Fifty two years ago Oxenholme Engine Shed – or Locomotive Depot to give it its official title – closed. It was a very minor event in the great scheme of things, but very significant for the small railway community for whom the shed was a major source of employment for over 100 years.
In the days of steam locomotion engine sheds of various sizes existed in large numbers across the country. Steam engines, though glamorous and characterful, were notoriously difficult to maintain, and the railway industry was extremely labour intensive.
Oxenholme was a small shed of only four roads with a nearby turntable and water and coaling plants, dwarfed by the larger sheds which provided giant locomotives to pull the major inter city expresses. Nonetheless it employed 120 men in its heyday and could stable up to 13 locomotives, and as late as 1962 still employed 50 staff and 12 engines.
Its primary purpose was as a banking depot to assist the climb up Grayrigg bank of heavy goods and passenger trains (Shap summit was covered by the shed at Tebay). A driver requiring assistance would indicate on arrival at Oxenholme and the ‘banker’ would dutifully push the giant train as far as Grayrigg and return light engine. Bank engines were available 24 hours every day and duty shifts would begin at 06.00. 14.00 and 22.00. Shed personnel would work shifts on a three weekly basis. As well as the bank duties, local trains to Windermere, Morecambe and Penrith were operated from Oxenholme depot, making it a very busy place indeed. Staff consisted of a Shed Master and his deputy, drivers, passed firemen, firemen and cleaners; at one time there were knockers up, who walked through the village tapping on upstairs windows with a large pole to wake up the early shift.
The village itself was largely a creation of the railway, and the railway company provided tied cottages for its workers initially at the Station Cottages, but later at Helmside, Natland Terrace and Hill Place. The Bolefoot estate, built in 1921 was, initially, occupied almost exclusively by railway men and their families, who ensured a lively spirit of community flourished at all times.
By 1962 dieselisation of British Railways was well advanced and the days of small banking sheds such as Oxenholme were coming to an end. Steam still had a few years to run, and personnel were offered transfers to other depots. A small number of older staff were maintained until the end of steam locomotion in 1968. The shed was demolished in 1965 and with its extinction went a way of life for railway families which had endured for several generations and provided lifelong employment and security for railway men and their families.