engine smoke) along the roof's balustrade formerly indicated the shed track number. No. 30921 was broken up for scrap in early May 1964 by Cohen's of Cransley, Kettering, Northamptonshire. In its final years, the engine had been paired with a larger tender acquired from a withdrawn "Lord Nelson" Class locomotive.
© David Glasspool Collection
The skeleton of the former engine shed forms the backdrop of this south eastward view from 1970, by which time the site was in use by the "South Eastern Steam Centre". In the right distance can be seen the openings in the wall through which two tracks once passed out the rear of the building. "O1" Class No. 65 (BR No. 31065) and "H" Class No. 263 (BR No. 31263) are on the left and right respectively, both locomotives eventually ending up at the Bluebell Railway in Sussex.
© David Glasspool Collection