His interest in railways is well documented and his saving of the Flying Scotsman, the stuff of legend; his museum of artefacts rivals the National Railway Museum.
His interests were broad but as befits the great-grandson of Sir Robert McAlpine, builder of the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Wembley Stadium, engineering was a basic theme to his collecting.
Items included Crystal Palace memorabilia, Brunel (the Brunel Tunnel museum has much of his collection of Brunel memorabilia on loan), Singer sewing machines (Sir Robert built the first huge Singer factory in Glasgow), anything to do with the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley put on, surprisingly, by McAlpines.
Sir William collected medals, coins, pottery, vehicles, buttons, maps, enamel signs, books. His library covering all aspects of engineering is in constant use by researchers.
Collecting right till the end
A large collection of traction engines led to an interest in beautiful old fairground rides and the establishment of the Fairground Heritage Trust whose collection, now housed at Dingles, near Okehampton, is still growing. Days before his death he was picking out items in an online auction catalogue for his wife, Lady Judy, to purchase.
A less widely known passion was for Britain’s architectural heritage. In the 1950s and ‘60s Sir William was horrified by the demolition mania that allowed no time or resource for saving beautiful components from the buildings that were being torn down, to make way for the concrete monstrosities that McAlpines and others were building for developers who saw no beauty in the old.
To have all these dealers on his own land was rather like a small child discovering a toy shop in the garden
Where he could, he would send pieces to his home, unsure what to do with them but unable to see them crushed or thrown on a bonfire. Now many of these pieces of architectural salvage are incorporated into his house and buildings on the Fawley Hill estate (such as the Victorian railway station cut into three and reassembled at Fawley).
As chairman of the Railway Heritage Trust since its inception, Sir William has been responsible for the saving and refurbishment of countless buildings.
It is not surprising then, that he attended every SALVO fair, the great gathering of architectural salvage dealers, buying yet more “bits of buildings” to add to his collection.
When attendance dropped at Knebworth (where he and Lord Cobbold had once moved an entire barn, on rollers, pulled by traction engines), he suggested to Thornton Kay that he should move SALVO to Fawley Hill.
While it has taken a few years to grow the attendance figures, it is now a popular fixture certainly among locals in the Bucks, Berks and Oxon catchment but also has a strong countrywide and overseas following.
Like a small child
When Thornton decided he wanted to take a year off this year, Sir William was horrified. It may be a serious trade event, but for him, to have all these dealers on his own land was rather like a small child discovering a toy shop in the garden. He couldn’t bear the thought of those years of nurturing the trade and public attendance to be wasted.
“We will run it,” he said. This actually meant ‘My wife will run it’… as he had far too many other things to run: like railway companies, trusts and charities.
So – with antique dealers Gary Wallis and Alix Charpentier to help bring in the traders – Lady McAlpine set about organising this year’s event.
A memorial service will be held at the museum in Fawley Hill on Sunday, May 13.
Obituary courtesy of Sir William's family
More details about the Fawley Hill event replacing SALVO in 2018.