The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Telling The Story Of Gillingham

Gillingham Museum celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. Tony Burton-Page has been to see it.

Fire Engine in Gillingham Museum
The 1790 fire engine made by Bristowe of Whitechapel is the only one of its kind still surviving

Gillingham has a special position in Dorset: it is its most northerly town, situated on that apex of the county which pokes its nose into both Somerset and Wiltshire. But Gillingham residents are fiercely proud of their Dorset identity and are horror-stricken when they discover Dorset folk who have never been to their town. ‘The trouble is,’ they say, ‘we’re not on the way to anywhere – people have to go out of their way to get to us!’ One of the best reasons for making a special trip to Gillingham is to visit its museum: ‘vaut le voyage’, as the Michelin guide would say. Those who see the town as a modern upstart are much mistaken; Gillingham’s history goes back a long way, and the museum is impressively representative of it.

The story of the museum is almost as intriguing as that of the town itself. It all began with the Victorian mania for collecting and with one compulsive hoarder in particular. Robert Sadler Freame was a London solicitor who moved to Gillingham in the second half of the 19th century and formed a partnership with John Williams Bell in about 1875. Over the years the team prospered and they bought up large parts of the town – fields, houses, the brickworks. Freame was able to enjoy the pursuits of a wealthy Victorian gentleman, one of these being the collection of local artefacts and ephemera. With them he filled The Chantry, his Gillingham house. This passed on his death to his son Bertram and his daughter Ethel, both of whom were unmarried, so when Ethel, the last of the Freames, died in 1952, the house and its contents were left to Sidney Carter, the gardener.

Carter realised that by now the collection had considerable historical value and he decided to give it to the Gillingham Local History Society, which had been formed in 1953 with the main aim of setting up a museum for the town. One of the leading figures in the society was Lt-Col Charles Wallis, brother of Barnes Wallis of ‘bouncing bomb’ fame. The Wallis brothers had an abiding love of Dorset and spent family holidays together in the county (see ‘The Dam Buster in Dorset’ in the April 2008 issue of Dorset Life). Charles Wallis had retired to Gillingham after a life in the services and he was determined that his town should have a museum. As nowhere suitable had yet been found, the Freame collection was stored in Gillingham Modern School, together with all the other objects of local historical interest which had begun to pour in since the starting of the society. Wallis was not content with mere storage, though, and continued his search for a proper site for a museum with zeal and intensity, despite being frustrated at every turn.

After four years, his luck changed. Ernest Samways offered him two old cottages behind his shop, which was the pharmacy in the town square. This had been established by Samways’s grandfather a century before and it is a chemist’s shop to this day, making it the longest-established pharmacy in the country. The two cottages in Church Walk were surplus to his requirements and he realised that, although unsuitable as housing, they would be ideal for a museum. The offer was enthusiastically accepted and the Gillingham Local History Society set to work, cleaning and decorating, installing shelves and display cases, and finally placing the collection in position. One of the most difficult operations was moving the 18th-century fire engine from its home at Purns Mill, a task which required great skill from the Gillingham Fire Service in negotiating the narrow doors of its new abode. The museum was officially opened on 6 November 1958.

Gillingham Museum
The area focusing on Gillingham’s early history has an interactive game for children of all ages

It was much loved in its time and served the town well for nearly forty years but, as Sam Woodcock, the current Chairman of the museum, says: ‘It was very much a “cottage industry” – literally, as it was in a cottage! The rooms were cramped and the artefacts were in the open rather than in secure cases, so they were within easy reach of anyone who wanted to pick them up and handle them – a far cry from the standards demanded by museum inspectors these days. The cottages were two hundred years old, with no damp course and no running water, and they were so cold that few people were keen enough to steward it, so it was only open for about half a day a week, and it was closed completely from October to April. It became evident that this wasn’t adequate for a growing town: we needed more modern premises, and preferably somewhere which didn’t have to be manned the whole time.’

These restrictions limited the options available, and the obvious candidate was the new library which was proposed for the redevelopment of the Chantry Fields site, the home for the new Waitrose store. The advantage of siting a museum in a library is that the opening times can coincide; the museum can be left unmanned, provided that all movable exhibits are bolted down or under glass. A snag is that libraries work at a warmer temperature than museums, which have to be at a constant 16°C to prevent the exhibits decaying; this means that there has to be separation between the two areas. The authorities approved of the idea, however; all that was necessary now was the money.

In April 1995, the whole project received a huge boost when the Heritage Lottery Fund gave £15,000 – the fund’s first-ever award. Fund-raising continued apace and eventually over £100,000 was raised, enough for the society to buy the new premises on a fifty-year lease and to fit out the museum in a way which met contemporary conservation criteria. So once again, the whole collection was on the move – and once again, the trickiest item to shift was the 1790 fire engine. Over the thirty years the engine had dwelt in the museum, a hedge had grown up outside and it had to be cut down before the engine could be moved. But all obstacles were overcome and the new museum opened, bigger and better than ever, on 23 October 1996.

The sign for the Queen's Head in Gillingham Museum
The sign for the Queen’s Head was commissioned shortly before the inn closed down

So why should you make a special trip to see this museum when there are plenty of excellent museums in Dorset? Well, there is the above-mentioned fire engine, for a start. It is an awe-inspiring beast, the only surviving example of its type, although one wonders how many fires it managed to put out. It was horse-drawn, but first the horse had to be caught from its pasture in Chantry Fields, then taken to the engine (housed in a room under the Free School) and harnessed to the shafts, after which the team could set off for the fire. Small wonder that the picturesque Purn’s Mill (also known as Parham’s or Perne’s Mill), painted three times by John Constable, burnt down in 1825 – with this same fire engine in attendance.

 Gillingham Museum
The entrance to the museum is well-lit and spacious

The Constable connection with Gillingham is, naturally, made much of by the museum, and there is a fine display which tells the story of his visits to the town to stay with its vicar, John Fisher, the priest who officiated at his marriage in 1816, together with life-sized reproductions of Constable’s five oil paintings of the area. By the time he visited Gillingham, he was already famous for The Hay Wain and so was something of a 19th-century celebrity.
Gillingham’s royal connections are featured, too: the kings of the Norman era built King’s Court Palace and hunted in the Royal Forest of Gillingham. The artist’s impression of the palace is compiled from documentary evidence, and the map of the forest is copied from the original now at the Dorset History Centre.

One of the more unusual items is the ceremonial wheelbarrow which, with its accompanying silver spade, was specially made for Miss Caroline Seymour to use when she cut the first turf for the Salisbury to Yeovil section of the London and South Western Railway in 1856. The contemporary illustration of the event displayed next to the barrow shows that she had to contend with appalling weather: perhaps a ceremonial umbrella would have been more appropriate!

 AA road information sign in Gillingham Museum
One of only two hundred remaining
AA road information signs

One of the two AA road information signs mounted on the wall is well-travelled: a Gillingham resident bought it from an antique shop in Bristol as a memento for a former resident of the town who had moved to California. The new owner eventually gave it to a different Gillingham ex-patriate who had moved to Canada, and there it stayed until the family crossed the Atlantic for a reunion last year, when they brought it with them and presented it to the museum.

Donations such as this are vital to museums like Gillingham’s. It is run entirely by volunteers and relies for its funding on grants and donations. Peter Crocker, President of the Gillingham Local History Society, has raised thousands of pounds by selling second-hand books; the dedication of Gillinghamites like him will see the museum on its way for another fifty years.

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