LEICESTER’S LOST MUSEUM
The idea of a major museum in Leicester housing locomotives from the National Collection isn’t a new one. RICHARD FOSTER delves into the archives to rediscover what might have been a major preservation outpost.
Richard Foster explores the history of Leicester’s forgotten railway museum
Drive into Leicester from the south on the A6 and just as you pass the brown tourist sign that welcomes you to this historic city, you’ll pass a handsome brick shed. It nestles incongruously between a Shell filling station and 1930s detached houses, partially hidden behind a brick outbuilding and black wrought iron railings. It’s clearly Victorian in origin, despite its modern steel roller shutter doors. This is Britain’s forgotten railway museum. Do you ever get the feeling that some things are just not meant to happen? When the Heritage Lottery Fund pulled £9.5 million of funding from the Great Central Railway/Leicester City Council’s multimillion pound museum at Leicester North, it obviously put the project in doubt (SR475). More than that, however, it put a dent in a dream that’s been over 50 years in the making, a dream that now seems many more years away from becoming a reality. It’s probably fair to say that there was a certain amount of criticism flying around when the plan to build a new museum at Leicester North was unveiled. It was backed by the National Railway Museum and, with space for up to 15 locomotives, some corners of the preservation movement automatically assumed that 15 National Collection locomotives would move to Leicester, leaving huge holes at York and Shildon. This feeling was not helped as it became clear that ever-popular LNER ‘V2’ 2-6-2 No. 4771 Green Arrow would become one of the museum’s star attractions. The problem with this way of thinking was that, if history had taken a different path, Green Arrow should have been already on display in Leicester, a cosseted static exhibit for the last half a century. It was only a lack of available space that meant that Green Arrow moved to Norwich, and a return to steam. The story starts when the British Transport Commission, under the chairmanship of preservation-conscious Lord Hurcomb, appointed John Hornby Scholes as its Curator of Historical Relics in 1951. Scholes, previously curator of York’s Castle Museum, had no previous experience in railway preservation, but he worked tirelessly to save as much as possible. It was a thankless task and he fought an uphill battle, losing several important potential exhibits, but by the early 1960s Mr Scholes was responsible for 65 locomotives, from Stockton & Darlington Railway Locomotion to BR’s final steam engine, ‘9F’ No. 92220 Evening Star. It was a diverse collection and it needed a permanent home. But a national railway museum was still just a pipe dream at this point. A short-term stopgap solution was the Museum of British Transport in London, complemented by a number of regional museums. The old LNER museum in York was one. This was joined by the Great Western Museum in Swindon and Glasgow’s Transport Museum.
Leicester was to join this list. The city was to build a Museum of Technology, to celebrate the technical innovations from the East Midlands. Railway technology was a key part of the story that the new museum wanted to tell. Unlike Swindon, which celebrated the work of just the Great Western Railway, Leicester’s Museum of Technology would reflect the two railways that dominated the city – the LMS and the LNER and their antecedents – as well as the area’s locomotive-building industry. York, Clapham, Swindon and Glasgow displayed Victorian and Edwardian elegance. In those four museums, only two locomotives on display were built after the Grouping – LNER ‘A4’ Mallard and GWR ‘94XX’ No. 9400. And aside from one or two notable exceptions, including GWR ‘Dean Goods’ No. 2516 and Stockton & Darlington ‘1001’ 0-6-0 No. 1275, all the tender engines on display were passenger designs. Leicester Museum of Technology wanted to right some of those wrongs. Tucked away inside the Leicester Midland shed (15C, later 15A) were GCR ‘8K’ (LNER ‘O4’) 2-8-0 No. 63601 and LNWR ‘G2a’ 0-8-0 No. 49395, later joined by pioneer LMS ‘4F’ No. 44027 and restored LNER ‘V2’ 2-6-2 No. 4771 Green Arrow. In a foreshadowing of events that would take place nearly 50 years later, Leicester’s Museum of Technology never got off the ground. Today’s Leicester now boasts the National Space Centre and Abbey Pumping Station, both dedicated to science and industry. But the only city museum with any railway exhibits of any note was Snibston Discovery Centre, which closed in 2016. Nos. 63601, 44027, 4771 and 49395 were never displayed together. The ‘O4’ went to Dinting Railway Centre, whereas the ‘4F’ went to the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley in 1975. Green Arrow was despatched to Norwich, where, under the care of Bill Harvey and the Norfolk Railway Society, it was restored to steam. The ‘Super D’ led a peripatetic existence around the West Midlands until its overhaul finally started at the National Railway Museum in the 1990s. But Leicester did get a railway museum of sorts. It just wasn’t the grand affair that the city council had envisaged. That little shed by the A6 was built by Leicester Corporation Tramways for its new electrified tram network in 1904. Stoneygate Tram Depot could house six tram cars, three on each road. LCT decided to expand its Central Depot in Humberstone Gate, which left Stoneygate and the other district depot at Narborough Road redundant. It closed as a tram depot in 1922 and would be leased by a number of businesses until the mid-1960s.
SEEDS OF A PLAN
The exact origins of the plans to create a railway museum in Leicester have been lost in the mists of time. However, the minutes of Leicester’s Museums, Libraries & Publicity Committee meeting on September 15 1967 reveal that, as far back as November 5 1965, two Victorian Midland Railway locomotives were being eyed up for display in the city. Intriguingly, Stoneygate depot, at that time, was “filled with other specimens, including 22 restored vehicles which are now ready for exhibition”. What those ‘specimens’ were was not recorded but the minutes later state that “garage premises” at “23A Oxford Street are available at a rental of £900 per annum”. Things moved fast between December 15 1967, when Leicester Town Council Planning approved the change of use to Stoneygate Tram Depot, and February 16 1968, when the track was laid – which BR had graciously placed on ‘indefinite loan’. A few weeks later the first exhibits had arrived. Minutes dated April 19 1968 confirmed the new name: Leicester Railway Museum. It also confirmed opening times: every Saturday, Sunday, two weekday afternoons (unspecified), school holidays and “other days in the week be left to the discretion of the Director”. Adults would pay two shillings to inspect the four locomotives and other exhibits; children would pay only one shilling. Did many enthusiasts pay any attention when Leicester Railway Museum opened on July 27 1968? BR steam had just weeks to live and enthusiasts’ attentions were focused on ‘Black Fives’ and ‘8Fs’ eking out their last days. How many would take time out from that to see four ‘stuffed and mounted’ exhibits in a small museum, even if it was famous engineer Ron Jarvis who cut the ribbon? And what of those exhibits?
Visitors to Leicester Railway Museum were greeted by the sight of two Midland Railway masterpieces. On the left was Kirtley 2-4-0 No. 158A. Built in 1866, this locomotive should not have survived. William Stanier had ordered a cull of the old locomotives stored in Derby Works and pioneer ‘156’ 2-4-0 – No. 156 – was scrapped. Pressure from the Stephenson Locomotive Society forced the BTC’s hand and it saved No. 158A for posterity instead, despite the fact that it sported a later boiler, which had been the kiss of death for some preserved locomotives (such as Ben Alder). Midland Railway ‘Spinner’ No. 118, better known today by its later MR number of 673, to the right of No. 158A, was one of the four engines that Stanier ordered to be scrapped. It somehow survived and both it and No. 158A had spent much of the 1950s and early 1960s in store at Derby Works, being occasionally brought out for special events. No. 118 had moved into Stoneygate on February 28 1968. Leicester Railway Museum was not the planned Museum of Technology, but it followed the same ethos and wanted to tell the story of local locomotive building. Brush Traction in Loughborough, best known in railway circles for building Class 31 and 47 diesel-electrics, emerged in 1889 as the Brush Electrical Engineering Company. It specialised in tramcar equipment but it also built steam engines. One exhibit, 0-4-0ST No. 921, was a Brush product. It was ordered by Powlesland & Mason. This was not a railway company as such, but provided locomotives and crews to shunt Swansea docks. Absorbed by the GWR and ‘Swindonised’, it was withdrawn in 1928 and spent the next 35 years slogging away in industry, firstly at a sugar beet factory and then at an oil refinery in Kent. Donated for preservation, it was displayed behind No. 118.
Tucked in behind No. 158A was North Eastern Railway steeplecab electric No. 1. Although built by British Thomson Houston, BTH had sub-contracted electrical and mechanical components to Brush, which made the Edwardian electric a prime candidate for display in the LRM.
DESTINED FOR OBSCURITY
Maybe it was the size, maybe it’s because it was only supposed to be a stopgap, or perhaps it’s because it opened in a year when attention was diverted elsewhere – whatever the reason, the Leicester Railway Museum has slipped from the preservation movement’s collective consciousness. It was rarely photographed and yet it remained open for seven years. 1975 was a momentous year for railway preservation, for in September the National Railway Museum opened. There was now no need for Scholes’ regional museums – in theory at least – and so Leicester Railway Museum closed on April 1. In reality, of course, the NRM only had space for locomotives that had been in York and Clapham museums. Nos. 118 and 158A moved to the Midland Railway Centre, which was backed by Derby Council, in June 1975. No. 921 remained in Leicester, going to Abbey Pumping Station Museum. It was somewhat fitting, given the fact that Stoneygate depot was built for electric trams, that the last locomotive to remain in store there was NER No. 1. The Bo-Bo electric finally departed for York on September 16 1975 and a small chapter in British railway preservation history was closed. But what of Stoneygate tram depot today? Leicester Transport Heritage Trust is a registered charity with the aim of preserving – as its name suggests – Leicester’s transport history. Not only does it have a large archive of material but it also owns 13 historic and historically relevant buses, as well as a 1956 Ford 300E van and a 1959 Kirby & West electric milk float. Mike Greenwood, LTHT’s director of archives and research, explains more: “The trust leased Stoneygate Tram Depot from Leicester City Council in 2013,” he says, “and is currently in the process of submitting a grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund so that this rare example of an Edwardian district tram depot can be transformed into an exciting transport-related attraction. “An integral part of the funding application will be the restoration of a traditional Leicester double-deck bus, with a front engine and rear open platform, into a ‘Mobile Museum Bus’, which will then be used to visit community events and schools to engage with the public and showcase Leicester’s rich transport heritage. “This will be done in a carefully managed way to ensure that it also fulfils an educational role in an interesting and innovative way.”
A rare if somewhat grainy shot of NER electric No. 1, ex-GWR 0-4-0ST No. 921 and MR 4-2-2 No. 118 inside the museum, prior to its opening in July 1968. The final space was filled with MR 2-4-0 No. 158A. The cramped confines of Leicester Railway Museum...
Midland Railway ‘Spinner’ No. 118, which now carries the number 673, was transferred from Leicester Beal Street depot to Stoneygate Tram Depot on February 28 1968.
Stoneygate Tram Depot as it is today. It’s hard to believe that this was once home to Leicester’s equivalent of the Great Western Museum in Swindon, or the Railway Museum in York.
Just imagine what a museum containing this lot – No. 4771 Green Arrow, ‘Super D’ No. 49395 and ‘4F’ No. 44027 – photographed outside Leicester Midland in 1970 – would have been like, especially when joined by Midland Railway Nos. 118 and 158A. Sadly,...
LNWR ‘Super D’ 0-8-0 No. 49395 is tucked away safely inside Leicester Midland shed on November 1 1969. The locomotive carries the number of long-scrapped classmate No. 49448. Just beyond is ‘O4’ No. 63601.
Here’s what Stoneygate Tram Depot looks like on one of its regular open days. LTHT has 15 historic vehicles of its own and its members own a further 14 buses and coaches between them!