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.

The Hunslet Engine Works
Next to Manning Wardle's Offices on Jack Lane we see the grand building that was once the head offices of the Hunslet Engine Company. This building is listed so hopefully should survive for many years to come. A blue plaque on the front of the building acknowledges its role in local history.
The date above the door of the Hunslet office is misleading, 1864 being the year Hunslet began production, this office was built in 1882.

When the Hunslet Engine Company was set up next door in a plot from the old Railway Foundry you would think there would be great rivalry. Hunslet Engine Company was set up by John Leathley, of a family with coal mining interests in the area. They already used E.B.Wilson engines on the Waterloo Colliery railway. When Hunslet built their first engines there was more than a passing resemblance to the E.B Wilson designed engines now being constructed next door at Manning Wardle's, in fact Manning Wardle were good enough to lend them wheel patterns. The person put in charge of the Hunslet Engine operation was in fact the eldest son of Manning Wardle’s director. It had been intended to keep the business in the Leathley family but there were clearly advantages to employing someone from an engine building background.
The Hunslet works was altered many times over the years. Looking left on to Grape Street we see a massive building, this was the final assembly shop of Hunslet’s. The factory was expanded and modernised for an order of commuter trains built here in the 90s. A number of reliability problems with these units combined with problems amongst the group of companies which ran Hunslet were to see the end of train building here and the works has since been modernised again, this time for use making electrical components. The original erecting shop would have been situated immediately behind the 1990s erecting shop. Any surviving parts of the early factory buildings here were lost when the site was rebuilt after loco building had finished.
The level crossings from the 1990s are still set in to Jack Lane. From the beginning of loco production here the locomotives would usually have been despatched by rail, often travelling under their own power on the main line. As the main line railways were rationalised it became more difficult to move shunters in this manner and the costs of using rail escalated. For many years Hunslet engines were dispatched by road. In 1984 the rail connection was lifted, having not been used in three years. It became necessary to reinstate the rail link in the 1990s for the contract to build commuter trains.
Hunslet Engine Company were possibly the most successful company in the area, out surviving all the other companies, acquiring Hudswell Clarke's Railway Foundry and also parts of the Manning Wardle’s works. Part of Manning Wardle's works remained with Hunslet right to the end, in use as Hunslet’s final testing shop. Acquiring Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock at around the same time as they took over Hudswell Clarke in the early 70s (making the most of a decline in the industry at the time) means Hunslet has a family tree that takes in much of Britain’s Industrial loco building industry. In the early 80s they took over Leeds firm Greenwood &Batley of Armley (nothing survives of their old works). Greenbat, as they became known, were a company that specialised in battery locos and electrical equipment.
The name of Hunslet lives on to this day having been bought by LH Group of Burton on Trent. The new company overhauls and builds locos, including some new steam engines to the Hunslet 'quarry engine' design. In 2007 to celebrate the Leeds heritage of the current Hunslet Engine Company their second newly built quarry engine was named Jack Lane. This engine visited the Middleton Railway and a photo shoot was arranged next to the old Hunslet offices.

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.