Unique museum looks to future

John Hampshire at the Kelham Island Museum
John Hampshire at the Kelham Island Museum
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WHEN John Hamshere arrived as chief executive of the struggling Kelham Island Museum in 1994, he was fully prepared for a challenge.

The centre, which had opened with great fanfare in 1982, had faced the threat of closure for several years.

Visitor numbers had fallen off a cliff, council funding had dried up and the exhibitions, while impressive enough to win second place at Britain’s Best Museum awards in 1983, had not changed since.

For sure, the new boss knew turning the place round would be a huge task.

But, arriving that first day in his suit and tie, what he didn’t expect was to spend the next six months in a boiler suit sifting through decades of muck, dust and abandoned industrial equipment...

“You think when you’re the chief executive you get away from that,” says the 53-year-old today. “But desperate times...”

Those desperate times have long since passed, of course.

The museum will reach its landmark 30th anniversary on Monday in rude health. Some £4 million has been invested since 1994, exhibition space has trebled, and income admissions have increased by 90 per cent in the last six years.

But back then things were different. And so John found himself pulling on that boiler suit...

“I was approached by the museum trust’s founding chairman, Sir Norman Adsetts, about displaying his early 20th century Sheffield Simplex Car – the only surviving one of its kind,” he explains. “I knew straight away it would bring visitors back but we had nowhere to put it.

“The only place big enough was the upstairs of the main building but that had several tonnes of industrial equipment in there and there was no-one to move it. So me and a couple of staff members did it. We spent six months clearing everything, cleaning it and finally using the Simplex as a centre piece for a transport exhibition. And it was a huge success.”

It was also a turning point.

Since then the museum has never stopped improving, with its most popular attractions including the restored 1905 River Don Engine, Ken Hawley’s collection of 100,000 industrial tools and the Melting Shop play area.

It is also home to England’s last Bessemer Converter, several little mester workshops and that Sheffield Simplex car, which was given a permanent home there after that exhibition.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this point,” says John, a father-of-two who lives in Ecclesfield. “But when you’re here and you see people enjoying themselves it makes it all worthwhile. I genuinely believe this is one of the finest industrial museums in the country.”

The idea for the Kelham Island Museum was first mooted in the late 19th century.

Advocates said turning a part of Sheffield’s oldest industrial quarter – the site was home to a 12th century mill race – into a museum would safeguard the city’s heritage.

But it was only in the 1970s a realistic proposal was worked up by Sheffield Council, with the museum finally opening in 1982.

“It was an immediate hit,” explains John. “It was very much cutting edge at the time. This wasn’t a place where there were dusty exhibitions in glass cabinets; it was always about letting people feel, touch and smell Sheffield’s history.”

Indeed, it was so well received that in 1985 the entire surrounding area was named as Sheffield’s first industrial conservation area.

But the success did not last. By the early 1990s, the recession meant funding was cut which resulted in visitor numbers falling.

For several years there was talk of closure until council bosses decided to make one last fist of it.

They founded Kelham Island Museum Limited to take over the day-to-day running – an act which immediately opened up several funding streams – and advertised for a new chief executive.

It was this advert which John, who grew up in Birmingham, saw. He was then museums officer at Allerdale Borough Council but jumped at the chance to try and revive this centre’s flagging fortunes.

“In the early 1980s I visited the place as a student to see the River Don steam engine,” he says. “I was blown away. It’s a remarkable machine. So when I heard the museum was in danger of shutting and the engine being moth-balled, I was devastated. When I saw the job advertised I had to go for it.”

Working with Sheffield Hallam University, his first act was to open an education zone followed by that Melting Shop play area.

“The museum is about history but it’s about the future too,” says John. “We wanted children to come here and be inspired to be the next generation of engineers so immediately we said our focus had to be on making young people want to come here and keep coming back.”

It worked.

Numbers soon began improving and that was only the start.

In 2001, the museum’s first ever refurbishment was undertaken. It cost some £2 million – much of it in two grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund – and took five years but it meant the site was completely transformed for the first time since 1982.

“It also meant,” says John, “we could fix every roof for the first time.”

Lifts were installed, the main gallery was refurbished, the transport gallery was created and new stores were installed as part of the scheme.

And then? The 2007 flood came.

“And it washed away pretty much everything we’d done,” says John. “I was actually writing a risk assessment at the time. I was writing about financial risks but never once thought there was any physical danger.”

It turned out there was.

When the River Don rose, the museum was one of its first victims with more £1.5 million worth of damage done in less than 24 hours.

“I remember going in the next day and seeing a decade of work washed away,” says John.

The good news is there was a happy ending.

“The insurance company was brilliant,” he says. “They told us ‘Whatever needs doing, do it’. We didn’t know it at the time but I suppose what we got was a second refurbishment for free. You couldn’t call it a blessing because we had to limit opening for two years and our visitor numbers fell but at least there was a silver lining.”

And since then the museum has carried on going from strength to strength.

There are now 45,000 visitors a year, the annual Victorian Christmas Fair is one of the best-loved festive events in the region and the museum is looking keenly to the future.

“We’re 30 years old,” says John. “But we’re only just starting.”

Kelham Island Museum will celebrate it’s 30th anniversary with a series of summer events. For details visit www.simt.co.uk

Three must-sees at Kelham Island Museum

1 The Bessemer Converter: One of only three converters left in the world, this was used by the British Steel Corporation in Workington until 1975. It is an example of the revolutionary steel making process which first took place in Sheffield.

2 The River Don Engine: The most powerful working steam engine remaining in Europe, this 12,000 horse power machine was built by Davy Brothers of Sheffield in 1905 to drive Charles Cammell’s armour plate rolling mill in Grimesthorpe.

3 The Grand Slam Bomb: These were the heaviest bombs in the world – and they were made by Vickers & Co at their River Don Works. Only 30 to 40 were ever used during the final days of World War Two.