31: The Barnstaple Borough Fire Engine (part 1)

It seems an age ago now, but back in February we achieved something which has been rumbling on for nearly 20 years.  The Fire Engine bought by Barnstaple Borough in 1914 finally came home to the town.  We are incredibly excited that we will be be to display it in our new 20th Century Social History gallery when the museum reopens.

Fire appliance at Engineerium003

We first heard about the Fire Engine in 1999, when it was spotted at a private museum known as the British Engineerium in Hove.  The owner, Jonathon Minns, visited Barnstaple and discussed the possibility of loaning the engine back to the town with the Town Council, but nothing came of it, partly because Mr Minns insisted that the engine should be kept in steaming condition.

Jonathan Minns

Jonathan Minns was a remarkable man with enormous passion for the history of British engineering and particularly steam engines.  He sadly died in 2013 and the following paragraphs are taken from his obituary in the Daily Telegraph.

“In 1971, with a few friends and £350 capital, he saved the Goldstone pumping station in Hove a fortnight before it was due to be demolished. Having managed to persuade the authorities to list it grade II*, Minns started restoring it three years later. It was opened as a Steam Museum in 1976 and subsequently as the British Engineerium.

Among its most popular exhibits were an 18-ton flywheel and “Chain Reaction”, a history of the lavatory illustrated with working examples.

As he assembled his collection, Minns had to recast missing flywheels, melted down for armaments during two World Wars, and cleanse steam engine parts of centuries of oily grime. One engine was found in a mouldering barn, another in a long-forgotten hospital.

Minns was concerned that in a post-industrial age people should keep in touch with moving objects. “Pure interpretation is not enough. Someone has to get their hands dirty,” he declared. He deplored the tendency of centres like the Science Museum to put real mechanical objects in storage and instead offer multimedia interactive displays.”

wmn 2006

The museum first became involved with saving the engine in 2006.  The British Engineerium had hit financial difficulties and the entire collection was up for sale.  We swiftly started applying for grants and ran a campaign in the local press soliciting donations.  Our plan was to house the engine in the museum carriage entrance (where the extension is now being built) and we raised the money very quickly thanks to the generosity of local people and businesses.  The local fire brigade pledged £1000 and offered a sponsored haul of the the engine back from Hove and a £15,000 grant was offered by the Science Museum’s PRISM fund.

Sale Day was May 10th 2006, and with an estimate of £30 – £35,000 we were hopeful that we would be able to secure the engine.  One of our supporters agreed to bid for us, and the auctioneer was on the podium ready to begin the sale.  You can imagine our disappointment when an announcement was made that the sale was cancelled and the entire collection has been bought by a local entrepreneur, Mike Holland.



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