Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 1

The LNER Museum At York


A very warm day in London recently caused me to seek the cooler atmosphere of York, home of the National Railway Museum (NRM). I have maintained an interest in that museum having been present at the opening ceremony on 27th September 1975.

My visit gave me much cause for reflection. I have no criticism of the hard-working and dedicated staff, or of the curatorial standards upheld (with some reservations about the exhibits maintained in working order, which I will come to in due course). I did find I had some very serious questions about what the museum was seeking to achieve, how well it was doing that, and the direction in which it might go. These views are entirely those of an ‘interested visitor’ who happens to think our railway industry has a terrific story to tell and who also attempts from time to time to help tell some of that story and knows what a challenge it can be.

It then occurred to me that many people might not know why the NRM at York is there in the first place. Perhaps there was a bit of a story to tell about the museum’s background, to which I might append some appropriate, and hopefully constructive, suggestions. I started work but about 25 pages later, after much research, thinking, checking, editing and the like, it was obvious even to me that broadcasting this as a blog item would be a little on the long side and lack clarity. However there was a story to be told. What I have done is to rework it as (probably) four separate blogs each dealing with a different topic. This also buys a bit of time for further reflection about the museum as it is today.

The parts I propose are:

  1. The LNER Museum at York
  2. The British Transport Museums
  3. The Battle of York
  4. Some reflections upon a National Railway Museum


Although I will cover this properly in due course it is probably helpful to explain here that the NRM at York is run by the Science Museum, to which the core of the collection (and the main building) was transferred in 1975 from British Rail (BR). BR previously ran several railway museums, including one in York on a different site. The purpose of this particular blog is to describe the history of that first museum at York, which was the country’s first museum dedicated entirely to the collection and display to the public of railway exhibits.

York Railway Museum of the London & North Eastern Railway

The Stockton & Darlington Celebrations

The idea of a railway museum in York originated with the North Eastern Railway in 1922 as a means of displaying numerous important railway items it had been squirrelling away for decades. Little could be achieved in the prevailing and all-consuming climate of the 1923 railway grouping and the consequent upheaval and distraction of the enormous reorganization. A few examples of historic material were shown with modern equipment at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924, and that might easily have been the end of the initiative had not an important anniversary been looming.

At that time it was accepted that the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825 signified the beginning of the modern railway era. This line was engineered by George Stephenson, assisted by his son Robert, and was the first of the Stephenson railways. Today I fancy we prefer to acknowledge the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened five years later, as the first ‘modern’ railway and was also a Stephenson line. How it came that our preference apparently changed is really beyond the scope of this brief history. Suffice to say that they were both public railways authorized by Act of Parliament. The distinction, and it is a subtle one, is that the Stockton line was built as a public highway where its railway track was available on payment of a toll whilst the Liverpool line (though envisaged as something similar) was in practice a railway where the operator always ran the trains. Moreover the Liverpool line always used one form of traction (the steam locomotive) whilst the Stockton line used horses and stationary engines as well as steam (its most famous locomotive, Locomotion, was driven by George Stephenson himself at the opening ceremony, his brothers acting as firemen).

The Stockton line’s first steam locomotive was delivered in September 1825: designed by George, it was built by Robert Stephenson & Co and took the number ‘1’, though it was soon named Locomotion.  It was the first steam locomotive to operate on a public railway and although it did not distinguish itself in July 1828 when its boiler exploded (killing the driver) this was put down to improper interference with the safety valve. The locomotive gained a reputation for poor steaming but subsequent rebuilding improved the situation after which, from a technical point of view, the machine operated successfully. It was retired in 1841, mainly because much more advanced designs had come along, and was used for a while as a stationary engine before being sold in 1850. Historically it was soon regarded as a very important part of railway history and in 1857 the company placed it on a plinth at Darlington North Road station. This was probably the first historic locomotive to be ‘preserved’ and placed on public view, though a single locomotive hardly constitutes a museum. There had been a companion locomotive, the Hope (No 2), but this had been destroyed. Locomotion was occasionally uprooted for display elsewhere and found a new permanent home at Bank Top station in 1892 alongside the Derwent.


The Locomotion on its plinth at Darlington as The Engineer portrayed it in 1875

The Stockton line became part of the North Eastern Railway (NER) in 1863, though for a decade retained virtual independence. We have noted already that the NER had an inclination to accumulate historic railway artefacts and initiated the process for setting up a railway museum, but an appreciation of the significance of railway history came about quite early. The NER quite understood the importance of the Stockton line and became an enthusiast for celebrating the jubilee of the line in 1875, making £5000 available for the purpose. Darlington Corporation contributed a further £1000, for that town also understood the importance of its railways. These were enormous sums of money at that time. Wide-ranging celebrations took place over two days, 27 and 28 September 1875. The Locomotion was perhaps the star of the show but No 10 Auckland (by Timothy Hackworth in 1838) was present, on loan from Weardale Water Co to which it had been sold. There were several other former Stockton locos present, some recovered from the scrapheap, together with some more modern NER machines and modern locomotives from a number of other British railway companies wanting to show off their equipment, for the theme (toasted at the banquet) was ‘the Jubilee of Railways’.

Amongst the displays was the venerable Canterbury & Whitstable locomotive Invicta  (built by Stephenson in 1829) and a surviving dandy-cart from the Stockton line, which was used as part of a display of horse-power (which was regarded as a highlight of the show). The dandy-cart was a vehicle designed to carry a horse that could be used to haul a train over some sections of line and onto which it could be loaded, to keep it with the train, when not needed for haulage. These went out of use in 1841 so the one in the display must have been kept back or converted to some other use and then restored. There is a Stockton dandy-cart in the national collection today but it is described as ‘constructed as replica, or restored at the Shildon Works of the NER,’ probably about 1920. I venture to suggest the present exhibit is based on and may well use parts of the vehicle in the 1875 display. Invicta was an unpromising design that was unable to haul the required loads reliably and was effectively retired in 1836, but retained under cover and was made available for the 1875 celebrations (it is today on display in Canterbury).

The actual exhibition of locomotives took place in the North Road engine works and although all the early Stockton locomotives (except Locomotion) had been destroyed others on display were recovered, or were still serviceable. These were the Shildon (1846), the Dart (1840), the Meteor (1843), the Woodlands (1848), the Southend (1849), the Priam (1847), the Duke (1854), the Hawthorn (1854) and the Albert (1854). I list these to show the effort made to display the Stockton’s developing locomotive history, but all of them were later destroyed. Including the later NER locos, and those from other lines, Reports state that 27 locos were assembled in all. In addition were displays of drawings and photographs of early locomotives, examples of early pointwork and signal lamps. Some current material was exhibited including apparatus connected with the operation of the block system, and Harper’s patent block telegraph system. There were also a number of models. One could almost describe all this as a prototype railway museum were it not for the fact is was only open for two days.


Print from Illustrated London News representing the railway display in Darlington in 1875

The NER became part of the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923, shortly before the Stockton’s centenary. Once more it was felt the event should be commemorated and it was a chance to promote the whole industry, not just the LNER. Since the 1875 celebrations the NER had been actively collecting historical relics and records and probably had by some way the largest collection of railway material of all the main line railways. To celebrate the Stockton line in a big way was very appropriate for the LNER, which was also supportive of the idea of some kind of permanent display.


H.N. Gresley (of the LNER) and H.R.H. Duke of York discussing the display arranged at Darlington in connection with the 1925 centenary celebrations. Some correspondence might be noted between the display here and that later on show at York. Although this was a public display of historic railway material it was of course only intended as temporary so does not really constitute a museum.

Although the Stockton & Darlington Railway had actually opened on 27 September 1825 the main celebrations were held 1-3 July 1925. There was a substantial exhibition of railway material located in the new Faverdale works, just west of Darlington, and this was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York on the first day. A large display of railway relics and models was available and were put together so their significance could be appreciated (this exhibition remained open until 18 July). On the second day was a massive procession of vehicles that proceeded from Stockton to a grandstand erected between Eaglescliffe and Darlington from which the good and the great (as well as the public) could view the items. There were 53 separate displays, some single vehicles and some whole trains. These included some of the oldest locomotives and rolling stock in the country and some of the latest, including the most prestigious new vehicles from each of the main lines. The first ‘train’ comprised the Hetton colliery locomotive of 1822 whilst the final train comprised the Stockton & Darlington’s Locomotion, for which a number of replica vehicles had been constructed. The loco was substantially unmodernized and it was not felt wise to run it in steam, so a small petrol engine was installed discretely in the tender whilst the fireman burnt oily rags in the firebox to make smoke (a ruse that apparently fooled most people).


Another view of the 1925 display. In the foreground is a replica of Rocket.


This is a copy of the catalogue available to visitor to the 1925 celebrations. The temporary exhibition was of substantial proportions. About 635 exhibits are listed in the inventory ranging from paperwork, tickets, models, track, pieces of equipment and full sized locomotives and vehicles. This is quite apart from the vehicles forming part of the procession.

I should add that this was not the first cavalcade in which the North Eastern Railway had been involved for there had been a previous one in Newcastle on 9 June 1881 as part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of George Stephenson’s birth. This was a big event (Geordies are very proud of their industrial history) and the house in Wylam in which George Stephenson was born still existed as did the old waggonway outside his later house (though the later house had by then gone). The crowds arrived early as the first event was a procession of modern engines from Central station to Street House (his birthplace) at 8am. Sixteen locomotives were provided, all coupled together, six by the North Eastern. The procession continued on to Wylam. A special train followed an hour later conveying the Mayor of Newcastle and many dignitaries from surrounding areas and many other guests. It was thought the largest event thus far held in Newcastle and ended with a firework display that followed a grand banquet. Locomotive No 1 (Locomotion) was not in that display but was borrowed from its home in Darlington and parked adjacent to Central station where it could be admired.


This is a representation from The Graphic of the procession of locomotives, and the best that might be said of it is that it gives a vague impression of an unusual train passing a building. It is more than possible the engraver had seen none of the event and was working from the vaguest of  descriptions. The details ‘LNW’ visible on collar is interesting and might have been taken from another image engraver had handy. I should add that the single-track tramway of Stephenson’s youth had been replaced by a double-track main line railway (1872-76) which used the old formation along the Tyne bank where the cottage was located. It closed in 1968.

Although there was no particular celebration for the jubilee of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Liverpool did host an International Exhibition in 1886 and the London & North Western Railway had a significant presence. A full-sized model of the locomotive Rocket was constructed at Crewe Works by F.W. Webb, its locomotive engineer, in 1885-6, presumably for this exhibition. He went to some trouble to get the details correct but in fact some important points were not quite right, though only discovered many years later. Also on display was a recently-recovered Trevithick locomotive of c.1804 which Webb found in scrap condition and did his best to restore some of the missing features. Some Wylam wagonway cogged wheels and rack rail were supplied by Spencer’s of Newburn, together with patterns used for making cast iron rails. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway supplied early models and drawing from the Manchester & Leeds Railway and a model of a stage coach body mounted on a frame on railway wheels. This display brought together once more a mass of historic railway material but I have not sought to trace what happened after dispersal. It hints once more that there was important material around that ought to have found its way into a museum. At this exhibition there was also much modern material such as the LNWR’s new steel-sleepered track, a water trough, a new compound locomotive, but this is not relevant to this historical summary.

Background to York

The idea of collecting historical material and displaying it permanently in one place was given effect in 1922. The NER had been keeping important stuff back for many years and when railway amalgamation loomed some of the senior officers were concerned the material might get lost and should be displayed while the NER could exercise control. There was also the looming railway centenary in 1925 where, it was felt, there would be a need to have access to historical material for display and the process of bringing it together needed to begin in good time.

The assistant general manager, Robert Bell, convened a meeting on 29 March 1922 where the prospect of a formal collection was considered. Prominent among those present was H.J. Rudgard, the assistant engineer, and J.B. Harper, assistant superintendent. Rudgard had made it his business to retain a collection of civil engineering and track components which had been gathered together in a shed. Harper had been collecting as long previously as 1880 and had assembled a collection of small material in his office in the hope that one day it might become part of a museum. It was agreed to find basement accommodation in the head office building at York for the small material while more suitable space would be sought for the larger items. A number of historic locomotives had been saved from destruction as far back as 1907 where they were noted as being looked after locally in workshops at York, Darlington and Newcastle; for the moment they would be left where they were.

A committee was formed under the direction of Harper, charged with bringing into effect the proposal for a museum. The committee of six included a Mr E.M. Bywell from the general manager’s office. Bywell was editor of the company’s staff magazine and was appointed Secretary to the committee and curator. Using the staff magazine he was quickly able to canvass for identification of further historical material that would be suitable for the museum, with positive results. Another early task was to create an inventory of all the items collected so far, as it appeared none existed.

Basement room B at headquarters was appropriated for the display of the small exhibits and this was fitted out with display cases and facilities for hanging material conveniently. Material was moved in here during early 1923. Meanwhile space was sought for the larger exhibits. One location examined was the plumbers shop adjacent to York station, but this was found unsuitable. A better proposition was one of the former repair shops that had been used for munitions work during the Great War . This former workshop building was still rail connected in 1922 and was a historic building in its own right. With access from Queen Street, the shops had been opened in 1839 by the York & North Midland Railway and expanded somewhat. With further amalgamations, which brought forth the North Eastern Railway, they became less important as maintenance premises and for many years this area of the sheds was used for servicing foreign locomotives bringing trains to and from York from other railways.  It was located along what is now the south-west edge of the station car park, just east of Lowther Terrace, and adjoined other railway buildings, still standing. Sadly the building has now been lost. Although it had not been intended to move the locos to Queen Street, additional locos were actively sought and obtained and the building provided convenient storage.

The LNER was created in 1923 and was by no means antagonistic to the idea of a permanent museum and, as we have seen in a previous section, enthusiastically supported the 1925 railway centenary celebrations. Once these were out of the way thoughts returned to the idea of opening a public railway museum. At first (to the horror of the committee) Darlington was the favoured location. Here it was hoped everything could be displayed in one place and (probably more importantly) Darlington borough council was very keen to host a museum, offering to make a substantial financial contribution and even to operate it. This aspiration failed to mature so Queen Street was settled upon for the locomotives, rolling stock and all the large exhibits and all the material was brought here and gradually arranged for display. By this time the policy had slightly altered as the centenary celebrations had illuminated some historical material held by other railways (and parts of the LNER which had not formed part of the old North Eastern Railway) and suitable additional display items were now thought desirable. The committee later actively sought such material.


The large exhibit section of the York museum may be seen towards bottom left corner. York station is off the map at the top.

The small exhibits section was in a less happy position as the donation of a significant amount of new material, including complete private collections, meant that the selected basement room was no longer suitable. Larger space for the small material was identified a few yards from the head office, opposite the North Eastern Railway War Memorial. This comprised four large rooms each holding a range of displays. The building in which these were housed had once been the first class refreshment room on the arrival side of the terminal station at York, when it was located within the City walls. The whole of this old station area remained in railway hands until a few years ago (though trackless since the 1980s) but appears now to have been flogged off, I believe to the local council. Part of the old station is listed and still intact though. The move had certainly taken place by 1928, and probably by early 1927, but I have not seen a date.


This is the main room of the small exhibits section of the former British Transport Museum at York

To identify a public opening date for the York Railway Museum poses a problem. There is evidence that the collection of large exhibits was largely in position as early as 1926 but the first entry in the visitor’s book is 28 April 1927; we know there were several formal visits to the large exhibit collection that year. What is less clear is when the public first obtained free access to the collection, which was only possible after staff were available. The museum was certainly open to the public during 3-9 June 1928 (York Civic Week) between 10am and 5pm, and it was also open at the end of the month as part of other celebrations; the latter (certainly) and the former (probably) included the small exhibits section in another building. On both occasions there were large queues. The first ‘attendant’ was employed in August 1928 and from then on the museum opened on a seasonal basis. At first it was on weekdays during spring-autumn and Wednesdays and Saturdays in winter. At some time in 1930 former LNER police Sergeant Horn was appointed on a permanent basis allowing daily opening, creating a substantial increase in numbers. So far as I can see this museum never ordinarily opened on Sundays. Admission was free and a guide was available from 1931.

Almost from the first, the museum accepted donations of material that had been collected privately for want of any national collection felt suitable. An early donor called Isaac Briggs, for example, had a high regard for what the LNER was trying to achieve and on his death bequeathed a large collections of railway engineering drawings, books and engravings relating to railway construction in the 1820-50 period. Briggs was the son of an engineering contractor and had formed the view that far too much attention was given to locomotives when dealing with railway history and his donation was intended to try and redress the balance. Briggs’s view about locomotives is one with which I do have some sympathy.


The building in the centre of photo was part of the railway museum York housing the small exhibits. The former York terminal station was behind this range of buildings, so we are actually looking at the rear. The public entrance to what in the 1840s were refreshment rooms would have been from the platforms.  The war memorial is on the right

Donations quickly arrived from a number of other quarters, including some material from other railways. Perhaps the most obvious ‘foreign’ locomotive was the Great Western’s City of Truro, which in 1904 reached a record-breaking 102mph. The LBSCR locomotive Gladstone, was unusual in being saved for preservation privately, by the Stephenson Locomotive Society, which bought it from the Southern Railway in 1927 and made arrangements for it to be displayed at York.


Although the locomotive displays were important the museum acquired, preserved and displayed much other material and here we see its impressive collection of track parts, viewed (I think) in 1934-5. Some of this early track was historically important. I shall return to track in a later part. I believe this part of the building was called the annexe and looks to be at least 100ft long; the post-war drawing suggests this area was later reduced to make way for other exhibits.

During 1934, the 89-year old London & North Western Railway locomotive Columbine was moved to York for display after languishing since 1902 at Crewe Works (it had been the first locomotive made there complete). Its value was known since it was displayed to the public at Wembley in 1924, the Railway Centenary celebrations in 1925 and the Liverpool & Manchester centenary in 1930, but the LMSR had nowhere to display it. It arrived at York on 1st June, at the same time as Aerolite, a much rebuilt tank locomotive of NER origin, which retired the previous year. Then there was the City & South London’s restored padded cell car, which was accepted in January 1938. London Transport presented it after concluding it was unable to set up a museum of its own, notwithstanding having stored some important railway vehicles for some years (some were then broken up). At the same time Great Northern Railway 4-4-2 locomotive Henry Oakley, built at Doncaster in 1898, was accepted. I should also mention the ancient locomotive Agenoria, built for the Shutt End colliery in 1829, which had long been in the collection of the Science Museum and which was sent to York on loan late in 1936 (to make space for something else). I don’t think this ever went back to London. You will grasp immediately that if the museum had opened in 1928 and had received all these large objects since (and I think other new material besides), then by the end of 1938 it was quite full.


The Agenoria after being loaned to York Railway Museum in 1936. It was moved inside at some point, which must have involved removing the immense chimney.

In fact all the main line companies had retained some historic material, to varying degrees, though only the LNER actually maintained a public museum. The LMS keenly retained small items but also kept back two locomotives in the early 1930s. One of its vice presidents, Sir Harold Hartley, acknowledged that there needed to be a British railway museum at some time but it was impossible to justify the expense in the recession of the early 1930s and the best that could be done was to put material on one side. The LNER museum at York was already quite full and could not easily take any further large material.


The old LNER Museum at Queens Road York in 1927. The 1822 Hetton Colliery locomotive sits alongside the LBSCR ‘Gladstone’ locomotive. This gives a feel for the constraints of layout in the old building.

The York museum closed during the war when the exhibits were dispersed to less bomb-prone locations. After some renovations the small exhibits returned in early 1946 and the locos and coaches in June 1947. There were a few changes but the old layout was largely maintained. Sir Ronald Matthews, the LNER chairman, reopened the premises on 18 July 1947. It was still free.


This is the layout of the York Railway Museum at the point it was handed over from the LNER to the British Transport Commission (Railway Magazine)

How the material was labelled and looked after I have no idea, but as early as 1933 there was a catalogue listing all of the large and easily separable items but grouping some of the more expansive material together. I can’t say whether internally every item was recorded separately but the main catalogue was available to be public, price threepence, and was arranged in the order that visitors might see them. Significantly, the 1951 catalogue particularly notes the museum was founded in 1922.


The first publicly available museum catalogue, issued 1933

We shall deal with the nationalization of transport in 1948, and how this affected railway preservation, in the next episode.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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