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Behind the scenes: The Red House Museum and Gardens

Peter Booton enters a former workhouse in Christchurch and likes what he finds

All the plants in the walled herb garden are neatly labelled. From the colour of the brickwork it isn’t difficult to see why Rev. Bush named it the Red House.

The Red House Museum is housed in the former parish workhouse of Christchurch, which was purpose-built in 1763. In comparison to the Union workhouses established after the 1834 Poor Law reforms, the Christchurch workhouse was relatively small and its confines were cramped and basic for the destitute men, women and children who became its inmates. At this time the workhouse was intended to be a deterrent rather than a punishment, ‘…to restrain and prevent Idleness and Vice, to encourage industry and good manners…’.
By the latter part of the 19th century, the Christchurch workhouse was too small for the needs of the parish and in 1881 its inmates were transferred to a new, larger workhouse in Fairmile Road, which later became Christchurch Hospital. For a while the Georgian building was used as a schoolhouse. In 1866 it was purchased by Rev. Thomas Bush, Vicar of Christchurch, who converted it into a private residence and named it the Red House from the colour of its bricks. Rev. Bush was a wealthy man and in place of the former exercise yards he established the gardens around the Red House that are such a delightful feature today.
In 1909 Rev. Bush sold the Red House to Matilda Druitt, who gave the property to her son, Herbert, in 1916. Herbert Druitt was a keen antiquarian with a passion for collecting local things, particularly archaeological finds, costume and bygones from the Victorian era. From 1919 until his death in 1943, Druitt opened the ‘museum’ in his home to the public on an occasional basis, only admitting those persons he felt worthy of viewing his collections. It is said that his home became so crammed with all manner of items that during World War 2 it was almost impossible to reach and black-out its windows, for which Druitt was reprimanded. Following his death the Red House and its vast contents, including 2500 boxes of archaeological finds alone, was inherited by his sister, Charlotte, who then laboriously sifted through the collections and disposed of a considerable amount of inappropriate or unwanted material.
Charlotte gave the museum to the town of Christchurch in 1947, the year of her death, and after responsibility for it had been transferred to the Trustees and Managers of the Museum, it was officially opened to the public on 30 May 1951.
Twenty years later, the running of the Red House was taken on by Hampshire County Council Museum Service. Even though the county boundary changed in 1974 and Christchurch became part of Dorset, the Red House Museum and Gardens is still managed by Hampshire Arts and Museum Service and jointly funded by Hampshire CC, Dorset CC and Christchurch BC.
There are two paid staff positions, shared by four people. Stephen Lowy and Jacqui Ready share the position of Curator and they are responsible for the day-to-day running of the museum and the care of its collections, marketing, planning events and exhibitions and the health and safety of visitors. ‘It’s a bit like spinning plates on sticks,’ says Stephen. There is also the important position of Supervisor, whose job it is to look after the shop and café, and also to supervise the volunteers on a daily basis. At present there are about fifty volunteers who help with such jobs as upkeep of the gardens, welcoming and helping visitors, and looking after the collections.
The Red House has many thousands of photographs and documents, and the collections volunteers spend a lot of their time digitising and recording these. Most of the photographs are images of Christchurch and the surrounding area: street scenes, people and events that were recorded by local amateur and professional photographers. Brian Haywood and Roy Hodges are two of the collections volunteers. Brian recalls that he first became involved nineteen years ago, when he was recruited to sort through three bin-bags full of photographs and asked to catalogue them. Roy says that he has been digitising photographs for four years so far, and there are many more still to be done!

The Kitchen Gallery, displaying bygones from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the foreground is a box mangle from the House of Bethany convent in Boscombe.

Members of the public can visit the Resource Room on the first floor of the museum to view copies of photographs in the collection, stored in itemised A4 binders. Appointments are not necessary. The same applies to documents kept in the Resource Room. These mainly relate to the local history of buildings, roads, people and transport, as well as special events and societies. There is a family history research section, too, and copies of local maps. If visitors can’t find the information they require, there is a Resource Room enquiry form.
Unlike some museums, there is very little dedicated storage space at the Red House for bulky 3D items such as costumes. Instead, archived material from the museum’s collecting area, bounded by Sopley, Bransgore and the eastern flank of Bournemouth, is kept safe in a central store at Chilcomb, near Winchester, operated by the Hampshire Arts and Museum Service. The permanent displays at the Red House consist largely of local archaeological finds and bygones from the Victorian and Edwardian eras as well as the 20th century. In the Bygones Gallery, on the ground floor, are various everyday items from the 1800s, ranging from children’s toys, games and puzzles to surgical implements and a coachman’s set of tools. There are fine examples, too, of fusee watch chains, an industry for which Christchurch was well-known during the 19th century. Girls as young as nine years old were employed to make these intricate chains and some would have lived in the parish workhouse.
The adjoining Kitchen Gallery contains bygones from the dairies, laundries and kitchens of Victorian and Edwardian homes. This room, with its soot-blackened inglenook fireplace, was a day-room for the old and infirm inmates of the workhouse and its wooden floor, unlike the flagstones in the other ground floor rooms, was a thoughtful touch of kindness for their bare feet.
At the foot of the stairs to the first floor is the Arthur Romney Green Room with its scene of mid-1930s family life augmented by costumed figures, furniture from the workshop of a local carpenter in Bridge Street and a Clarice Cliff tea service. The archaeology galleries on the first floor occupy the former candle-lit wards where infirm men, women and children would have slept on straw beds. Among the numerous local finds displayed here are medieval floor tiles from the Priory and various items from excavations at St Catherine’s Hill, Bargates and Hengistbury Head.

A mid-1930’s family life scene in the Arthur Romney Green Room

The second floor of the workhouse provided further accommodation for men and boys and able-bodied women and children. These wards (not open to visitors) now house the Education Suite. The museum’s school visits programme ‘builds on collections of Victorian social history, toys and archaeology’.
The curator’s office on the first floor was once the Union Master’s office, with windows on either side of the room to keep watch over the segregated male and female exercise yards. One of these yards is now the walled herb garden and from this a path leads to the spacious South Garden, a haven of tranquillity but a stone’s throw from the busy streets of Christchurch. Its colourful plant-filled borders and neatly striped lawns, lovingly tended by garden volunteers, are magnificently overlooked by Christchurch Priory.

The South Garden has tidy, plant-filled borders and is overlooked by Christchurch Priory

Temporary exhibitions change every few months. A forthcoming new exhibition, ‘Meet the Victorians’, begins on 17 August with a grand opening and ‘Victorian storytelling brought to life’ (suitable for an older audience), followed by ‘Peelers and Pickpockets’ – a Victorian-style cops and robbers drama – on 20 August. The exhibition runs until 26 October. There are also temporary displays in the costume gallery and Foyer Gallery, where work by local artists is regularly displayed.
Friends of the Red House Museum, an organisation established in 1951, currently has more than 200 members who stage various fund-raising activities, including family events, a garden party, coffee mornings and a Christmas party for Volunteers. In 2012 the Friends raised more than £5000 for the Red House.

Pagan Saxon community burial in the archaeology gallery. The workman is puzzled because the acid soil has dissolved the bones of the corpse.

One very special item that is not yet on display is a Bronze Age cemetery urn that was dug up in the 1950s by a local amateur archaeologist who gave it to the museum. For more than fifty years the earth-filled ceramic urn languished untouched, first at the Red House and then at Chilcomb, until researchers at University College London took an interest in it. An osteo-archaeologist (a specialist in old bones) then became involved and the urn recently received a CT scan at Salisbury Hospital. When the results have revealed the urn’s contents – apart from earth, presumably – it is hoped that the Red House Museum will gain another remarkable archaeological find for its superb collection. No doubt Herbert Druitt would approve.

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