Museum History

The story of The Tank Museum

The training of the new Armies required for battle in France led the War Office to acquire considerable areas of land from the Moreton Estate in 1914.  There had been a militia training area at Bovington since the Boer war – when the equivalent of today’s Territorial Army would descend for tented summer camps or weekend training events.  At the beginning of WW1 the camp was used as an infantry recruit and training depot housing up to 12,000 men.  After initial trialling and training at Elveden in Suffolk in October 1916 Bovington was appointed as the new ‘home’ of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, the title of the first unit to use tanks.  The inhabitants of the neighbouring village of Wool were annoyed rather than mystified by the melodramatic precautions attending the arrival of every train load of tanks as they were asked to draw their curtains as the vehicles rumbled by.

The first workshop was housed in a canvas aircraft hangar and complaints by locals caused the firing range on the north of the camp to be moved down to the coast at Lulworth where it still resides.  A branch line was built from the London and South Western Station at Wool to bring tanks closer to the camp.  Many memoirs of tank soldiers mention arrival at Wool station and the following march or lift to the camp.  When trained battalions marched back to Wool for trains to Southampton and boats for France they were accompanied by the band and locals to see them off.

After the Great War, large numbers of World War 1 British tanks were brought to Bovington to be broken up and sold on for scrap.  It was thought there was to be no further need for these peculiar items of war, designed especially for the unique conditions of the Western Front in a war that was fought to end wars.  Twenty-six specimens, examples of each Mark of current or experimental vehicle, were collected and moved into a small fenced compound on the heath to the north of the Camp.  This was the beginning of the present museum.

In 1923 Rudyard Kipling, during a visit to Bovington, expressed disappointment that so little was being done to preserve these unique machines*.  The following year, a start was made by housing a selection of them – including Little Willie, the first experimental tank ever built, and Big Willie, or Mother as it was more popularly called within the Tank Corps, the first gun tank – in an open-sided shed at the Driving and Maintenance Wing of what was then the Royal Tank Corps Central Schools.

Despite research with Kipling scholars no definite confirmation has been found to substantiate this account of Kipling’s involvement with the establishment of the Museum, but the tale was being told with certainty early in the sites history so there is also no real reason to doubt the tale.  Kipling was a visitor to the region seeing Thomas Hardy and later T.E. Lawrence on a number of occasions. 

During the Inter War years, the collection was enlarged by the addition of various experimental machines.  However, when war was declared, the items from the collection went to the drive for scrap steel. We may now look back on this episode with horror as many irreplaceable relics, among them Mother, the experimental electric-driven tank, General Martel’s own home made tank, the Medium ‘C’ and many other unique machines, went to the furnace.  However in the desperate times early in the war scrap was needed to build weaponry – and required quickly as invasion was thought to be immanent. The story of the loss of tanks in France and the desperate need to replace these with new vehicles (and some of the bodges and improvisations hurriedly made to stem the gap) can be seen in the current Museum vehicle collection.
 
Fortunately, other vehicles were saved, by being used during the invasion scare of 1940 – the Vickers Medium and the Independent, for example covered the road from Bovington to Wool, while other Museum tanks guarded the coast near Lulworth Cove.  Certain iconic items were hidden by the then custodians as being just too important to go in a scrap drive, such as the Graincourt Gun (captured by Tank Corps at Cambrai) which was buried on the Bovington site and recovered after the war.  Rumours have persisted that a complete WW1 tank was also buried but never recovered – this may be wishful thinking of the often met ‘buried treasure’ sort - but there are other tanks in the Museum collection that have been recovered from burial sites.

In 1945, space for some fifty vehicles was again found at the Driving and Maintenance (D&M) School, but the buildings were not very suitable, so between 1947 and 1952, the present central hangar was taken into use.  Parts of the old arrangement can be seen in the buildings with a Royal Tank Corps Mosaic set in the floor of the current WW2 hall and plaques set into the wall celebrating the Royal Tank Corps.

A fine collection of Allied and foreign AFVs which had been accumulated during World War 2 for investigation and experimental purposes was added in 1951, gifted by the then Ministry of Supply.  Later examples of the captured material were gifted back to Germany to assist in the formation of their own tank museum at Munster.  Pathe News recorded the event.  The collection remained fairly stable for the next thirty years, growing slowly until, in 1981, it numbered about one hundred and twenty AFVs in all.

A new phase of expansion came in 1981, with the arrival of George Forty as Curator.  Vehicles were obtained, mainly through exchange, with other museums or as gifts, from all over the world.  Work began on the restoration of vehicles in the collection, and for the very first time, a small conservation workshop was established in 1984.  Prior to this many AFVs had been maintained simply by use of the Army’s facilities on the camp.  This led to many layers of gloss green paint being added to vehicles (often completely inappropriate to their original paint schemes and usage) and well-meaning but improvised repairs and restorations.

The level of historical accuracy (and general knowledge) in the vehicle conservation world was still minimal and in many ways by accident or design the Museum has been involved with many of the burgeoning (and continuing) issues that faced the growing industrial, social history and transport museum sector.  The Museum as a military museum also had to face additional issues of changing legislation and security requirements and threats. The Museum was involved in the compilation of the first edition of “Larger and Working Objects; A Guide to Standards in Their Preservation and Care” and in 1989, the workshop staff won a Scania/Transport Award for its restoration work.  In the winter 1990/1991, a small purpose built workshop was erected and subsequently the museum’s workshop staff have grown in number and the involvement of volunteers in this area has been key to its continuing success.

The establishment of a Society of Friends of The Tank Museum gave a focus to those wanting to support the Museum and those who also wished to be involved in a ‘hands on’ way with the collections.  The expertise, commitment and sheer hard work that volunteers have contributed to the museum over time has helped not just take the collections forward in terms of care, cataloguing and public engagement but it has also helped embed the Museum as a catalyst in many people’s lives, to give opportunities to share experiences, relive past exploits and feel part of a common aim.

The need for new space to house the growing collection led to the erection of the British Steel Hall (an ex-factory building placed over a car park) the Tamiya Hall (funded by the founder of the model making company and a new entrance hall.  The popularity of ‘Battle Days’ or Open Days hosted initially by the RAC camp, showed the attraction of running vehicles to the public.  These displays increased in number over time utilising the old camp 400m running track in front of the Museum as a circuit.  Vehicles were also used to give rides and this led in turn to the hunt for and acquisition of vehicles suitable for this purpose and not just as exhibition pieces.  In time this led to the development of a running fleet and now the workshop staff spend the majority of their time on keeping this fleet running for the Tanks in Action Displays and vehicle rides that run across the holiday periods at the Museum.

Following the Gulf War in 1991, the collection was further increased by captured Iraqi vehicles mainly of Soviet and Chinese origin.  The display of these vehicles has also led to further ties within MOD as over time the Museums holdings of vehicles have become of use to the MOD and industry.

The redevelopment of two halls of vehicles for the creation of the new Tanks on the Somme display in 1998 brought an immersive experience to the Museum displays for the first time.  A walk through trench system took the visitor from recruiting in a village hall to training and then a railway station in France full of casualties.  The front line contrasts a British trench and dugout with a German trench and the visitor then emerges to meet the new vehicle designed to meet the problem of the trench deadlock – a Mark 1 tank coming over the edge of the trench. The trench display has remained hugely popular with the Museum audience and will be refreshed before the WW1 anniversaries.

The end of the 1990’s saw the need for an overall Site Development Plan to address the long term issues of collection care and improved visitor access with better quality displays.

The first phase of the development saw the old wooden huts used for storage of supporting collection material (anything not a tank or spare parts) demolished and the material temporarily housed on the camp.  A successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, support from the Designation Challenge Fund and the Regional Development Agency allowed the conversion of some redundant buildings on site and the establishment of a Supporting Collection Study Centre with storage areas, a darkroom and photographic studio, a multi-use workroom (used as a classroom for IT training for locals and young offenders) linked with the reading room of the Archive & Reference Library.

The next phase created the most marked physical change to the site with the successful creation of a new 50,000 sq.ft. display hall and entrance. The new display arrangements were built to target our main audience, the family group on holiday. The new hall houses an exhibition that tells the story of the tank in thirty key vehicles with much emphasis on the human element.  The project was a major undertaking for the Museum which remained open throughout the building phase.  The costs of the project - £16m - were met with a £9.6m HLF grant with the balance of the costs being funded by the Museum.

The development also saw the building of a new arena area for the display of vehicles in live demonstrations.  In 2011 these took place at 1.00pm on 56 days across the school holiday periods and rides on a converted tracked vehicle were available on 137 days.  The arena is also used for the annual weekend Tankfest event which draws up to 10,000 visitors and has displays of historic armour from the collection running with invited vehicles from other public and private collections and the modern British Army.

The remaining halls are being re-displayed with more in depth thematic displays including The Battlegroup Afghanistan exhibition, and in 2014 Warhorse To Horsepower.