Rosemary Allan has been pivotal in making Beamish the magical place it is now. Sharon Griffiths meets the woman who was its first official employee.

ROSEMARY ALLAN’S first task when she started at Beamish was to collect a lathe that had been donated to the museum.

“Then they told me it was under the viaduct in Durham and I would have to hire a huge crane to get it.”

But the massive lathe was eventually collected – “Every time the crane moved, alarm bells kept ringing”

– and delivered safely and already Rosemary, then still a young graduate, was convinced she was in the right job. And that was before she had to work out how to move buildings.

“I had been doing a museum course in Leicester when I heard about this mad man in the North- East and the project he was trying to set up. It sounded very exciting and I just wanted to be involved.”

The “mad man” was the amazing Frank Atkinson, who battled for 12 years to get Beamish established. At the time, he was working at the Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle.

“I came up and initially worked part-time at Bowes. Frank lent me a caravan that was parked in the garden at the back of the museum. It was so cold that in the winter snows they had to come and dig me out.”

Undaunted – “I was young and thought it was all very exciting” – on February 1, 1970, Rosemary Allan became the first official employee of Beamish Museum. Thirty-nine years later, she’s still there – now she’s senior keeper – with no immediate plans for retirement and as full of energy and enthusiasm as ever.

And yes, now she knows how to move buildings. “We could only learn on the job and it’s amazing how much you learn over the years.”

Those early years at Beamish were particularly exciting, if utterly unpredictable.

“Frank had inspired people. This was going to be a museum for the region, part of the community and when he appealed for items to stock it, they poured in. People were so generous. His policy in those early days was to accept everything we were given and people really responded.”

Eventually, they filled about 30 huts at the old Army camp at Brancepeth with donated items, large and small. So yet again, the old caravan was called into action, moved onto the parade ground and Rosemary went up to try to bring some order out of the chaos.

“It was difficult to know where to begin.

We had so much. One hut was just filled with washing machines and mangles. But we could begin to see what we had and, just as importantly, what we needed.”

To add to the chaos, one day Spike Milligan and Dominic Behan arrived with a BBC film crew. “Spike was riding a penny farthing across the camp. It was hilarious.”

Working at Beamish, she says, was always good fun, even as the serious work went on preserving the history and heritage of the North-East. A heritage that could so easily have been lost for ever.

“Just look at the way the region’s changed in the 25 years. It’s almost unrecognisable. And those communities have changed beyond recognition.”

Yet, they are still there, alive and well with a life in Beamish.

Ideas and attitudes have changed, especially towards what you could call “folk art”.

“At the beginning, people couldn’t understand why we were collecting rag rugs – proggy mats. They just thought of them as nothing important at all and would just throw them out.”

Now rag rugs are an art form and can sell for vast sums.

“Yet they were just a way of using up any old bits of material, recycling before we called it that.”

The other great treasure has proved to be quilts, a particular interest of Rosemary, who has collected about 300 for the museum and written some beautifully illustrated books on the subject. Not surprisingly, that in Rosemary’s tiny crowded office, a folded quilt lies perched on the edge of a shelf.

“Every quilt has a story. And as the people from the region emigrated and started new lives all over the world, they took their quilts or their patterns with them, so it’s always difficult to say what’s American or North Country.”

The people who are remembered at Beamish might not have had much, but they certainly had plenty of talent. They were artists who worked with the materials available to them and achieved amazing things. The museum is full of tiny treasures, wood carving, metal work, ornate work done with great skill with the most humble of materials, bits of scrap metal, even cigarette packets, anything that would be thrown away was frequently rescued and turned into a work of art.

They’ve left a legacy of a hard working, creative community and Rosemary has produced a book about the Folk Art too, anxious that those talents should be recognised.

Most of us only appreciate such items long after we’ve thrown them out. Rosemary has the trick of knowing what’s worth saving even as the rest of us are slinging things in the bin. She has a happy knack of – almost literally – being able to intercept them on the way to the tip.

Even as a child in Carlisle she would hunt through the pieces thrown up when the River Eden was dredged and find all sorts of Roman remains, bits of pottery and statues, which she would take along to Carlisle Museum for them to piece together. Once, memorably, she found a small Roman Venus.

“My mother and I said that day we knew we were going to find something special and we certainly did.”

After many years on loan to Carlisle Museum, the Roman Venus is now back in her own home.

But as well as an absorbing, fascinating career, at Beamish, there was another bonus. Rosemary also found a husband there, the museum’s former deputy director, John Gall.

“In 1972, this lad turned up offering to help. He used to visit lots of farms and said he would look out for old agricultural implements for us on his travels. Then he came on to the staff.”

He eventually became responsible for the buildings at Beamish. “He put them up. I fitted them out.” A perfect marriage. One of their children has inevitably inherited their passion for the past and works for Edinburgh city museum.

Of course, Beamish has changed beyond recognition in the past 39 years and will continue to change, grow and develop, despite struggles over funding. Only two per cent of their funding comes from local government, the rest has to be coaxed out of increasingly hard pressed grant-giving bodies and, of course from the entrance fee. They would live to make it cheaper or even free.

“We did that once and the queue stretched right back to Chester-le- Street and down the A1. The chief constable wasn’t very pleased.”