Museum Piece

Why was I wandering around an industrial estate in Birkenhead last weekend with my friend Scott? The answer may surprise you!

I was here to visit the Bloom Building, an events space on the edge of Birkenhead town centre, conveniently located between Cammell Laird shipyard and the Queensway Tunnel toll plaza. The event this space was hosting on 25th March was The Big Chat about the Transport Shed from National Museums Liverpool (NML).

Exterior of Bloom Building, an industrial corrugated metal building painted in blue and yellow with bright patterns.

The subject of the event was NML’s extensive Land Transport collection, which includes more than 200 items. As part of the event, there were activities for kids, a guitarist playing transport-related pop songs – a thankless task when no-one in the room was paying the slightest bit of attention – and trinkets from the museum’s collection on show.

The main attraction, though, was a talk given by senior persons at NML, about some exciting plans that they have for the future of the collection.

If you’ve been to the Museum of Liverpool, you will have seen Lion, one of the early steam locomotives from the pioneering days of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and Liverpool Overhead Railway carriage No.7, dating from the 1890s. The problem is, NML has many more objects which they simply do not have room to put on public display. The basement of the old Liverpool Museum (now World Museum Liverpool) used to have a small gallery of transport exhibits, but that disappeared when the museum was renovated in the early 2000s. Large objects were formerly displayed at the imaginatively named Large Objects Collection at Princes Dock, but since that closed in the late 1980s they have been hidden away in a warehouse in Bootle.

These include treasures like Cecil Raikes, a steam locomotive which worked the Mersey Railway between Liverpool and Birkenhead – until someone noticed that having tank engines belching out smoke was not a good idea on an underground railway. There are replica Liverpool & Manchester Railway carriages built by the LMS for the railway’s centenary in 1930.

Road vehicles are represented too, with numerous examples of road vehicles – horse-drawn carriages, steam-powered lorries, motorbikes, bicycles, cars.

Photos of steam powered vehicles, including a steam lorry and a traction engine

There are examples of emergency service vehicles, showing how police, fire and ambulance services have evolved over the past century. There are also some downright quirky items in the collection, including the “Mersey Tunnel Scrubbers” which, as the name suggests, were used to clean the interior of the Mersey Road Tunnels.

Mersey Tunnel Scrubbers, lorry-type vehicles with giant brushes that extend to tunnel roof height.

It’s not right that these exhibits are hidden away from the viewing public, and NML intends to correct this. The Transport Shed is a proposed new museum in Birkenhead which will become the new home for many of these objects. In a rare example of levelling-up funding going where it is needed, instead of into affluent Tory-voting shire towns, Birkenhead has received £25m of “Town Deal” funding from the Government, part of which will go towards this new museum.

As part of the presentation, we got to see the plans and some artist’s impressions were passed around. It’s difficult to judge from a picture, but the proposals looked really good to me – a big space for these numerous vehicles to be displayed and enjoyed by the public, as they should be.

The museum will be built on part of the old Birkenhead Dock Branch, a freight line through the town which has been disused since the early 1990s. Inspired by the High Line in New York, the old line will be converted into a linear park for walking and cycling, with the museum as one of the key features. There are certain people who are very unhappy that the old line is being built on, but realistically the chances of it reopening were always slim, and at the moment it is just an overgrown, unpleasant eyesore right in the centre of Birkenhead. It deserves to be opened up to be used by people other than flytippers.

The new museum is completely separate from the Heritage Tramway and Wirral Transport Museum, which were recently taken over by Big Heritage, the organisation which runs Western Approaches and several other attractions around the region. Big Heritage reportedly has big plans of its own, and hopefully the two attractions can complement each other.

The Transport Shed is expected to open in 2026. If you can’t wait that long, there is a rare opportunity to see the Land Transport Collection store on 4th May 2023. Tickets are £20 from National Museums Liverpool and must be booked in advance.