John Jasper has made a considerable contribution to Devon’s industrial heritage. His knowledge, expertise and commitment has been invaluable to the development of Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum in Uffculme, Devon. His work as a volunteer since 1990 has left a remarkable legacy of heritage conservation and restoration for visitors to learn from and enjoy.
Historic England describe Coldharbour Mill as ‘one of the best-preserved textile mill complexes in the country.” The Mill was a commercial enterprise between 1797 and 1981. Upon closure, although the fabric and power machinery were in a poor state, a local independent trust was established to save the grade II* listed site and open it to visitors (Coldharbour Mill Trust Ltd – registered charity no:1123386).
In 1990 the whole steam complex including the 1888 and 1910 Lancashire boilers and the 1910 Pollitt and Wigzell engine were not working nor had they been for several years. John assessed their condition and set about gathering a team of volunteers to restore the boiler to get it back into commission. Without him, it is doubtful that anyone would have had the knowledge or commitment to return the steam plant to operation. John’s substantive contribution has been as the driving force to return the Mill’s rare and original steam plant and associated engines to full working order, to lead a team of volunteers to operate the complex for the public at regular steaming events throughout the year; manage the labour-intensive annual insurance inspection process, continue the improvements to the museum by managing regular work days of volunteers and, continuing that commitment over a prolonged period of time as a volunteer.
Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement has been the rescue, installation and restoration of the 1867 Kittoe and Brotherhood Beam Engine in the Beam Engine House, (replacing the original beam engine that had sadly been scrapped in an earlier era). Having discovered the abandoned and unwanted beam engine in Wiltshire where it had lain in a transport yard with a ripped tarpaulin over it, neglected for many years. John realised its potential significance to the steam collection of the Museum. John gave his time to draw the plans for the foundations, working out how it would fit and then overseeing the haulage and delivery. John built the form and reinforcements for the substantial concrete slab and led the volunteers in installing the heavy parts such as the 8 ton cast iron base plate (which would be irreparable if it broke), safely lifting the rest of the massive parts into position. There was no manual, no ‘You-tube’ video, no jig-saw box picture to show how it would all fit together. To not only assemble it but then for it to successfully steam for the public to enjoy into the future and long after John is no longer with us is a terrific legacy and an amazing achievement. John has recounted the full five-year story in ‘The Beam Engine Story’ published on the Mill website.
Not only has he overseen the return of immobile, rusty and static engines such as the stationary fire pump and Marshall engine to running order, and installed a boiler feed pump and re-seated the 1910 boiler for use, he has also created policies, procedures and operating documents, taking responsibility for Health and Safety. He has written the Statement of Significance for the Steam Collection at Coldharbour Mill, testament to his enormously valuable expertise and knowledge. His achievements are all the more remarkable given that most of this volunteer activity has happened while he was working a demanding full-time job as an engineer.
In addition, for 30 years John has contributed his remarkable talents to many other aspects of museum operations. He led a team to clear the waterways and rescue the pipes from the Gas Retort House from the millstreams. He provided technical information to the contractors who restored the Mill’s unique waterwheel. As volunteer Steam Curator, he has continued to train and lead volunteers in the ‘Steam Team’, who not only maintain and operate the restored steam engines, but also assist with the maintenance and display of the Mill’s collection of textile machines, both working and non-working exhibits. This exceptional collection includes a full set of Taylor Wordsworth combing machines – unique as they are apparently the last remaining examples in the country – which were restored for display in the Mill’s Combing Shed as part of a Heritage Lottery funded project in 2015/16. John drafted the interpretation for visitors.
He has built up a reference library to assist with solving problems with the old machinery and has learned, and passed on, traditional skills such as being able to splice rope to keep the Rope Drives in operation. He has given tours to the public and promoted Coldharbour Mill in broadcast documentaries and in print media.
Upon retirement, he took a course of independent study to increase his knowledge and keep abreast of modern museum practice, gaining a postgraduate qualification in Heritage Management from Birmingham University in 2013. In the last few years, he has served as interim Volunteer Coordinator, and also joined the Board of Trustees and stepped in as Acting Chairman in 2018.
Since retiring he has also given his time and skills to the Wellington Arts Association using his initiative, expertise and leadership qualities to solve existing problems. He set about recruiting and leading a team to make improvements to the Art-Deco Wellesley cinema, a rare example of a 1930s single screen cinema that is virtually untouched, to improve back of house facilities for performers and to undertake structural alterations to allow for proper scenery changes.
His many admirable qualities include unflappability and complete dedication to the tasks he undertakes. All this is testimony to a most remarkably modest man who has continued to quietly donate his skills, energy and ingenuity in the service of heritage for a sustained period of 30 years. As such, he is richly deserving of this national honour.