Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 4

The Science Museum and The Battle of York

The Science Museum and the national science collection

Before going into the transfer of the British Rail transport collection to the Science Museum, I had better say a few words about the Science Museum’s own involvement with the collection of railway material, which pre-dates the formation of the museum in its current form.


There are of course many collections of scientific interest around the UK but the origins of a national (by which I mean ‘owned by the nation’) science collection came about following the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was held in London’s Hyde Park. Described as the ‘Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations’ it was hoped to showcase the manufacturing and technical ability that Britain and its empire had to offer the world and was heavily supported by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort.

The exhibition generated a substantial cash surplus, which the commissioners responsible for the event directed should be used for educational purposes. This was achieved in part by buying a large quantity of land in the vicinity, on the north side of Cromwell Road, some of which was used to create a new museum of the arts and sciences (which is why the several famous national museums are located here today). Part of the money was used to obtain material to be displayed, some coming from the 1851 exhibition and some from elsewhere. Displays were quickly augmented by material subsequently donated and by loans from other museums or other sources. The new museum became known as the South Kensington Museum. It opened on its present site on the east side of Exhibition Road on 22 June 1857, absorbing the collection of its initial incarnation (known as the Museum of Manufactures) that opened at Marlborough House in 1852 but moved shortly afterwards to Somerset House. The museum focused on the applied arts but from 1867, by direction of the Council on Education, a science collection was slowly built up:

with the view of affording in the best possible manner information and instruction on the immense variety of machinery in use in the manufactures of this country, and by the employment of which the commerce of the nation has been rapidly extended for many years past.

From 1876 the science collection began occupying space on the west side of Exhibition Road, using the southern and western galleries of buildings surrounding the Horticultural Gardens, a move required by the more rapidly expanding arts material on the original site. A separate science director was appointed in 1893 for what was at first known as the Science Division of the museum, itself renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the completion of the present building on the east side of Exhibition Road. The Science Division became a fully independent museum in 1909, when the name ‘Science Museum’ was adopted, the whole of the collection being housed in the rambling range of buildings on the west side of the road (leaving the V&A where it is now on the east side of Exhibition Road). After separation, plans were drawn up for larger and more modern buildings for the Science Museum, not finished until the 1920s and subsequently added to. This created the frontage of the Science Museum as we see it today.

Organizationally the museum was funded by the Board of Education which employed the staff and appointed the director (all of whom were civil servants). The Board was replaced by the Ministry of Education in 1944 and became part of the Department of Education and Science in 1964. It is with this latter department that the issue of the new railway museum became lodged.

This is not the whole story for we have to say something of the Patent Office Museum which was absorbed by the South Kensington Museum in 1883; the objects of which it comprised eventually made their way into the Science Museum collection. The Patent Office Museum was created in 1857 and is important as it included the locomotives Puffing Billy and Rocket, acquired in 1862, and Sans Pareil, two years later. Puffing Billy was built for the Wylam colliery and dates to 1814, making it very important as the earliest surviving railway locomotive in the national collection. The Rocket won the Rainhill locomotive trials in 1829 and brought together most of the important features of locomotive design which allowed steam power to make railways the success they became for the next 100 years or more. The Sans Pareil was by no means an unsuccessful machine although it was beaten by Rocket at Rainhill, and was only retired in 1863. The Agenoria originated in 1828 and after eventual breakdown spent many years deteriorating quietly in a field, to be discovered and privately restored in 1884. After local display, it was presented to the nation later that year and also arrived at South Kensington.

The Railway Collection

By the start of its independent life the new Science Museum already possessed much railway material. It was not all displayed together (or at all). Nevertheless it was, even before the Great War, probably the largest amount of railway material all in one place. In no way did it attempt to portray the railway as a system, for the material was was diluted by many other engineering artefacts and to an extent distributed around the engineering disciplines.

In 1924 the new building at last opened, which enabled a new gallery devoted to the development of the steam engine to be provided. The largest exhibits were stationary engines but a whole display area was devoted to the development of the steam locomotive. The display included Puffing Billy and the Rocket, with other important early machines represented by models. There were also models of very early railway carriages and other vehicles representative of what the locomotives hauled. This was an excellent contribution, but even so, it was still impossible to display all the railway material in one place. In the early 1930s the museum found it expedient to have built for it a replica of Rocket in its original form as the remains of the original machine were incomplete and were so mucked about by successive rebuilds and poor early restoration that it was difficult to understand its important original features. The replica machine was also partly sectioned to see important internal parts. Though this was hardly a large machine, space was so tight that Agenoria was withdrawn to make room, the latter exhibiting less important developments; it was this exchange that allowed the Agenoria to be lent on long term loan to the York Railway Museum in 1936.


One of the railway galleries at the Science Museum (c 1924-36) showing the early locomotives and a large number of models of locomotives or apparatus.

The Science Museum has always had a challenging job portraying scientific progress. Science is generally at its most productive when scientific knowledge is utilized in instruments and machines that have some useful function in people’s lives, if only indirectly. But machines very rarely employ only a single scientific principle and railway technology uses many scientific principles, virtually all shared with many other technologies too. The only technology that is perhaps fairly specific to railways is that affecting the wheel-rail interface, and perhaps some aspects of railway track. I think everything else from electrical systems, steam and diesel engines, mechanical engineering and construction, lighting, civil engineering and so on will be found widely shared with many other industries. A museum catalogue of 1907 observes:

It is not the object of the Collection to attempt, nor is space available, to indicate the present state of the arts in any one particular branch of engineering, but rather to illustrate broadly the steps by which advances have been made up to the present day; to show students and others at the same time the general principles which underlie all its branches and to offer to the engineer suggestions or ideas from other branches of his profession for improvements in the work on which he may be engaged.

The railway collection became quite wide, but its origin in the early locomotives remained obvious. The locomotives were there not because they were representative of railways but because of their importance in the early use and development of high pressure steam engines at the point where they were powerful (and safe) enough to haul themselves and a useful load. That having been achieved, and with railways now released from the confines of animal power and stationary engines, further development of steam engines was not confined to railway locomotives and could better be shown in displays elsewhere. The collection did hold quite a few models of locomotives and railway equipment which supplemented the display as a whole.

A word might be said about railway track in the collection (picking up from the point I made that track and its interface with the wheel is probably the main area of engineering that relates particularly to railways). It is noteworthy that when the curator of this section of the Museum constructed a series of articles for the Railway Magazine in 1910 he placed track before the locomotive. He gave a good description of the museum’s holding, explain the importance of each of the items described and it is clear that he felt that in a railway system the form and arrangement of track is of crucial importance (a view later echoed by Simmons). I don’t know what effort the museum put into deliberately seeking out important track components to illustrate development, but it was fortunate to know the redoubtable Clement Stretton. Stretton was keenly interested in early railway track and from about 1890 obtained and offered to a grateful museum quite a lot of track material and other early items. He also furnished a large display for the Leicester museum which after some years in store made its way to York in 1949, greatly adding to a lot of track material it had already amassed.

During the 1960s a large extension was built at the west end of the building and in here was installed a new gallery devoted to land transport. Included within were motor vehicles of various types and at the far end was a railway section containing (amongst various other things) a number of locomotives, a complete signal box and some working signals, a fully-stocked booking office and an Underground railway tube-stock motor car. The locomotives included our old friends Rocket and Puffing Billy as well as the spectacular GWR locomotive Caerphilly Castle and the rather modern Deltic diesel locomotive prototype (the Science Museum has long been content to display contemporary technology where useful). So far as I know this was the first time the museum had been able to display its railway material in one place as a railway collection rather than divided into its technological areas. This represented a new way of displaying and interpreting the history of technology and hinted at the wider operation of the railway as a complete system.

I loved this gallery and it made a great impression on me during my schooldays, notwithstanding the existence of the Clapham Museum. Of course, the Science Museum was free! Simmons seems to have liked it and applauded the inclusion of the massive Great Western locomotive Caerphilly Castle as representing the pinnacle of achievement of steam traction (the class had a particularly long and successful life). The loco was lent by British Rail and was felt a good choice by most who had an opinion about the gallery. The 1928 tube car, recently withdrawn by London Transport, was a popular exhibit and was intended to show the way electric multiple unit trains operated. It was a good choice as the equipment (above the floor) could be explained and studied and transparent panels were substituted for some of the steel ones to make viewing easier. It contrasted with the City & South London loco that had been in the collection for some years.

This was not just a railway gallery though: it represented all land transport and space was devoted to bicycles, the development of the motor car and other road vehicles and road engineering. There was even a tram. Simmons wondered why we needed to display yet another Glasgow tram (there were quite a few in preservation) but from the technical point of view Glasgow was as good as anywhere else and they were available—you couldn’t just go out and buy your tram of choice from a shop. As a transport museum (or perhaps a transport sub-museum) it did a pretty fair job. From a transport point of view the exclusion of shipping and air was highly artificial. For historical reasons shipping was well represented nearby in the museum, by an interestingly large quantity of models; from a practical and technical point of view this probably justified keeping it quite separate (even though the railways ran ships). A new aeronautical gallery did what was feasible for aeronautics at (appropriately) the top of the building but realistically a central London museum was going to find displaying the technical development of flight challenging in a confined central London building.

Gallery-small copy

The Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum at around the time of opening. The recently-withdrawn steam and diesel locos make in interesting contrast with the much older locomotives.


Another view of the gallery, contrasts apparent.

Though the Land Transport Gallery had much to commend it, I’m not sure it succeeded in drawing attention to the similarities and differences between the transport modes, the advantages of one mode over another or how they were (or might have been) coordinated. But then this is not the job of a technical museum. It was, perhaps, more a job for the one at Clapham, about to be closed and to which we must now return.

The Battle of York

The position in July 1967, when the decision to create a single railway museum in York became public, was that British Rail was told it could be relieved of its museum ‘problem’ if they built a new museum at a cost to be covered by selling the old buildings. This rather constrained the possibilities available and meant conversion of an existing building at a location outside London and probably outside the south-east. The DES (through the Science Museum) would run the new museum once complete. The Science Museum was not greatly bothered by where the new building would be though a popular location with rail access would be helpful. The government departments found themselves landed with having to make a decision about a museum from a small number of options, and in a hurry because of the need to get its Transport Act through. British Rail’s suggestion of York seemed so simple an answer.

So far as I can see, the outcry was unexpected. There will always be some group or other that is convinced almost any government decision is wrong, but the depth of the outcry, one might almost say outrage, caused surprise and as hinted in the last part caused some rapid back-tracking. Ministers conceded that the selection of York had been hurried and the process had lacked rigour and there had been no meaningful consultation. As government only rarely concedes imperfections unless they can be discovered some other way, it must have been obvious there was a real problem. An MP involved in a protest group that included the Transport Trust reported the decision to Sir Edmund Compton, the parliamentary commissioner (or ombudsman), who criticized the DES for maladministration in reaching its decision to break up the Clapham collection and move the material to York. In particular there were questions about how the attendance figures had been used and the way a conference to debate the issue had been arranged in 1968, with very little notice. Though critical, Compton stopped short of saying that the DES case to close Clapham and build a new museum elsewhere was not strong enough.

There was no single campaign to change the decision, nor was it obvious what those who opposed it objected to, as different groups had different concerns. One concern, for example, was that York would not big enough and this required dispersal or disposal of exhibits. British Rail’s assurances were not trusted. Several large items were in store and had never been on view and it was not at all apparent what would happen to them; scrapping seemed at least a possibility. British Rail was clearly disposing of large amounts of old material already, the process of disposing of ‘surplus’ relics having begun at Clapham. Collector’s Corner (a British Rail ‘shop’ for old and redundant material) opened at Euston in 1969 and was very popular and some of the material there was very old and in ‘museum-worthy’ condition—in later years some York records office material found its way here. In October 1968 the Scottish Region was found holding a sale of transport relics at St Enoch station which in August raised £1359 from a wide range of material ranging from clocks to handlamps. In April 1969 the London Midland Region announced it was to sell a number of very old plans, causing outrage in the press. The law allowed disposal of ‘surplus’ relics and records. Whether misplaced or not, the concerns were genuine.

Another major concern to some was that quite arbitrarily York was to be a railway museum. Even the irascible Merrill in making his only plea to the Scholes/Follett review was that whatever replaced Clapham should be a transport museum. Buses Illustrated magazine observed that there had been a great deal of transport material in the British Transport collection that was neither railway nor London Transport material and much had already been dispersed for want of space. There was virtually no representation of road freight transport at all. Together this was (or should have been) a matter of importance and it was not apparent why a rail-only museum was considered so vital, apart, of course, from the constraints of space (a proxy for money). Buses actually felt there was so much transport material that there was enough for four or five regional museums (an idea echoing the initial BTC model).

We then have the location issue at York. Those in York and desperate not to lose the new museum opportunity (which would have meant loss of the old museum too) were not slow to accuse London of being selfish and wanting everything to the exclusion of the provinces and some of what was said got heated. Down south the matter was less confrontational and the issue, as it was usually ventilated, was not that York should not have a railway museum, but that London as the capital City deserved something. There was more than sufficient material for both cities, perhaps even retaining Clapham for smaller material, where movement would not be needed. The feeling might not have been so trenchant had not Clapham only recently been opened—to take all this material 200 miles away, so soon after a new London museum had opened in the first place, was to some unbearable. It appeared that the real constraint was the quite artificial Treasury diktat that sale of the old premises must fund the new. The Treasury was very quiet during this furore.

MPs were concerned and an all-party group was established. There was much argument in the press, notably the Guardian. Lambeth Council (in whose area the Clapham museum was located) was horrified by the loss and was moved to try and find another location in Lambeth. At that time, Lambeth had on its plate the problem was what to do with the recently retired (and huge) locomotive depot at Nine Elms together with the adjacent decaying goods yards, no longer needed as railway goods traffic containerized. Would this not make an eminently fine site for a museum—and it was rail connected? It is doubtful if Lambeth knew that in 1950 the BTC had wanted to put their museum there in the first place! Even the GLC was supportive, but not so supportive they could at then put any money on the table. To have built a brand new museum on the derelict site, even as part of a regeneration project, would have been very expensive and the idea withered —it became the new fruit and vegetable market.

Public interest was such that a Pathe newsreel covering ‘possible’ closure of Clapham was produced, issued in January 1970, and may be seen HERE.

The government, with British Rail, was now obliged to examine a wider range of options, several put forward by outside parties with an opinion. These included St Pancras station, which at about that time was under consideration for closure, astonishing though that may seem to anyone who has been there recently. Long distance trains were to be diverted to Kings Cross or Euston whilst medium and local services would go to Moorgate via what today we would call the Thameslink tunnel. What to do with this vast place was a major problem, the more so as it had been Grade 1 listed in 1967. Some thought it would make a splendid museum and was sufficiently large to enable full-sized track, station and equipment layouts to be installed under its enormous roof. Alas, the building was not yet closed and any closure might be years away. Moreover the conversion and running costs would be enormous, and that makes no allowance for the lost opportunity cost compared with some commercial use. Nor could it be assumed that those who had later to run the museum would be content with such a building on conservation grounds (though I don’t think matters got that far). Although its proponents persisted in their cause, the St Pancras possibility was never really going to fly.

An equally implausible location was Greenwich. Although a very fine town for a museum, and very much on the tourist trail, the desired location was the turbine hall at London Transport’s old power station there (which had been built to serve the London County Council tramways). LT had modernized its electricity supply during the 1960s and built a small peak load and emergency power plant in the old boiler house, leaving the disused (and very big) turbine hall virtually empty. It made (and still makes) an eerie site with its vast concrete plinths lurking in this huge empty space. The location was awful as it was situated in side streets near the river and conversion costs would have been immense even if the property were granted free (it was very difficult to find a use for it which is why half a century later it is still empty).  Nor was it really big enough. That idea went nowhere either.

Greenwich PS 2

The old turbine hall at Greenwich power station. It is hard to gauge scale here but probably the best clues are the staircases and railings. Though a vast empty space, I have estimated this area as about 45,000 sq ft (if all useable), very much smaller than Clapham. Photo: John Liffen

The Transport Trust in conjunction with the Clapham Society and others was energetic in trying to find a London location and felt that the near derelict low level station at Crystal Palace might be suitable; it would by its nature be rail-connected. The services of the civil engineers Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons were obtained for the technical development of the scheme (the company was very supportive of the railway preservation movement). The idea was to divert the through train service from the main station to the Beckenham platforms, thus leaving this very substantial and historic building wholly available for a museum. It had lost its roof but as it was largely in cutting replacement was straightforward. A great deal of work went into this scheme.


This detailed model of the proposed Crystal Palace transport museum is viewed looking roughly north and shows the new roof design with original station entrance. The area in question is now the terminus of the London Overground service.

Throughout all this, there was a suspicion that government was just going through the motions and was doing no more than finding evidence to justify a decision already taken. In March 1970, Mr John Brown, director of Tourism in York, said there was ‘not the slightest doubt that the move to York will take place’. He also mentioned he had been involved in discussion about the possibility of running steam trains between York and Scarborough. Eric Merrill had been wholly dismissive of such a thing and said the matter was ‘not even worth discussing’, in consequence of which the Lord Mayor appealed to Henry Johnson (BR chairman) who said he would send some officials to discuss it. There is other evidence that Merrill was firmly of the view only York would proceed and was making his own plans even before the Transport Act received the Royal Assent.

In June 1970 a new government was formed, this time of a conservative flavour, and Lord Eccles became minister for the arts, discovering (according to the Guardian) that he had found “a very hot potato” on his desk. This change provided hope to those who felt an opportunity had arisen to revisit the decision with a fresh mind but after acquainting himself with the position gave the parliamentary action group and its supporters (and by implication anyone else with a suggestion) until 15 March 1971 to come up with new proposals for a rail connected, costed museum in London, along with ways of bridging the gap between the cost of any new museum and the sale value of the Clapham site. As virtually any scheme in London would leave a large funding gap, the challenge proved impossible.

Lord Eccles announced on 11 May 1971 that BT Museum Clapham would close 12 months hence and the railway exhibits would be transferred to York where a National Railway Museum was going to be established. The government would consult the GLC and Science Museum about arrangements for storing the London exhibits. The Crystal Palace idea had several snags, he explained, including diversion of the BR line through the old (Beckenham line) station which could not be done for four years and would have cost £1m against £500,000 for York (descriptions of this scheme suggest the cost of BR even releasing the site might exceed £650,000).

Sceptics became firmly convinced that the government had at no point been serious about altering its view and those who have been into the matter have found no evidence that during this second round of examining sites for a museum any serious attempt was made to find an alternative to York (the London options were virtually self-excluding because of the Treasury obsession with the scheme being self-funding). With more time to examine a shared cost option, perhaps an alternative could have been found.

The decision was not entirely unexpected and this time the opponents more or less went away quietly. There was no more to be done. The Railway Magazine sounded off intemperately about ‘the north’ congratulating itself about the decision as were those resentful of the Clapham museum outshining the new Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum—a preposterous comment in the sense that they were never in competition and the authorities understood the purposes of the museums were different. The issue about ‘the north’ in some way ‘winning’ is interesting since as far as I can see none of this tortuous process involved consideration of ‘the north’ being a strategic objective. As far as I can see the decision rested almost entirely on Clapham having (it was said) to close, no money being available beyond its sale price, and there being a spare engine shed at York which for entirely practical reasons was considered as an acceptable place to have a museum (and York didn’t want to lose the one it had). It is true that in an earlier speech by Jenny Lee she said that the provinces wanted a share of the arts (in its widest sense) and it was not the exclusive preserve of London, but this was after the decision had been made public the first time around and the uproar started, requiring post hoc justification. It is also true that when museum sites in London were being considered in 1966 there was concern about whether planning permission might be granted owing to decentralization policies, but this was never tested as plans were overtaken by events.

Lord Eccles had much on his plate as the Heath government was determined to drive through the policy of charging for admission to national institutions, causing much annoyance to many of them as they were not consulted. After a great deal of confusion and debate these charges were introduced at the beginning of 1973 but did not last long (the Science Museum under direct departmental control was one of these). Admission charges were later reintroduced, and will be mentioned in due course. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that entry to the NRM would now have to be free as a matter of policy (the case for moving to York was based in part on entry charges being continued).

I should add that the irritation being caused by the needless proposal to co-locate the British Transport Historical Records at York did eventually penetrate the government mind and announced by Eccles at the same time as the York museum decision was that the records would be retained at Porchester Road and eventually transferred to the Public Record Office. This was probably because it would be a tad cheaper, but it was regarded at least as a partial victory. PRO control began quite quickly but it was some years before they were moved to the new building at Kew and in 1984 the whole lot were formally designated as public records, giving them a level of protection they had never had before.

The fate of Swindon

In all this worry about Clapham and York the issue of Swindon was resolved and needs a mention. The Science Museum was consistent in its view that it did not want to get involved with running the museum at Swindon. It was already perfectly obvious that the building was too small, especially with the influx of new material coming forth as British Rail modernized. British Rail would not finance any improvement, given it was trying so hard to disengage from museums, yet Swindon Borough Council felt unable to provide any capital for enlargement.

Following the suggestion in 1967 that the museum be transferred to Swindon Borough Council (and with other possibilities discounted), British Rail began discussions with the council during 1969. The problem was that British Rail had a 30-year lease from the Council, guaranteeing a rental income to the latter, and the council wanted neither to lose this nor be saddled with the cost of making improvements. Clearly this was a position that could be solved only by British Rail buying itself out of the agreement. These tedious discussions dragged on for three years and it was not until 1972 that agreement was reached. By this agreement British Rail was absolved of any responsibility for running the building which reverted to Swindon Borough Council to operate and develop as it pleased.

The Science Museum became involved in these discussions as the question arose about the future of the objects in the museum, which were then owned by British Rail. Follett’s view was that while they had a regional bias they were an important contribution to British railway history and should remain in what, by now, was being referred to as the national collection. He was perfectly happy for them to remain at Swindon permanently on a loan basis but in due course ownership of the British Rail objects should transfer to the DES and their safety and security should by administered from the NRM at York, like all the other items in the national railway collection. This is indeed what happened and arrangements were made for occasional transfers of suitable material between the museums, particularly suitable locomotives. Since the transfer of control, Swindon, not unnaturally, obtained new material on its own account through purchase, donations, bequests and so on and these were owned by the Swindon authorities and are nothing to do with the NRM. I don’t know what practical complication this creates but the arrangement seems to have endured for over forty years and I understand there is a good relationship between the museums. The town of Swindon was absorbed in 1974 by a new local authority with the unloved name of ‘Thamesdown District Council’, to whom the museum devolved. The name appeared everywhere, virtually eliminating the official use of the name Swindon, but nobody outside knew where Thamesdown was. Swindon managed to extract itself from this aberration on 1 April 1997 and became a unitary authority entirely accountable for its own destiny and one of the first measures it took was to restore the name Swindon, from 24 April. Swindon wanted to proclaim its heritage.

More importantly Swindon Railway Works had closed in 1986 and a major development of the historic site was wanted. As part of this, the opportunity arose for an enlarged railway museum within the new development using  some of the Grade II listed disused workshop buildings, the earliest part dating to 1846. The new Museum (called Steam) opened in June 2001, superseding the old museum building which closed in 1999. A great deal larger than the old building it enables some rather more interesting displays to be offered. Notwithstanding the number of new acquisitions made, more than half of the objects in the museum are still part of the national collection. The museum makes an entry charge.

Getting the National Railway Museum Completed

The basic structure to comprise the new museum was the surviving part of the old York North engine maintenance facility, consisting of Nos 3 and 4 sheds (the other two being demolished in 1957/8 and replaced by a straight shed subsequently comprising the diesel depot). The site dates to 1875 when the NER built sheds on the site to hold 60 locomotives, three being erected at that time. A fourth shed (No 4) was added in 1915 after which both Nos 3 and 4 had 60ft electrically driven electric turntables. One of these was subsequently replaced by a 70ft machine. When the first two sheds were demolished in the 1950s the two remaining sheds were remodelled and a new roof was built, more or less converting the space into a single building with two turntables, each with tracks radiating off them.


York North shed shortly before building work began to convert the building into the National Railway Museum.  Image Roger Cornfoot and used subject to Creative Commons Licence (Geograph)

After detailed planning work was completed a contract was let in 1972 for the conversion of the building into a museum. The total area for display at York was 83,625 sq ft though 6675 sq ft comprised turntable space, so perhaps only about 78,000 sq ft of the area was ‘useful’. The contract price was  £984,000 and when one contemplates that this did not include any notional cost for transfer of the land, the move and arrangement of the exhibits and (probably) some final tailoring to the needs of the new staff we can safely estimate the whole cost exceeded £1 million. This was far more than the expected sale value of the Clapham site and demolished at a stroke the credibility of any meaningful business case for moving from Clapham, though, as we shall see, worse was to follow. By the way, Clapham was sold back to London Transport in 1976 as a bus store (and later a bus garage, the use it had before becoming a museum). It would not seem that BR was remunerated by any redevelopment premium. Although the sale to LT brought in £750,000, if one allows for the rampant inflation at that time the equivalent value in 1971, when the business case was being constructed, was only around £350,000, which was vastly below expectations being claimed at the time. It is doubtful that disposal or reuse of the land at Queen Street (York) made much of a contribution. One can see that the transfer of the principal museum from Clapham to York was actually very costly and hardly represents the ‘savings’ alleged to have justify the move.

Work began on the new York site early in 1973. The main activity was the complete renovation of the old shed and adaptation for its new role as the main public display area. In addition it was necessary to construct some new buildings at one side of the depot to provide an entrance hall with street access, refreshment room, offices, shop and a small exhibits gallery. In March it was announced that the British Transport Museum at Clapham would close to the public on 31 December 1973 to allow plenty of time for the material to be prepared for safe transmission to York or to be removed as part of the dispersal programme (creating more space within which the large objects could be moved around). In the meantime Sir David (as he now was) Follett was succeeded on 11 January by Margaret Weston as the director of the Science Museum. During the various interviews that inevitably accompanied such handovers in those days, Follett spoke approvingly of the 1000ft of track, the two turntables and rail access that would allow the large exhibits to be changed around, making it a ‘living’ museum. It was hoped that the building would be handed over for installation of the museum in July the following year. It was also a good sign that visitor numbers to the existing railway museum at York during 1972 had hit 215,000 which would be a good base upon which the new museum could build (the much larger Clapham museum attracted only 130,000). Intriguingly Follett also referred to the ongoing possibility that the museum’s steam locomotives might be used to haul trains along the Scarborough line (and despite Merrill’s earlier opinions, some trains did).


One of the locos being withdrawn from the old museum at York on temporary tracks connected to the main line south of York station.


The easiest way of moving material from the old museum at York to the new one  was by rail through the station. Here we see Aerolite being shifted early in 1975.


A more interesting transfer occurred on 12 April 1975 when this unusual train passed along the Midland main line. Exhibits were being moved from Clapham to York. Those that were capable of moving on their own wheels did so whilst others were on well wagons. [Photo David Eatwell]

In July 1974 the Science Museum sought a keeper to run the new museum at York and in September Dr John A Coiley was formally appointed Keeper of National Railway Museum, though based in London until such time as the new offices in York could be used. He had previously been an assistant keeper at the Science Museum having joined only in January 1973 and was by profession a metallurgist. The main hall was not in fact ready for handing over the SM’s fit-out team until 31 October 1974. At this ceremony Margaret Weston graciously accepted responsibility for the building and its subsequent fitout from the British Rail, who supplied (of all people) Eric Merrill, who must have felt more than satisfied that he was at last getting shot of this unwanted responsibility.


One should not underestimate the challenge facing Coiley and his team for the opening date had already been set by the time he entered his post, and he had just eleven months to turn this shell into a public museum. An opening on 27 September 1975 had been selected as coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, for which the local celebrations were to be coordinated with the museum’s opening celebrations. Coiley had to finish a job where the building (over which he had no say in the design) was handed over late and where the exhibits (which were mainly not his or of his choosing) had to be moved, made fit for and arranged for display substantially to a plan he had also not hitherto had any say in. Even so, the job was done!

The opening ceremony was conducted by HRH Duke of Edinburgh but from BRB’s point of view by far the most important moment was that of the formal handover by its chairman, Richard Marsh, to Mr Hugh Jenkins, the latest Minister for the Arts, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Marsh made an amusing speech in which he explained his delight at handing over ‘this excellent museum’ to the DES, ‘who will now have the pleasure of paying for its upkeep’, rather than the BRB. Dr John Coiley graciously acted as host for the event.

The royal ceremony was attended by a large party from London brought up by special train, the prototype HST set being made available for the occasion. I was part of that party and all went well until an engine fire in the rear power car brought us to a halt in the middle of nowhere in particular. We got going again before some braking problem caused another delay. Fortunately we were able to proceed using only the front power car and limped into York 50-minutes late and only just before the ceremony was due to start; I recall we were ushered into the museum with great vigour. All was well. HRH had come by royal train which had run in front of us, so he was on time. HRH was also a guest at the Stockton & Darlington event, so after lunch with the Lord Mayor of York he went off to Eaglescliffe for a banquet (we assume he has a good appetite). For this trip BR conveyed him by our now-repaired HST set which behaved itself. It later collected home-going guests from York to London again where it managed to lose 40-minutes causing havoc on the East Coast main line. All in a good cause!

Museum Layout and Subsequent Development

The arrangement of the museum when it opened will not be apparent to anyone visiting today (42 years after the event) so a map might be helpful.

Old-Maps - the online repository of historic maps - Map 459500 4

This plan clearly indicates the boundary between the former Nos 3 and 4 sheds (marked Railway Museum, No 4 shed having been the block at the north end) and the reconstructed depot retained by British Rail on the right (on the site of the old Nos 1 and 2 sheds). The original museum entrance off Leeman Road is at north end of museum.

The most important point to note is that the museum did not then include the space occupied by the BR-retained diesel depot and that some new construction had been erected in the area around the entrance, forming (amongst other things) the administration and service block that is seen here as the protrusion of the main hall running parallel with Leeman Road immediately south of the entrance. It also included a workshop.

In his first guide book to the museum Coiley was complimentary of the British Rail architects who he thought had skilfully retained much of the atmosphere of the old steam engine shed … while conveying a light and spacious feeling to the main exhibition hall.


This (not brilliant) image gives good impression of the main hall shortly after it opened and it still really looks like an engine shed. More recently this ‘atmosphere’ has somewhat been lost.

Since that happy day the museum has grown somewhat. Unfortunately the concrete roof of the main display area (the former motive power depot) was found to need replacement in the late 1980s, notwithstanding that it was not all that old. This was a hugely expensive blow to the overall Science Museum budget (notwithstanding some extra government assistance) and had not been foreseen. It meant temporary closure of the NRM exhibition hall as it was impossible to contemplate doing anything with this massive roof while the building was occupied. It raises yet another question about the selection of the building by British Rail in the first place, since the extra money spend on commissioning it, and expensive subsequent works, would (with hindsight) have probably paid for a completely purpose-built facility or even covered the costs of the Crystal Palace proposal.

Fortunately the covered goods depot on the other side of Leeman Road had been vacated and the museum had obtained possession, using it as a store. This is the building marked ‘Transit Shed’ on the map above. It was sufficiently large to use as a reduced temporary museum while the main work was carried out between 1989 and 1991 and was retained afterwards as extra gallery space. It is today know as the Station Hall as the goods loading platforms have been adapted to make it look more like a station. A temporary entrance was necessary for its use as the museum building and this was subsequently retained, becoming the main, or ‘City’ entrance. The old transit shed was not itself large enough to house the displaced objects and to make the best of the crisis the NRM acquired space in the now empty works at Swindon to create ‘The Great Railway Show’, which I suppose in modern language might be called a pop-up museum. It was reasonably successful in making the best of the situation but moving all this material to Swindon, and back, was a huge distraction and expense. The Science Museum contributed Puffing Billy for the duration.

The work on the main building was completed in 1992 and it reopened on 16 April. It was linked to the south building and new entrance by an internal subway under Leeman Road. An important change to the layout happened at the same time involving removal of the 60ft turntable at the west end and the laying in of some straight track instead. This allowed more efficient use of space and resulted in several rail exhibits having now to be arranged on short sections of display track and less easy to move than before.

York diesel depot closed in January 1982. At some point it became a museum store but following the refurbishment required by the new roof it was convenient to reconstruct this block to form extra gallery space upstairs and a modern new heavy duty workshop and conservation facility whilst at the same reconstructing the 27,000 sq ft store so that about 7500 items could be viewed by the public. This all opened in July 1999 vastly increasing access to the collection and increasing the museum’s ability to engage in rolling stock repair and overhaul. In 2012 further improvements were made to the museum including a much-improved museum entrance that replaced the ‘City’ entrance that had not been intended to be permanent. A more detailed description of what is presently on site will be given in the next part.

Government policy towards whether national museums ought to be able to charge an admission fee has been inconsistent. The Science Museum was required to make a charge during 1973/4 but after policy change these were removed; in consequence the National Railway Museum was also free when opened in 1975. Later policy changes resulted in fees again being introduced at national museums, the Science Museum introducing charges in 1988 (including the NRM) and this hugely depressed numbers visiting. Another change of policy saw a promise to remove them being made in 1999 but this had to be done in stages because (of all things) VAT laws had to be amended and charges for ordinary visitors were withdrawn only from 1st December 2001. I have not bothered to track how the charges varied but the NRM entry charge in 1999 was £6.50. Corrected to today’s prices this would be about £10.50. Just to give a flavour, the three shilling charge being made at Clapham around 1970 would be of the order of £2.50. Today, Steam at Swindon charges £8.90. Make of this what you will, but in the four years after fees were withdrawn at York, the footfall doubled.

The initial display

Before signing off from this episode, I just need to say something about the original displays. The design of the building, dominated by its two turntables, meant that there was curiously little latitude about how material could be displayed. Basically anything on rails had to be on one of the 44 stub roads springing from one or other of the turntables. Even this was fraught with complication as these stub roads were of  widely varying length and the larger vehicles would not fit on the shorter roads. This precluded some of the more logical layouts that might have been considered. Most vehicles faced towards the turntables (which I will comment on next time), with locos surrounding one turntable and miscellaneous rolling stock the other. Although an early brochure described exactly how the locomotives were deployed, Dr Coiley explained that it was impossible to display many of the total collection and that those on display would be rotated (in both senses of the word) with those in reserve or lent elsewhere. The museum soon overcame the ongoing presentational challenge by merely listing its holdings without committing itself to where they might be found, or whether they were in the museum at all. With so many objects and so little space, he could do nothing else. The combined useful area of Clapham and the old museum at York was virtually 100,000 sq ft whilst at the NRM the useable floor area I estimate (as noted earlier) at 78,000 sq foot and despite the earlier culling of locomotives more had since been acquired.

Some small material, selected from the vast stock accumulated by the BTC, was displayed along a first floor gallery and from descriptions at the time probably did more to explain railway history than the rolling stock downstairs.


This (above) represents the arrangement of the 44 stub roads for the rolling stock and locomotives but the plan also shows the locations of the various other displays, rather at the back of things. The actual material is given on the chart below.



This part has sought to describe the fall from grace of the BTC Museums, the government’s involvement and the tortuous process by which the decision was made to establish a National Railway Museum at York, partly, at least, because it appeared to be the cheapest way of dealing with what had become ‘a problem’. That it cost vastly more than the sale price of the former museum sites and required subsequent expensive remedial work, all wholly at the public expense, is regrettable given that there was no great urgency apparent! Nevertheless, once the decision was made, great effort was put into making the best of it and when the NRM opened it was very favourably received. Moreover the collections policy (the museum could demand redundant material from British Rail) was very active, perhaps too active in some areas, and important material was recovered for posterity.

In London, meanwhile, the Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum was closed at 6pm on Sunday 30 June 1996. Many who knew it missed it and transport, a major contribution to Britain’s industrial history, no longer gets the prominence it had enjoyed. Many objects went to York, some were stored and (to the great surprise of at least a few) some material was disposed of to outside organizations. I dare say it could be argued that the technologies are still on show in that museum, just not as applied to railways, buses, trams and so on. Whether anyone remembered the ministerial promise made in 1968—well, who can say.

Of course, there is the London Transport Museum, an unintended consequence of closing Clapham. Quite understandably London Transport did not want its exhibits to leave London. This tale is for another day, but for our purposes this eventually led to the establishment of a London Transport museum at Covent Garden, opened in 1980 and still with us. Presumably it was also a further public sector cost resulting directly from closing Clapham. I am by no means averse to these museums being built and run at public expense (quite the opposite!) but the more I look into the background to the NRM, the more nonsensical the original financial case for dismembering the BTC transport museums appears to be. Perhaps a kinder word is ‘naive’.

In the next part I will review the museum as it is today when I had a good nose around in summer. I hope to be able to make some observations about how the museum has developed over the last forty years and whether (and if so how) it has sought to overcome the early constraints placed upon it. I will also have some objective observations about the extent to which it succeeds in its mission, and subjective thoughts about alternative approaches.









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
This entry was posted in British Transport, Heritage Transport, London general interest, Main Line Rail, Our Government, Road Transport and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 4

  1. Jim Adlam says:

    Thanks for a fascinating series of articles. I don’t know York very well but I very much mourn the loss of the Land Transport Gallery at the Science Museum, where I spent many happy hours as a child in the 1970s and 1980s.


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