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Culture: The British Engineerium

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Royal Pavilion Lewes Crescent Palmeira Square The British Engineerium

Saved from the Hammer

the beautiful working beam engine
Victorian beam engine
© The Trustees of
the British Engineerium

The British Engineerium, the industrial museum in the heart of Hove, has been saved from permanent closure. Earlier this year the museum closed because of financial problems, and its unique collection of historical machines was put up for auction. It looked like the end of the road.

The auction was billed for May 10th in the Corliss Engine Room (the exhibition hall) which was packed to overflowing as the 10-30am start time approached. There were a few serious bidders but most, I suspect, were like me and were there to witness the unfolding tragedy.

The auction start time came and went. There was a hubbub of expectation amongst the room-full of nerdy, mosty middle-aged men. Finally at 11-30 the Bonhams' auctioneer mounted the podium. The room fell silent as he announced that the auction was cancelled because a private buyer had come forward at the last knockings and a deal had been struck. The unnamed buyer [in fact, Mike Holland, a local millionaire] had not only bought the lot, but had given an undertaking to keep the collection together and to reopen the museum.

Applause and cheers filled the room and most went away happy and content. A few of the genuine bidders were unhappy, having been denied the opportunity to acquire one or more significant pieces of industrial heritage, and possibly having travelled some considerable distance. But all they were offered in compensation was a refund of the cost of the auction catalogue (£20). Meanwhile back on the temporary Bonham's reception desk at the entrance to the museum the unsold catalogues were being offered at half price as a collector's piece!

In celebration of the museum's rescue the boilers were fired up and the beautiful Victorian beam engine turned gracefully into motion.

But how had it come to this? How could it have happened in a city that prides itself on its heritage, has more than 3,000 listed buildings, and which buys big time into the heritage industry, regarding it as an essential element of its economy?

Whatever the specifc reasons that led up to the auction, it is clear that in a more general sense the city neglects its industrial heritage. Who would ever know today that Brighton was once a centre of railway engineering, that it had many industrial estates, and an engineering industry?

It is true that the demise of the city's engineering industry is quite recent; that it disappeared like snow in the sun during the deep recessions of the 1980s. Now, I believe, is the time to remember and to recover the city's industrial past, and hopefully the reopening of the British Engineerium will mark a new beginning for this part of the city's past.


LATEST: Jan. 2007 Plans to revamp the museum, including a new restaurant, new toliets, and new entrance, have been announced, together with the intention to reopen the museum this summer.

checking the boilers
auctioneer gives the good news
capacity crowd
starting the beam engine


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