History of the Museum

19th century

Before the National Railway Museum was in existence, the Science Museum in London – which was then known as the Patent Office Museum – started its collection of railway artefacts by acquiring Rocket in 1862.

Early 1900s

From the late nineteenth century,  railway companies began preserving their past: the most prolific being the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), which opened a public museum in York dedicated to railways in 1927.

During the 1930s, the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR) had all collected significant quantities of railway related material.

But it wasn’t until 1948, when nationalisation of the railways took place that these collections were all brought together.

Post-nationalisation

In 1951, a ‘curator of historical relics’ of the nationalised transport industries was appointed. A collecting policy could now be implemented to increase the nation's collection of railway artefacts: anything fitting the requirements of the policy – and more importantly being relevant to telling the story of the train – could be listed for the collection. As well as the existing York Railway Museum at Queen Street, British Railways opened the Museum of British Transport in Clapham, South London and worked with Swindon Council to open a museum there.

The 1968 Transport Act encouraged BR to work with the Science Museum to develop a National Railway Museum to house the massive and ever expanding collection.

The National Railway Museum

In 1975 the National Railway Museum was opened at Leeman Road in York.

The huge former steam locomotive depot, only 700m from York Minster was an ideal site for a National Railway Museum and, following its conversion and opening as the very first national museum outside London, the museum was an immediate success with the public.

Recent developments

Since 1975 the Museum has been extended on a number of occasions.  In 1990, the Station Hall opened across Leeman Road in York’s former railway goods depot, nearly doubling the size of the museum in the process. This development won the Museum of the Year Award in 1990. The former diesel depot adjacent to the Great Hall was added as a store and in 1999 this was rebuilt to become The Works, providing public access to the Museum’s collections stores and workshops and a viewing gallery overlooking York Station. The success of The Works led, in part, to the Museum gaining the European Museum of the Year award in 2001.

Apart from enhancements to the visitor experience, the NRM has developed its academic credentials and learning facilities. A major step forward in this expansion was made in 1994 with the launch of the Institute of Railway Studies as a joint venture between the Museum and the University of York. The role of the Institute is to develop the academic and scholarly basis of the Museum through a series of initiatives, including courses, publications and directly undertaken research. In June 2004 the Yorkshire Rail Academy was opened – a joint development between York College and the NRM. It is a purpose-built rail training centre and the base for the NRM’s education team.

Later in 2004 a new museum, Locomotion: the NRM at Shildon, County Durham, opened its doors to the public – the first national museum to be built in the North East.   This joint venture with the local authority enables more of the NRM’s collections to be housed properly and enjoyed by the public and is helping to develop tourism in Shildon, the birthplace of the modern railway.  Grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund helped to create this NRM outpost.

The latest addition to the NRM is Search Engine, the £4 million archive and research centre. Search Engine allows visitors to view and see otherwise previously unseen artwork, papers, reports, photographs, and small artefacts. Thanks to almost £1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), and funds from the Higher Education Funding Council, the NRM is now able to offer access to academics and interested members of the public to its vast archive collection – one of the largest and richest collections of railway related material in the world.

Today and tomorrow

Today the NRM is one of Britain’s busiest museums and is perhaps the most popular railway museum in the world. It serves a diverse audience at its two sites and elsewhere through its network of partnerships with museums and heritage railways across the UK. As part of its plan to retain its popularity plans are being developed for new displays which will help a 21st century audience discover the huge impact the railway has had in the shaping of the modern world.

Background: L&SWR Adams 563