Middleton Top Site from the slag heap. April 1967. Note the then ‘roofless’ engine shed adjacent to the engineers house. (Photo: John Evens)

This is the second in a series of posts about wrinkled tin or corrugated iron structures found on Britain’s railways.

For this post I’m returning home to Derbyshire and a fascinating location – Middleton Top – on the uplands above Middleton-by-Wirksworth.

A short history of the Cromford & High Peak Railway

In the early 1820s a canal was planned to connect the Cromford Canal at Cromford Wharf with the Whaley Bridge Branch of the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge, lying on the opposite side of the White Peak to the north west.

It was an audatious plan, a link between High Peak Junction at 277 feet above sea-level and Whaley Bridge at 517 feet. In the middle it rose to over 1,000 feet at Ladmanlow, however difficulties in ensuring an adequate water supply on the high limestone plateau led to the scheme being dropped.

Proposals were then put forward, and accepted, for building an equally improbable railway that would stretch for 33 miles across upland Derbyshire. It was a railway designed on a canal model, one of contour-hugging levels, with inclined planes replacing the locks.

The Cromford & High Peak Railway Co. was created by Act of Parliament on 2nd May 1825 for the purpose of linking the Cromford Canal with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge by rail. This connection was intended to provide a through route from the North and East Midlands to Manchester and the South Lancashire region avoiding the long Trent and Mersey Canal journey.

The proposed line had been surveyed during 1824 by Josias Jessop and when it opened, in two stages, in 1830 and 1831, at just under 34 miles in length; it slightly longer than the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

Josias Jessop (1781 – 1826), William Jessop’s son, was the consulting engineer. The estimated cost of building the undertaking was £164,000 but in the event this proved to be a major underestimate. Following Jessop’s untimely death in 1826, he was replaced by Thomas Woodhouse who became the resident engineer for its construction.

The major hurdle that Jessop had needed to overcome was Derbyshire’s bleak High Peak region which rises one thousand feet between the two canals. No locomotives then could climb steeply inclined rails and Jessop’s answer to the problem was to use a series of powered inclined planes linking long, nearly level sections of line suitable for either locomotives or horses.

When seeking to describe the railway’s bold and ingenious design, one nineteenth writer wrote: “The skyscraping High Peak Railway with its corkscrew curves that seem to have been laid out by a mad Archimedes endeavouring to square the circle”.

Jessop’s plan involved steep inclines, up and down which wagons were hauled on chains until the 1850s and then on cables by steam driven winding engines. Initially, horses were relied on to pull the trucks along the flatter part of the route, but steam trains began to replace them from 1833. The line continued to play an integral part in linking the canal systems for a further 20 years, when it was connected to the rapidly expanding railway network, which apart from providing a local service was also used to send limestone all over the country, and to transport minerals, corn, coal and other commodities from one canal to the other.

When the line opened there were no less then nine inclined planes throughout its length, eight employing steam winding engines in distinctive gritstone engine houses to haul wagons up and down. Each incline was equipped with double track to enable wagons to be moved in both directions at the same time as well as being balanced for safety and economy of operation.

The winding engine at Middleton Top was the third one from the beginning of the line at High Peak Wharf on the Cromford Canal. The first two inclines achieved rises of 204 feet and 261 feet and Middleton lifted the line a further 253 feet to nearly 1,000 feet above sea level – and all in the distance of three and a half miles. Two more shallower inclines took the railway to its summit of 1,266 feet (990 feet above Cromford canal) before commencing its descent towards Whaley Bridge. Middleton incline was just over 700 yards long at an angle of 1 in 8¼, similar to the first two.

Of the eight winding engines along the line, two comprised pairs of 10hp beam engines and the other six were pairs of 20hp engines, Middleton being of the larger type.

This incline ceased working in 1963 and, after the closure of the rest of the line by British Railways in 1967, part of the route including Middleton Top engine house was acquired by Derbyshire County Council. The engine was restored by the Middleton Engine Group and the entire area scheduled as an ancient monument, this includes the incline and terminal wheel.

The Corrugated Iron Engine Shed at Middleton Top

As the image at the top of this post shows, the Middleton Top site not only included the main winding house and engineers house, but also a small engine shed housing locomotives tasked with hauling, mainly aggregate freight, along the next level section to Hopton Incline and beyond.

The shed, a sub-shed of Rowsley Depot, was a single track, narrow corrugated iron structure with decorative arched windows on the north-facing elevation – the south facing elevation was felt to be far too exposed to risk putting in windows!

Despite being ruggedly constructed the shed had a turbulent life, as the following images show.

Given the smart turn-out of the J94 68012 in this shot it would seem to be one of a number of rail enthusiast specials that took place towards the end of BR operations in the late 1960’s. It’s interesting to note that the shed, entirely roofless by this point, is used as little more that a wind-break sheltering both the engine and staff from the prevailing winds.
An image taken in the late1950’s shows that although the majority of the corrugated iron structure was still intact the roof was almost totally eroded, and provided no shelter at all from the rain.
Inside the engine shed looking out, only flimsy splinters of corrugated sheeting remain – are they remnants of previous fire damage? I would love to know why the relatively easy replacement of roofing wasn’t done?
A view of the Middleton Top site shows it’s exposed position on a promontory above the village. The engine shed is towards the foreground on the left hand side.
A wonderful shot of 68012 in the denuded shed. This image shows the intricate windows on the north facing elevation in detail and the solid timber framework that the corrugated iron was bolted to.
And the view from the cab of 68012 looking along the boiler to the doors of the shed.
Archetypal C&HPR, saddle tanks, mineral wagons, winding house and limestone plateau. The roofless engine shed is the darkest structure at the centre of the image. In this case a few of the cross-members of the roof seem to be still in place.
This shot shows a more complete shed, in this case the one located at the previous incline – Sheep Pasture.
A model of Sheep Pasture winding house and railway shows how the corrugated iron engine shed would have looked in it’s heyday.
I can’t find out anything about this image, I take it to be Edwardian? It certainly shows what remains of the seemingly ill-fated engine shed at Middleton Top, burnt to ashes…
Middleton Top, post-war, the site is a hive of activity. Lots of mineral wagons, a J94 ‘Austerity’ tank engine, and a rebuilt engine shed with roof in place.
1960’s photo of rather tired J94 68012 standing on the shed road.  (Photo: John Neave).
Inter-war period, again the engine shed still shows a substantial roof intact. Ex North London Railway 2F 0-6-0T 58862 in LMS livery.
This photo was taken in1959. Inside the shed, the eponymous 68012, an exLNER 4F 0-6-0 J94 Saddle Tank. Introduced 1943, the engine was a  Riddles design for M.o.S. based at Middleton Top after 1956. Photo by: Nick Metcalfe.Three J94s were allocated to the line in 1956. One engine was based at Cromford and made transfer trips between High Peak Junction and the bottom of the incline. The other two were based at Middleton Top and operated workings to Friden and Parsley Hay. By 1962, four further J94s had been allocated to the Cromford and High Peak. Withdrawals started in 1960. The last two J94s were withdrawn in 1967 after the last section of the Cromford and High Peak line was closed.
On 3 May 1958, an Ex-North London Rly 58850, simmers outside a seemingly spick-&-span shed…
Taken at the same time as the image above, the engine shed in it’s glory…

I remember dad telling me that, as a telegraph messenger in the early 60’s, he’d often cadge a lift up the inclines on the rakes of wagons being hauled to the top and then along the levels on one of the locos.

Middleton Top remains a fascinating stop over if you’re in the area.

UPDATE (September 2013): Glenis (see COMMENTS below) very kindly shared the following article on Middleton Top which included a portrait of her grandfather who worked at the engine house.

Thanks Glenis



5 thoughts on “Middleton Top Engine Shed

  1. The picture of the engine that was burnt out I have got it belonged to my grandfather Alec Hallows I have actually got it and on the back it says after the fire 1916. my family grandfather , grt grandfather and grt grt grandfather ran the engine house from about 1850 to when it closed.


    1. Dear Glenis, I’d love to know more, although based in London now I’ve still got family in Matlock, Bonsall and Hognaston and I recall my dad talking about hitching a ride up the Middleton incline (totally forbidden of course!) when he was a telegraph messenger after leaving school, that’d have been in the late fifties I guess.

      I’d be particularly interested in images of the engine shed and environs if you have any, or any further information about it.

      It’s amazing to have researched your family back to 1560, I’m delving into my family history too, and I’m focusing at the moment on my great, great grandfather John Allen who began life as a ganger or labourer on the Cromford Canal and rose to become wharf manager, living on Cromford Wharf around the turn of the 20thC.

      very best wishes




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