SIXTY years ago, only pioneers such as Tony Browning entertained notions of a museum devoted entirely to transport. His legacy is Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, effectively a Scottish museum of transport.
In the 1950s, when trams had become unloved, he foresaw a need to preserve for posterity a representative core of Glasgow’s 1,208-strong fleet. His farsightedness, and his encouragement of members of what is now the Scottish Tramway & Transport Society, led to Glasgow having one of the finest museum collections of trams anywhere in the world.
Enthusiasts identified a scruffy vehicle in the works fleet as a but-and-ben caur, a miraculous survivor of Glasgow’s original tram electrification in 1898. He preserved this and some dozen other trams, arranging through transport manager Eric Fitzpayne to have them restored at the tram works at Coplawhill.
The curious aspect about Browning was that he didn’t actually like trams, or the buses, lorries, carts, carriages, traction engines and bikes from which he formed Glasgow’s internationally-acclaimed collection. He was a shipping man first, last and always.
Boyhood holidays for Anthony Spence Elphinstone Browning at his Isle of Wight home saw him drawn to ships flocking the Solent. When in 1942 he decided on naval architecture as a career, the natural choice was Glasgow, then a world centre for shipbuilding.
He graduated in naval architecture from the Royal Technical College (now the University of Strathclyde), by which time he had gained practical shipbuilding experience at Fairfield’s in Govan, and Denny’s at Dumbarton.
This was an era when shipbuilders created scale models prior to construction on slipways – and these models held particular fascination for Browning. When the museums section of Glasgow Corporation wanted someone to research and curate its growing collection of ship models, Browning proved the right person at the right time. Appointed curator of technology at Kelvingrove in 1955, he widened his scope to develop a collection that included a rare Stirling gas engine and Gavin Dalzell’s 1841 bicycle, the oldest bike in the world.
Artefacts apart, he saw to it that the city collection widened to encompass books, papers, archives, photographs, film, models and paintings of transport. This required major premises possessing the reinforced floor substantial enough to bear the weight of major items.
His tenacity cornered the paint shop of the tram works at Coplawhill on Glasgow’s South Side, creating a museum of transport as an out-station of Kelvingrove.
His vision ensured representation of so many forms of transport fast vanishing in the Swinging Sixties. When he was too late to locate a working Glasgow & South West Railway locomotive, he was directed to a scrapyard where a small 0-6-0 engine was being cut up. It was the genuine G&SWR article, but minus several important pieces, including the chimney. Undaunted, he had the relic taken to Coplawhill, with a dummy wooden chimney refitted.
When the Last Tram Procession ran on 4 September, 1962, his several preserved trams were carefully shunted into the paint shop in the order in which they would be displayed. The following year, the museum was not only flourishing, but received a Royal opening from the Queen Mother, with Lord Provost Sir Peter Meldrum in attendance. Complementing the trams were a minor fleet of historic steam locomotives, made over to the city by a British Rail unable to care for them any longer.
Browning’s problems could be of the pleasantest. He once told me that the museum was daily offered a donation perhaps as small as a spark plug, and weekly with something possibly as large as a 20-tonne traction engine.
He was tipped off about impending demolition of a pub in Pollokshaws adjacent to the one-time tram depot in Pleasance Street. The Tramway Tavern was fronted with plate-glass windows etched with images of trams and the words “Tramway Tavern”. He cleared the paperwork, and as an 18-year-old with a borrowed lorry, I extracted the glass and delivered it to him one Saturday morning in 1961.
Rationalisation in the 1980s of the British Transport Commission collection in London afforded the opportunity to have the final tram ever built for Glasgow returned. This tram, number 1,392, proved the major missing link in the otherwise broad collection of city trams, and he harnessed the willingness of enthusiasts to have the “Cunarder” repainted to the standard he expected.
No-one could have forecast the UK-wide popularity of the Transport Museum. The collection expanded first into the Kelvin Hall, and then to the present custom-built home on Riverside. At the same time, Tony’s pen catalogued the huge collection, as well as producing books, articles and papers.
His magnus opus was his A History of Clyde Shipyards (1991), a scholarly and highly readable work that won a Scottish Museun of the Year Award the following year.
In recognition of his work, Browning was made president of the Scottish Transport & Tramway Society, only stepping down when he retired as Keeper of Glasgow Museum of Transport.
A committed Christian, he served as a Kirk elder for nearly six decades, writing histories in 1974 and 1991 of his church in Bearsden.
He also had a love of dogs, and with his great friend the late Chief Inspector Fred Parsons, head of Strathclyde Police dog branch, played an active role on the board of trustees of Glasgow Dog and Cat Home.
He lost his beloved wife Margaret in 1990 after 41 years together. He remarried, to Sheila, a family friend. She predeceased him four years ago.