The Roundhouse at Derby is the world’s first and oldest surviving railway roundhouse and is steeped in engineering history.

It was originally developed in 1839 by four rival rail companies, including North Midland Railway (NMR) for whom George Stephenson and his son Robert were engineers.

Roundhouses were designed for servicing locomotives – the engine that pulls a train – as early steam locomotives could normally only travel forwards and not in reverse. Later locomotives could travel in reverse but not as well as they could forward.

So Robert Stephenson devised a circular building with a turntable at its heart. This meant that a locomotive or other rolling stock could be driven forwards into the roundhouse and manoeuvred on the turntable to one of 16 rails with working pits underneath them, similar to those found in a car maintenance garage today. Once the works had been completed, it could be moved back onto the turntable, turned around and driven forwards out of the roundhouse.

The world’s first roundhouse was built in Derby in 1839 for the then princely sum of £62,000, which would be the equivalent of several millions today.

Despite the name, they were not actually round. The North Midland Railway Guide of 1842, states: “The engine-house is a polygon of sixteen sides, and 190 feet (58 m) in diameter, lighted from a dome-shaped roof, of the height of 50 feet (15 m). It contains 16 lines of rails, radiating from a single turn-table in the centre: the engines, on their arrival, are taken in there, placed upon the turn-table, and wheeled into any stall that may be vacant. Each of the 16 stalls will hold two, or perhaps more, engines.” Some were semi circular in shape.

Restoration and a new life for the Roundhouse

Derby Roundhouse still houses the original 12m turntable inside the 40m building. It was saved in 2008 as part of a £48million project to sympathetically restore and repair the Grade II* listed building along with other associated buildings on the site – a former carriage shop, railway workshop and an office building with a clock tower.

Since 2009 it has been used as a campus for Derby College and to host events.