- How The Common Room is a celebration of the engineering industry, from the past and present to the future
- About some of the special public collections in The Common Room’s world-class library
- How the region’s heritage will be used to perpetuate learning with the next generation
As someone who was lucky enough to enjoy a long career in engineering right here in the North East, I am passionate about supporting innovation in the region.
I started as an electrical engineer at Reyrolle Switchgear, testing and aiding the design of both medium and high voltage circuit breakers, before going on to work in global shipping logistics for Siemens, arranging time-dependant delivery of switchgear substations to Middle and Far Eastern sites, sometimes in remote undeveloped areas.
I became involved with the Mining Institute around 12 years ago, originally just to go along to the wonderful lectures, many of which were geology-based, which I found absolutely fascinating. Eventually I became more involved, renovating furniture, assisting in building maintenance and eventually being involved in governance. Last year I became President.
Alongside this work, I am a volunteer with The Common Room, helping with everything from moving exhibitions to staffing at events.
I strongly believe in educating young people and encouraging them to think about working in engineering. For me, the concept of The Common Room is inspirational and I am honoured to play a role in what it’s looking to achieve.
It is really important to instil in our young people a sense of pride in our regional heritage. Not only did we have mining, we had shipbuilding and railways. We should make sure people know about the great things the North East has given the world.
The Common Room celebrates all of this. The Graft and Glory exhibition, for example, is absolutely magnificent. It tells the story of how innovators and engineers from the North East have been at the forefront of the engineering industry, from the development of the first passenger railway in the 1800s, through to today’s renewable energy projects.
It is this celebration of our history that is important because this inspires the next generation. We want to help young people. The mining may be gone now but the engineering is still going strong in the North East and we want to see young people aspire to have careers in this area.
Dawn of a new era
The home of The Common Room – Neville Hall – is a beautiful, historic building. I am amazed with what has been done with it.
The Common Room team has transformed Neville Hall, turning it into a building which commemorates the region’s engineering heritage and is now a fantastic place for events like weddings, conferences, lectures and training.
So much work has gone on behind the scenes by the people involved and the volunteers. This grade II* listed building has so much potential. We have been working hard to do it justice and its opening marks a significant point in its history when it can again be enjoyed to the max.
For years we had this absolute gem but sadly not many people knew about it. The Common Room will now be accessible to more people and will change that for the better – our goal is for everyone to recognise the building, know its name and choose it as a regular visitor destination.
World-Class Research Facilities
One of the things I am most excited about is the dawn of a new era for The Common Room’s most important asset – the library.
The Common Room holds one of the largest, most comprehensive, public collections on mining and engineering in the world. The research facilities are unbelievable.
It includes many early scientific and technical reports relating to the development of the coal industry and associated mechanical engineering, especially the early work on safety in mines.
There is also a huge collection on railways and geology, which helps to inform the engineering of today, as well as over 35,000 printed books. The archives include photographs, manuscripts, maps, objects and underground plans.
The library is of global importance. It is the finest and largest coal mining library in the world and perhaps the best place to study the early Industrial Revolution which began with the use of coal as a fuel in the Great Northern Coalfield 600 years ago. Without this, we wouldn’t have the huge successes in reusable energy and engineering we have today.
The collections, originally acquired by the Mining Institute, have been gifted to The Common Room to be protected for the future and made available online.
The beauty of the collection is that is still relevant today. Just recently we were contacted by a university in Chicago that asked for help with work it is doing on mine flooding.
The library, together with our fantastic librarian and team of volunteers, is a world-class resource and we are delighted to bring it up-to-date so even more people can benefit.
Engineering in the North East has been at the forefront of world development. There were waggonways serving our collieries from the early 17th century and the technology of Stephenson in locomotives opened up the world for travel and commerce.
Armstrong’s shipyards on the Tyne supplied steam warships and armaments to as far afield as Japan. Swan Hunter in Wallsend and Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company in Jarrow built luxurious liners and the largest supertankers of their day.
Take into account also Joseph Swan’s incandescent electric light bulbs, for which Edison claimed most credit for and Alphonse Reyrolle whose factory in Hebburn invented the metalclad switchgear in the first decade of the 20th century. This allowed very high power to be transmitted with full protection and gave the world efficient control of electricity. All of these, and much more, give our region a claim to fame unsurpassed by any other area or nation.
Looking to the Future
It is incredibly special to be involved in the creation of The Common Room, as both a volunteer and as President of the Mining Institute.
The Institute was founded in 1852 and since then has been dedicated to advancing science and technology in the North East and promoting the research and preservation of mining and engineering knowledge.
Now it is time to open the next chapter of our rich history as The Common Room harnesses our collective heritage to perpetuate learning and inspire the next generation of innovators and engineers.
Steve Martin is President of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME) and a volunteer with The Common Room.
Steve was born in South Shields and educated at South Shields Marine and Technical College. He joined A. Reyrolle & Co in 1964 as an apprentice, before working on High Voltage Switchgear testing. After gaining a BA with the Open University specialising in Systems Behaviour and Materials with Electronics, he moved into the position of Transport and Shipping Manager. He stayed with the company through various owners, culminating in Siemens Switchgear.
Steve retired in 2010 and his interests include cycling, hill walking and choral singing. Today he is the President and an active Council member of NEIMME. Married with one daughter, Steve currently lives in Sunderland.