From the tracks to the table—staff at the National Railway Museum are marking the ten-year anniversary of railway archive Search Engine by baking a cake from an original recipe belonging to railway pioneer George Stephenson.
Found inside Stephenson’s Household Book dating from the 1840s, the hand-written recipe for Cumberland Cake was one of several cake recipes, suggesting George had something of a sweet tooth. The book also included instructions for making ‘English Champagne’, fine ales and other less appealing items such as ‘calf foot gilly’.
The book is one of many items to be added to the National Railway Museum’s collection since Search Engine opened, which now includes more than 1,000 paintings, 2,350 prints and drawings and 1.75m photographs. Launched in 2008 at a cost of £4m, including £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund—thanks to lottery players—Search Engine was a new project to open up access to the museum’s archive collection. Since opening more than 350,000 people have used the facility.
The National Railway Museum houses an unparalleled history of original engineering drawings charting the development of steam engines through the ages including early drawings of George Stephenson’s record-breaking Rocket.
The collection covers everything from 11,000 railway travel posters advertising destinations from Iona to Ilfracombe, to numerous railway archives—one civil defence record even describes plans to keep the railways running during a nuclear attack.
Archivist Alison Kay said:
“Search Engine has been tremendously successful in opening up and revealing hidden treasures from the collection. From technical drawings being used to restore famous steam locomotives, to researchers looking for accurate period details, to families searching for details of their loved ones, Search Engine has made a real impact on many people’s lives.”
As well as the public library and research centre on a balcony overlooking the museum’s famous Great Hall, the launch included a significant upgrade to storage facilities, ensuring that collection items are suitably preserved. Behind the scenes, there have been many long-running projects to catalogue new and existing material and to digitise as much of the archive as possible. As a result, 88 full archives are now available online.
Since 2008, dedicated volunteers have spent thousands of hours documenting and caring for the collection as well as answering public enquiries.
Search Engine is widely used by researchers and academics and the museum runs a collaborative doctoral programme benefiting numerous students.
An important part of the collection comprises almost 60,000 company documents and technical drawings from many of the UK’s former railways manufacturing works at Wolverton, Doncaster, Swindon and Stratford.
These have been used extensively by heritage railways and modern-day engineers to restore and overhaul famous steam locomotives such as Flying Scotsman, Tornado and Sir Nigel Gresley, and to help build the new Gresley class P2 No. 2007 Prince of Wales.
Library Services Supervisor Peter Thorpe, one of three members of staff to have worked at Search Engine since 2008, said:
“The Stephenson Household Book originally belonged to George Stephenson’s second wife and it is an example of the many fascinating and historically important items in the collection. The book itself is in need of restoration and arrived at the museum in such a fragile state that it is too delicate to be read by the public. We will be launching a fundraising campaign later in the year to give people access to this unique document once again.
“I am immensely proud that this facility is being used so extensively and that the public have access to our vast collection without charge. I would like to thank all our supporters and our visitors for their contribution over the last decade.”
Known as the ‘Father of the Railways’, George Stephenson developed Locomotion No.1, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public line, as well as building the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 after his engine Rocket famously won the Rainhill Trials of 1829.
George Stephenson’s cake was faithfully recreated by Michel Logan, Head Baker at the museum’s award-winning Countess of York, using authentic but fresh ingredients.
Search Engine is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday, 10.00–17.30. The library collection is free to access, and appointments are not necessary, although requests to view archive material must be booked at least one week in advance. To make an enquiry or a booking, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since opening, Search Engine has been supported by the Friends of the National Railway Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and the Higher Education Funding Council England.
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About the National Railway Museum
- The National Railway Museum in York has the largest collection of railway objects in the world and attracts more than 700,000 visitors per year
- The collection includes over 260 locomotives and rolling stock, 600 coins and medals as well as railway uniform and costume, equipment, documents, records, artwork and photographs
- The National Railway Museum’s vast art collection comprises over 11,000 posters, 2,300 prints and drawings, 1,000 paintings, and 1,750,000 photographs
- The National Railway Museum forms part of the Science Museum Group, along with the Science Museum in London, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and Locomotion in Shildon