The best of Dorset in words and pictures

More to it than a brown loaf

Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill Museum is overlooked by many of the visitors to this famous spot. They are missing out on a fascinating and curious collection, as Tony Burton-Page discovered when he went to visit it.

The unostentatious entrance to the museum, at the top of Gold Hill, is often missed by visitors. The figure to the left of the entrance is a cut-out; the odd object he is holding is the Byzant.

The unostentatious entrance to the museum, at the top of Gold Hill, is often missed by visitors. The figure to the left of the entrance is a cut-out; the odd object he is holding is the Byzant.

As a devotee of classic science fiction films, I have always been intrigued by the fact that there is a connection between the phantasmagorical epic Blade Runner and the Saxon hilltop town of Shaftesbury – the connection being that Ridley Scott, the director of the highly futuristic Blade Runner, was also the director of the 1970s Hovis advertisement in which the bread delivery boy pushes his bike up Gold Hill and then freewheels down it. Gold Hill thus became embedded in the nation’s consciousness as a Dorset icon with a recognisability factor only rivalled by Corfe Castle.

Perhaps not quite so recognisable is the pair of cottages nestling at the top of Gold Hill which are the home of the Gold Hill Museum. To call it the Shaftesbury museum is not quite accurate, as it is one of two museums in the town, the other being a couple of minutes away at the site of the abbey demolished on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539. The Gold Hill Museum is set back from the famous street and is often missed by the hundreds of camera-toting tourists intent on making their own record of the spot. This is a shame, as the museum contains items which are never less than fascinating, are sometimes intriguing and are occasionally esoteric – if not phantasmagorical.

The giant bellows once used by the blacksmith

The giant bellows once used by the blacksmith

The museum was founded in 1946 – surprisingly recent considering the town’s lengthy and venerable history. At first it was located in the Town Hall, but within two years it had outgrown the available space. So the Shaftesbury Historical Society (now the Shaftesbury and District Historical Society), who were responsible for the setting up and running of the museum, bought two old cottages at the top of Gold Hill, actually numbered 1 and 2, although no. 1 has long been known as Sun and Moon Cottage. It was once the priest’s house for nearby St Peter’s Church – there is even a squint window which used to open into the main body of the church, although whether it was for the use of lepers or simply for the priest to keep an eye on his church is not known. By contrast, no. 2 was once a ‘doss house’, which provided accommodation for the drovers, jugglers and traders who came to Shaftesbury’s markets and fairs. The Society took its collection from the Town Hall and displayed it in no. 2, and now uses Sun and Moon Cottage as offices and storage area.

The collection consisted initially of items gathered by the members of the Society, but over the years more and more donations were received from other local people. Any contribution was welcomed as long as it helped to tell the story of Shaftesbury and the surrounding area.
Much of what is on display today is familiar, but only from acquaintance via history books or archive footage in television documentaries or as props in the better-researched film dramas – ancient sewing machines, lacemaking bobbins, blacksmiths’ tools – but it is nonetheless good to see them in real life, despite their familiarity. The Gold Hill Museum can, however, boast that it has much that is out of the ordinary.

The blacksmith’s bellows, for instance, are so enormous that they are as disconcerting as those 1970s sculptures by Claes Oldenburg of everyday objects such as safety pins or garden tools at a hundred times their actual size.
Then there is the old school bell hanging on the museum wall – not any old school bell, but the bell of Phillotson’s school, to which Thomas Hardy refers in Jude the Obscure. Phillotson was the schoolmaster at ‘Shaston, the ancient British Palladour…the city of a dream,’ as Hardy describes Shaftesbury.

The fire engine, dating from 1744, is Dorset's oldest.

The fire engine, dating from 1744, is Dorset's oldest.

Many museums have an ancient fire engine, but the one in the Gold Hill Museum is one of the oldest in the country and certainly the oldest in Dorset. It dates back to 1744 and can be seen in the downstairs gallery, where there is also a remarkable musical instrument called a serpent on display. Its snake-like shape is necessitated by the need to get the finger-holes of what is actually a very long tube within the reach of the player. This specimen was played in Shaftesbury’s town band in the 19th century.

Upstairs are some even more unusual items. Anna McDowell, Chairman of the Shaftesbury and District Historical Society, is proud of the William Upjohn’s 1799 map of Shaftesbury, the original brass plate for which can be seen alongside one of the prints. It is indeed a beautiful document, and the printing is of wonderful clarity.

Mounted on a wall is a small glass case containing what seems at first glance to be a rather poor model of a cat. In fact, it is not a model feline but a mummified one, which was found in the thatch of a cottage in Marnhull. In a more superstitious age, dead cats were often dried out and built into the walls or roof of a house to scare away vermin or ward off witches and other evil spirits or protect the occupants from the ‘evil eye’ or bad luck: a sort of primitive insurance policy covering anything which could be seen as a threat to the house. This one is remarkably well preserved and even has a mummified mouse in its jaws.

This extraordinary object is the Shaftesbury Byzant, a relic of the town's archaic water-gathering ceremony.

This extraordinary object is the Shaftesbury Byzant, a relic of the town's archaic water-gathering ceremony.

‘Buttony’ may sound like the eighth deadly sin: in fact, it is a word which refers to the button-making industry. This began in a small way at the end of the 17th century but went on to employ thousands of workers in this part of the world until the industrial revolution brought mechanisation. Dorset buttony began in Shaftesbury with Abraham Case, who settled in the town in the 1620s. His sons and grandsons continued his work so successfully that within a hundred years the family firm had branches all over Dorset – they were certainly not sad Cases. The display of Dorset buttons in the Gold Hill Museum is a memorial to what was once a thriving industry whose collapse due to industrialisation led to poverty and starvation – in Shaftesbury alone, 350 families emigrated to Canada.

Perhaps the weirdest exhibits in the museum are those connected with the Byzant ceremony. This was a bizarre annual event brought about by Shaftesbury’s situation on top of a hill, which meant that a water supply for the inhabitants was always a problem. The most reliable wells were in Enmore Green, which was in the neighbouring parish of Motcombe, and in order to ensure a constant supply the Mayor of Shaftesbury had to make an annual payment to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham on the Sunday before Ascension Day. This gift consisted of some of the best local produce: a gallon of ale, a (raw) calf’s head, a pair of gloves and a loaf of bread –disappointingly for Hovis historians, a white one. The Mayor also took the Byzant, which was a cross between a totem pole and a May garland embellished with gold and peacock feathers. At one time of the ceremony’s history, which dates back to at least 1518, the Byzant was so richly decorated with jewels borrowed from local well-to-do families that it was enormously valuable. The ceremony became more and more lavish as time went on, in the end becoming so expensive that the Town Corporation stopped it in 1830. The last Byzant was eventually presented to the Town Council and now resides in the Gold Hill Museum. It is strikingly odd, and the museum’s description of it as ‘a carved and gilded wooden object’ is definitely on the polite side.

Because of the layout of the buildings in which it is housed, the museum has a certain rustic charm. This is not necessarily what the paying public expects from a 21st-century museum; to those accustomed to the sophistication of, say, the Science Museum in South Kensington, it must seem almost ramshackle. But this is set to change in the near future. The Shaftesbury and District Historical Society has set up an ambitious Renovations and Development Project which will see a floor added to the east wing, a glass construction with slate roof in the courtyard to provide access to Sun and Moon Cottage, and a single-storey extension into part of the garden to provide a much-needed educational suite. The extra floor for the east wing, which will be no higher than the roof of the western end of the building and will be almost invisible from the street, will provide storage and office space and a new home for the library, which is at present large enough for only one person. This will release extra space for the exhibits themselves, and the displays will be completely re-organised. The plans were finally approved by North Dorset DC in June after much discussion and some controversy.

The total cost of the project is £641,000. The Heritage Lottery Fund will grant £400,000 if the rest can be raised, and thanks to partnership funding, donated volunteer time and help-in-kind contributions there is only another £52,000 to go – but it has to be found before the middle of August this year. The refurbishment of this museum is surely one of the most worthwhile causes in Shaftesbury’s fascinating history.

The south elevation of the projected extensions and alterations to the museum. The single-storey educational suite, on the right, will have a sedum roof and is designed to have a minimal impact on its surroundings.

The south elevation of the projected extensions and alterations to the museum. The single-storey educational suite, on the right, will have a sedum roof and is designed to have a minimal impact on its surroundings.

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