Enjoy a sneak preview as Beamish Museum 1950s town starts to take shape

As Beamish’s new 1950s town begins to take shape, we’ve had an exclusive sneak preview of what visitors can expect to see as attractions near completion at the award-winning museum.

The Front Street terrace, which is due to open to the public in February 2022, includes a reconstruction of a fish and chip shop from Middleton St George near Darlington, John’s Cafe and ice cream parlour from Wingate, and Elizabeth’s Hair Salon which was originally in Middlesbrough.

Assistant Director of the Remaking Beamish project, Helen Barker said: “The cafe was owned by Giovanni Baptista Parisella, who became known locally as John. It was decked out with 1950s style booths and had a Wurlitzer jukebox which made it very popular with local teenagers at the time.

"John was also famous for his ice creams which the miners used to really enjoy as it gave them something cool to eat as they came out of the pit.”

Helen Barker, Assistant Director for Remaking Beamish, prepares to welcome visitors to the new 1950s street at Beamish Museum.

Of Italian descent, John passed away in 2006 but it’s now hoped his memory – and regionally renowned ice cream – will live on as the cafe prepares for opening.

Helen added: “When visitors come into John’s they’ll be able to get ice cream made in a traditional ice cream maker. They can also get traditional fish and chips from the chip shop which will be cooked over an original gas range.”

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Also taking pride of place on the street is a reconstruction of the Spennymoor residence of famous miner turned artist, Norman Cornish.

Beamish Team Leader of Joinery, Shawn Kay and joiner Tory Mills apply the finishing touches to the 1950,s booths at John's Cafe.

The traditional pitman’s home was originally located on Bishop’s Close Street and has been recreated using old photographs and the guidance of Norman’s children, John and Anne.

Helen said: “At this time the toilet would have been outside and there was still no bathroom – it would have been a case of a tin bath in front of the fire. The 1950s saw the arrival of new electrical goods like televisions and washing machines but most families would not have been able to afford them.

"In the 1950s Norman was becoming more well known as an artist and he had that extra income from selling his paintings and so his house was a little bit more stylish; he was able to afford extra things within the house.

"However the house didn’t have a refrigerator and food would still have been stored in the pantry. He had an easel in the main bedroom where he did a lot of his paintings.”

John, as he became known locally, in his cafe in the 1950s.

Also beginning to take shape on the other side of the town, though not due to open until 2023, is a row of 1950s style semi-detached houses which have been recreated from Hylton Redhouse in Sunderland, including a police house in the middle of the street.

Helen said: “It was common at the time for the local bobby to live on the street among the residents. As well as being a home it would have had an office and was the epitome of community policing.”

Work has also commenced on the bowling green and sports pavilion, which is a replica from Billingham, and is due to open on June 1 next year to coincide with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

When Beamish opened in 1970, the Edwardian town was still within the living memory of many visitors. In keeping with the museum’s mantra of “Living History”, the creation of the 1950s town will restore Beamish to within the lifespan of many older visitors.

Lisa Powell, an engager from Hebburn, and Regan Inglis from Consett enjoy a socially distanced Rock and Roll dance in the 1950s Community Hall at Beamish Museum.

Helen said: “When Frank Atkinson founded the museum he wanted to create time periods that were in living memory of visitors and capture a way of life that was disappearing. With Remaking Beamish we’ve gone back to that idea of collecting a way of life that is almost disappearing by asking people who remember the 1950s to donate objects, memories and their stories to build a whole new time period at the museum.”

It’s a sentiment shared by visitor, Stephanie Artress, 77, who was at school in the 1950s, and was visiting the community centre which is a replica of the one built in Leasingthorne Colliery, near Bishop Aukland in 1957.

Stephanie said: “I was peering through the fence at the development so far and it really does jog a lot of memories of my childhood. I’m here with my 14-year-old grandson and it’s really important for him to see how things work and what things were like when I was his age.

"It really does bring history to life.”

Completion of the project will also see the development of an electrical store, miners retirement cottages, period farmhouse – “transported stone by stone from Weardale” - and toy store from Rommer Parish in Middlesbrough.

The original panelling and booths in John's Cafe.

Helen said: “The electrical store was a big thing at the time as the 50s was a golden age for the arrival of household gadgets. The toy store will also include lots of donated toys from that period.

"Work is also underway on the reconstruction of The Grand cinema from Ryhope which will be constructed from the materials transported from the original building. We hope to show classic movies from the 1950s for people watch on selected evenings.”

With the farm also due to open in February, the £21.5million project is “really starting to come to life”.

Helen added: “We are opening things gradually, but we expect everything to be open by summer 2023. All of the buildings have been selected by surveys we have carried out with the public about what they want to see recreated.

"We are so excited about this development. It’s the first time the museum has ever undertaken a development on this scale to create a whole new time period in one build.

"I’m really excited to see things starting to open and I can’t wait to get everything underway.”

The project was awarded a £10.9million grant by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a Capital Kickstart award of £975,500 from the Government’s £1.57billion Culture Recovery Fund.

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Beamish Museum visitors Harvey Brown, 53, and his mother Stephanie Artress, 77, enjoy visiting a reconstruction of Leasingthorne Colliery Welfare Hall and Community Centre. Stephanie said the experience brought back memories of her childhood.
Helen Barker, Assistant Director for Remaking Beamish, inspects the 1950's Glow-worm range in the recreated house of famous artist and miner Norman Cornish.