Beamish Museum

Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum is an open-air museum located at Beamish, near the town of Stanley, County Durham, England. The museum's guiding principle is to preserve an example of everyday life in urban and rural North East England at the climax of industrialisation in the early 20th century.

Much of the restoration and interpretation is specific to the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, together with portions of countryside under the influence of industrial revolution in 1825. On its 300-acre (120 hectare) estate it utilises a mixture of translocated, original and replica buildings; a huge collection of artifacts, working vehicles and equipment; as well as livestock and costumed interpreters.

The museum has received a number of prestigious awards since it opened its present site to visitors in 1972 and has been influential on other "living museums". It is a significant educational resource, and helps to preserve some traditional north-country and rare livestock breeds.


Beamish is the first English museum to be financed and administered by a consortium of County Councils (Cleveland, Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear) and it was the first regional open-air museum in England. The museum was first proposed in 1958 and the collections were established on the Beamish site in 1970 under director Frank Atkinson (b. 1924). Atkinson, realising that the region's traditional industries of coal-mining, shipbuilding, and iron and steel manufacture were disappearing along with the communities that served them, was anxious to preserve the customs, traditions and ways of speech of the region. He said, "It is essential that collecting be carried out quickly and on as big a scale as possible. It is now almost too late."

Atkinson adopted a policy of "unselective collecting" — "you offer it to us and we will collect it." The people of the region responded with donations of all kinds ranging from small everyday objects to steam engines and shops, filling an entire army camp of 22 huts and hangars at Brancepeth.

The first exhibition was held in Beamish Hall in 1971, and the present site was opened to visitors for the first time in 1972 with the first translocated buildings (the railway station and colliery winding engine) being erected the following year. The approximately 300-acre (1.2 km2) current site, once belonging to the Eden and Shafto families, is a basin-shaped steep-sided valley with woodland areas, a river, some level ground and a south-facing aspect. Since 1986 visitors have entered the museum, which has been 96% self-funding for some years (mainly from admission charges), through an entrance arch formed by a steam hammer, across a former opencast mining site and through a converted stable block (from Greencroft, near Lanchester, County Durham).


The town area, officially opened in 1985, depicts chiefly Victorian buildings in an evolved urban setting of 1913. These include the Annfield Plain Co-Operative Store (with operating cash carrier system); a terrace of "professionals"’ houses (from Gateshead), "occupied" by a music teacher, dentist's surgery and family home, and solicitor’s office; a pub (the Sun Inn from Bishop Auckland); town stables and carriage shed (utilising iron roof trusses from Fleetwood) housing an extensive collection of horse-drawn vehicles; a branch office of the Sunderland Daily Echo,stationer’s and printshop; a sweet shop and manufactory; a garage; a branch of Barclays Bank (using components from Southport and Gateshead) and a masonic temple (from Sunderland). There is a bandstand (from Gateshead) in a public park, together with drinking fountains and other examples of street furniture.

During the winter season, the town is the only area of the museum with buildings open to the public. Future plans for the town include a shopping arcade, dispensing chemist (using fittings from Stockton-on-Tees), as well as fire and police stations and other municipal buildings. The museum also has the components of an early cinema, and those of a gasworks from Milnthorpe.

Railway station

A typical North Eastern Railway station is reconstructed on the edge of the town. The station building itself came from Rowley just a few miles from Beamish, along with a signal box from Carr House East, near Consett, a goods shed from Alnwick and coal drops from West Boldon.

The station is dominated by the Regional Museums Store (completed in 2002, and externally disguised as "Beamish Waggon and Iron Works, estd 1857"), which Beamish shares with Tyne and Wear Museums. This houses, amongst other things; railway rolling stock and other vehicles; a large marine diesel engine by William Doxford & Sons of Pallion, Sunderland (1977); and several boats including the Tyne wherry (a traditional local type of lighter) Elswick No. 2 (1930). The store is only open at selected times, and for special tours which can be arranged through the museum; however, a number of viewing windows have been provided for use at other times. Adjacent is an events field and fairground with a set of Frederick Savage built steam powered Gallopers dating from 1893.

Colliery village

In view of the impact that coal mining has had on its region, the museum has major collections related to this industry. Exhibits include the museum's Mahogany Drift Mine, a coal mine original to the site where it is possible to take an underground tour. The colliery is dominated by the regularly steamed 1855 vertical 'Crowther' winding engine (from the nearby Beamish 2nd Pit), screens (from Gateshead) and a waste tip. There are a number of industrial steam locomotives (including rare examples by Stephen Lewin, from Seaham, and Black, Hawthorn & Co), and many chaldron wagons (the region’s traditional type of colliery railway rolling stock, and which became a symbol of Beamish Museum). There is usually a pit pony on site and the museum has a significant collection of safety lamps. The surrounding village includes miners' cottages from Hetton-le-Hole, the Wesleyan Methodist chapel from Pit Hill, and East Stanley Board School (which has led to a special relationship between the museum and the successor primary school). Evidence can be seen of traditional pastimes such as pigeon racing and quoits. An Edwardian coal-fired Fish and Chip shop is currently under development next to the Chapel, and is due to open in Summer 2011. Coffee Pot No 1 is often in steam during the summer

Home Farm

This farm complex, preserved in situ, was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century as a model farm incorporating a horse mill and a steam-powered threshing mill. It is a base for some of the museum’s agricultural activities.

The Georgian North (1825)

The eastern side of the museum site is based around the original Pockerley Manor farm, a 15th-century foundation with a domestic wing of c.1720. The back part of the house was a bastle house, with ceiling beams carbon-dated to the 14th century, although the structure is believed to be older. The surrounding farmlands have been returned to a post-enclosure landscape with ridge and furrow topography, divided into smaller fields by traditional riven oak fencing. The land is worked and grazed by traditional methods and breeds.

Through this scene passes a pack pony track and the recently constructed wooden- and Pockerley waggonways (see below) serving a replica coal pit with horse-worked winding gin. It is intended to expand this area by the restoration of an existing watermill on the Beamish Burn (River Team) (where there are also remains of forges), and the development of a rural community including the re-erection of St Helen’s Church from Eston in North Yorkshire.


The museum contains much of transport interest, and the size of its site makes good visitor transportation a necessity.


In the railway station yard a variety of wagons are on display. Under the footbridge (from Crook) the line extends to the far end of the town, a distance of ¼ mile. The line used to connect to the colliery sidings until 1991 when it was lifted so that the tram line could be extended. Regular steam operation ceased in 1995 due to the lack of permanently available working locomotives. From the nearby Bowes Railway, Andrew Barclay locomotives No. 22 and W.S.T. have made visits in recent years. The museum’s restored North Eastern Railway coach was moved to the Tanfield Railway, also nearby, on a 10-year loan from 2006 to 2016.

Resident locomotives include NER Class C1 freight engine No. 876 (British Railways Class J21 No. 65033), built at Gateshead in 1889. After lying out of use since 1984 it was moved to the North Norfolk Railway for restoration and returning to steam in 2007. A syndicate has now been formed and an appeal made for contributions. The museum also formerly operated its Hawthorn Leslie industrial engine No. 14.

During 2009 the main running line to the far end of the town was relaid so that passenger rides could recommence from the station during 2010. In February 2011 the museum received a 1923-built LNER Y7 Class 0-4-0T engine on a three-year loan from the North Norfolk Railway. The engine will run a passenger service at Rowley Station on weekends during the summer season.

Pockerley Waggonway

In 1999 Beamish opened the Pockerley Waggonway, recreating a railway at the transition from wagonway to steam railway in 1825. There is a short length of track, and the locomotives are housed and maintained in a "great shed", inspired by lost buildings from Timothy Hackworth’s Shildon railway works and incorporating some material from Robert Stephenson and Company’s Newcastle works.

Visitors to the museum can ride in an unsprung carriage behind one of three replica steam locomotives on the railway:

  • George Stephenson's Locomotion No 1 designed for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and recreated in 1975.
  • John Buddle and William Chapman's Steam Elephant designed for Wallsend Colliery in 1815 and recreated in 2002 (based largely on material in Beamish archives).
  • William Hedley's Puffing Billy designed for Wylam Colliery in 1813 and recreated in 2006.
Wooden waggonway

Following creation of the Pockerley Waggonway, the museum went back a chapter in railway history to create a horse-worked wooden waggonway.


Beamish is home to half-a-dozen electric trams, some of which operate daily on the track which makes a circuit of the museum site forming an important element of the visitor transportation system. The open-top cars tend to be used in the summer months.

  • Gateshead single-decker No. 10 built in 1925. In regular service, painted in Gateshead purple, lined out in yellow.
  • Sunderland enclosed double-decker No. 16, built in 1900. In regular service, painted in brown, lined out in yellow.
  • Blackpool open-topper No. 31 built in 1901. In regular service especially in summer, painted red and teak, lined out in white and black.
  • Newcastle open-topper No. 114 built in 1901. In regular service especially in summer, painted brown and yellow, lined out in yellow and brown.
  • "Beamish" (ex-Porto) single-decker No. 196 built in 1935. Used regularly, painted in Gateshead style purple and white, lined out in yellow and purple.
  • Sheffield open-balcony double-decker No. 264 built in 1907. Undergoing a major overhaul, painted in blue, lined out in yellow.
  • Sheffield double-decker No. 513 built in 1950. On loan to Blackpool tramway for 15 years as being "out of period" for Beamish.

The museum has collected a couple of trolleybuses.

  • Keighley single-decker No. 12 built in 1924. Undergoing a major restoration.
  • Newcastle double-decker No. 501 built in 1948. On loan to The Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft as being "out of period" for Beamish.
Motor buses

The replica buses are used on a regular service between the town and colliery village.

  • replica Daimler Motor Company open-top double-decker J 2503 to design of 1913 (1988).
  • replica London General Omnibus Company open-top double-decker DET 720D to design of 1910.
  • Northern General Transport BMMO-built SOS QL single-decker UP 551 built in 1928. Undergoing restoration to working order.
  • Dodge (UK) UF30A bus VK 5401 built in 1931. Worked around Rookhope. Awaiting restoration.
Other road vehicles
  • replica Armstrong Whitworth limousine. In occasional service. (The museum also has an original 1920 Armstrong Siddeley 20 h.p. car.)
  • Brewery refreshment van NBA 517. In service.

The museum owns other motor and steam vehicles, more than twenty pedal cycles and several motorcycles. From its extensive collection of horse-drawn vehicles, charabancs are to be seen in public service in the summer.


The museum’s two farms help to preserve traditional northcountry and in some cases rare livestock breeds such as Durham Shorthorn Cattle;Clydesdale and Cleveland Bay working horses; Dales ponies; Teeswater sheep; Saddlebackpigs; and poultry.

Regional heritage

Other large exhibits collected by the museum include a tracked steam shovel, and a coal drop from Seaham Harbour.

In 2001 a new-build Regional Resource Centre (accessible to visitors by appointment) opened on the site to provide accommodation for the museum’s core collections of smaller items. These include over 300,000 historic photographs, printed books and ephemera, and oral history recordings. The object collections cover the museum’s specialities. These include quilts; "clippy mats" (rag rugs);Trade union banners;floorcloth; advertising (including archives from United Biscuits and Rowntree's); locally made pottery; folk art; and occupational costume. Much of the collection is viewable online and the arts of quilting, rug making and cookery in the local traditions are demonstrated at the museum.

The site has been used as the backdrop for many film and television productions, particularly Catherine Cookson dramas produced by Tyne Tees Television. Some of the children’s television series Supergran was shot here.

Critical reception

The unselective collecting policy created a lasting bond between museum and community and the supporting Friends organisation was established in 1968 before the Beamish site had been occupied. Visitor numbers rose rapidly to around 450,000 p.a. during the first decade of opening to the public, and the museum became Museum of the Year in 1986 and won the European Museum of the Year Award in 1987. It was designated by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in 1997 as a museum with outstanding collections, and was Living Museum of the Year in 2002.

In responding to criticism that it trades on nostalgia the museum is unapologetic. A former director has written: "As individuals and communities we have a deep need and desire to understand ourselves in time." It can also demonstrate its benefit to the contemporary local economy. Beamish was influential on the Black Country Living Museum, Blists Hill Victorian Town and, in the view of museologist Kenneth Hudson, more widely in the museum community and is a significant educational resource locally.


The museum is accessible by car from the A1(M) or by bus from Durham or Newcastle and is near Chester-le-Street and Washington, Tyne and Wear. Opening and operating times and details of special events are given on the museum website. Bus services 28 and 28A operate from Newcastle's Eldon Square bus station and Gateshead Interchange to Beamish Museum.


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