Charles Roberts

Charles Roberts (1831-1892), who first described himself originally as a joiner, established the Buffer and Wagon Works at Ings Road, Wakefield in 1856. Roberts had a number of personal tragedies in his short, but successful life and he was to see three of his four wives die at the early ages of 30, 33 and 40 years respectively. 

The business he established in 1856 moved to Horbury Junction in 1873. The company was registered on the 13th April 1899 as a wagon building business, but was actually the precursor to the Charles Roberts and Co. Ltd. works that employed hundreds of local men for 150 years until final closure in 2005. In the early days, the works was known as "Charles Roberts Buffer and Wagon Works" because the company had the sole rights for the manufacture of Stanton's Patent Buffer", used on railway rolling stock and the precursor to numerous self-contained buffers, which have been developed since.

Charles Roberts was born in Leeds on the 16th November 1831, the eldest son of Thomas Roberts, a paper stainer and his wife Martha. In 1841, the Roberts family were living at Top Leathley Lane, Hunslet, Leeds and by now Charles Roberts had two younger brothers: John Roberts, aged 7 and William Roberts, aged 2. The Roberts family had moved again by 1851 and were living at Eddison Place, Hunslet, Leeds. There was now another brother: James Roberts, aged 9 years. All the older Roberts boys were working in the paper business like their father, with the exception of Charles Roberts, who was working as a joiner.

Horbury Civic Society Blue Plaque at the site of his Horbury Junction works.

Charles Roberts. Photo courtesy of Elaine Hart.

In 1854, Charles Roberts married at St. Peter's, Leeds his first wife, a local girl Jane Hammill, then aged 22 years. Charles was recorded as a joiner of Fleece Lane and Jane was the daughter of a coal miner. By 1861, Charles, now recorded as a wagon builder, employing 2 men was living in Pitfield Street, Hunslet with his wife Jane and his mother-in-law. A son Walter Roberts had been born to the couple in 1861, but he died a few months after his birth. Jane Roberts, Charles' first wife died in 1862, aged 30 years. 

Roberts married for the second time on the 26th October 1863 at Wakefield Holy Trinity Church to Mary Taylor (nee Blackburn) a widow of "full age" with two young daughters from her first marriage. Charles was 31 at the time of his second marriage and a wagon builder, living in Thornhill Street, Wakefield. On the 1st May 1864, some six months after his marriage to Mary Taylor, a son, Rowland Joseph Roberts was born to the happy couple. Sadly, tragedy was to strike with the death of Roberts' second wife Mary in 1865 at the age of 33 years.

On the 4th October 1870, Charles Roberts married for the third time to spinster Hannah Heptonstall, the daughter of James Heptonstall, the parish clerk of All Saint's Church, Wakefield where the couple married. Charles Roberts was living now at Southgate, Wakefield and his new wife at Westgate, Wakefield. The 1871 census records the Roberts family, including his two step daughters, Elizabeth (19) and Mary Ann Taylor (17) from his second marriage all living at Southgate, Wakefield. Charles Roberts has done well in the intervening years and is now employing 44 men in is railway wagon building business.

In summer 1871, a daughter Annie Elizabeth Roberts was born to the newly wed couple, followed on the 21st July 1872 by a son, Charles Heptonstall Roberts. Another son, William Walton Heptonstall Roberts was born on the 15th October 1873. Seven years later in 1880, Roberts' third wife Hannah also died aged just 40 years.

Stonebridge House, Benton Hill was home to Charles Roberts.

An aerial view from 1926 of the Charles Roberts factory site. Photo Britain from Above.

The 1881 census records that Charles Roberts, widower, aged 49 years, the manager of a wagon works was living at Wakefield Road, Horbury almost certainly at Stonebridge House. The household consisted Rowland Roberts (16), apprentice ironmonger; Anne Roberts (9), Charles H. Roberts (8), William W.H. Roberts (7). Mariah Hawksworth (58) widow and annuitant plus a domestic servant Eliza Siskitt. All except Charles Roberts born in Wakefield.

You might think that after losing three wives in 18 years, Charles Roberts might think twice about marrying again. However, apparently not so and on the 16th November 1881, at Wragby Parish Church, near Wakefield, Roberts married for the fourth time to spinster Ellen King, then aged 45 years. He of Horbury and her of Nostell, Wakefield (but born in Suffolk) and the daughter of a farmer. Charles was now recorded as an engineer and railway wagon manufacturer.

By 1891, the Roberts family are recorded as living at Stonebridge House, Benton Hill, Horbury. Rowland Roberts is now the assistant manager at his father's wagon works. Annie Roberts is still living at home and both Charles H. and William Roberts are apprentices to a mining engineer. 

The Horbury Junction site was chosen specifically for the advantageous railway transport system being located at the junction of routes of the Manchester and Leeds Railway (present Caldervale Line) and the Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Wakefield, Huddersfield and Goole Railway Company (leased and later transferred to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (present Hallam Line). There was an ample supply of water from the nearby river Calder and coal from the nearby collieries for the furnaces. The railway company had already, some 20 years previously, converted the single track railway line between Barnsley and Horbury Junction into a double track line, purposely to carry coal mined from the extensive Barnsley and Silkstone coalfields. In addition, there was a ready supply of cheap local labour from places such as Horbury, Crigglestone and Wakefield.

By 1890, the Charles Roberts business was doing well. At the 17th Annual Meeting in August 1890, Mr. Henry Broadbent, on behalf of the directors of the business, presented a very favourable financial report. The profit and loss account stood at £528 brought forward and the company declared a profit of £3,518. The directors recommended a dividend payment of 7.5%, which with the interim dividend of 2.5% paid in March 1890, made a dividend of 10% in total. A very good return on investment if you held shares in Charles Roberts Ltd. back in 1890. The dividend payment left £849 to carry forward into the next financial year, and a depreciation figure of £1,292 was made on the works. Not surprisingly, the report was adopted.(1)

Some typical wagons produced at the Railway Wagon Works in the 1920s.

Charles Roberts died at his home at Stonebridge House, Benton Hill, Horbury on the 28th December 1892 and the local press carried this short obituary:

"Mr. Charles Roberts, a gentleman well known in commercial circles in Leeds and throughout south-west Yorkshire generally died recently. Mr. Roberts was the managing director of the firm Charles Roberts and Co., Carrying on business at the Railway Wagon Works at Horbury. At one time he was a member of the Wakefield City Council, representing the Calder Ward for a number of years." (2)

Charles Roberts was interred at Wakefield Cemetery on the 31st December and his will was proven on the 8th of February 1893. His estate was valued at £7,844 5s 1d and probate was granted to his fourth wife Ellen.

Charles Roberts' eldest son, Rowland Joseph Roberts (born 1864) became the managing director of the Charles Roberts waggon works on the death of his father. sadly he was also to die prematurely in a tragic accident in September 1895:

"A profound sensation was created on Wednesday in the neighbourhood of Horbury, near Wakefield as the news spread that Mr. Rowland Roberts, the eldest son of the late Mr. Charles Roberts, of Stonebridge House, Horbury, had met an untimely death under shocking circumstances. From what can be gathered, it appears that the previous night deceased was riding towards Crigglestone, where he resided with his widowed mother, on what was considered a very quiet pony, when he was either thrown or fell off accidentally, perhaps in a fit. Anyhow, some time later he was found lying on the road in an unconscious state, and subsequently succumbed.

The deceased was as already stated, the eldest son of the late Mr. Charles Roberts, managing director of the Horbury Junction Waggon Works, a position to which he himself attained on his father's death. He was a single man, some 30 years of age and was a well-known figure in the neighbourhood of Wakefield, where he was much liked. He was an authority on horseflesh, and was fond of riding, and took a great interest in the Wakefield Agricultural Show." (3)

After the death of Rowland Roberts in 1895, Arthur Horsfield became the chairman and managing director, followed in 1939, by Duncan Bailey who was also chairman and managing director. 

Between 1901 and 1956, the company built 110, 000 railway wagons of varying types and in 1914, Charles Roberts were renowned as the builders of railway wagons of all descriptions, steel hopper wagons, railway tank wagons, manufacturers of wheels and axles, ironwork, castings and also railway wagon repairers.

In 1919, following a dispute with the Unions, Mr. Duncan George Bailey, O.B.E., M.I.Mech.E, the then Managing Director of Charles Roberts Ltd., took a one-shilling bet with one of the union leaders that he, with his son, and with his nephew could build a railway wagon in one day. They won the bet. On the 1st August 1919, Bailey, assisted by his 17 year-old son Russell Bailey and his nephew, who at the time was the General Manager at the works, built a 10 ton wooden main-line railway wagon to prove that it could be done. Duncan Bailey was proud of the shilling he won that day and it was fixed to the mantelpiece on the fireplace in his office. The shilling was still there as late as the 1970s.

Duncan Bailey's son Russell, who helped with winning the bet described above, became Managing Director of Charles Roberts Ltd., like his father had been a generation previously. Both men were awarded the OBE for their services to industry. Duncan Bailey in 1919 and Russell Bailey in 1949.(4)
By 1945, the Charles Roberts factory covered 45 acres including the adjacent site of the Horbury Junction Ironworks Company, which Charles Roberts Ltd. had taken over in 1923 after the Ironworks business went into liquidation. They used the site of the Ironworks business to build road passenger carrying vehicles.

Female munitions workers at Charles Roberts during WW2. 

Photo courtesy of Kevin Parkin.

Workers at Charles Roberts after WW2.

Photo courtesy of Pat Beesley

During World War II, the firm built and equipped a department for the British Government, which produced 500,000 100lb naval shells. Another department made 1,500,000 trench mortar bombs and in yet another department, 350,000 armour piercing artillery shells were produced. They also produced 1,300 Churchill tanks, as well as bomb bays for "Barracuda" aircraft and 22,000 motor lorry bodies for the Allied war effort. The works was credited with creating the nation's 'millionth bomb'. It is thought that Charles Roberts produced some of the minesweepers used to defend Mulberry Harbour, the portable port which was used to rapidly off load cargo onto the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasions. Charles Roberts was an important target for German bombers, but was never hit by enemy bombs during WW2 and throughout the war they were constantly adapting to produce many items which were to be used in the D-Day Landings. 

The plant was involved in the passenger vehicle construction and refurbishment. In the 1950s tram bodies were constructed for Blackpool Tramways 'Coronation Cars', and Sheffield Tramways. In 1967, Kirkstall Forge Engineering acquired the pressed axle casing business of Charles Roberts and Co of Wakefield. In 1973, Charles Roberts and Co agreed to acquire from Butterfield-Harvey Group the assets and undertaking (apart from property) of W. P. Butterfield (Engineers) of Shipley to make a major force in the road tanker industry.(5)

1950s staff photo courtesy of Elaine Hart.

In 1974, Charles Roberts was taken over by the Canadian firm Procor, who continued to build trains there. In addition to freight rolling stock, the plant produced body shells for the British Rail Class 60 during the Procor period. The firm was acquired by Bombardier in 1990, and renamed "Bombardier Prorail". Body shells for Class 60 and Class 92 locomotives were made at Horbury Junction and the Bombardier logo can be seen on the London Underground carriages that were refurbished there. The works built the Class 220, Class 221 and Class 222 'Voyager' series of trains in a joint operation with the Bombardier plant in Bruges. The Bombardier legacy ended in 2005 when the plant closed down, making hundreds of workers redundant.(6)

After closure, the plant's 'No.1 Shop', a large hangar type building where train manufacturing was carried out was taken over by the engineering company Eddison & Wanless, and part of the site has been named the Charles Roberts Office Park. In 2006, the Charles Roberts Office Park was acquired by Magna Holdings Ltd, and it's renovation began in 2014.

Inside the factory in 1997 when it was Bombardier who had a contract to overhaul London Underground trains. Photo Christopher Davis.

Entrance to the Charles Roberts Office Park.


1. "Leeds Mercury", 21st August 1890.
2. "Leeds Mercury", 31st December 1892
3. "Huddersfield Daily Chronicle", 5th September 1895
4. "Some Horbury Yesterdays" by R.D. Woodhall, first published in 1973.
5. Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
6. "Wakefield Express", 8th June 2014

My thanks to Alan Howe for providing the census details for Charles Roberts and his extended family from 1841 - 1891.


Stephen Wilson  April 2016