John Barnes, Historian

Commander John Baldock

John Baldock richly earned the MBE he was awarded in 2001 for his services to the preservation of England's heritage. Although he had made a promising start on a political career, serving three terms in Parliament as the Conservative Member for Harborough in Leicestershire, and gave it up with a genuine wrench, he will be principally remembered as the founder of the Hollycombe Steam Collection, the largest collection of working steam engines in England. It began life as a private collection, but he was persuaded to open it to the public. Faced with local opposition and problems with the planners, he could open it on only a few days each year. The collection included a steam-powered funfair and, in the face of steadily rising costs, he sold this to Madame Tussauds in the early 1980s. His stipulation that the machines should remain in England was negated when Madame Tussauds was taken over and the collection was sold on. Two of the rides ended in Switzerland. Baldock set himself to recover the machines and in this had the aid of the Committee on the Export of Works of Art, which ruled that these important products of British craftsmanship should be kept in Britain. Eventually the entire collection was reassembled at Hollycombe.

Baldock was one of the pioneers of preservation. His collection had begun with the purchase of a Burrell Gold Medal Showman's Road locomotive dating to 1895, but it came to embrace three railways, a working farm and sawmill, road vehicles and a crane, all powered by steam. Forced by a mounting deficit to announce the closure of the collection in 1984, he found that his drivers and engineers were willing to form a society to operate them on a voluntary basis, and the collection has continued to operate on that basis to the present day. The collection has since then expanded with more engines, more rides, more open days and an increasing flow of visitors. Although this is largely due to a dedicated set of volunteers, Baldock continued to take an active interest in the management of the Hollycombe Steam and Woodland Garden Society and he never lost his enthusiasm for showing how steam had revolutionised peoples' lives both when they were at work and when they were at play.

John Markham Baldock was born in 1915, the year in which his father was killed at Gallipoli. Brought up by his mother, he was educated at Rugby and at Balliol College Oxford, where he obtained his diploma in agriculture. Subsequently he studied at the University of Freiburg. Before the start of the Second World War, he joined the RNVR and ended it as a Lieutenant Commander. After service in the battleships Rodney and Ramillies, he took part in the escort of Russian convoys in 1942-43 and completed his service in Indian waters. He was awarded the VRD in 1949 and continued his connection with the RNVR throughout his time in Parliament.

On his return to London, he bought Arthur Ransome's ketch, Racundra, and moored her in Chelsea Reach. He would make his way ashore each morning to attend Lloyds, but he did not confine his business activities to insurance broking, joining the board of Lenscrete in 1946. The company supplied glass and concrete to the building industry. Baldock, fluent in German, was also used by the BBC's European service to broadcast to Germany. After his marriage to Pauline in 1949, he gave up insurance to open a restaurant in Kensington and in the same year he took over the chairmanship of Lenscrete.

He had already set his heart on a political career. It was not long after his return to civilian life that he was adopted as the Conservative candidate for the Labour held seat of Harborough and in 1950 he ousted the sitting MP by more than 6,000 votes. He retained the seat in 1951 and was briefly appointed PPS to Sir John Foster, the junior minister at the Commonwealth Relations Office. Thereafter he served as secretary to the backbench sub committee on naval matters. Boundary revision made his seat something of a Conservative stronghold and after his victory in the 1955 election, he was made PPS to Douglas Dodds Parker, the most senior of the junior ministers at the Foreign Office, but one whose relationship with the Foreign Secretary was not one of the best.

Although he was finding it increasingly difficult to balance his political career with his business interests and his passionate commitment to the Hollycombe estate and its growing collection of steam engines, when Dodds Parker was dismissed in January 1957, Baldock accepted a transfer to serve as PPS to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, David Ormsby Gore, and remained in the job until he stood down at the 1959 election. His decision to leave politics was a reluctant one - he was to describe it as "the nearest trauma to coming off drugs" - but inevitable, given the pressures on his time and purse. Thereafter for thirty years he based himself at Hollycombe, the house where he had been brought up and which he had purchased earlier in the 1950s.

His grandfather had established a passenger-carrying model railway in the woods close by the house and had inspired in his grandson a love of steam that never died. In the decade after he bought the house Baldock travelled the country in search of steam and traction engines. On one memorable occasion he purchased a traction engine in Kent and with his wife drove it back to Hollycombe at weekends, parking it in various villages on the way during the week while he went back to work. Pauline, his wife, shared in his enthusiasm and the couple established four types of permanent way to house their railway engines, a 7 inch miniature gauge for the toy railway, a two foot industrial gauge, salvaged from the Dinorwic Quarry in Wales, which carries passengers to the crest of the Downs and offers magnificent views across Sussex, a three foot gauge to operate an Aveling and Porter tramway locomotive built in 1880, and stretch of standard gauge for larger engines. Equally impressive are the regular demonstrations of how steam revolutionised ploughing and threshing, and Baldock also assembled a comprehensive collection of barn machinery. One of the pieces retrieved from Switzerland was the steam yacht Neptune. A complete Edwardian fairground, with its rides, steam swings, bioscope and Big Wheel was and remains the centrepiece of the whole collection. All is in perfect working order, Baldock's hope being that "the enjoyment of past engineering triumphs" would inspire in a new generation "the will to excel again".

As a pioneer in the preservation of Britain's industrial heritage, Baldock was indulging in something that became much more than a hobby and he took a very real interest in industrial archaeology. But he was also a countryman through and through and he did much to preserve and enhance the woodlands on the estate. The 1987 hurricane and further storms three years later wreaked a good deal of destruction that had to be repaired. Baldock and his wife also restocked the 19th century garden and, predictably, he had the hot houses restored. He still found the time to go sailing and to attend the theatre. Throughout his life his energy was well matched with his imagination and if he ever regretted his political career, it is probable that he made much more of a mark on English life than he could ever have done as a politician.