coloured print showing Coalbroodklae in 1758. The landscape has a number of green fields in the fore ground and distance, with a lake in the middle distance. There are lots of buildings - houses as well as larger industrial buildings - scattered across the image, all giving off smoke. In the foreground a team of horses pull a metal cylinder - a boiler for a new steam engine. They are about to pass four smoking stacks of wood, used to make charcoal.

Sir Arthur Elton was a pioneering documentary film maker, collector of material relating to the Industrial Revolution, and early supporter of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. His collection, which came to Ironbridge in 1978, has been described as ‘the best in Europe and perhaps the most important in the world’. 

1st January 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur Elton, 10th Baronet of Clevedon Court (Somerset). Born in London on the 10th February 1906, it was during his school days at Marlborough College that he began to collect books on railway history, which would develop into a lifelong passion.  While at Marlborough he is said to have cycled to the Great Western Railway works in Swindon on Saturdays with John Betjeman, a lifelong friend and Poet Laureate from 1972 until 1984. 

Sir Arthur developed his interest in film while at Cambridge University, and after graduating in 1927 joined the film industry. He was a well-respected documentary film maker, whose work would influence film makers who followed him – his 1935 film ‘Housing Problems’, made for the British Commercial Gas Council, used a direct interview technique that is now taken for granted in modern documentaries.  

A caption in the book ‘Witness to Change. A Record of the Industrial Revolution. The Elton Collection at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum” states that the photograph “…is evidence that he learnt his film-making skills from first-hand experience.” [2017.117]

Occasionally his love of film and railways and industry would overlap, as demonstrated by the photo below, which shows Sir Arthur filming a fast-moving train in extremely close proximity. Health and safety issues were different in the past!  

As described, Sir Arthur began his collection during his school days, and while it was originally focused on railways, he expanded this interest to cover all aspects of the Industrial Revolution and industrial history. He was collecting at a time when many people failed to recognise the value of collecting this material. It is a generalisation, but at the time the overwhelming view was that art and science / engineering are separate subjects that rarely mixed. This is a view that has sadly remained until this day, although hopefully it is starting to be challenged more and more. 

Sir Arthur himself said his collection ‘assessed the achievements of the age of coal and iron and steam, and the achievements of the great artists who were concerned with its images’. 

The collection consists of over 5,600 items, including 160 original drawings or paintings, several hundred prints (engraving, lithographs, chromolithographs, etchings and mezzotints), 3,000 books and pamphlets, and other printed ephemera. In addition, there are approximately 170 commemorative items in glass and china, supplemented with medals and other small objects. In 1978 the whole collection was allocated by the Government in lieu of estate duties to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.  

It should be said as well that while Sir Arthur collected material for his own collection, he also funded the acquisition of material for museums and other institutions, sometimes anonymously. He also gave his time and expertise to many good causes, including the fledgling Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, and was the first chair of the Clevedon Pier Restoration Trust, after this landmark local to him collapsed into the sea in 1970. His obituary in a local paper recorded that his kindnesses were anonymous, solid and practical, executed with total disregard for gratitude. 

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is incredibly grateful for Sir Arthurs support during the first years of the Trust, and for the donation of the collection after his death.

Sir Arthur Elton reviewing a copy of ‘The History of the Great Western Railway’ by J.C. Bourne – an artist and author largely forgotten until being championed by Sir Arthur. Photograph taken by W. Suschitzky. [1983.1516]

Vanity set in the shape of a steam locomotive, made from 13 brass-mounted nautilus shells. [AE185.1834]