History of Beamish

Beamish began as the vision of Dr Frank Atkinson, today it is one of the best Open Air Museums in the World!

Beamish Unlimited

Beamish was the vision of Dr Frank Atkinson, the Museum’s founder and first director.

Frank had visited Scandinavian folk museums in the early 1950s and was inspired to create an open air museum for the North East. He realised the dramatically-changing region was losing its industrial heritage. Coal mining, ship building and iron and steel manufacturing were disappearing, along with the communities that served them.

Frank wanted the new museum to “illustrate vividly” the way of life of “ordinary people” and bring the region’s history alive.
Beamish remains true to his principles today and brings history to life for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Frank passed away on 30th December 2014. Click here to read more about his amazing life.

1958: Frank Atkinson, then director at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, presented a report to Durham County Council, recommending items of everyday history were collected to eventually form part of an open air museum. A policy of “unselective collecting” – “you offer it and we will collect it”- saw an army camp of 22 huts rapidly filled with objects ranging from steam engines to sewing machines.

1970: Frank took up his post as Director, along with our first staff, at Beamish Hall and the museum was born.

1971: “Museum in the Making”, an introductory exhibition opened in Beamish Hall.

1973: The first Beamish tram, Gateshead 10, went into service on a short demonstration line.

1975: HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visited the museum.

1976: Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman opened Rowley Station

1978: We welcomed our millionth visitor and Francis Street cottages were officially opened.

1979: Mahogany drift mine was opened.

1983: Home Farm welcomed its first visitors.

1984: The Co-op store, from Annfield Plain, opened its doors to visitors.

1987: Beamish was named European Museum of the Year. Frank Atkinson retired this year.

1990: The Pit Hill Methodist Chapel, which originally stood in Beamish Village, opened in our Pit Village.

1992: The rebuilt Board School opened in The Pit Village.

1993: The Beamish Tramway, circling the entire site, began operating.

1994: Jubilee Sweet Shop was opened by MP Mo Mowlam and The Town garage was unveiled by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.

1995: Our Silver Jubilee year saw the opening of Pockerley Old Hall, showing life in the early 1800s.

1999: Pockerley Waggonway opens in the Georgian Landscape and Barclay and Co Bank opened in The Town.

2002: HRH Princess Anne, Princess Royal, opened The Town’s carriage house. The replica of 1815 built Steam Elephant was completed for Pockerley Waggonway.

2006: HRH The Duke of Kent opened the Masonic Hall in The Town in a ceremony supported by 2,000 Freemasons in full regalia. The replica of 1813 built Puffing Billy first ran at Pockerley Waggonway.

2009: The Colliery lamp cabin was opened.

2010: Beamish’s 40th anniversary year saw the arrival of the steam gallopers and the refurbishment of the Entrance building and Tea Rooms.

2011: Davy’s Fried Fish Shop served up its first fish and chips.

2013: Herron’s Bakery, in The Town, and Hetton Silver Band Hall, in The Pit Village, opened.

2014: Wartime arrived with the launch of the The 1940s Farm, and the Pit Pony Stables welcomed their first equine inhabitants.

2015: St Helen’s Church, which was saved from demolition and moved stone by stone to the museum, was completed in The 1820s Landscape. Beamish Rural District Council Depot, a base for active steam roller demonstrations, opened in the Station Yard.

2016: W Smith Chemist and JR & D Edis Photographers opened in The 1900s Town.

2018: The Georgian quilter’s cottage opened in The 1820s Landscape – the first exhibit in the Remaking Beamish project, which is the biggest development in the museum’s history and is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

2019: A replica of Leasingthorne Colliery Welfare Hall and Community Centre (now known as Coundon and Leeholme Community Centre) opened at the museum – the first building in our 1950s Town. The Northern General Transport Bus Depot also opened its doors, preserving transport heritage.

2020: Beamish is celebrating its Golden Jubilee year and announced record visitor numbers of 803,148 for 2019/20. Work is progressing on the Remaking Beamish project, which includes The 1950s Town, a 1950s Farm and expansion of the Georgian area, including self-catered overnight accommodation.

2020/21: The museum had to shut its doors three times in 2020/21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beamish is a charity that relies on visitors for 95 per cent of its income, so the closures had a huge impact. The museum introduced innovative ways to stay in touch with visitors, from live online learning activities to afternoon tea home deliveries, which led to us receiving national awards for our efforts.

2022: A busy year for our Remaking Beamish project, with our 1950s Front Street terrace, Spain’s Field Farm and Coronation Park and Recreation Ground all opening their doors!

2023: The 1950s Town grew as we opened replicas of semi-detached council houses from Red House in Sunderland, police houses and office from Leam Lane in Gateshead, and a bowling green and pavilion from Billingham in The 1950s Town. Replicas of Marsden Road Aged Mineworkers’ Homes also opened in 2023. As well as showing visitors what life was like for retired miners in the 1950s, two of the cottages provide a dedicated space for the inspirational work of the museum’s Health and Wellbeing Team.