One from the Archive – When Ipswich could have had a Dockland Museum for £5 million pounds!

Quite a striking theme for this blog post wouldn’t you say. But it’s true! Back in 1987 Ipswich could have had a Transport and Technology Museum built right in the heart of the waterfront. On the 14th April 1987 plans were unveiled for the development of the 15-acre Island Site into a museum complex. A joint venture between the Ipswich Maritime Trust and the Ipswich Transport Museum.

Aerial View of the Wet Dock and Island Site in 1982 – Russell Whipps – IMT Image Archive

The study document that now resides in our archive, is itself now a part of Ipswich’s maritime history. Added to the long list of planned developments in Ipswich that never left the drawing board. Within the document the museum complex would concentrate on 3 areas: maritime history, land transport and industrial archaeology. The complex would welcome millions of visitors every year and include recreated historic street scenes, craft workshops, a library and archives, exhibition displays, a marine art gallery and restaurant.

Our Chair back in 1987, Paul Granville promoted the project in a local newspaper article as a viable development.

Newspaper Article announcing the museum plan – 14th April 1987

In the wake of the Maritime Ipswich 82 event when the Ipswich Maritime Trust was formed, a sub-committee was created to examine the possibility of a establishing a Maritime Museum in Ipswich. This led to joint discussions with the Ipswich Transport Museum and an extensive study commenced. The document produced by this team was titled;

‘Initial Report of the joint working party of the Ipswich Maritime Trust Limited and the Ipswich Transport Museum Limited on the proposal for a major museum centre in the Wet Dock area’.

It is 22 pages and sets out the background for the development. The variety of elements that make up the plan include the staff structures, costings as well as an imagined tour of the museum complex.

We have highlighted some of the key parts within the plan below. What do you think of them?

Front cover of the study document


A large complex was considered and a site of a minimum of 3 acres was required, centring upon a prestige building of architectural stature with a focus on the Maritime History, History of Land Transport and Industrial Archaeology of Ipswich and East Anglia. The complex was intended to use the most advanced technology of display and realisation, to have a working character and be financially self-supporting.

Other key factors were needed for the complex including a readily-accessible central water-side site to allow full-size craft to lie alongside. Plus enough space for expansion and to allow for vehicle movements. 2 possible sites considered were the Old Customs House and the fly-ash tip at Cliff Quay. The first was ruled out due to its small size and limited access being located on a one way system. The second ruled out due to its remoteness from the town centre.

The Island Site therefore became a natural choice in the late 1980s. Due to the reduction in its use as a cargo handling area of the Port of Ipswich, which had mainly moved to the West Bank and Cliff Quay, the fact it occupied a central position in the town, and had extensive quays. The only problems raised were the disposal of sewage and the problem of car parking, that were difficult but not insurmountable. The summary stated;

The study group firmly believes that the island is the best for its purposes and that development would not only play a major part in the rescue and restoration of a semi-derelict area but would also be thoroughly in accord with the Boroughs notions of a full and proper role for this very significant area.’

It is even more obvious today that Suffolk and East Anglia are important tourist destinations. Though the report rightly highlighted that the museum complex could only enhance the amenities of Ipswich and strengthen its claim to tourist paramountcy in East Anglia.

Elements of complex:

‘We plan the heart of the complex to be a prestige building of a character appropriate to the environment, to be surrounded by authentically re-created streets and workshop areas in which people will be at work at appropriate crafts and trades. Where possible existing buildings such as the harbour masters house should be incorporated. We contemplate as parallels elements of Ironbridge Gorge, Beamish and Bucklers Hard.’

Elements contained in the main buildings would include:

  • Display Areas
  • Art Gallery
  • Gift-Souvenir Shop
  • Restaurant(s)
  • Library/Archive
  • Professional Admin and Workshop Areas
  • Conference Hall

Elements in the area surrounding the main buildings would include workshops for appropriately skilled craftspeople. Such as a smithy, sailmakers loft, ropewalk, working live-steam, trolley bus tracks and more.

‘The study group has concluded that the complex would offer very substantial advantages not only to Ipswich but also to the surrounding area of which it is the natural commercial centre. These included a prestige amenity either considerable commercial impact. A superb educational tool for Ipswich and East Anglia. A provider of employment opportunities on a large scale, these would occur at varied levels during both construction and operation.’

Selection of historic vehicles on St Peters Wharf in July 2012 including the engine Hornpipe. An example of working exhibits that the museum would have featured


The plans set out in detail the costs of the creation and running of such an extensive museum complex. That would be open 10am-5pm, 7 days a week. The site would cost £4,487,000 to build set out over 3 years, including building costs, fees and fittings. Today this would actually would cost £12.3 million pounds, on top of this significant costs would be for staffing. Which were stated as around £636,250 about £1.7 million today, for 77 staff members including conservators, researchers, retail staff, welcome staff and management. One thing we found interesting when reading through the staffing structures today are the year specific notes on certain departments. Such as the admin department which included 10 staff members with a note that stated;

This area services all three areas of the complex. All clerical staff should be keyboard operators for microcomputer management of accounts, personnel and general filing; they would also input into M.A.I.D cataloguing system via telephone-linked VDUs.’

The annual costs excluding staffing included rent, conservation, events and maintenance, were also significant, costing half a million pounds about £1.4 million pounds today. The costs of such a huge complex are substantial and would require significant income too. The plan highlights that an annual income of £1.2 million pounds about £3.5 million pounds today would be needed to just breakeven. The plan states;

‘This will seem a daunting figure at first sight: however it does not more than represent the aggregate of the number of visitors to Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich Museum and the Crown Pools in approximately one year; these, if charged at a flat-rate of £1, would bring in approximately £1.09 million pounds. But this study is of an institution which is intended to have an international clientele. Main sources of income highlighted included admission charges, sales, profits from catering and letting of space as well as revenue from coin-operated machines.’

Visitor number figures were also included to show how easy it would be to hit the annual income target. The plan also focussed on seeing half a million visitors a year at only £2.50 per person. Which would raise £1.25million pounds in admission and see 1370 people on average every day. This is hard to imagine today with the Island Site and Waterfront as it is today. Though museums like Iron Bridge does record daily visitor numbers well into the thousands and are key attractions for their communities. The complex aimed to help stimulate local economic activity, leading indirectly to the creation of a wide range of new employment. From this initial analysis the study group concluded that the proposed museum complex would be viable and would give advantage and stimulus to Ipswich.

Map of the Island Site and Wet Dock included in the study document

An Imagined Tour of the Museum Complex:

‘Though we can enter the complex in either of two ways, on this occasion we choose to leave the car in the park to the north of the wet dock. Our parking ticket is valid for the whole day and includes transport to the museum and entrance to it. We enter the trolleybus which shuttles between the car park and the quay and from it go aboard the ferry which takes us across the dock and under the deep canopy of the main building where we disembark.

The entrance is imposing, not minatory, and a note of cheerful welcome is struck by the information desk which immediately faces us: it offers guides to the collections but not gifts or souvenirs. Twin staircases lead to the upper deck, the landing of which is laid out as a replica ship’s bridge complete with wheel, standard compass and pelorus, telegraphs and radar display. From it we can survey the whole of the lower display area. Behind us, a well-appointed restaurant offers occasion for a cup of coffee, or a full meal if the hour is appropriate, with a fascinating view across the water. A ship manoeuvring to her berth gives point and interest to the vista.

We go down to the main floor. Displays show in sequence every development of the art of the designer and shipbuilder through the ages with related sections on means of propulsion and navigation. Static exhibits are supported by working models, coin-operated videos and dioramas. There are large-scale models of the Orwell and the Port of Ipswich through the years, from the days of the dug-out to the Ro-Ro ferry. On one wall, a radar-induced display shows current shipping movements as they occur. It is all authentic and authoritative and represents the highest art of museum designer and display creator.

This single floor should keep even the most casual visitors fully engaged for at least an hour, though many might spend twice as long in the radio room where channel 16 is constantly open and relayed through headsets. However, our younger family members are urging us to go outside; if we go along the quay wall we can inspect and walk round the various craft alongside; if we choose the other exit we at once pass into a Tudor Street, narrow and redolent of seafaring and merchanting which in turn gives way to a mid-nineteenth century dockside alley: this comprises a row of what are in effect craft workers shops where each resident is busily at work, though not too busy to break off from time to time to explain, in response to questions, just what they are at. And no doubt they will be all the more pleased to sell us some product of their skill. This gentle amble into the past makes all the clearer and more alive the working conditions and the products of time gone by when traditional craftsmanship was at its peak before sail gave way to steam.

How long this has taken us will have depended upon our range of interests, but we have a great more to see for subtle landscaping takes us into an open area: here a small Pecket tank locomotive push-pulls a single carriage along a stretch of standard railways track to display area which concentrates upon land transport. For 10p we take a ticket and enjoy a short ride, quite uncaring about the steam, smoke and smuts – indeed thoroughly enjoying the special nostalgia which comes from a mixture of steam, hot oil and Castrol X flavouring the atmosphere. The collection of vehicles is housed in a reconstructed stable yard; all are beautifully turned out and maintained. Around the yard other craftspeople and artisans are at work displaying the skills of the vehicle restorer, coach trimmer, blacksmith, wheelwright and so on. We can take as much time as we like savouring this very special atmosphere until we move further on into a large section devoted to the industrial processes closely associated with Ipswich. We can find foundry work, engineering, printing, malting, cabinet-making, milling and evidence if many other activities. The printing shop, in fact, is offering to accept either long or short run commissions.

By this time, some hours have already passed. There is an opportunity for a quick snack in the Trolley Bus Canteen and a welcome rest for a few minutes before the youngsters dive off into the theme-park perhaps for a ride in a dog-cart or a longer tour of the whole site in a Victoria. Meanwhile mother returns to the main building with father: she has decided that the most desirable thing to do is to spend a quiet hour in the Art Gallery on her own. Father is anxious to consult Lloyds List for 1879 in the Library and to find out details of grandfather’s barge’s stranding which will probably have a reference in the Archive. There is one very special experience we must not miss: following the government directive that certain of the nation’s treasures be returned to their provincial counties of origin, we can thrill to the sight of the real treasures of Sutton Hoo, thoroughly secure so close to the site where, long, ago, they were laid to rest.

Sometime later we meet again and re-embark for our return across the dock to the tram and the carpark.

We have spent the greater part of the day on the island; we have enjoyed every moment of it. It has cost us a little but not an extravagant amount for a whole day out. We have learned something of a great many activities, and we have lived through many experiences in time and space. Next time we may concentrate on some special thing, perhaps how to make a hammer-weld or how a hawser-laid rope is made; and because displays and designs are regularly changing, next time will only be the first of many next times.’

Unfortunately, the planned museum complex never came to be for a variety of reasons and the Island site has grown in a different way. In the early noughties, Ipswich Haven Marina opened on the Island Site. Followed by several other maritime businesses including Spirit Yachts, Fairline and others. Today it is among the last areas of the waterfront to be earmarked for redevelopment. It has also been included in a plan to use £25 million pounds of government money to support the town. On the Island Site this may include an Academy of Boatbuilding as well as new pedestrian access. Which is a key part to opening the development of the Island Site by ABP. Who are currently developing plans for the growth and development of this area within the Port of Ipswich.

A museum complex on the same scale of that posited in the 1987 plan are no longer viable. But we do hope in the future for some provision to restore and protect the key remaining historic maritime buildings on the Island. Which include Public Warehouse Number 1, the Harbourmasters House and Lockkeepers Cottages. Any further space available for us to use for the growth of our collection, archives and development of our unique Window Museum displays would be good to.

The Lock-keepers Cottages and Public Warehouse #1 in a sad state of repair with the new Waterfront Building of the University of Suffolk in the background c2018

Who knows how or what the future development of the waterfront and the variety of planned developments, businesses may be. We hope that whatever develops in the future is for the benefit of the local community and takes into consideration all maritime matters in a sustainable way.

Ipswich has been a key port town since the 7th Century which is something that should never be forgotten. It has and will continue to go through peaks and troughs. But we will keep our support of Maritime Ipswich going for as long as we exist as an organisation. With more members and volunteers, our plans and our voice for the Maritime Ipswich community will continue to grow. We look forward to welcoming more people to the community. If you or any one you know would like to get involved with us as either as a member or volunteer, then please do.

Reader Interactions


  1. Tim Granville says

    An idea with considerable merit which could, even now, provide a valuable affirmation of Ipswich’s maritime heritage. It would fit well with the current use of the island site as a centre of maritime leisure businesses

    • Kate says

      It would appear that ABP have little interest in Martime history. Maybe the council doesn’t either. The Island site does lend itself to a Museum, transport, maritime or just local history – there are already a number of historic boats in the Haven Marina but sadly I think most will be foreced to give way to plastic boats. A boat-building college – with elements of traditional boat-building and conservation would have been a fantastic idea but Ipswich is set to get even more flats by the ‘historic martime dock’ – sadly…

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