Most railway buildings date from the construction of the original line, some of which date back to the 1830’s.
Some railway companies such as the Great Western Railway were authorised during the reign of King William IV and so pre-date the Victorian era, but most buildings were constructed from the 1840s onwards as the rail industry took off.
Many styles were used and in fact many modern historians feel that the Victorians did not have their own architectural style but simply borrowed from older styles and enhanced them, Gothic being a prime example.
Brunel for instance favoured Italian and Egyptian influences with low pitched roofs and wide eaves with large brackets supporting them as seen at Chippenham.
Round headed windows were more often used by railway companies than in private houses or public buildings.
The railways were one of the first large organisations to standardise building types so the GWR for example, had just 4 main types of buildings on their main line to the West.
A good dating source is large scale old maps – one useful free site is this one at the National Library of Scotland that covers England and Wales too www.maps.nls.uk
Local history sections in your local Library are often useful and the vast amount of railway literature now available will often provide build dates and other information. The web is always a good place to start but be careful of ‘facts’ on Wikipedia. Disused Stations is more useful but only if your station building or line has closed www.disused-stations.org.uk
Here are a few things to look for when dating a building if you don’t have the documentary evidence, build date etc.
Windows – Most stations were constructed between the 1830’s and the 1880’s and a useful way of checking it’s vintage is to look at the sash windows which were in common use at the time. If the upper sash has a small wooden projection on its lowest rail then it will probably date from 1850 onwards – see picture left below.
It is possible that a newer window can be inserted into an older opening but the reverse is rarely the case.
Just to complicate matters windows around 1880 to 1920 often glazing bars in the upper sash and plain glass in the lower . . Many GWR stations built or rebuilt in the late 1800s have this feature as shown right
Building styles – Most people will recognise basic styles and many stations are much more flamboyant or stylish than the surrounding domestic and municipal buildings. The GWR and Brunel often used Italian and Egyptian styles and details such as very wide eaves with prominent brackets and very shallow pitched roofs. Later in the C19 came very steep pitched roofs and stone details even if the main body of the building was in brick. Below is an example of Vernacular style at Aylesford in Kent, sometimes called Cottage Orne, what wonderful bargeboards over the door.
Other styles include hybrids such as ‘Tudorbethan’ found in many parts of the country such as here at Stone in Staffordshire
Building materials often include the humble brick, sourced locally in the early days, mass production not arriving until the end of the 19th Century. Limestone and Sandstone were relatively expensive and required skilled masons to carve and build with it. It was often just used for windows, quoins (corners) and doorways such as those in the photo above.
Floors were nearly always suspended on joists set on dwarf walls and can easily be tested by a ‘heel test’ in the middle of a floor . . . .stand on your toes, bring your heels smartly down to the floor and you should feel a slight ‘give’ and hear a hollow thud. If that doesn’t happen and you feel a slight pain in your heel you have a ‘solid’ floor !
Suspended floors incidentally often suffer with dry and wet rot due to poor ventilation under the floorboards, so make sure any outside vents are clear of debris etc. The provision of vents was often inadequate so extra new vents are always a good idea especially if they can be made to look like the originals.
Leadwork is common on all buildings and is long lasting and effective, but can be prone to theft as your local Vicar will confirm and does eventually develop hair line cracking which can be hard to detect from ground level. Check roof and chimney lead flashings with binoculars.
Walls have to hold the building up and keep the weather out so they need to be looked after. Most railway buildings constructed before the 1950s had solid walls around 9 inches thick with no cavity and many non-inhabited structures had walls only 4.5 inches thick – goods depots, toilets, lamp rooms, stores etc. The latter are particularly prone to damp penetration so keep an eye on them.
Cracks in walls are often benign but need monitoring especially after a hard winter or dry summer. The basic rule is that a horizontal or vertical crack is less of a long term problem than one running diagonally. Most railway building did have basic foundations unlike many do
mestic buildings in the 19th Century, probably because of the vibration caused by passing trains. Subsidence is not a common problem unless the local geology is particularly soft. Manea in Cambridgeshire was built of wood by the Great Eastern Railway to absorb the movement caused by the fen soil underneath.
Walls in brick tend to have three types of bond (there are a number available but not many are in common use).
Flemish Bond is most common consisting of alternate headers and stretchers in the same course. The ‘header’ is the end of a brick visible in the wall and the ‘stretcher’ is the long side of a brick. This also indicates a 9 inch thick solid wall without a cavity, brick dimensions being roughly 9 inches long by 4.5 inches wide and 3 inches high. Brick dimensions weren’t standardised until the second half of the 20th Century and, for example, northern brick were often larger and somewhat harder than southern bricks (analogous with regional beers!). A typical Flemish Bond wall is shown below. Oddly when I visited Belgium most of their walls were in English Bond.
English Bond is characterised by having alternate courses of headers and stretchers as shown below. It does make for a stronger wall but is said to use more bricks though I can never work that one out! You may well find it used as a WW2 Air Raid Precaution measure around a Signal Box base, especially in the South of England.
In a modern (post WW2) building the wall may be built in Stretcher Bond indicating a 2 inch cavity present between the 2 leaves or skins of 4.5 inch walls giving a total thickness of around 11 inches. This can be checked at a door or window opening with a metal tape measure. The cavity should be ventilated (but rarely is) and should always be open at the top inside the roof eaves.
Incidentally many building terms come from Norman French, Eaves, Lintol or Lintel, Cill or Sill, Purlin etc. Arches in station buildings often have decorative tapered or shaped bricks in the arch known as Voussoirs.
Dark mortar courses indicate soot has been introduced into the white lime mortar mix to bulk it out but this can lead to problems with the carbon reacting with the lime in the long term, it will easily rub off on your finger if it is going ‘soft’.
Stretcher Bond shown below could also indicate a thin 4.5 inch wall, so check thickness at door and window openings.
Other brick bonds are available such as Garden Wall Bond, Monk Bond and Rat Trap, but are rarely seen in railway structures and before anyone asks there was never a James Bond!
Stone is an excellent building material especially if it can be sourced locally and was often used by the railway companies before the advent of massed produced bricks. It was the arrival of the railways that allowed this weighty material to be transported over larger distances. Limestone runs in a band diagonally across England from Beer in Devon to north of the Humber into East Yorkshire but is closest to the surface for quarrying from Devon and Dorset northwards via Wiltshire (Bath Stone), Gloucestershire (Cotswolds), Oxfordshire (Chipping Norton), Northamptonshire (Collyweston) and Lincolnshire (Ancaster).
Early GWR stations on the main lines were completely made of stone but a rumour has it that when large quantities of good quality limestone were found whilst digging Box Tunnel in Wiltshire, Brunel sold all the good quality material and built many of the stations in lesser quality. Few stations were constructed in basic rubblestone however, most being in fine ashlar (regular blocks smoothed and squared off) or rangework of irregular smoothed and squared blocks.
Fine ashlar shown below, note the very thin (.25 inch or less) mortar courses, the blocks are tapered back from the front to allow for sufficient mortar to bond the wall. Limestone is nearly white when extracted but mellows to a honey colour with age and exposure to the atmosphere.
If your stone station needs cleaning do use nothing more abrasive than a still brush and water or fruit acids applied by an expert company. Limestone can cost up to £1500 a cubic metre and Masons can charge up to £100 per hour so do be careful! Sandstone is cheaper but the same rules apply and it abrades and erodes easier than Limestone.
Rubblestone as shown right is more likely to be found in more humble buildings on the railway.
Moving up the building we come to the eaves, where many problems begin caused by a lack of, or broken guttering. Rain or melt water running down the roof onto the walls can cause dampness to windows, any timberwork, doors etc. as well as washing out lime mortar bonding the walling material. Gutters and downpipes themselves are easy and cheap to fix but are often neglected because of the high level access required and the Health and Safety issues with ladders. Cherry pickers and portable scaffold towers are a big help but don’t come cheap. Cast iron rainwater goods, common in the 19th Century can be difficult to repair and cannot be substituted with uPVC on a listed building.
Hipped roofs are rare on station houses and buildings but common on signalboxes. Stations in England and Wales with crow step gables may well have been designed by a Scottish Architect, as this is a typical feature north of the border. This is the former station house at Pateley Bridge in North Yorkshire.
Roofs on railway buildings are nearly always in Welsh Slate with gables. It was the arrival of the railways that gave a boost to the slate industry and North Wales in particular. Slate is lightweight, durable and easy to work and once the rail network became established it was cheap and easy to obtain. It does need to be checked for leaks however as older buildings lack waterproof roofing felt under the slates and the nails holding them in place can rust away (nail sickness). Best way to check the roof is go just inside the access hatch remaining at the top of the ladder and without a torch looking for light coming in from above.
Be especially careful of pigeon and rat droppings (common in old stations) as contact with them can lead to catching unpleasant illnesses such as Weil’s Disease, if in doubt contact the local authority.
Chimneys need to be checked regularly as they are at the highest point of the roof and receive the worst of the weather all of the time. Sulphur from steam engines used to react with lime mortars in the stack and can cause a slight lean or bend, check with binoculars. Today acid rain is a more modern hazard. Tall stacks were common on later Victorian buildings and early 20th Century buildings such as Wisbech shown here, with a strong ‘Arts and Crafts’ look to it.
In summary most people will have access to dating material via documents and the web but later rebuilding or extensions can cause confusion. On older domestic buildings date stones appear but they often only refer to a change of ownership not to a building date. On a railway building however any date can usually be relied on although they are rare.
Most 19th Century buildings are not listed but may be in a Conservation Area and 20th or 21st stations are rare.
The chances are that your local station is at least 100 years old but more likely to be 150. Materials such as the Baltic timber in the roof and doors and windows was excellent quality but was not treated against rot or insect attack. If your building is in the South-East of England, House Longhorn Beetle is a menace.
Bricks vary in quality according to local geology, the advent of common Flettons in the 1890s lead to common quality standards for bricks. The Midland and Great Northern Railway for example built at the end of the 19th Century, used one brickworks in West Bromwich for its civil engineering blue bricks used in bridges, viaducts and retaining walls, so look out for names impressed into the top or the ‘frog’ of a brick. Be careful . . railway brick collecting is addictive !