Obituary: Graham Ellis FRICS, chartered surveyor and heritage campaigner

Born: 23 August, 1924, in Wilmslow Cheshire. Died: 17 June, 2015, in Oban, Argyll, aged 90

Graham Ellis: Creator of the Mull Narrow Gauge Railway who saved the Walter Scott steamship from the scrapheap
Graham Ellis: Creator of the Mull Narrow Gauge Railway who saved the Walter Scott steamship from the scrapheap

Graham Ellis was one of the unsung heroes of the heritage movement, a man whose influence was great but whose modesty was greater. He was one of the founders of the railway preservation movement, a force that has grown to be a major part of the UK’s tourism industry. He created the much-loved and missed Mull Narrow Gauge Railway and, in his 80s, helped save the historic steamship Sir Walter Scott from the scrapheap.

Graham was born in Wilmslow, Cheshire, the son of Dorothy Elliot and Thomas Ellis, a director of the family’s estate agency, Ellis and Sons. He said his love of trains began in his pram.

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In 1938, Graham went to Malvern College, Worcestershire. When war broke out the school was relocated to Harrow, despite reservations from Graham and his fellow pupils that this was a bit too near the air raids on London. When common sense prevailed, the school moved to Blenheim Palace near Oxford.

They may have been sleeping under gold leaf but the dorms were cramped and cold and during their lessons, in converted Nissen huts, icicles fell from the roof, impaling desks and pupils alike.

Graham had seven bouts of pneumonia during this time and when, after his 18th birthday, he applied to join the navy he was turned down on health grounds.

Cravens, the Stockport crane manufacturer, was another family business and the 16-year-old Graham could have joined the firm. The chairman Joseph Greenwood told him: “We can make you into a bloody good engineer but can you invent owt?” That was too daunting for him but, in time, the engineering genes would come to the fore.

Graham contributed to the war effort by helping his cousin Dorothy Campbell run the family’s farm near Beaulieu in Hampshire. He was in his element as tractors and farm machinery fired his latent love of engineering.

He also joined the Home Guard, the inspiration for the TV series Dad’s Army. Graham said that Captain Mainwaring was not just a work of fiction; their platoon was commanded by Mainwaring’s alter-ego. One day they were travelling by train to take part in a major exercise. The officer lined his men up on the station platform and told them when the train arrived they would allow the civilians to board first.

When he gave the signal, they would join the train. The other passengers were safely in their seats when he commanded the men to board by blowing his whistle. The train promptly chugged out of the station, leaving the men still lined up on the platform.

After the war Graham joined the family estate agency and one of his jobs was collecting rents in Manchester. He said it developed his ability to weigh up people and not “judge a book by its cover”. He worked during the day and studied at night to become a chartered surveyor, proudly adding FRICS to his name.

His concern for others was evident even at this stage and he became a prison visitor at Strangeways in Manchester. Once he drove through the night from Manchester to Dundee to help a former inmate. At this stage it was cars that inspired him. Along with his good friend John Blaney he raced a Manchester-built Belsize car. It was replaced by a faster Vauxhall 30-98 which was raced at Oulton Park circuit.

Graham was in his mid-30s and marriage had eluded him but fate was soon to change that. Before the war, as a 13-year-old, he’d gone on holiday with his mother and father to Onich, on the west coast of Scotland, north of Oban. In the late 1950s he drove his parents back there and spotted Elisabeth, the daughter of the hotel’s owners Betty and Jackie Shields. They married and Libby, as she was known, was to become the bedrock and inspiration for Graham’s life. He realised he’d met his in-laws nearly 20 years before he met his wife.

They moved to Buglawton near Congleton in Cheshire and in 1964 their son Gavin was born. In 1966, on a trip back home, they saw the Smiddy House for sale at Aros on Mull. It was bought at first as a holiday home, but Libby had a plan.

It was around this time that another grand passion was developing a head of steam, quite literally. Everyday steam on Britain’s railways was coming to an end and by 1968 was only to be found in north-west England. A chance meeting with a Morecambe GP, Dr Peter Beet, led to them buying a Stanier Black Five, 44781, direct from service with British Rail. That friendship grew and Graham supported Peter, as along with Joe Greenwood, he developed the former motive power depot at Carnforth into the Steamtown centre.

It was an inspired move because although the steam engines themselves were being saved, the infrastructure of steam, coaling towers, ash pits and water columns were being bulldozed to the ground. Even through it is no longer open routinely to the public, the now rare trappings of steam have been preserved.

Despite his busy schedule Graham still found time for others, helping the Outward Bound Trust, and a charity supporting young managers along with a whole posse of friends who relied on his sage advice.

In 1972 the family moved permanently to Mull even through Graham continued to work two weeks a month with his cousin Michael Campbell for the Ellis-Campbell group.

In 1974 Graham and Libby started the Smiddy gift shop. The following year the Puffer Ground Restaurant opened, taking its name from the fabled Clyde coastal Puffer steam boats.

Steam was never far from Graham’s thoughts and the idea came to him for a railway on Mull linking the ferry terminal at Craignure with Torosay Castle just over a mile away. In 1982, after much debate and persuasion, the 10.25 inch gauge Mull and West Highland Narrow-gauge Railway was opened. It was a big success and carried more than 20,000 passengers a year. He put his heart and soul into the railway. He didn’t know the meaning of an eight-hour day. Often, after a hard shift immersed in the grease and soot of a steam railway, he presented himself to Libby for the evening restaurant service. Her wrath was only slightly softened when he donned white gloves to hide the coal-black hands.

Graham supported his son Gavin as they took over the Knockhomie Hotel in Forres in 1987, transforming it into an award-winning enterprise.

Ten years later, in 1997, he faced his biggest challenge. While he was away in Wales Libby died suddenly, leaving Graham devastated. His friends faraway and on Mull rallied round to ensure his welfare without ever challenging his independence.

In 2004, when most 80-years-olds would be thinking of a quieter life, Graham took on another major challenge. The historic steamship the SS Sir Walter Scott, on Loch Katrine, faced an uncertain future.

Graham rallied support and, along with his fellow trustees, raised the money for its overhaul, preserving the steam engines. His fellow trustee Peter Cook was quite certain about the role Graham played. “Without him the Walter Scott wouldn’t be around today. Graham told me it was on too many shortbread tins not be saved for the future. But along with the determination to rescue the ship was pragmatism to ensure that it had a viable future too.”

Under the trust’s guidance a £250,000 annual loss was soon turned into a surplus.

But just as Graham’s hard work at Loch Katrine bore fruit, the Mull railway was to flounder, even though it was a commercial and community success. In 2011 it was forced to close after the landlord didn’t renew the lease, an incomprehensible blow to the local economy, the railway’s supporters and the millions of passengers who travelled on it over its lifetime. In an area heavily dependent on tourism it robbed Mull of one of the few man-made attractions it possessed.

Graham was stoic and maintained a cheerful face as his brainchild was dismantled and every trace of the railway obscured. Today it’s hard to imagine there had been a railway there. But inwardly it broke Graham’s heart. He never retired and never stopped working; he still had plans and schemes afoot when he died in hospital in Oban.

Few people have made such a contribution to the heritage and tourism world while being so discreet and self-effacing. Graham is survived by his son Gavin, daughter-in-law Penny and his grandsons Hamish and Lachlan.