Jonathan Ellis Minns, 1938–2013

Jonathan Minns, who died on 13th October 2013, was a remarkable person. He is best remembered as a ‘collector of mechanical antiquities’ and as Director of the British Engineerium in Hove, once the hub of a conservation engineering business par excellence. But he also created remarkable ‘mechanical sculptures’, including one spectacular example destined for the Mall in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Jonathan had served a traditional engineering apprenticeship with W.H. Allen of Bedford, greatly encouraged by his engineer father Anthony, but came from an academic background: his grandfathers Ellis Minns and Sidney Cockerell (both knighted) were respectively Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. The inventor of the hovercraft, Sir Christopher Cockerell, was his uncle.

Jonathan Minns was larger than life, an engineer-aesthete of sensibilities largely unknown since the Victorian era; his inspiration was Henry Maudslay, who, Jonathan said, always matched efficient function with elegant form.

I became associated with the Engineerium in 1993 simply by asking for access to its library, then stayed for many years. I regret that I met Jonathan too late in our lives to learn all he had to teach me. His knowledge was incomparable, not only of progressions in design but also the ways in which historic engineering artefacts should be restored. He sought only the best practise, believing that long-term conservation was served most effectively by learning how to return machines to operation.

The Engineerium’s steam plant remained true to its origins, coal fired and manually stoked to the last, and there are many sites—Cragside, Electropolis in Mulhouse—testifying to the skill of the Engineerium’s conservation team.

Jonathan was passionately committed to education, but, as I can testify from experience, did not suffer fools gladly…and charlatans not at all. In partnership with the University of Brighton, Jonathan was instrumental in creating a Conservation of Industrial Heritage (‘CIH’) course which ran briefly (if very successfully) in 2000–1 and it is to be hoped that his legacy will have a future: it is now widely acknowledged that practical skills must be raised to the status he always believed they should have.

Archiving Industry was inspired by the lessons learned from the CIH course (which I led) and from involvement with the Engineerium’s projects—principally, attempts to save the French-made Éolienne Bollée installed to serve the monastery in Shermanbury, Sussex, and the re-erection of the John Wallis Titt wind-engine in Crux Easton, Hampshire. Though it ultimately proved impossible to re-erect the Bollée machine on the Engineerium site, we made two highly enjoyable (and thought provoking) trips to France in 2001–2 to examine surviving wind engines of the same type. And, as a result, I became involved in the project to identify and record all of the sites.

The CIH course also showed refinement of the methods of identifying markings and materials to be essential to an appreciation of the history of engineering. It is hoped that these lessons can still be accommodated within an appropriate educational framework. How Jonathan would have approved…!

John Walter, March 2014.

Below: Jonathan Minns explains the finer points of the Papillon of the Éolienne Bollée power-head to CIH students Michael Hill and Claire Barratt. La Houdière, France, April 2001