Remembering Frank Atkinson
Since the sad news of the death of Frank Atkinson, the museum’s founding Director, we wanted to mark his contribution to the Transport and Industry Collection here at Beamish. I will look at the Industrial Collection, whilst Paul Jarman will look at Franks work with the Transport Collection.
Frank held a deep interest in industrial heritage from an early age. A photograph of him playing with friends, as a school boy, shows them constructing their own colliery head gear. This childhood interest progressed into a lifelong passion. The many books he published on the subject –the last, only in 2008- provide a valuable record of the regions industrial and social history.
Coincidently the photograph of Frank, and his model Colliery, provided a taste of what would be his greatest contribution to the Museum’s mining collection.
Long before the Beamish Park Estate was chosen to be the home of the North of England Open Air Museum Frank became aware of an interesting coal mining relic at Beamish.
This was an unassuming stone structure, then, sitting amongst a range of other colliery buildings. However, within this building was a Steam Winding Engine which had quietly worked away for 107 years. After the colliery’s closure, as with most mines, the National Coal Board were not sentimental about such things and began to plan its demolition.
Having been made aware of the engine Frank set to work trying to secure it for his, then homeless, open air museum. Early in 1964 George Watkins got in touch with Frank to express his own concern at the proposed demolition.
Watkins, a heating engineer from Bristol, began a hobby of recording stationary steam engines around the country, including Beamish. This hobby became an all consuming passion and resulted in him becoming an expert in industrial engines. He described the engine as ‘…so typical to Durham…and this the last remaining of the early design of wood framing with plug rod valve gearing so deserving of preservation.’
The vertical piston, Crowther Engine, built by J&G Joicey & Co in Newcastle, at their Fourth Bank Works, had been working at Beamish 2nd Pit since 1855. The engines design had been patented by Phineas Crowther in 1800 with the last one not being constructed until 1890. When the Beamish engine was decommissioned in November 1962 a century and a half of service by the Crowther engines came to an end.
Having decided it was an item deserving of preservation Frank began the lengthy task of saving the engine. Frank impressed the importance of this sole surviving engine upon the hierarchy of the National Coal Board, Durham County Council, and the Ministry of Works. The museum’s files hold a large amount of fascinating correspondence which show the years of work taken to secure the future of the engine.
Frank organised a series of visits to the engine to bring local MPs, Councillors and other influential people around the Engine House. These tours were guided by Fred Henderson. Fred was a retired Forman Platelayer from Beamish Colliery. He had been appointed as key holder and custodian of the building, until its future was decided.
The NCB gave their assurance that the building would be left until the museum was established and in a position to move it. However, in 1975, it was revealed that the NCB had terminated its lease on the land, returning it to the Beamish Estate, then owned by the Shafto Family.
At a time when large country estates were being sold and split up across the country the colliery site was soon sold to a local businessman. In order to secure the future of the engine Frank succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Works to give the building listed status.
After several false starts the painstaking work of dismantling and moving the engine began in the late 1970s. All forms of transport were used to move the engine from wheel barrows to lorries; even the cars of staff and volunteers.
As can be seen in the photograph the engine and flywheel were constructed first, on its wooden frame, to then be surrounded by the stone walls. This was all carried out with the luxury of a large crane, something the original builders would have had to do without.
The time between the colliery closing and work commencing to move the building did see the loss of a small amount of the engines parts. Luckily this was limited to the four brass bearings, for the valve gear, and a mechanical lubricator.
In recognition of the importance of the engine to the heritage of the north east, the engine and building were granted listed status. Of the reconstructed buildings at Beamish the Winding Engine is the only one to have been granted this status.
Now in its 160th year the engine still runs daily from March to October. It stands as a testament to both its original builders and the team, led by Frank, who ensured its preservation and survival.
Frank is also inextricably associated with the ultimately successful attempt to save a member of the LNER/BR J21 class of steam locomotive (NER C Class) – with 65033 being preserved as a result of his bold effort.
Built by the North Eastern Railway in 1889 as one of 201 locomotives of the same class, designed by T.W Worsdell (later to be rebuilt by his brother, Wilson), No. 65033 is now the only survivor.
That it exists at all is remarkable, given that it was first withdrawn from service in 1939 and only reinstated due to the desperate shortage of motive power brought about by the Second World War.During its working life No. 65033 is believed to have worked exclusively in the North East, although other members of the class were much more widely travelled, particularly during wartime.
Originally built as a ‘Compound’ (meaning it used its steam twice) as NER No. 876, the 0-6-0 was converted to ‘Simple’ format early in the 20th Century. It was absorbed by the newly-formed London & North Eastern Railway in 1923, becoming No. 5033, and gained its present number on the railways’ nationalisation in 1948.
Finally withdrawn in 1962, more than 20 years after it was first put aside, No. 65033 was by now a celebrity enthusiasts’ engine. Its importance meant it was initially reserved for the National Collection.
However, the ‘J21’ was dropped from the list (because it was no longer in as-built condition), and only saved due to Frank’s foresight and determination. The story of how it was removed from BR property and hidden at Consett Iron Works is one o which Frank was very proud, the letters from BR to Durham County Council regarding the unsettled bill for what must have seemed the most improbably purchase perhaps now being able to be told! Restored to NER livery, the engine subsequently became a jewel in the open-air museum’s crown, being ridden on by Sir John Betjeman at the opening of the ‘Rowley’ station scene in 1976. Despite this, the locomotive has not steamed since 1984 – once again its age and poor condition had caught up with it (it already being an amalgam of 65033 and 65099) and the developing Museum unable to commit the very substantial funds to its restoration where it would have very much been a caged lion on the short Rowley demonstration line.
In order to ensure a sustainable future for this unique asset, Beamish transferred the ‘J21’ to the newly-formed LCLT (Locomotive Conservation and Learning Trust) in March 2009. The Trust’s intention is to restore it to working order sympathetically and authentically, as befits a locomotive of this age. The HLF is supporting the project and before too long 65033 will once again become a valued member of the country’s motive power fleet – and I am sure a visit to Beamish will be on the cards…
It is impossible to summarise Frank’s many achievements in one blog post and much is being written elsewhere about him. His autobiography is also well worth a look, and contains his accounts of the rescue of the both winder and J21 mentioned above. When I (Paul) started at Beamish in November 2004, Frank was very quick to deliver a copy of this book to me at my desk, ensuring he passed his thoughts on the development of the Museum to the next generation and we know he was happy and comforted about Beamish’s future direction before he was taken ill. His legacy will be marked in a ceremony at Beamish in due course, but of course glancing around the Museum reveals all that you really need to see of his remarkable vision and tenacity in creating what we feel is one of the best museums in the World…