The Government Gets Involved
Trouble on the Line
I had hoped to cover what I wanted in four parts but owing to new material I thought worth including it will now be five. This part deals with the crisis facing the new British Transport museums, opened 1961-63, and the almost immediate chain of events that led to the decision to replace them and give the responsibility to another body, authorized by the Transport Act 1968.
In Part 2 the origins of the various British Transport Museums were explained. In short, this envisaged a central British Transport Museum established in London, at Clapham, and regional museums at York, Swindon, Glasgow and (hopefully) elsewhere. This part of the programme was more or less completed between 1962 and 1964. Through no fault of the BTC’s museum staff, the timing was appalling and almost at once the plans and aspirations began to unravel.
The Arrival of British Rail
I imagine everyone reading this will have heard of Dr Beeching. The vast BTC had been unable to control railway finances and had embarked upon a very expensive railway modernization programme that had not gone very well. Confidence was lost and Dr Beeching (an industrialist) was put in charge in the hope that he could put the industry on a sound financial footing. The railway business, in particular, was performing very badly and the government felt it demanded the most drastic action. Even before Beeching had completed his own analysis of the problems, the government decided to break up the BTC and transfer the railways to a new British Railways Board (BRB), with Beeching in charge. Other functional parts of the BTC (like waterways) were transferred to other boards but a problem arose with the various central services that the BTC had established, the museums being one of them and historical archives another.
In its wisdom, the government decided that most of the central services would be wished upon the BRB. To say this was an unwelcome development hardly describes matters. The new BRB, and in particular its chairman, had been put in place to put the railways on a businesslike footing and Beeching was about to explain, in his famous report, how thousands of miles of railway were to be closed to reduce losses. He was not pleased to find that the new board was being saddled with these ‘extra’ costs and responsibilities that harked on about the past, also covered activities that were not railway related and were inherently loss-making. Protests to the minister fell on deaf ears: this was detail and the government actually wasn’t very interested. Nevertheless, the BRB, whilst showing a degree of courtesy to Scholes and his museum staff, maintained an active campaign at the highest levels to rid itself of museums.
The British Railways Board took command of the railways on 1 January 1963, more or less coinciding with the opening of the new British Transport Museums (the main exhibits at Clapham opened after the BRB takeover). At first it was business as usual, with the only obvious change some rebranding of printed material as British Railways. This position was to change.
The British Transport Museums
It should not be thought from anything I set out in Part 2 that the British Transport Museums were perfect, for they were not. Nevertheless, the achievements and shortfalls are worth quickly noting as a prelude to what then happened.
On the plus side a great deal of material was saved for the nation, catalogued, conserved as necessary, displayed where possible in surroundings which (if not ideal) were generally satisfactory in the short term and safe, which had not been the position previously. At the time the museums opened the catalogue ran to about a million objects: the museums were, or could be, a major cultural enterprise. Acquisition continued as more historic material came to light and the railway modernized. In addition it is clear from descriptions of the museums at the time that the education side of the museum function was very active. Appealing very much to my own opinions in the matter the museum maintained publication of the booklets, already noted, that had been produced for its earlier exhibitions at Euston, but had then been adapted as inexpensive stand-alone documents. Indeed, new ones were produced too. The historian and transport journalist Charles E. Lee wrote The Horse Bus as a Vehicle and The Early Motor Bus in 1962 for the Clapham museum and these also remained in print for many years, publication being taken over later by London Transport.
There was not actually a guide book for any of the museums and this was deliberate policy as it was felt that displays would constantly change and it was doubtful if people actually used them as guides. For each museum there was a more general publication which visitors could buy for digestion later, to provide some context for what they had seen and to expand their knowledge. The York and Swindon booklets by Tom Rolt have already been referred to. At Clapham a booklet called Transport Preserved was written for the museum by technical author Bryan Morgan. This well-composed distillation of information canters through the key points of British transport history and gives some background to the museum at Clapham and the challenges it presented. Morgan explained what the museum was hoping to achieve through making the book available (an invitation to visit as well as a keepsake) and he thought the conventional museum guide book was in any case dying, which appears to have been correct.
So far as I can ascertain from photographs and descriptions, the displays were entirely contemporary and represented the practice of the time. The limitations on space have already noted, though it was hoped visibility of the objects had not been compromised. There was some criticism about what was being displayed although I can really only be guided by Jack Simmons’s opinions in his book Transport Museums, where he attempts an objective review of the leading transport museums against a background where pretty much everyone is likely to harbour an opinion based on heaven knows what. Simmons was a noted transport author and historian and some of his observations are noted shortly as each museum is mentioned.
The museums at Swindon and (more particularly) Clapham were established in something of a rush and in adverse circumstances where it was hoped that improvements would be made over time. But we will never know how the museums would have evolved as a learning resource or how conservation practice, acquisition or display policies would have evolved, or more space acquired, or interpretation improved, since virtually from the day they opened whatever hopes and aspirations there might have been were quickly dashed. We must now see why.
The Museum ‘Problem’
Buried in Schedule 6 of the Transport Act 1962 was a requirement for the BRB to set out its policy towards transport relics and records and the government required the production of a preservation policy. This was eventually presented as the British Transport Historical Relics Scheme at the end of 1963, coming into force in June 1965. It required, and received, government blessing and had statutory status. Key points were:
- It committed BR to displaying relics publicly or privately.
- BRB could levy an entry charge, if it felt fit.
- BRB could enter into agreement with others to loan or transfer material to ‘fit and proper persons’.
- BRB could solicit contributions from others to defray costs.
- BRB could dispose of relics by gift or sale where they were not required for preservation.
- No non-main line railway item could be disposed of without first offering it (free) to whichever of the other boards the item related to.
- The BRB’s preservation expenses were to be apportioned amongst the BTC successor boards by agreement (or by the Minister if no agreement can be reached).
One outcome was that London Transport was invited to contribute to the cost of running the museum and £15,000 a year was agreed, representing the approximate proportion of London Transport exhibits. In turn it was decided to establish a small management committee on which London Transport would be represented and this was set up in 1964 to administer the requirements of the BTHR Scheme. The committee comprised the BRB’s controller of public relations (Eric Merrill), who chaired it, John Scholes (curator), and Frank Wilkins (LT Public Relations Officer). Under the BTC, Scholes had been a relatively free agent coming under the ultimate control of the BTC’s publicity department but in the new order he found himself within a year or so working for Merrill as part of the public relations regime; this took a closer interest in the museums owing to the Board’s inclination to be rid of them and the public relations issues that raised.
The publication of the BTHR scheme caused some public alarm given the apparent hostility towards running the museums. The fifth point, noted above, caused particular concern. Buses illustrated in June 1964 was already carrying a headline ‘Museum in Danger’, referring to Clapham. The theme was taken up in the Guardian on 11 August 1964 where the apparent ability to dispose of relics set out in the scheme was becoming a real concern to those interested in transport preservation and there was a suspicion that the scheme was a means of going about it. Ministers soon found themselves answering questions about the future of the museums indicating that the BRB had no plans to close them, but this did not make the concern go away. This worry about the security of the exhibits was a factor in the creation of the Transport Trust in June 1964, as there was no confidence in the government’s continued support for the existing museums. The trust briefly considered how it might set up its own museum. Meanwhile the museums were required to carry on but to attempt to keep costs down.
The problem of funding was becoming very public and in an article in the Guardian on 30 October 1964 the BRB spokesman said that the museums should be financed by the Treasury like other museums. The board was not averse to the existence of the three museums but wanted to avoid the responsibility of running them. The issue of being associated with the past became more acute in 1965 when the British Rail brand was launched and all had to be modern and forward-looking. Regional branding was abolished and, with it, efforts were made to suppress any form of regional identity or association with the former companies. The GWR Museum at Swindon perhaps fared worse than the other two in that respect.
The decrepit face of York
Jack Simmons, in his review of the museum at York during the late 1960s, was fairly positive but singles out track and signalling as falling short. The actual collection of track exhibits he regarded as first rate but ‘they lie about in any order; scarcely any of them are labelled—even in the simplest form—to indicate where they came from’. He continues to describe what his gimlet eye has detected. ‘Displayed like this, to anyone but an expert they form no more than a collection of scrap metal of diverting variety. To put it bluntly, these important exhibits might as well not be here. For they are important’. He carries on explaining just how important the material is before his final flourish: ‘it must regretfully be added that what is done poorly at York is not done at Clapham or Swindon at all’. In contrast he is positively enthused by the museum’s coverage of bridge building about which he says no other museum he has covered has any original exhibits in this field. Signalling is again criticized because of the quality of display rather than its content. ‘Unhappily it is not very well displayed and the description of it is lamentably inadequate’. The poor display he observes is explained because there is ‘simply no room to show these tall and awkward objects satisfactorily. It is none the less unfortunate: for this is a vitally important branch of railway working that receives insufficient attention elsewhere’. He ends his review by praising the museum above all others he has seen in being able to lead the visitor back continuously, stage by stage, over the whole history of railways in Britain to the pre-passenger age where it all began.
Trying to read his mind half a century after the event is perilous, but we might reasonably infer that, despite the shortcomings he draws attention to, he respects the place for succeeding better than some others he had visited in its job of educating visitors about the history of railways, particularly those in the north east. Perversely, it was the museum at York which, of the three, found itself most at risk of closure.
Perhaps the first evidence of the looming transport museum crisis began to emerge during 1964 and 1965 when it became apparent how run down the York museum was. It was already crammed full of exhibits and was not realistically capable of expansion, at least without a great deal of money being spent which, in the prevailing climate, was not possible. The museums committee explored long term options, one possibility being closure and dispersal of exhibits to Clapham and Swindon (neither of which had significant spare space themselves). Such an option would also reduce running costs. Although no definite proposal had been made, the press and public got wind of possible full or part closure towards the end of 1965 and a furore resulted.
The publicity apparently resulted from a ‘leak’ to the Yorkshire Post by Bob Hunter the museum’s curator (whose actual employer was the North Eastern Region). He had seen it as part of his role to make the York museum very much part of the wider York community and was clearly rattled that his professional superiors in London might even be contemplating the possibility of closure (about which he felt he was not being consulted). Merrill was furious with him as the public relations fall out was damaging. In fact what happened was that the extensive small exhibits section closed on 17 December 1966 with part of the collection (I know not how much) moved to the large exhibits building in Queen Street which was slightly enlarged by taking over a former road motor store which had taken up part of the structure previously. Jack Simmons thought this part closure ‘thoroughly deplorable, a grave disservice to one of the major educational museums in the North of England’.
Scholes was desperately unhappy with the proposal to close York and this gave impetus to another option which was to transfer the museum to York City Council. Discussions took place and became quite advanced. On the plus side it dealt with the extensive press criticism about York (in particular) losing a very well-established museum, and the north-east (in general) losing yet another industrial museum, the more significant as the north-east was regarded as the cradle of the railway system. The stumbling block was the potential cost of either providing a more modern building or refurbishing the existing one, both of which were likely to be expensive. Discussions rumbled on until they were overtaken by events. Significantly, the museum at York actually attracted the most visitors of all three museums and in both 1965 and 1966 covered its costs and made a small surplus.
The Challenges of Clapham and Swindon
Meanwhile concern was also becoming apparent about Clapham and Swindon. At the latter it was already obvious that the building was too small. With the decision of British Rail to speed up the withdrawal of steam having been made, subsequent to the museum’s establishment, new material was quickly coming forward for which there was no space. The locomotives King George V and Evening Star were considered suitable for the GWR museum but with no display area they were going to have to be stored. There was no money to remedy the situation.
It was a similar story at Clapham where a small amount of extra space had been found but further expansion was impossible. Although there was certainly no urgency to make change there were some concerns. Firstly it was (now) thought that it was in the ‘wrong’ location, even though one could travel to the museum from Charing Cross in under half an hour, including the short walk from the station. Then the issue of rail access cropped up again. The costs of moving rail vehicles in and out was very high without rail access and this was regarded as more of a problem than had been expected in the late 1950s. One might plausibly argue that once the museum had been set up the need for constant shifting of vehicles in and out should have been minimal, but in practice there were more movements than expected and with so much change on the railways it was felt that in the future there would need to be further changes, and not a diminishing number.
Examples include Metropolitan Railway locomotive No 23 which had been installed in the Museum when it was being set up in 1961 but had to be withdrawn during Spring 1963 for the Metropolitan’s centenary celebrations. It was returned on 11 January 1964. The old Met milk van (which had been used as a tool van) was sent to Clapham the following week, creating further disruption. The arrival of Mallard on 29 February 1964 was very expensive and disruptive, Pickfords using three tractor units to move the heavy loco from Nine Elms on a Saturday night. These moves appear to have caused some consequential moves of the existing locomotives, which must have been very awkward in a relatively full museum.
There are some film rushes HERE showing (in apparently random order) loco 23 being installed and then removed from Clapham (or perhaps the other way around)
In addition, the Clapham building, whilst superb as a bus garage, was more challenging as a museum where temperature and humidity had preferably to be kept within certain limits. If British Rail was to remain in charge then, in the long term, the least worst option appeared to be a larger purpose-built building on a better location and holding the best of the exhibits from the existing three museums.
How did Clapham fare in terms of a public museum? Simmons devotes 24 pages to Clapham, ignoring photographic pages and numerous other references. His critique is probably proportionate to the size of the museum, which was far larger than any of the other transport collections in the country. When he visited, the locomotives at Clapham numbered 16, including the Rocket replica. He describes each but unfortunately passes no comment about their selection. Of the coaches, Simmons noted 13 in the collection of which no less than 5 were LNWR royal saloons: he doesn’t specifically comment on this over-representation of luxury but does say: ‘it is rather a pity that room has not been found here for a vehicle of more normal type dating from the last quarter of the century, to demonstrate how the private traveller was catered for’. He is talking of the nineteenth century but goes on: ‘again, from the twentieth century the Museum lacks ordinary vehicles (apart from a mock-up of sections of British Railways standard stock of 1951)’. He praises the vehicles that are on display though. He also spends time praising the collection of small exhibits that displayed so obviously the huge range of activities with which railways were involved. On the whole his review of the museum is positive, even where he is mildly critical (for example the layout of the locomotives is unordered by date or company because it is the most efficient way of occupying the space). He is complimentary about labelling, noting it had recently improved as some small exhibits had previously escaped the process.
About Swindon he had rather less to say and I have already noted in Part 2 that Simmons rather liked the displays and the building. His description of the galleries is all very positive. Criticism is confined to fairly small points such as querying the need for a model of a particular locomotive to be displayed when the real thing is downstairs. He did note the lack of labelling of the signalling exhibits and appears by this point in his narrative to be getting exasperated: ‘This is an important branch of railway engineering in which, it is only too evident, the staff neither of this museum nor its parent at Clapham has any interest at all’. Simmons draws attention to the prevailing drabness of the town as it then was and how proud it should be to have this new museum.
Ideological Victory for British Rail
The issue of museum funding did not go away with Beeching’s departure in June 1965. His successor was Stanley Raymond (he who had been at Swindon Museum’s opening), who continued to apply pressure either for some kind of financial support or for being relieved of museums altogether. On the face of it, this seemed reasonable but given the goodwill they created (of which they might have created more), and the scale of the railway losses, the determination to get rid of them seems disproportionate. We must remember at this time British Rail also ran the world’s largest hotel chain, one of the world’s largest shipping lines, innumerable golf courses, a mail order wine service, travel agencies in many countries, house removal firms, a parcels delivery service at least the equal of the post office, and so on. In 1966 the net losses of all the museums was £65,000 of which a proportion, arguably, was a necessary cost which if stopped would have to be carried out elsewhere (for example responding to public queries about railway history, facilitating historical film shoots and so on). Moreover the operation of the museums probably had some positive public relations value, or could have done. So the real net cost was probably a little lower and we have to take into account that the warding staff at Clapham were London Transport staff redeployed for medical reasons and their wage costs would continue irrespective of what happened to the museums. On the other hand the reported losses of British Rail in 1966 were £134.7 million, of which the museum losses accounted for less than 0.05%. Whatever the problems that British Rail had, the mounting issue about museums, and the priority it was receiving, seems extraordinarily disproportionate and was creating bad publicity.
The mounting and apparently uncontrollable British Rail losses greatly exercised the new Labour government. Not only was there suspicion that the cut-and-slash policy promoted by Beeching might not reduce costs faster than the diminishing revenue from passengers and goods but many closures were found politically unacceptable. In this climate new policy papers were produced (the first appearing in 1966) which led to a joint review between British Rail and government about future restructuring of the industry. During this process the government began to show some sympathy towards British Rail’s open distaste for having to operate museums and the 1967 paper ‘Railway Policy’, which was based on the review, incorporated the conclusions.
The Government Gets Involved
The Department of Transport was most reluctant to entertain the idea of giving British Rail a specific grant to operate museums, notwithstanding that the British Rail losses were a direct charge upon public funds already (so was London Transport’s contribution of £15,000 as it, too, was in deficit). There was some sympathy with the idea that if the museums were necessary at all then perhaps they might be run by the Department of Education and Science (DES). Although the DES museums were also wholly publicly funded there was a belief that they could run the transport collection more cheaply, reducing the cost to the taxpayer. To give an example of the evidence looked at from which this opinion derived, it was observed that the transport museum warders were members of the National Union of Railwaymen and were paid more than their civil service counterparts in the national museums.
The Ministry of Transport had numerous groups looking at how best to develop future transport policy and although the matter of the museums was utterly trivial in all this a museums steering group was nevertheless established in order to go into all the issues and make recommendations. The group included Scholes and R.H. Lascelles (assistant secretary to British Rail) and Dr David Follett (director of the Science Museum, knighted in 1967). In addition were R.A. Channing (MoT), who acted as secretary, A Flexman (MoT), A.R. Maxwell-Hyslop (DES), Miss K Whalley (Treasury) and R.F. Monger (Public Record Office). An early decision was made to identify whether or not the existing museums served any useful purpose and if so what might be done by way of development. To determine the answer to this, Scholes and Follett were asked on 22 July 1966 to produce a joint report.
In short, their report explains that the collection is of the greatest historical value in terms of technical and social interest. The material on display was imbalanced in not showing very much after 1920, but there was a growing amount of material in store that was later and would partly bring the story up to date. If the whole collection were categorized as ‘must be kept’, ‘worth keeping if possible’ and the balance ‘may be disposed of’, Scholes felt half fell into the first category and a quarter in the second. Follett thought the proportions were more like a third in each category. As to what was actually disposed of the matter rested on how much space there would be, railway exhibits being particularly large and heavy.
In the background was the observation that the Science Museum already housed railway objects but it was immediately recognized the museums were complementary. The Science Museum was concerned with technology and its railway exhibits occupied part (and a relatively small part) of a much greater technical story. The transport museums added intermediate technical detail relating to transport development and also had a much wider social story to tell. This situation should remain, they suggested, though there was no reason not to merge the administration if it would be more efficient.
The aim should be to keep the collection up to date and to put it all on display, they thought. During the unavoidable major upheaval while any change were implemented, a large new storage facility would be required for storage and sorting, and the old Pullman works at Preston Park near Brighton would serve. This was already earmarked for use by the museums department and could probably be released about five years after the task had begun.
Options for the future included bringing all the material together under one roof and, at the other extreme, dispersing the whole of the material. The existing position was in between, as there were three museums with much material dispersed to local museums. Total dispersal was not favoured as educational value would be minimal and practical control of exhibits lost. There was something to be said for keeping all the ‘must be kept’ together and dispersing the balance for which there was not room. The retention of York and Swindon (with their local associations) was recommended ‘if possible’, and discussions with York City Council ought to be pursued.
The disadvantages of Clapham were noted and so was the high value of the land. Because of the difficulties referred to earlier, Follett and Scholes concluded it might be better to close it and move it out of London, given that the Science Museum was about to open its new land transport gallery which included many railway exhibits. The thinking was inconclusive but a museum somewhere cheaper, with good rail connections and attractive to visitors seemed preferable. Follett indicated the DES expected cooperation of the railways board in finding a site and Scholes observed that this undertaking had already been given. Perhaps a disused station would be suitable. Significantly the report ends with a note that the savings to be achieved by combining administration would appear to be quite small, especially in the short term. In the longer term they might be greater if unnecessary duplication were avoided.
Follett noted that the national museums followed the government policy of no entry charge and observed that if the DES took control of the railway museums the matter of entry charges could be troublesome as it would hugely increase the net cost to the exchequer if for policy reasons the charges were dropped (charges were 2/6 at Clapham, 1/- at Swindon and 1/6 at York).
The report from Scholes and Follett was broadly accepted by the joint committee but some new factors now emerged. In particular the Treasury made it known that whatever was done the capital costs would have to be paid entirely from the proceeds of the sale of the existing museums (wildly large figures were bandied about for Clapham but after proper evaluation the expected realization was just over £500,000). Moreover the government officials were extremely reluctant to seek any money from the Treasury and wanted BR to fund whatever was done and reimburse the costs later from the sale of Clapham, thereby carrying the risk. The government museum development programme had been agreed in 1964 and there was no desire to alter it, so there was no funding there. As things stood, the DES had no extra money either. The only way anything was going to happen was to get out of Clapham and for BR to manage the process of finding and preparing a new museum.
The BT records were also discussed and the committee observed that they were valuable but perhaps could be put in one place with some savings. The PRO representative indicated that they were unsuitable for inclusion in the public records and the committee pondered whether if a new building was needed for relics than it might also accommodate the records. If this could not be done then they should be left with BR, probably in the existing office at Porchester Road. The possibility of a grant was mooted, though it was such a small part of the overall deficit it was hardly worth it.
The scale of the challenge was substantial. One might add that there is little evidence to suggest that much deep thought was being applied to the question of what the transport museums were for and how the material might best be displayed. There was no discussion about comparatively small exhibits—by far the majority of exhibits were small—the time was almost entirely spent on how the large and heavy material might be thinned out to match the size of building likely to be affordable at any new location.
The BTC (and subsequently British Rail) had planned to preserve 74 locomotives of which 20 were scheduled and 25 loaned to local museums. Of the remaining 29 locomotives, 13 were at Clapham, 11 at York and 5 at Swindon. York had 9 items of rolling stock and Clapham had 20, together with sections of 7 carriages. 6 more pieces were on loan and 20 items were in store. The Science Museum had eight locomotives (mainly early and quite small, but with two very large exceptions) and an Underground coach. The transport museum totals varied slightly from one year to another against a rapidly changing background.
There were 26 road vehicles at Clapham, mainly buses, trams or railway-associated road vehicles. A further 19 vehicles had already been dispersed (by the end of 1966) and the decision taken to store four more (all LT vehicles). It was proposed to dispose of 12 further vehicles. Various other heavy equipment was already in process of dispersal, including three beam engines to Manchester Museum.
Clapham occupied four-fifths of the total floor area of all the museums. Swindon was leased from the local authority by BRB on a 30-year lease with no break clause. The corporation was paid £3620 annually as a contribution towards running it on behalf of the joint management committee. If a new museum were built not only would there be extra DES costs but the maintenance, undertaken by Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, would create extra costs which would have to be met.
The committee concluded that the issue of possible transfer to the DES ‘was a matter of considerable urgency’, at least in part because of the forthcoming transport bill to deal with reorganizing the railways and the fact that legislation would be required to effect transfer of the museums; the transport bill was scheduled for completing the parliamentary process in the 1968 Session. British Rail had already been asked to look for sites and the hint had been dropped that this might be outside London, might be a disused station or workshop and might be in a scenic area. The priority was to replace Clapham and more thought needed to be given to the future of the other two sites.
The level of priority was not at first evident to the BR Regions and the only practical location volunteered was at Crewe, which was viewed as a very suitable place to have a railway museum even if it failed the test of being ‘scenic’. In the end the following locations were identified for further review. These were:
- East Smithfield Depot (high value site)
- Commercial Road Goods Depot (high value site)
London Midland Region
- Southport MPD (MPD means motive power depot)
- Llandudno Junction MPD
- Stafford MPD
- Nuneaton MPD
- Chester MPD
North Eastern Region
- York MPD (roundhouse and adjoining buildings)
- Ore Carriage Shed
- Tunbridge Wells West station (assuming closed)
- Site at Eastbourne
- Ashford Kimberley Works
- Eastleigh Carriage and Wagon Works
- Annesley MPD (Earmarked for sale to coal board and difficult to get to)
- New Basford Carriage Cleaning Shed (Sale process already in hand)
- Swinton Town Station Site
- Crewe, near Queens Park (poor access)
- Wolverhampton workshops at Stafford Road
- Goods Yard site at Harrow on the Hill (London Transport). Good rail access.
Harrow, or York?
The joint committee went through all these sites and selected two about which detailed studies would be undertaken. These were York and Harrow-on-the-Hill. York was hardly a surprise since this would enable the existing museum to be closed with no awkward local repercussions and of the various places on the list the building appeared suitable, was rail connected for the purpose of the exhibits and had good access for visitors. Harrow-on-the-Hill was selected as the only feasible London site, but one which was also sizeable, had rail access and excellent train service to central London. It would also, of course, accommodate the London exhibits whilst London Transport would not have allowed them to go to York and at that time had not planned to have its own museum.
London Transport was asked for a valuation. We are talking here about prime Middlesex building land near to a station and in an area with high quality public facilities. The valuation was accordingly very high, far higher than the land value of Clapham and York without even including the construction and fitting out. At this point it became clear that if the Treasury held its line about the Clapham proceeds having to meet all costs then it was going to be impossible to locate a new museum anywhere near London irrespective of site quality and longer term benefits. When the review was completed York was the only show in town.
The observation has already been made that all this was done in a tearing rush and none of this activity was in the public domain, though inevitably rumours began to spread. All was revealed in November 1967 when the white paper ‘Railway Policy’ was published. This said it was proposed to transfer responsibility for running a transport museum to the DES and that a new museum would be provided by the BRB out of proceeds of the sale of Clapham and York. It was impossible to provide a purpose built museum from the £517,000 that was thought would be raised by the sales but BRB had offered the York (North) former steam motive power depot and would carry out the conversion work. This arrangement would reduce the annual cost to the exchequer by £15,000 a year assuming entry charges were still levied (it would only be £5000 a year if there was no charge). It was separately proposed to transfer the historical records to the same location where purpose-built accommodation might be provided for a mere £60,000, described as ‘a relatively small sum’ and that it would not matter if this brought the cost over budget. Interestingly it was not stated in whom the records would be vested, except it was not going to be the public record office (later parliamentary debates indicate it was expected to be the DES).
Upon publication of the white paper the predictable outrage erupted (except in York). What happened next, which I call the Battle of York, will be left for the next episode but of course nothing could be done until the transport bill was enacted on 25 October 1968. This had an interesting passage as the bill was very complex and the government was short of time and decided to use that highly controversial tool called the guillotine. As the records and relics matters were dealt with towards the end of the bill the guillotine fell before those sections were reached and they were not debated at all by the House of Commons.
It was therefore in the Lords that vent was given to the several points of controversy. In the matter of shifting the records to York, to keep them with the relics, a number of peers spoke and it was perfectly clear that the government minister was quite unable to give any satisfactory answer to why this fatuous proposal was being made, apparently against advice of people who had some knowledge of the contents (the Master of the Rolls, the Society of Archivists and British Records Association were just some of them). Both Lords Hurcomb and Robertson (former BTC chairmen) knew exactly what they contained and saw no point in the move and extra cost, and no advantage in keeping relics and records together, an entirely new, novel and unasked for initiative. Since ministers in the House feel quite unable to back down no matter how much the facts suggest that they ought to, the matter was let drop but we shall see later that another course was taken.
The decision about York being the proposed location for the replacement museum was given a good airing in the Lords and it became very obvious that not very much effort had been gone to in order to arrive at this profound decision which was getting a lot of people very excited. It was acknowledged that the Science Museum’s new Land Transport Gallery, which contained several interesting locomotives and quite a lot of educational railway material, meant there was going to remain a reliable source of historical and educational railway material in London and this went some way towards mollifying the opposition towards closing Clapham (which had only been fully open five years). The minister (Lord Hughes), during the debate, said eventually (and after much pressure) that that ‘the decision to move to York is not a firm one’. He then indicated that Clapham would remain open until such time that ‘unless and until York is got ready for the move, Clapham will continue to be the Railway Museum’. It is unknown whether he was initially going to volunteer this.
The other matter worth mentioning here is that during the debate on 8 October 1968 in the House of Lords, Lord Hurcomb, uneasy that London would be denuded of transport relics, obtained the following statement from the minister, Lord Hughes:
On the matter of the relics, on which in any case he had not had the same strength of feeling, that he would be completely content [about the move to York] provided it was possible to give an assurance that there would be an adequate number of relics in London for mechanical engineers and for London boys and girls to see. Noble Lords who were present at that meeting will remember that in fact my honourable friend the Minister of State said that such an undertaking could be given, and it is desirable that I should repeat that undertaking here so that it is on the Record.
The undertaking was given in the knowledge that the new Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum had just opened. Indeed the gallery was a very fine gallery and whilst it was there it was hard to argue that London would be left entirely without a transport museum.
In the next blog I shall look very briefly at the Science Museum’s contribution to the preservation of transport items and describe the Battle of York where annoyance about an an apparently arbitrary location for a museum was revisited and matters moved on to the establishment of the National Railway Museum.