Robert B. Dockray, and the Roundhouse

New Buildings are Planned in 1846

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Although in the original Act of 1833, before the Euston extension Act was passed, a passenger station was envisaged, there was never a Camden passenger station. Camden had a very different future. Despite the outspoken antagonism between the canal company and the railways, Camden Town was bound to expand rapidly as it was the natural exchange point between water and rail. For this reason, and because of the difficulty of dragging trains back up the slope from Euston, the railway Goods Department developed at Camden. Very little of the goods traffic continued through to Euston.

Soon a vast complex of lines had been built beside Chalk Farm Road. A goods station was opened in 1839, at the corner of Chalk Farm Road and Commercial Place, but it was destroyed by fire. When, in 1845, the Board of the London and Birmingham Railway decided to adopt the heavier and more powerful six-wheel engines, the turntables in the original Engine House, over near Gloucester Road, had become too small. Two new buildings were planned; the New Passenger Engine House (1846-7) and the Luggage Engine House (now called the Roundhouse).

The Passenger Engine House was a large rectangular building, 400ft by 90ft  (122 metres by 27 metres) internally.  There was room for 40 engines with their tenders. Attached to the building were large coke stores, fitting shops and other facilities.

The Roundhouse, which is the sole survivor today, was to the north on a constricted site by Chalk Farm Road, with a single entrance from the south west and 23 radiating tracks for stabling the engines and tenders.



The Design of the Roundhouse

The Roundhouse is circular, with a span of 160 feet diameter, built in 9 inch white Suffolk brick and strengthened on the outside by a series of buttresses each 3 feet wide and about 14 feet apart. The roof is supported by a circle of 24 columns 80 feet in diameter, set in the centre of the building. These columns are 21 feet 9 inches high and are interconnected to form a polygon of 24 sides. A lantern covered with rough plate glass is raised 4 feet 3 inches off the roof, with wooden louvres at the sides to exhaust steam and smoke. The building was designed to hold 23 engines, one between each pair of columns, with the 24th track left clear for entrance and exit. Each bay took one engine and its tender, with below it a long pit used for maintenance purposes and the removal of ash.

In the centre was a turntable 36 feet in diameter, the very reason for the building. All engines had to run on to the turntable in order to turn into their respective berths, which were a little longer than 36 feet. When supplied with coke and water each weighed about 50 tons. This weight, carefully balanced on the turntable, was pivoted round and the engine driven into its bay.

'The New Great Circular Engine House', or 'Luggage Engine House',
built for the London & Birmingham Railway.

From the illustrated London News, 1847

The edge of the turntable can be seen in the centre of the ring of pillars, with the rails running up to it. A fireman standing in the pit between the rails is shovelling out the ash from the previous engine.

Earlier turntable houses had been polygonal. The one at Derby, for example, had sixteen sides, but in 1847 R.B.Dockray erected this circular building which was later called 'The Roundhouse'. The shape has advantages both economic and aesthetic. It is unlikely that it would have achieved such affection if it had been a more usual square or oblong.

Robert Benson Dockray

The Roundhouse seems to have been built in the far distant past and yet, while researching for this book in Camden History Archives, I met the grandson of a man who worked with Dockray. Mr Philip Sykes, a New Zealander, was in England and wanted to consult the file on the Roundhouse which I was already using. His maternal grandfather, William Murray, had been an assistant engineer to Dockray at the time when he was building the Roundhouse1. William Murray later went to Australia, where he continued to build railways. Philip Sykes, father of the present Philip Sykes', arrived from New Zealand as Murray's assistant engineer, married Murray's daughter and carried her back to New Zealand with him. Here was I, in London, talking to the grandson of a man who had helped build the Roundhouse. Suddenly the building came alive and was new again.

Robert Dockray2 was born in 1811, four years before the Battle of Waterloo, just about when the Regent's Canal was being planned. He came from a Quaker family and was educated in schools of the Society of Friends, at Kendal and Darlington, and of course Darlington was a famous railway town. He became an assistant engineer in the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1835 and five years later, at the age of 29, became the resident engineer (under Robert Stephenson as consulting engineer). When the London and North Western Railway was formed, Dockray became responsible for its Southern Division. He supervised the construction of branches to Leamington, Peterborough, Banbury and Oxford. This was onerous work. Clearly he was a hardworking, conscientious man who made great demands on himself. The strain brought on neuralgia and he lost an eye. He resigned because of ill-health in 1852, at the age of only forty. He retired to Ramsgate, but returned to a railway house in Haverstock Hill, overlooking his Roundhouse. Later he removed to Lancaster, where he died in 1871, at the age of sixty.

On one occasion when a railway engine in the Roundhouse was building up steam ready for departure, the spindle of the regulator slipped out of its socket and the engine drove straight through the outside wall. It demolished a large section of the wall, causing people to scatter in all directions in case the whole building should collapse. The same accident was repeated shortly afterwards. Only then was the throttle mechanism on the engines modified to prevent further accidents.

The Roundhouse as Architecture

One of the great pleasures in looking at the Roundhouse is its functional nature. It was so well designed that not a brick, not a pillar, not a slate was wasted. Everything did its job in the most economical way possible. Below were brick vaults which raised the turntable and engine storage bays to the railway level. Simple, functional and not used at first for any other purpose, such as for storage or stables. In the centre of the railway level was the circular turntable leading to bays of similar length all round. These were surrounded by a circular brick wall and a circle always encloses the largest area for the fewest bricks. No wasted corners or land. Above was a conical roof requiring the smallest quantity of timber as rafters and the fewest slates. Above again was an open lantern, so that the hot air and steam would rise and escape, giving natural ventilation. Robert Stephenson himself said that it could not be better.

However, the Roundhouse ceased to be used for engines quite soon. The received wisdom is that the Roundhouse became unusable because the turntable became too small for the later, bigger engines. Malcolm Tucker points out that, while 'the 36 ft turntable was becoming a little small it was still useable by the largest goods locomotives'. Other turntables in use elsewhere were only slightly larger.

A new cross-over line was built at Camden in 1851, enabling goods locomotives to use the Passenger Locomotive house. At the same time new engine houses were being built at other stations along the line and an additional engine house was provided at Wolverton, the works and staging post half way between London and Birmingham. Thus the combination of the cross-over line at Camden and extra facilities elsewhere, may have made it more economical to pension off the Roundhouse. and concentrate work at the Passenger Locomotive house.3 Perhaps more significantly, this freed the space around the Roundhouse for goods and coal traffic, since there was a pressing need at this time (1854) to provide longer marshalling sidings and more unloading and storage facilities at Camden.

North View of the Camden Goods Yard, with the Roundhouse behind.

The woodcut of Camden Goods Yard from the north (undated and of unknown origin) is from the Camden Local Studies Collection. "It shows a Stephenson's "Patentee" design with the characteristic "Gothic" top to the firebox, like a groined vault, which is seen in many of Stephenson's locomotives."4

Incidentally, people may think that this 'Gothic' shape was chosen purely for artistic reasons, but is more likely to have been an engineer's solution to a problem. The 'Gothic' shape would have been far quicker and cheaper to make as it is made from four metal plates shaped on a bending machine and the corners rivetted. A lot less work than the hammered dome in the Whishaw drawing below.

From Whishaw's 'Railways of Great Britain and Ireland'

London Birmingham Railway engines on 1837. The large wheels of the passenger
engines gave more speed, while the linked goods engine wheels gave greater traction.


  1. His application to the Institution of Civil Engineers was signed by both Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson.
  2. Camden Local History Archive
  3. Comments by Malcolm Tucker, June 1998, based on London & Birmingham Railway minutes.
  4. Malcolm Tucker


  1. His application to the Institution of Civil Engineers was signed by both Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson.

  2. Camden Local History Archive

  3. Comments by Malcolm Tucker, June 1998, based on London & Birmingham Railway minutes.

  4. Malcolm Tucker



The London and
Birmingham Railway

The North London Railway

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