The Colonel Stephens Railway Museum
Recording the Career of Holman Fred Stephens, Light RailwayPromoter,
Engineer and Manager, His Family, His Railways and His Successors.
An Outstanding Collection Of Memorabilia
The collection was first displayed in the Town Museum in Station Road, Tenterden which was opened in 1977 in what were once the railway stables. The opening of a new display in a building in premises adjacent to the station at Tenterden was a great step forward when it opened in stages between 1996 and 1998. Display and interpretation could be vastly improved and documents stored on one site. Sufficient space was now available to display a locomotive, even if it was the smallest standard gauge locomotive in Britain, the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire locomotive 'Gazelle'.
The present display is designed to inform and entertain a general non-specialist visitor through displays and models for an hour.
The collection began in the 1960s largely through the foresight of Philip Shaw, present Chairman of the Museum Committee, who began putting aside items donated by former employees of the Stephen's empire. W H Austen junior in particular, was a considerable source of material, much of which he had inherited from his father who was so long Stephens’ assistant.
Following nationalisation in 1948 and the closure of Colonel Stephens' office at Salford Terrace, Tonbridge, a large chest was stuffed with papers relating to the various companies and this sat unopened for 30 years or so in the porch of William Austen's home. It proved to be a veritable treasure trove of papers and small artefacts. We must be thankful that other employees also retained material from the offices, because everything else was taken away and burnt.
Fortunately, a large number of personal relics of Colonel Stephens have survived including nearly all the furniture and paraphernalia of his office, a representation of which may be seen in the Museum as a representation of the Colonel's Office. This includes his roll-top desk and office chair, wicker filing trays, ledgers, pictures, rubber stamps, brief case and even pens, pencils and pieces of chalk. We also have the Colonel's drawing table and stool, his stationery cabinet, and his drawing office and surveying equipment.
Other bygones of the great man have also remarkably survived and most may be seen - his masonic regalia, bible, camera, family snapshots, pocket watches, walking sticks, vesta case, and his cigar case containing the last unsmoked cigar at the time of his death.
The archive collection embraces material from all the 16 railways associated with Colonel Stephens and a general selection of artefacts may be seen in the Museum. It is only a selection because lack of space prevents more being displayed.
Hidden behind the public display is the heart of the research section, the historical papers and un-displayed artefacts dating from about the 1880s occupy 20 steel cabinet filing drawers and some 60 metres of racking. Included are timetable posters, trespass signs, nameplates, permanent way materials, documents, tickets, notices and a host of other miscellaneous items. A particular prize is the collection of Stephens family letters and papers spanning nearly 50 years.
The photographic archive is considerable, though seldom are we given original negatives. Although not yet counted, there are probably somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 photographs, the earliest of which were in the Colonel’s collection. We receive many requests for copies of photographs but quite frankly we just do not have the time to provide such a service. We co-operate with a limited number of established authors and photographs acknowledged to "Colonel Stephens Railway Archives" come from the Tenterden archives.
In recent years, a reference library of books on light railway subjects has been put together and this now numbers in excess of 200 titles.
Although it might be possible to supply copies of drawings of buildings, locomotives and rolling stock a good source of these is the Colonel Stephens Society's site at www.colonelstephenssociety.co.uk/Drawings.html
Although the Museum directly owns most of the collection, a few items are on loan from the National Railway Museum and a few individuals. Owners are now beginning to make rather more permanent arrangements by transferring ownership to the care of the new Museum Committee which has total control of the collection and is bound to retain the items it owns in the collection.
The museum is reliant on income from Donations and sales to cover rent, acquisitions, conservation, framing, display materials, photography, stationery, photocopying etc. We make a little go a long way but even so, without the occasional private donation of material we could not achieve as much as we do.