The ‘Case for an Open-Air Museum’: The Origins of Blists Hill Victorian Town

Find out how a case of pneumonia, an 80 year old history book, and a group of passionate volunteers led to the creation of Blists Hill Victorian Town.

At the beginning of the 1960s the East Shropshire Coalfield was going through a period of significant decline. Businesses were closing, people were moving away from the area, there were slum clearance programmes in place, and many historic buildings were under threat of rotting away or being demolished. However, some people started to believe that the derelict area of the Shropshire Coalfield could be rebuilt and revived.

The first step of this revival plan was the establishment of Dawley New Town (which was later renamed Telford New Town). Whilst the New Town proposal was being considered by John Madin, a Birmingham consultant planner, and his colleague Mike Holt in 1963, secretary Kate Bishop contracted pneumonia. Mike Holt sent her John Randall’s History of Madeley (1880) to read whilst she recovered, and Kate Bishop became intrigued by the local history. She spent many weekends exploring, finding out more about the area, and taking photographs of all the historic monuments.

Blast Furnaces at Blists Hill standing derelict, 1960s

Although they were rare in Britain at the time, Kate Bishop wrote to various open-air museums asking for information about their exhibits, size, and funding and in June 1965 presented her ‘Case for an Open-Air Museum’ to the Development Corporation.

In her proposal, Kate Bishop stated that Dawley Development Corporation had ‘almost certainly the largest number of historic buildings yet bequeathed to a New Town’ and believed they would ‘attract worldwide attention.’ She continued ‘it should be of some concern to this country that not only the original Coalbrookdale Furnace, but also the other buildings associated with it do not disappear under the tracks of the bulldozer and modern development.’ She concluded that the best location for a museum was Blists Hill, a 42-acre site holding the remains of three furnaces, a brick and tile works and the Hay inclined plane, making it an important location of local industrial heritage.

Blists Hill Blast Furnaces, early 1970s.

The proposal was carefully considered and in October 1967 the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was established to implement the plan. In January 1968 it was registered as a charity with the intention to preserve and restore the industrial heritage of the local area.

The next five years were intense and attention was focused on developing Blists Hill. The Museum attracted many volunteers who were essential to the plan’s success and in December 1968 the Friends of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was formed, chaired by Cyril Nicholls, secretary of the Lilleshall Company. The aim of the Friends was to support the Trust mainly through fundraising, subscriptions, and practical labour. 

By the end of 1969, a modest annual income was generated through donations and on 1st November the first part-time employee was taken onto the Museum payroll. One of their initial tasks was to organise volunteer groups, who cleared the undergrowth that had overrun Blists Hill and excavated the surviving remains of the abandoned industries, including the brick and tile works and blast furnaces. Five-foot-high nettles were chopped down to make way for the ‘Miners’ Walk’ and parts of the original railway tracks were unearthed.

Landscaping at Blists Hill by the Territorial Army, 1970s

In May 1971 David and Sampson, a pair of beam engines built in 1851 for the Lilleshall Company, were the first major structures to be moved to Blists Hill. They had operated regularly until 1900 and were used as standby engines until 1952. The Chairman of the Museum Trust, Bruce Ball, was a former Managing Director of the Lilleshall Company and was concerned about the preservation of the engines. He was responsible for raising the funds to make the move possible.

Blists Hill now had many of the key elements required to develop the site into a promising museum, but it was still possible that the concept could fail due to lack of staff and money. Following advice from the Museum Association, a separate Development Trust was set up in August 1971 to help raise the funds for development. It was also advised that the Trust should be run by a museum professional and in October 1971 Sir Neil Cossons was appointed as Director. The following year Stuart Smith was appointed Curator of Technology and several other technical staff were also employed.

Venture Scouts laying track on the Hay Inclined Plane, 1970s.

David & Sampson Flywheel on the move through Madeley, 1971.

There were also further additions to the Blists Hill site. A blowing engine was installed in the north engine house of the blast furnaces, volunteers continued to work hard clearing the Hay inclined plane, Telford Development Corporation excavated the canal, and a steam-powered winding engine from the derelict Milburgh Tileries in Jackfield was re-erected on the site of the old Blists Hill mine. There were practical additions as well: donated fencing was erected, public footpaths were diverted outside of the site, public toilets were obtained, and a small kiosk for the entrance was put in place.

After years of hard work and determination The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust had successfully saved the industrial heritage of the Blists Hill site and Blists Hill Open Air Museum was officially opened to the public on 1st April 1973 by the Earl of Plymouth. For a small fee visitors could see the remains of the Blists Hill industries and traditional crafts being demonstrated.

The museum entrance and ticket booth in the early years of Blists Hill Victorian Town, 1970s.

Visitors were soon able to witness the site growing further as a tollhouse from Shelton, near Shrewsbury, was moved brick by brick and reconstructed on site. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust continued to move buildings, machinery, and steam engines to Blists Hill that were otherwise threatened with destruction and a small town typical of industrial Shropshire at the end of the Victorian era began to evolve.

Shelton Tollhouse being dismantled brick-by-brick in its original location prior to its move to Blists Hill Victorian Town, 1973.