Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: ‘I’m 59 and relatively young. There’s still steam in my boiler’

John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.
John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.
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Departing Museums Trust chief executive on why continuous change is vital to survival.

Even those who have seen the formidable River Don Engine at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum many times before would agree that the towering machine can still provoke feelings of fascination and awe.

John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

John Hamshere, chief executive of the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, has lived with the historic steam engine for decades, yet his eyes still gleam with enchantment while surveying his key exhibit.

“This is what I came to save – and that’s what I’ve done,” he says.

But John, who has led the trust for 23 years, is getting ready to hand over the responsibility of caring for Sheffield’s proud history of engineering and making.

He is retiring very shortly, and the occasion has given him cause to reflect.

‘I knew that if an engine the River Don’s size was ever mothballed, it would never run again. It would be far too expensive to get it going’

“I feel very privileged and lucky, because thanks to the board agreeing that I should go, I’m leaving at a time of my own choosing,” he says.

“And I’ve completed everything I’ve set out to do, and I don’t think there’s many people in their careers that can say they’ve done that.”

Signs of John’s guiding philosophy are all around at Kelham Island, and elsewhere on the trust’s sites at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and the Shepherd Wheel on the Porter Brook.

“The key thing for museums is you’ve got to have change to sustain your audience. That set the tone for the whole of my time here.

John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

John Hamshere, chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

“What we had is a business model built on continuous change, driven by capital investment. Every year that I’ve been here we’ve had contractors on site doing a small project, or a big project – always something new.”

John leaves with another fresh development under way – the much-needed conservation of the Bessemer Converter that stands near the museum entrance in tribute to the first inexpensive process for steel’s mass production.

The converter is being stripped back, repainted and given a lid, to keep out unsightly pigeon droppings that have been blighting the monument.

“I’m going to leave with a lovely black converter,” chuckles John, who recalls first visiting Kelham on a field trip in the mid-1980s.

He was studying for a master’s degree in industrial archaeology at the Ironbridge Institute, part of Birmingham University, when he was first shown his beloved River Don Engine, built in 1905 and used for rolling steel armour plate.

“I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else, ever, in terms of its power, what it says about Sheffield industry, the drive, the innovation – all the things that have made Sheffield great.

“It’s almost organic in its nature when you see those rods going up and down and the pistons moving. It breathes with the steam.”

He later took jobs in Tyne and Wear and Cumbria but, in the early 1990s, learned Kelham Island was under threat amid punishing funding cuts, and that Sheffield Hallam University had been ‘instrumental’ in forming a charitable trust – the first of its kind – to take on the museum with the council and the Cutlers’ Company.

John successfully applied, joining in September 1994.

“I knew that if an engine the River Don’s size was ever mothballed, it would never run again. It would be far too expensive to get it going.”

He demonstrates a pin-sharp memory for dates as he reels off a list of initiatives aimed at drumming up enthusiasm in the early years, including Kelham on Sundays – which involved opening the place up as a venue to anyone from motorcyclists to lace-makers and a medieval re-enactment group – and a transport exhibition showcasing the 1921 Sheffield Simplex car, bought by businessman Sir Norman Adsetts.

The varied uses of the museum – built as a power station in 1897 for the trams – continue to this day, with weddings, opera, dance, music and markets among the events held there.

However, the ‘thing that saved Kelham Island’ is, in John’s opinion, the melting shop – a children’s activity that shows how steel is melted, poured and hammered through play.

“My eldest son, when he was four, was the guinea pig to see how far you could compress a child with a foam hammer,” jokes John, before adding more seriously: “Museums are about inspiring the next generation of engineers, technologists and innovators.

“The melting shop was all about putting the spark of excitement in a child’s mind. If they come to a museum and they’re bored to tears, it’s going to fail. If they come and have fun they might say ‘Can I go to the museum again?’.”

The trust has invested and earned around £21 million over the years, in addition to council grants and lottery funding. Money has been used to restore Abbeydale and provide a home for the Hawley Collection – a hoard of 70,000 Sheffield tools amassed by the late historian Ken Hawley.

Insurers also paid out £1.4m in 2007 to completely renew the museum after the disastrous floods which are nearing their 10th anniversary. Mud and debris from the Don filled the galleries and stores, necessitating a full restoration that lasted until 2009.

“It was utterly devastating. We had no idea how the insurers would react, it was 13 years’ work wiped out. But they were supportive straight away.”

A new boiler for the steam engine, installed last February, represented ‘the last piece of the jigsaw’, John believes.

“I turned to people and said ‘That’s it, my job’s done now’.

“I’ve restored every derelict building, re-roofed the whole museum, brought into use every single space on the island, trebled the size of the museum, and created my own pub!”

John gestures to the Millowners Arms, the museum’s alehouse which documents the city’s brewing heritage.

“I’ve run out of ideas, everything’s been done.”

A Lord Mayor’s reception was held last week to mark John’s retirement – “I was very chuffed about that” – and he plans to spend time volunteering at the old Elsecar ironworks in Barnsley, which has been declared a ‘heritage action zone’ with a £100,000 grant from Historic England.

The revival of Wentworth Woodhouse is on his radar too, and there’s the lure of home DIY – his leaving present was a large set of Sheffield-made, wooden-handled Footprint tools.

“I think I need to take a breath,” says the father of two sons, who lives in Ecclesfield with his wife, Pamela.

“But I’m 59 and still relatively young.

“There’s still some steam in my boiler.”

Museums ‘need to reinvent themselves

‘You’ve got to diversify what you do’

Museums ‘need to reinvent themselves’, says John Hamshere.

“In this very difficult time, as public funding decreases, you’ve got to diversify what you do but you’ve also got to create that hinterland of support – so that, when push comes to shove, there’s volunteers that want to help.

“The trust is now moving into a different phase of its life which is much more about public engagement, volunteering and access for all.”

Motorised doors, ‘smoothways’ and a better atmosphere for autistic people have all made Kelham Island Museum a friendlier place for the disabled.

The future for John’s successor, who has yet to be named, will involve working more closely with Museums Sheffield as part of an Arts Council bid.

He says it is ‘perfectly possible’ the Industrial Museums Trust could merge with its city counterpart.

“It’s certainly something that’s been discussed,” he says.