Iron awe

We speak to the chief executive of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Nick Ralls, about disaster management and why he’s so captivated by industrial heritage
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Eleanor Mills
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Nick Ralls
Nick Ralls Photography by Phil Sayer

The Iron Bridge, the cast-iron marvel that wowed a nation in 1781, and is now billed as the birthplace of industry, is the icon that draws visitors to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire. The bridge is the jewel in the site’s crown, but the River Severn that this famous structure spans recently burst its banks.

Depending on how you view the situation, it was either appalling or brilliant luck that Nick Ralls had become the new chief executive of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust just two months before parts of the site were substantially flooded.

Appalling luck because Ralls barely had time to get his feet under the table before having to cope with the crisis. But fantastic luck because he has experience of dealing with a flooded historic site from his previous role as the general manager of Severn Valley Railway. The railway was hit by floods on 19 June 2007, just a few days before he was about to start work there. “It was a massive rain event, which washed bits of the steam heritage railway away in about 45 areas, nine of which were severe,” says Ralls.

Within two months of him starting his role at Ironbridge, the site was affected by a similar catastrophe. Storm Ciara, swiftly followed by Storm Dennis, hit the UK in February. The River Severn burst its banks, with floodwater rising to nearly seven metres at their peak. The deluge engulfed two of the museums that Ralls oversees: the Museum of the Gorge in Ironbridge and the Coalport China Museum.

Luckily, the other eight – Blists Hill Victorian Town, Enginuity, Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, Darby Houses, the Tar Tunnel, Broseley Pipeworks and the Iron Bridge and Tollhouse – are relatively unscathed.

Ironbridge Gorge, an internationally important industrial heritage site, is run by 200 staff and 500 volunteers. Through industrialists such as Abraham Darby, William Reynolds and John Wilkinson, by the close of the 18th century it had become the most technologically advanced area in the world. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1986.

Crisis management

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“In terms of dealing with disaster, I have been through it before, but the timing of the floods at Ironbridge over the February half-term was pretty bad,” says Ralls. “We are now dealing with lost revenues and, of course, museum repair and conservation.”

The Museum of the Gorge, one of the flooded venues, houses a large and very detailed scale model of the gorge, depicted in the early 18th century, showing the burgeoning industries. It’s a highlight of the museum, which also displays a variety of highly crafted objects from all of those flourishing early industries – china, tiles, pots, ironwork. “All the collections were protected as far as possible, but that model needs some repair now,” says Ralls. “That alone is £5,000.”

Ralls, a dab hand at fundraising – he had to generate £3.8m within his first nine months at the railway – says that however much experience you have, dealing with a natural disaster always brings fresh challenges.

“It’s a difficult message to communicate that the majority of our museums are open when the Environment Agency has been saying there is risk to life in the gorge, implying that we are completely closed for business,” he says. “We are dealing with the aftermath of the floods though – and the best way people can help is by visiting.”

Of course, floods are one thing, but the coronavirus pandemic is another. Since this interview took place, all of the trust’s museums have been closed as part of the Covid-19 lockdown.

A model of the Brunels Ironbridge in the Museum of the Gorge

Railway nerd

So how did Ralls get to where he is now? He is a history enthusiast and, while he was growing up in Worcestershire, his parents took the family to every historic site possible.

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“Without wanting to sound like a railway nerd, my father is a steam enthusiast and we used to go on the Severn Valley Railway as kids – so I’ve always had a knowledge of steam locomotion,” he says. “I’m no anorak, but I have a bit of background.”

After studying history at the University of Liverpool, Ralls volunteered at Liverpool Museum, working on a Neolithic plinth collection before doing a master’s in museum studies at Leicester. “For one of my essays, I interviewed David de Haan, who was then the deputy director of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust,” he recalls. “That was my first visit to Ironbridge and I was amazed. It was gobsmacking to see the bridge, and you realise just how much heritage surrounds it.”

Right to the core

Ralls was about 26 at the time. “It was one of those butterfly moments when you realise you’re somewhere special, you know it in your DNA, and you realise why you’re following the path you are.”

He started off with a job as house steward at Speke Hall, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Liverpool. “I had my own flat within Speke Hall, which is a lovely black and white Tudor courtyard building, but with the challenge of being right next to Liverpool airport.”

He moved from there to Lyme Park, another National Trust property, to become house and collections manager, and then on to property manager at Rufford Old Hall in Lancashire. Ralls was then curator manager at Birmingham Museums from 2002 to 2007. “My first role there was multi-site – Weoley Castle, a ruined, small castle in Birmingham; Sarehole Mill, a working mill that has connections to JRR Tolkien, who used to live next door; and Blakesley Hall, a small, jettied Tudor property in Yardley.”

In 2006, Ralls was appointed curator manager of the Jacobean property Aston Hall, also run by Birmingham Museums.

He then became the general manager at the Severn Valley Railway in 2007, where there was an army of 1,700 passionate volunteers, as well as 140 staff. Ralls stayed there for 12 years and is very attached to the place.

“I’ve been known to put on a guard’s uniform,” he says. “I’m still a volunteer guard there, so I make sure passengers are safe when they get on and off the platform. And I give the driver the tip to start the train out. There’s an element of shunting too, when you have to split the trains in two and get between the carriages and shackle.”

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Finger on the pulse

Ralls visits all 10 Ironbridge sites regularly, checking on staff morale and monitoring that things are all going smoothly.

“It’s the people that ran our railways, the workers who smelted iron here. The people who pioneered new smelting processes for the first time and started producing cast iron of the quality that could be used on the bridge,” he says. “It’s that lineage that really fascinates me – the interaction and inventiveness of people through history.”

Ralls is overjoyed to be the chief executive of the incredible Ironbridge site. But with some hefty fundraising needed to help the two museums that were hit by the floods, and the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which is having such a huge impact across the heritage sector, Ralls seems to have the iron will to overcome these challenges.

Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust at glance

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Shropshire, was established in 1967 to preserve and interpret the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the Ironbridge Gorge.

The trust oversees 35 historic sites, including 10 museums: Blists Hill Victorian Town; Enginuity; Jackfield Tile Museum; Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron; Coalport China Museum; the Museum of the Gorge; Darby Houses; Tar Tunnel; the Iron Bridge and Toll Tunnel; and Broseley Pipeworks.

On top of that, the trust comprises archaeological sites; two chapels; housing; two Quaker burial grounds; a research library; a tourist information centre; woodland; and two youth hostels.

Ironbridge Gorge is run by 200 staff and 500 volunteers. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1986.

 

Nick Ralls at a glance

Nick Ralls has been the chief executive of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust since December 2019.

Ralls studied history at Liverpool University, followed by an MA in museum studies at Leicester University.

He was employed as house steward at Speke Hall, run by the National Trust, before becoming collections manager.

He then worked at Lyme Park, and Rufford Old Hall, both part of the National Trust.

Ralls became curator manager at Birmingham Museums in 2002 and stayed there for five years. In 2007, he was appointed general manager at the Severn Valley Railway where he stayed until joining Ironbridge.

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