The history of Hollycombe from the estate to Britain's largest collection of working steam

The South Downs view from the Quarry Railway

The Hollycombe Estate

The Hollycombe Steam Collection takes its name from the Hollycombe estate which a century ago covered 4,000 acres, much of which can be seen from the Quarry Railway. At about this time, the superb gardens were planted with over a million trees.

Commander Baldock with Emperor

The Collection

In 1951, the estate was purchased by the late John Baldock and his family and it is through them that the steam collection began. Mr Baldock developed a love of steam power at a very early age and, following the end of the Second World War, he realised that many road steam engines were being scrapped with indecent haste, so started saving them at a time when their value was little more than as scrap. The first engine to arrive was the Burrell tractor Sunset No.2 which has now been at Hollycombe for over 50 years.

In the 1960s, he started saving traditional fairground rides before these beautifully decorated rides and organs, and their engines, disappeared under the onslaught of petrol and diesel lorries, chromium plate and blaring loudspeakers. Among the rides saved were several which are unique or the sole survivors of their type.

Aboard the Hollycombe miniature Garden Railway

Opening to the Public

From these beginnings, Mr Baldock felt encouraged to open his growing collection to the public but this took four years of struggling to achieve. It was possible to open the collection to the public for 28 days in the year without planning consent and that was how it all started, but the need to open on more days meant trying to get planning approval on a more formal basis which was rejected.

At last, the right to open for a restricted number of days was won, which in fact covered most Sundays and Bank Holidays in the season.

Hollycombe opened to the public in 1971 and for ten years was enjoyed by many thousands of visitors but, at the end of the 1981 season with ever rising costs, the fairground rides were sold and Hollycombe settled into a lesser existence and soldiered on for another three years until at the end of 1984 Mr Baldock made the sad decision that the collection had to close.

Hollycombe fairground

The Working Steam Museum

However, this was not the end, for six weeks before Easter 1985, the volunteer drivers made an agreement with Mr Baldock to take over the running of Hollycombe. Thus was born the Hollycombe Steam & Woodland Garden Society which ran Hollycombe until about ten years ago. This was a society of unpaid volunteers, quite a few of whom have been at Hollycombe since before the society was formed.

It had always concerned both Mr Baldock and society members what the future would hold after he passed on. For a number of years he had worked hard to set up a charitable trust to which ownership of the collection at Hollycombe could be transferred. The trust, the Hollycombe Working Steam Museum, was formed in 1997 and an application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to purchase most of the collection from Mr Baldock. After a year, and careful consideration of the
case, the good news that a grant had been made was announced in July 1998 and ownership of much of the collection passed to the trust late in 1998.

Today many of the same volunteers who were part of the original society that ran the museum for many years, still volunteer today along with many new ones, while some have become trustees and oversee the day to day management of the museum.

Visitor Centre

Future Education

Further applications to the HLF resulted first in a grant to erect a building in which the fairground rides can be stored during the winter period (the green building beyond the Quarry Railway), and, more recently, a grant to improve the educational facilities available at Hollycombe to enable the history of steam power in a rural setting to be told.

Without history there is no future and, although steam as a major source of power has gone out of favour after 250 years, it is still the way in which the majority of electricity in the United Kingdom is generated, as well as being important in many industrial processes. However, here at Hollycombe, it is the various uses to which steam power was used in the countryside that we focus on.

The HLF grant has enabled Hollycombe‚Äôs educational and visitor facilities to be modernised and, more than 45 years after Hollycombe first opened, we continue to look forward to the exciting challenges which lie ahead, while remembering the achievements of the past.