Obituary: John Coiley
Thursday 28 May 1998
In his 17 years in charge of the National Railway Museum in York, the museum achieved a stature and authority without precedent in the fields of railway history and preservation. But it was his personal qualities that characterised his administration and inspired profound affection and respect among colleagues and friends as well as those of the wider public who came to appreciate and benefit from his achievements.
Coiley was born in 1932 and educated at Beckenham and Penge Grammar School and Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he obtained his BA and later a PhD in metallurgy. His early career was with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, at Harwell, followed by a period in industry as a development manager. Recruited in 1973 to the Science Museum in London, he presided over the crucial stages in the setting up of the new railway museum in York. He brought with him a life-long interest in and knowledge of railways and arrived in the museum as the York initiative was beginning to take shape.
The National Railway Museum resulted directly from the 1968 Transport Act which established that the British Railways Board should transfer responsibility for its outstanding historic railway collection to the Department of Education and Science, which in that context meant the Science Museum.
After prolonged deliberation on the future location of the collection, the Minister, Jennie Lee, in the debate on the Bill on 5 December 1968, said that, "to have one really first-class museum at York is in the best interest of the people generally, and it is in keeping with government policy that we should have some high points of excellence outside London as well as inside".
That decision set the scene for the first major national collection to be housed outside London, as an outstation of the Science Museum, and set a precedent that other museums continue to follow.
In 1974 Coiley was appointed Keeper of the new museum and led the immense task of transferring to York the collections, then largely housed in the Museum of British Transport in Clapham, south London, and installing the displays in the converted building. He saw the museum through its successful opening by the Duke of Edinburgh on 27 September 1975, the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
The museum was an instant success. Visitor numbers exceeded all expectations, bringing numerous awards and playing an important part in transforming York's tourism economy. A new standard had been set against which railway and transport museums would be judged internationally.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the collections continued to grow under the terms of a condition in the 1968 Act which gave the museum the right to claim redundant railway material. This could have been a recipe for unfettered acquisition but under Coiley's thoughtful leadership, the museum established a selective and carefully prioritised collecting policy from which it has continued to derive huge benefits.
Additional premises were acquired, notably the Railway Goods Depot across Leeman Road. By the mid-1980s plans were well advanced for its opening, thereby almost doubling the size of the museum, when serious structural problems were encountered with the concrete roof of the original hall.
A major programme was launched to replace the roof, but the core of the National Railway Collection stayed on public display throughout these works by the transfer of material to two transport exhibitions, one in York and one in Swindon. Coiley guided the museum through these turbulent affairs with quiet authority to enjoy the accolade in 1991 of the National Railway Museum gaining the Museum of the Year Award.
Within the railway community, Coiley's name was linked inescapably with that of the National Railway Museum. Wherever the museum was involved, his courtly and considerate presence impressed itself. All who came into contact with him felt that they had made a new friend, both of Coiley and of the museum. One result was that for those who harboured an interest in railways the museum was "theirs" in a manner unknown in most other fields.
Coiley retired in January 1992, on the eve of the next stage of expansion, leaving behind a museum which was by then the most significant in its field anywhere in the world. Although finances were becoming overstretched, under Coiley's careful management the museum had been able to develop its photographic archives and pictorial collections, sustain a programme of conservation of locomotives and rolling stock and expand its programme of loans to other museums throughout the country.
To coincide with his retirement, a group of his friends and colleagues wrote and edited a Festschrift, Perspectives on Railway History and Interpretation, as a mark of the high regard in which they held him.
The growing international status of the museum had been reflected in Coiley's contribution to the International Association of Transport Museums. After his retirement, his devotion to the museum continued through his vigorous support for the Friends of the National Railway Museum. He was an honoured guest at the 21st anniversary dinner of the Friends just a few days before his untimely death from a heart attack at Chur, Switzerland where, characteristically, he was leading a group exploring the delights of alpine railways.
John Coiley's gentle manner masked a great sense of fun. He was an accomplished photographer, a lover of fast cars and sometime rally driver but his real achievement was to ensure that in the country of origin of the railway as we know it, there should be a national museum of stature in which its history, technology and contemporary practice could be properly portrayed.
John Arthur Coiley, museum curator: born 29 March 1932; Scientific Officer, UKAEA, Harwell 1957-60; Scientific Officer, Aeon Laboratories, Egham 1960- 65; Development Manager, Fulmer Research Laboratories 1965-73; Assistant Keeper, Science Museum 1973-74; Keeper, National Railway Museum, York 1974-92; Member of the Board, International Association of Transport Museums 1977-91, President 1983-86, Vice-President 1986-91; married 1956 Patsy Dixon (two sons, one daughter); died Chur, Switzerland 22 May 1998.
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