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.
Kitson’s Airedale Foundry The Kitson & Laird partnership didn’t last much longer and in 1842 Laird left and James Kitson formed a new partnership with Isaac Thompson, and William Watson Hewitson to form Kitson, Thompson and Hewitson. The company just became known as Kitson & Co in 1863 following the death of Hewitson and with Thompson having retired in 1858.
Kitsons produced around 5500 locomotives in the Airedale Foundry until 1938. The site was then acquired by J&H McLaren who had previously built traction engines in the nearby Midland Engine Works and were at the time building the increasingly popular diesel engines. Many of the diesel engines made by McLarens were fitted to locomotives including a number of those built by local firms. Renamed the Airedale Works the site produced diesel engines until 1959 when J&H McLaren’s then parent company Hawker Sidley closed the outdated factory in a streamlining exercise.
One part of the McLaren operation involved in specialist welding remained until 1965 as McLaren Fabrications in Kitson’s former M shop and a building known as the California Shop, this was the former V Shop of Kitson’s works. Amongst the fabrication work carried out here were parts for the class 31 diesels being built by Brush, another Hawker Sidley company. Brush survive to this day, the last builder of mainline locomotives in this country. Of the former Kitson works one building survives, the former California Shop of McLarens and V shop of Kitsons. This building can be seen on the corner of Ivory Street and Leathley Road and is now known as California house, though the building has been modified a great deal.
The former Kitson V Shop and McLaren California Shop
To give an idea of the problems associated with having so many engineering companies located in a relatively small area it is worth remembering this story. The Forge at Fowler’s was situated adjacent to McLaren’s M shop in the Airedale Works that had previously been a part of Kitson’s works. Some precision machining took place in the M shop and many pieces of work were ruined as the ground shuddered when Fowler’s used their large drop hammer. To resolve these problems Fowler’s had to phone McLaren’s to warn them when they were going to use the drop hammers.
Another small part of the Kitson works to survive is this stretch of perimeter wall at what is now the back of Costco’s car park. This wall would have had been the edge of a courtyard an Fowler's works and had a row of lean to buildings on the other side in Kitson's works.
Picture of wall at the edge of Kitson’s works
A building built in the 1950s as McLaren’s service department also survives on Kitson Street.
Picture of the former Yorkshire PSW Co works
Bibliography 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 steamindex.com:
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.