2021 has been a 'different' year but for us, as it has for all of us. It's also been a special one that sadly we've not really been able to celebrate as we would have hoped. The original museum that became NESM opened in 1931, making 2021 our 90th birthday. Here's the story...
As many of you will know, our museum is housed within a historic Victorian combined police, fire and ambulance station on West Bar in Sheffield. But did you know that the origins of our museum began at an entirely different station elsewhere in the city?
Tom Breaks, Superintendent of the City of Sheffield Police Fire Brigade from 1923 to 1937, created the original ‘Sheffield City Fire Museum’ in 1931 at Division Street fire station (about half a mile from our current location). Breaks loaned a number of items from parishes, councils and other brigades around the country including two parish pumps. These pumps became the star attractions of his collection and were regularly photographed alongside new appliances. Breaks felt extremely honoured to have created the museum, believing that future developments should always be informed by a knowledge and understanding of the past.
We have no records to show when or even if this first dedicated museum was closed or relocated. The Division Street station, as was the case in many other stations around the country, remained the home of a small collection of historical items but the whereabouts of the two parish pumps is unknown.
It wasn't until around the time of the Sheffield brigade’s centenary in 1969 that the collection saw the light of day again and the quest to find a new permanent home for the museum began.
It was in the early 1980s that a group of firefighters, their friends and families started the long process of converting the former West Bar Station, which had been derelict for a number of years, into the new permanent home for the museum collection.
Since then the museum has undergone a vast amount of development including the addition of the South Yorkshire Police historical collection in the early 1990s (which led to a name change, becoming the Fire and Police Museum).
The collection itself has also continued to grow and develop over the years, most recently to include collections from the wider emergency services such as the RNLI and HM Coastguard.
2011 was a pivotal year for NESM, as it marked the start of a new and different future that has taken us on even further in the last decade. (And it marked my own appointment as CEO). In 2015 we officially became a CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation). As a self-funded and independent museum we recognised the only way to survive and thrive in a modern world was to become more ‘business-like’ and forward thinking. This new approach led to some major changes that saw us pushing boundaries with new and innovative exhibitions, projects and activities.
One of the original parish pumps next to the brigade’s new appliance.
2020 and 2021 have been our most challenging years of recent times. They started off well for us but the impact of a global pandemic led to some very worrying times. But thanks to a great team, lots of effort, great support and a strong platform to work from we are still here.
Back in 2011 times were very different here at the museum and, being 100% honest, I never thought I’d even still be working at the museum, never mind running it! And since then I think I’ve worked in every role you could possibly imagine.
In some ways some things never change; still today we all pitch in, do nearly all our work in-house and - as a self-funded, independent museum that gets its mains income from admission fees, coffee shop and gift shop sales, and events - are only able to create a new exhibition or fix something if we have the funds to do so.
Back in 2011, there were plenty of ups and downs for me and the museum as a whole. In August some of the older management and members of the museum stepped down and the full structure of the museum and charity was reorganised and restructured.
From then until January 2014 we really did turn the place upside down and inside out.
Our main goal was to move from a volunteer-led museum to a professional, financially stable heritage site. And we did it! During this three-year period, without any additional financial support, we swiftly became financially viable and gained our first employed member of staff.
Is it worth it and is it working? The best feeling with running a museum is seeing the reaction of visitors. Visitor numbers have risen from 7,000 in 2011 to 30,000 in 2019 and we get some great feedback.
The museum is so much more than just me! We have an amazing team of seven staff and around 20 volunteers and now we’re looking forward not just to surviving, but thriving!
Even this year new exhibitions, and additional archive and collection rooms have been created and a complete reshuffle of the museum happened during lockdown.
The journey continues!
Matt Wakefield, Museum CEO