For Mark Smith, working with vehicles all day, every day is the dream. Ever since he was a child, he’s always been enamoured with ‘anything with wings or wheels’.

Fast forward to present day, and Mark is now a trustee at Ipswich Transport Museum. “I’ve been involved since 1990, after joining when I was 18. I joined as a volunteer and I’m now around one of 250 people who belong to the museum who look after a big collection of transport and engineering items, all of which are locally connected.” 

The museum first opened its doors in 1991, established by what Mark describes as a ‘visionary group of enlightened enthusiasts’...and the collection continues to delight visitors to this day.

Ipswich Star: A vintage bus on displayA vintage bus on display (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant)

“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. And 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. 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’, and the collection grew from there. And throughout the 60s and 70s, this growing collection of stuff was stored in barns, fields, orchards – basically anywhere they could blag and borrow space.” 

With the intention of setting up a permanent museum, the group of collectors managed to finally make their dreams a reality in 1990. “That’s when we opened the doors to the public, and we’ve grown from there really,” adds Mark.  

Ipswich Star: A trolleybus on displayA trolleybus on display (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant)

Run by volunteers, the museum welcomes around 10,000 visitors a year – many coming from all over the country to see what’s on display. “We’re an accredited museum, meaning we’re registered with the Arts Council.” 

Collections are looked after and cared for in accordance with nationally-recognised standards.  

Impressively, the museum boasts over 200 years’ worth of local history and heritage.  

Ipswich Star: A carriage on displayA carriage on display (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant)

“We’ve got pieces in the collection like horse-drawn carriages from the late 1700s and early 1800s. 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.”

A huge range of emergency vehicles are also on display, such as early fire engines, ambulances and a police car, as well as the Ipswich Engineering Collection. This is where visitors can cast their eyes upon many items from well-known 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. 

Ipswich Star: Mark SmithMark Smith (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant)

“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.” 

With such an extensive and impressive collection of vehicles, how does Mark and the team get their hands on such gems?  

Ipswich Star: A horse drawn carriage on displayA horse drawn carriage on display (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant)

“Most are donated to us, but some have been acquired for nominal sums,” he explains. 

Most of what the museum has on display been restored – with many pieces 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.” 

Other pieces certainly worth checking out include a 1923 Railless trolleybus (which is the oldest restored vehicle of its kind in the UK), and local fire engines from the 30s.

Ipswich Star: Mark sat inside one of the buses Mark sat inside one of the buses (Image: Charlotte Bond, Archant) 

“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.” 

For avid transport enthusiasts, the museum offers visitors the opportunity to sit on some of the buses and fire engines – and even ring the bell if they want to.  

“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. We’ve got an upcoming Christmas event on Sunday, December 4 where people can ride a couple of the old buses. The other big event we have is the Ipswich to Felixstowe Historic Vehicle Run and Rally in May, which has been going for 50 years now. Next year will be its 51st, and that’s all organised by museum volunteers.”