NEXT weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the end, after 151 years, of Shildon as a railway-manufacturing town. The wagon works, which once employed nearly 3,000 men, closed on June 30, 1984.

The anniversary is being marked with an exhibition in the railway museum on Saturday, and another exhibition and works reunion in the Shildon Railway Institute on Sunday.

Men leaving the works on April 23, 1982, having been told they were to close: the Echo was gearing up for the fight to save Shildon

“This is about our unique industrial and cultural identity in Shildon,” said institute chair Dave Reynolds. “It’s about who the families around us are; the legacy of generations of Shildonians. It’s important to celebrate that, especially while there are still many among us with lived experience and memories of life at the works that they can pass on to the town’s newest generation through their stories and recollections.”

Shildon Wagon Works in 1975, in a picture taken to show the start of the cavalcade that celebrated the 175th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which must be why an InterCity train is parked up. Byerley Road runs into the top left hand corner

On September 27, 1825, Locomotion No 1 steamed into action to pull the first train on the Stockton & Darlington Railway from outside the Masons’ Arms. The Masons’ was then a remote pub, surrounded by marshy fields full of peewits, but soon the steam engines came to be maintained at this end of the line, and, as the railway grew rapidly, in 1833, engineer Timothy Hackworth opened the works.


The world’s first railway town – Shildon – exploded around them.

The oldest picture in The Northern Echo archive from Shildon works, showing late Victorian lads at the works Inside Shildon Wagon Works in January 1972

In 1863, locomotive construction and repair was moved to Darlington and so Shildon began its specialisation in wagons. It built and repaired them by the thousand.

At its peak in the 1950s, the works, which had the Masons’ Arms at its entrance, employed 2,800 men who repaired or modified 510 wagons a week – 25,000 a year. The works covered 58 acres on which there was 20 miles of track.

A snowy day in Shildon looking across the works to Brusselton behind in March 1963

As well as serving the British nationalised railways, Shildon won contracts to build wagons for Malaya, Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya.

Inside Shildon Wagon Works on July 22, 1954

With privatisation of Britain’s railways coming in the early 1980s, BR’s loss making plants were prepared for disposal. Shildon, though, made a profit, but its lack of orders for 1983 and 1984 made the future doubtful. In 1981, 700 jobs were axed – 25 per cent of the workforce – but the slimmed down future was said to be secure.

In March 1982, Shildon won a multi-million pound order against foreign competition to build trucks for the Congo in Africa. A month later, BR announced that the whole works were to shut in April 1983, amounting to the loss of 2,600 jobs – that was 86 per cent of the male manufacturing jobs in Shildon to go at a stroke.

The sign over the Shildon works door when it closed in 1984

Led by Bishop Auckland MP Derek Foster, a high profile campaign to save the shops was launched, and when Mr Foster badgered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into becoming involved, BR announced the closure was postponed.

Anti-closure speeches being delivered outside the works gates from a makeshift platform on June 28, 1983. Two Labour MPs are standing with their arms folded in light-coloured suits on the right of the platform. They are Derek Foster, the Bishop Auckland MP, and the newly elected Labour MP, Tony BlairMemories has previously shown pictures of men marching through Shildon, Darlington, London and even Brighton, where Labour was holding its conference, in a bid to stop closure. But it wasn't just men: this picture shows a group of young women campaigning in London on May 26, 1982. From left: Anne Dickenson, Diana Stabler, Kathleen Wright, Gail Armstrong, Joyce Ridley, Jillian Hartley. Can you tell us anything about them?

But not cancelled. A year later, it announced that Shildon would officially close on June 30, 1984 – a large, nationalised workshop that built wagons for a massive state-run railway had, politically, run out of time.

Just to make sure there was no possible going back, on June 24, they began lifting the tracks that ran into the shops.

“They are cutting the head off before the body's died,” worker Colin Russell told The Northern Echo. “It's a sign of the end and it's now irretrievable – there's no going back now."

The Shildon brass band leading men out of the works on the day that closure was first announced in April 1982

“The Railway Institute and the works were like two sides of a coin right through the whole period,” says Dave. “Fate took the works away, but we’re still here, and so it is natural that we’d want to make a big occasion of it.”

In the Sunday School building at Locomotion on Saturday (June 29), there is an exhibition of photos, including a model of the workshops, from 11am to 3pm.

On Sunday (June 30) from noon in the institute, there will be a free exhibition and a reunion of those who worked at the shops.

“We’ve found a lot that we can show to give flavour of what it was like, and as we’ve seen at the previous milestone years, when the Shildon railway workers get together and bring their families the atmosphere is electric

“If there are any former workers or Shildon families out there who have anything of interest they would like to show the town, whether it’s old photographs, documents or old tools, we’d ask them just to get in touch with the Institute and let us know.” Phone 01388 772942 for more details.

To mark the 40th anniversary, the institute has also compiled an excellent limited edition souvenir booklet, which will be available on Sunday. In it, local historian Alan Ellwood writes: “Many still remember the dull thud of the steam hammers echoing around the town night and day, the clanking of couplings as trains of rolling stock were shunted in and out of the works, the shrill whistles of steam locomotives, the dull blast of the diesel shunters horn, or perhaps the works buzzer which also sounded morning and noon.

“We grew up with these everyday noises and never gave them a second thought until they were gone and eerie silence prevailed.”