On 27th December 2015, along with many nearby homes and business, Leeds Industrial Museum suffered its worst flood since records began. As part of the clearing up process it became increasingly clear that one of the badly affected ground floor storage areas at the Museum held an object with some question marks hanging over its identity. Following the initial clean up of the residual silt and flotsam washed into the museum site, we brought in specialist industrial machinery contractors to begin the process of treating the objects hit by the Boxing Day deluge.
By one of those strange co-incidences that seem to be a daily occurrence in working with collections, around the same time we had received a request from BBC’s Antiques Road Trip to film any objects we had relating to pioneering Leeds engineer Matthew Murray. Murray is probably best remembered for his achievement in developing what is widely regarded as the first commercially successful railway locomotive in the world for the Middleton Railway.
A search of our collections database revealed several items including a brass lubricator recorded as having a connection to a beam engine by Matthew Murray ‘at Queen St, York’. An exchange of emails with the National Railway Museum revealed that the beam engine in question was listed in the catalogue for the Queen Street Museum, a predecessor to the current National Railway Museum. The entry made interesting reading, especially its mention that the engine had powered sawmilling machinery at the Great Northern Railway carriage repair workshop at Kings Cross station engine shed.
This key reference gave us more to go on. Further database and file work led us closer to the probability that the large cast iron components lying in our ground floor store were indeed the engine designed by Matthew Murray. Delving into the files, the journey of the object was confirmed. This was indeed Murray’s engine.
In 1966, as the displays at the old Queen Street museum were being prepared for clearing – and no space had been allocated at the new Leeman Road Museum – British Railways contacted Leeds Museum. Curators at Leeds were initially reluctant to acquire the engine and little further happened until 1972, when on being asked for a second time, they agreed to accept the engine.
Fast forward to 1979, and Leeds Museums finally took delivery of the object. Frustratingly, the files go rather quiet in recording what was being done with the engine following its arrival at Armley Mills, however it was at least partially erected for display. Just as frustrating, next to nothing was recorded of the engine being dismantled again, presumably in order to improve a blocked access route.
In yet another co-incidence, on the first day of public opening after the flood, we were visited by a Mr Paul Murray Thompson with his brand new book Matthew Murray (1765-1826) and the Firm of Fenton Murray (1795-1844). We were able to show the beam engine components to Paul, which set him on the trail to track down more details of the object’s history. Amongst the evidence gathered by Paul was an article from the Yorkshire Evening Post from 1926 highlighting the engine’s 115 years of continuous use.
In July, as part of the post-flood action plan, we moved the beam engine components to a dry and secure store and laid the components out in a way that would help explain its construction . Up to this point, no usable image of the beam engine in its erected state had been traced. However, as part of another project, Chris Sharp, our Assistant Curator of Community Engagement identified a good quality image of the engine – probably dating from the early 1980s – in its largely assembled state.
Re-assembling the engine to display condition is undoubtedly likely to be a long and complex process. But we have made great strides in a short time in firmly identifying the object, securing good storage and pulling together contextual material to enable us to set about the task as resources allow. The name of Matthew Murray, one of Leeds most innovative engineers, is currently enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. We hope that Leeds Industrial Museum can make its contribution to telling his story.
By Curator of Industrial History John McGoldrick