Mark Smith is living his dream. Ever since he was a child, he’s always been enamoured of "anything with wings or wheels". Now, he's working with vehicles most days, as a trustee of Ipswich Transport Museum and one of about 250 people who look after an impressive collection of historical transport and engineering items, all of them locally connected. 

Mark has been involved with the museum since joining as an 18-year-old volunteer in 1990, when it was being established by what he describes as a "visionary group of enlightened enthusiasts". 

“Set up in the 60s, the Ipswich Transport Preservation Group realised that some of the stuff they grew up with, vehicles which dated back before the Second World War, were gradually disappearing from the streets and being replaced by new ones." In 1965, the group bought an old Dennis Ace bus, with the intention of restoring it and taking it to the London to Brighton Run the following year. 

“It never did make it," says Mark. "However, in the meantime, the group started collecting other vehicles, such as a fire engine and a Ransomes electric lorry. I describe it as a hobby that got out of hand. Throughout the `60s and `70s, this growing collection of stuff was stored in barns, fields, orchards – basically anywhere they could blag and borrow space.” 

Great British Life: Dream come true: Ipswich Transport Museum was started by an enthusiastic group of collectors.Dream come true: Ipswich Transport Museum was started by an enthusiastic group of collectors. (Image: Charlotte Bond)

The group's ambition was to set up a permanent transport museum, and finally made their dreams reality in 1990. “That’s when we opened the doors to the public, and we’ve grown from there really,” adds Mark. As an accredited museum, run by volunteers, with collections curated and cared for in accordance with nationally recognised standards, the museum welcomes around 10,000 visitors a year. Many come from all over the country to see more than 200 years of local transport history and heritage on display.

“We’ve got pieces in the collection like horse-drawn carriages from the late 1700s and early 1800s," says Mark. "Moving on from that, we’ve got trams and electric trolleybuses, which takes us up to the 50s, and after that we’ve got the motor bus collection.”

Great British Life: Emergency vehicles from an earlier era are part of the collection.Emergency vehicles from an earlier era are part of the collection. (Image: Charlotte Bond)

Great British Life: An early Ipswich Corporation tram, beautifully restored.An early Ipswich Corporation tram, beautifully restored. (Image: Charlotte Bond)

There's a huge range of emergency vehicles, such as early fire engines, ambulances and a police car, while the Ipswich Engineering Collection displays items from familiar local companies including Ransomes Sims and Jefferies, Ransomes and Rapier, Cranes, Reavell, and Cocksedge. The display brings together historic cranes, fork lift trucks, lawnmowers and intricate models. 

“Those engineering firms made all sorts of things, like agriculture machinery, compressors, cranes, forklifts, combine harvesters, and even a compressor for a nuclear submarine made by Reavell. You wouldn’t believe the things made and designed in Ipswich. It really was a big part of our past, and certainly between the First and Second World Wars there was a real period of growth in engineering in Ipswich. It’s important to show people what the town used to be like, and to tell stories about it and its past.” 

The collection also includes bicycles, prams, lorries, and a funeral hearse, supported by smaller exhibits and transport ephemera. With such an extensive and impressive collection, how do Mark and the team get their hands on such gems?  “Most are donated to us, but some have been acquired for nominal sums,” he explains. Most of what the museum has on display has been restored and much is in working order.  

“One of the vehicles we’ve just restored is a 1951 Co-op battery-electric coal lorry that came out of service in 1981. It was completely derelict when the museum got hold of it a couple of years later, and a gang of volunteers have spent the last five years restoring it to working order. One of the trolleybuses we have in the museum collection was actually someone’s house, after it finished service in 1933, and wasn’t brought in to us until 1977. These vehicles have quite an interesting afterlife, as well as their service life, and that’s all part of the story we try to tell here.” 

Great British Life: The museum features 200 years of transport history from horse drawn carriages to 1950s buses.The museum features 200 years of transport history from horse drawn carriages to 1950s buses. (Image: Charlotte Bond)

Great British Life: Vintage bicycles are part of the collectionVintage bicycles are part of the collection (Image: Charlotte Bond)

Other highlights include a 1923 Railless trolleybus, the oldest restored vehicle of its kind in the UK, and local fire engines from the 1930s. “Our 1938 fire engine was the first one which had a roof and was enclosed, so when the fireman travelled to and from the fire, they didn’t get wet if it rained.” 

Great British Life: A newly restored Electric Co-op coal delivery vehicle.A newly restored Electric Co-op coal delivery vehicle. (Image: Charlotte Bond)

For avid enthusiasts and newcomers alike, the museum offers opportunities to get on board some of the vehicles, as passengers, at least. “You can actually get on some of the buses, or sit on a fire engine and ring the bell. We also have special events throughout the year, where people can have the opportunity to ride them." There are regular open days and events, such as at Christmas and Easter, and the Ipswich to Felixstowe Historic Vehicle Run and Rally in May, which is now in its 51st year. "All organised by museum volunteers,” says Mark, proudly. 

Where & when

Ipswich Transport Museum
The Old Trolleybus Depot
Cobham Road, Ipswich, IP3 9JD 

The museum re-opens Sunday, March 19, 2023

For group, school and college visits contact: tel: 01473 715666