British Engineerium Closes - Collection To Be Auctioned

By Richard Moss | 21 April 2006
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a photograph of a large steam stationary steam engine

The Museum boasts a rare, working beam engine © Trustees of The British Engineerium

The man who built up the British Engineerium in Hove, with four friends and an initial £350 in capital, has described their own decision to close and sell off its collection of steam engines, engineering artefacts and buildings as ‘intellectual madness’.

After 32 years of surviving without public funding, the museum will not be re-opening for the spring of 2006 following its customary winter break. Bonhams will auction its important collection of models, machinery and engines on site on May 10 2006.

Much of the success of the Engineerium, which is the only technical museum in the Brighton and Hove area, was down to the tenacity and single-mindedness of its creator Jonathan Minns, who originally came up with the idea of transforming the old pumping station in Hove into a steam museum.

“I started the museum in a derelict building. I had £350 working capital,” Jonathan told the 24 Hour Museum. “In those days four of you could come in here, take a beam engine apart, restore it and nobody would stop you.”

“But since that time we haven't managed to raise any extra public funding. I would always have thought that a museum of this sort would attract funding, but of course it hasn’t.”

“I think it’s intellectual madness,” added Mr Minns. “I think it’s a microcosmic view of what this country thinks of its industrial heritage. If it had been about art I dare say it would have been a different matter.”

a photograph of an old model steam engine

The Bonham's auction features many treasures including this model made by George Stephenson © trustees of The British Engineerium

The museum boasts a remarkable collection, including a massive beam engine, marine engines, locomotives and industrial machines dating back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The collection has been described by Bonhams as “quite simply the most important of its kind ever to come to auction”.

Items up for grabs include a model made by George Stephenson of his pioneering steam engine ‘Locomotive No. 1’, together with larger items like a traction engine, motorcycles and an early fire engine.

Like many industrial and working museums, the Engineerium has relied on the good work of volunteers and enthusiasts to keep things going, but many of them are now beyond retirement age. “The average age on site is 63, with over a hundred years of service between them,” explained Jonathan, who has suffered ill health in recent years - he had four heart attacks in 2002.

Beyond the aging workforce, the listed building requires £500,000 spending on running repairs, whilst the cost of repairing recent damage through vandalism is put at around £10,000.

The Engineerium is home to the last original working boilerhouse in the world, comprising magnificent Lancashire boilers as well as a restored 16-tonne Corliss steam engine, the centrepiece of the museum’s main hall. An Easton and Anderson beam engine fills Number 2 Engine House.

a photograph of a steam traction engine

Marshall Traction Engine © Trustees of The British Engineerium

A workshop facility at the museum houses a team of skilled technicians who have built up a worldwide reputation for the quality of their work on mechanical artefacts. This team were responsible for restoration work on everything from the nearby Patcham windmill to steam engines from France and Austria. A recent venture saw Engineerium experts work on a major sculptural project in Singapore.

“Keeping going here was all about guts. Whatever we’ve been involved in has been exciting work and also a vehicle for training people in heritage restoration,” explained Jonathan. “I think we’ve tried our very best and our hunger has caused many other projects get off the ground. For instance the National Trust Property Craggside; which we identified as being important, restored and raised money for.”

Income from this work has effectively bankrolled the museum for the last 20 years – the last major lottery bid from the museum happened to fall on the table the same time as bids from Brighton West Pier and Brighton Museum, both of which were awarded grants. “I think the lottery guys effectively said, 'that’s it, we’ve done Brighton now,’ and this in an area where there is no technical museum,” added Jonathan.

As well as the workshop, an education programme at the museum revolving around a permanent exhibition - The Giant's Toolbox - offered local children an opportunity to discover for themselves what levers, gears, cylinders and pistons can be made to do.

Further funding streams came through public hire events, but even these says Jonathan, were unable to reduce the burden of debt. The last public event at the Engineerium will be a vintage motorcycle rally, after which the on-site auction will possibly see the great collection dismantled and dispersed – unless someone comes along with the intention of buying the whole lot as a going concern.

a photograph of a stationary steam engine

The 16-tonne Curliss Steam Engine. © Trustees of The British Engineerium

“Personally it's horrible,” said Jonathan. “The idea of selling it all is a complete nonsense. But I don’t matter, what matters is the trust and the project as a whole, which still has bags of potential.”

“One man has made an offer for the site and the correct sum for the collection,” added Jonathan, who also explained that it’s now sadly too late to cancel the auction and come to private sale arrangements. “Two people rang today professing an interest, so there are people out there, so who knows.”

The British Engineerium Collection Sale could well prove to be the last of its kind. Whichever way it goes, it promises to be a memorable end. For those involved in it over the last 32 years, it will probably be a poignant one as well.

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