Hanging by a thread – Beaminster museum
Beaminster Museum has had a comparatively short life but a distinguished one. Now one of Dorset’s best town museums has undertaken an important and intriguing project. John Newth reports.
Published in November ’13
In 1987, aware that there were many objects and documents relating to the history of Beaminster but that they needed to be properly collated, researched and perhaps displayed, a small band of the town’s local historians formed the Beaminster Museum Trust. There was only one problem: they didn’t have a museum. Three years later, however, the former Congregational chapel in Whitcombe Road was abandoned, partly because it was in a dangerous state as the roof was about to fall in. The benefit to the Trust was that they were able to buy it for almost literally next to nothing; the downside was that they had to undertake a major programme of repair and restoration. However, because it is a listed building, built in 1749 and extended in 1826, English Heritage chipped in with a grant, and although that left a substantial sum to be raised through donations, the many hours of work put in by enthusiastic volunteers meant that the eventual bill was less than £200,000.
Today the museum is thriving, although it is still entirely dependent on volunteers, led by curator Brian Earl. Its permanent collections are grouped in bays on two floors, under headings like Education, Agriculture, Technology and Beaminster at War. As in all the best town museums, the slightly random juxtapositions are part of its charm. Dominating the first-floor gallery and the space below are the chapel’s original organ, installed at the time of the extension, and the old church clock from Burstock, the centrepiece of a display on Beaminster’s reputation as a traditional centre of clock-making.
Like all museums, it is offered more things than it has room to store, let alone display, so Brian Earl operates a strict rule that anything with no definite connection to Beaminster, however old and interesting, is declined. ‘Beaminster’ in this context includes the surrounding villages, which have always been an important element in the museum’s collections and displays: it covers an area from Thorncombe in the west to Hooke and Halstock in the east and from Salway Ash in the south to South Perrott in the north. Each village in turn has had its own small display in a space at the foot of the stairs. Other temporary exhibitions are staged in an area called ‘the niche’; although only small exhibitions can be put on there, they are useful practice for volunteers who may then progress to helping with the two major temporary exhibitions that the museum stages each year.
These are shown in the large space below the organ, a space which is also useful for the talks that the museum presents regularly during the winter, and which is available for hire to local organisations. The topic of the current exhibition is the town’s pubs and inns, and one of next year’s will cover Beaminster and World War 1. This will not only mark the centenary of the war’s beginning but honour the 140 fallen whose names appear on the area’s war memorials.
Early in 2012, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced that a series of grants were to be made available for research projects into local history, under the banner ‘All Our Stories’. The museum decided to apply and quickly decided that the project they wanted to undertake was the exploration of the flax and hemp industry in the Beaminster area, a topic on which they had very little material or even information. The application was successful, and the core team of seven researchers under the leadership of Arnold Shipp set to work, giving the project the title ‘Hanging by a Thread: Our Flax and Hemp Heritage’. The publication in November of a book, probably under the same title, will be the culmination of more than a year’s intensive work.
It was known, of course, that like the rest of West Dorset, the area was famous for growing flax and hemp: it fits in well with dairy farming and is well-suited to the soil. In the days of sailing ships it was an industry of national importance, providing the raw material for ropes and sails, and as far back as the Tudors, acts of Parliament were being passed to promote the growing of flax and hemp. Slightly to their surprise, the team found that the Beaminster area appeared to concentrate not so much on the growing as on the processing. Although some raw material was sourced locally, about two-thirds of it was imported, especially from Russia and Estonia. The heyday of the industry around Beaminster seems to have been comparatively short, from the second half of the 18th century to about 1850. It probably began with outworkers, then mills were set up and the industry became steadily more mechanised. There were mills in most of the villages and no fewer than seven within a short distance of the centre of Beaminster itself. Yarn Barton, now a car park, was where the yarn was laid out for drying after bleaching.
Flax or hemp has to go through a number of processes before a fibre is produced which can be spun into yarn, among them: retting, which is keeping the stems wet so that they become soft and mushy; swingling, which is beating the stems to soften them further; scutching, which is pulling a sharp edge down the stems to remove the mush (the ‘harle’ or ‘skimps’) and leave the fibres; and heckling, which is combing the fibres to split and polish them as well as to remove the last of the stems. It can be seen that it is very labour-intensive and at its peak, the industry employed between 2000 and 3000 people within Beaminster and the surrounding villages – far greater than the number engaged in agriculture. Entrepreneurs flourished, of whom the most successful were the Cox family, and at one time Cox & Sons employed 600 people, including outworkers.
The yarn produced in Beaminster was generally not of the highest quality required for fine clothing, but nor was it the coarsest that was used for rope and nets. Beaminster yarn most often finished up as sailcloth, much of which was woven in the town. The main use of sailcloth, as the name implies, was maritime, so it was not only the rise of cotton that sounded the knell of the flax and hemp industry but the disappearance of sailing ships. There was a steep decline in the local population as people moved to find work, many of them northwards to jobs in cotton.
This is the story that Arnold Shipp and his team have uncovered through skilful use of sources such as census returns, parish records, newspapers and trade directories. ‘The one thing we haven’t found,’ Arnold told me regretfully, ‘is any trade material – accounts books, invoices and so on. It would tell us so much about the detail of how the trade operated.’ Even without such valuable source material, the ‘Hanging by a Thread’ project has made a significant contribution to understanding an important but neglected aspect of Beaminster’s past.