Living in the past

No single person can take the credit for making the network of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge the success story it is today. But Sir Neil Cossons, the first director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, has done as much as anyone to further its remarkable development. For that alone he derserves the county’s gratitude. By Shirley Tart.

Three people, no money and one dream. That’s near enough how it began. Other world-beating ingredients at the birth of the modern-day Ironbridge museums story were outrageous vision, passion, and knowing that something momentous was happening here.

It became an epic and pioneering masterclass in protecting the past and helping save the nation’s heritage.

Sir Neil Cossons, this is your life. He modestly – and rightly – points out that many others have been involved in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust success story.

But as its first director, when even experts thought the whole idea was suspect and that he was committing career suicide, Neil Cossons kept the faith and guided enthusiasts and sceptics alike through those embryonic days dedicated to preserving the Ironbridge Gorge story for the nation.

Blists Hill Victorian Town was the final coup, the flourish which sealed the success of an intriguing journey through the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

cossonsb.jpgSir Neil cuts the tape at the reopening of the Iron Bridge after restoration work.

And this is the man who kicked it all off. Sir Neil has had such a distinguished career in museums and as chairman of English Heritage, that an OBE and then a knighthood were so well deserved but hardly seem enough.

We in Shropshire should be especially proud of him. He and his wife Veronica – a long-serving member of Shropshire Wildlife Trust and a trustee of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts – have always kept their home here and now live happily involved in family life and the community, in the beautiful Wenlock Edge and Hope Dale country.

Their first house with their first baby was rented on the new Telford estate of Woodside. Then they lived for many years on Church Hill in Ironbridge – the heart of Neil’s ‘patch’ – and the family grew. Now, visiting grandchildren love the rambling period home the couple have so enjoyed restoring.

Through those eventful and exciting years which have taken Sir Neil from one major museum to another, no role has been more significant than that amazing success story in the east of our county. Not just the restoration of so much industrial history but also putting the area on the international tourist map. Today thousands of visitors come to see and learn about the unique Ironbridge story in its dedicated World Heritage Site.

Maybe Sir Neil Cossons was destined for a life in history, protection, restoration – as one commentator said, a dab hand at “rescuing projects from the dead hand of the Civil Service”. His father was a Nottingham headmaster, passionate about history, an expert on turnpike roads, who took his family on holiday trips through industrial England.

Suitably inspired, Neil went on to study historical geography and by 1964 was employed at the Great Western Railway Museum in Swindon . . . then Bristol Museum . . . then, at just 29, deputy director of Liverpool Museum, the most significant outside London.

It was from here that he grasped the vision when he saw a 1971 advertisement for a director of the newly formed Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

For more than 12 years, he guided the project – including saving the 1779 Iron Bridge itself from collapse – and saw it become one of the most prestigious independent museums. The Association of Independent Museums was formed in Ironbridge and now has 500 members.

“I had known Ironbridge since the early 1960s and because of my father’s interest in history I got totally immersed,” says Sir Neil.

When I applied to be director, the secretary of the Museums Association was horrified – she told me I had committed political suicide.

“I was then deputy director at Liverpool, a big and prestigious museum, and there were about three of us at Ironbridge,” he adds with a grin.

That number was soon to grow along with the Cossons vision of what could be done to save and promote this most historic area. Money was tight but there were many local volunteers in the Ironbridge dream and, by then, a supportive Telford Development Corporation headed up by general manager Emyr ‘Tommy’ Thomas and a committed trust.

Recalling those early days, Sir Neil says: “The Coalbrookdale site originally opened in 1959. Then we opened the Toll House on the bridge, and the Gothic warehouse which became the Museum of the River, and could see what a marvellous museum Coalport might be – but we didn’t have any money.”

Eventually, of course, Coalport was restored, as were the Darby houses and the Jackfield tile site and the first iron bridge itself was made safe below water level. But the most extraordinary project to grow and flourish during Sir Neil’s time was the Blists Hill Victorian township, opened as a museum in 1973.

“It was unusual to have that sort of living museum on the original site. When we first saw it, there was the David and Samson beam engine, the Toll House, the blast furnaces and very little else,” he says.

What has been achieved since then, much of it spearheaded by Sir Neil himself, was powered by adrenalin and passion. In the early days it was necessary to overcome regular financial crises. Now there is a ‘knowledge transfer’ post shared with the University of Birmingham and a whole network of absorbing information.

cossonsa.jpgSir Neil Cossons examines new stonework at Hereford Cathedral.

Lady Veronica remembers with a fond smile: “People would come to our house for a nice Sunday afternoon and find themselves directing traffic at Blists Hill.

“The great thing was always the emotion of the moment. Whether it was saving the Great Britain when Neil was in Bristol, the Albert Dock restoration in Liverpool, or working here at Ironbridge, it was a small group of enthusiastic people pushing against inertia; against those saying ‘go away young man, pestering us with your dreams’.”

But those little groups, led by Veronica’s husband, pestered on and so saved much of our heritage.

From Ironbridge, Neil became director of the Maritime Museum at Greenwich when he lived at the Royal Naval College, was then the longest serving director of the Science Museum and, until last summer, chairman of English Heritage.

“When I left Ironbridge,” he says, “they gave me a party with a maritime theme. I was dressed as Nelson and the buggers threw me in the Coalport Canal – I came out covered in duckweed!”

A museum man to the core but one with a great sense of humour. Just what’s needed! County and nation owe Neil Cossons an enormous debt. But his best reward is seeing part of our past safe and sound for the future.