Netting the prize
Tony Burton-Page visits Bridport Museum and finds out why its recent lottery award is not just money for old rope
Published in April ’15
Over the years Bridport has become famous as a centre of cultural excellence, with, moreover, an impeccable historical pedigree stretching back to Alfred the Great, allied to an industrial heritage which continues to this day. The history, industry and culture of the town are all celebrated in its museum, a venerable building in South Street which itself is a piece of history, being one of Bridport’s oldest buildings – Nikolaus Pevsner, in the Dorset volume of his Buildings of England, praises its Elizabethan frontage and compares its porch favourably to that of Winterborne Clenston Manor. Moreover, it is probable (if unprovable) that it is built on the site of Bridport’s vanished but well-documented Saxon castle: the name ‘Castlehay’ has been associated with the location since the 13th century.
It is perhaps surprising, in view of the town’s illustrious past, that it has only had a museum since 1932, and this was only because a resident by the appropriately piscatorial name of Captain Codd donated the building, which he had bought a mere three years previously, to the Bridport Borough Council. He stipulated the condition that the council paid for the necessary alterations to turn it into a museum and art gallery; his gift was possibly not an entirely altruistic one, as Codd was a keen amateur artist and needed somewhere to exhibit his own paintings. The council paid him a nominal fee of £20 for his collection, which, apart from his own originals, included his copies of works by J M W Turner – he had spent much time in the late 1890s at the National Gallery copying paintings by the great master, including ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ – and 19th- and 20th-century pictures collected by Codd during his travels in England and on the continent.
The Alfred Percy Codd Collection was the basis of the Bridport Museum and Art Gallery when it opened on 28 May 1932; nowadays the museum’s fine art collection includes work by Albert Hodder (1845-1911), Arthur Edwin Champ (1865-1926), Henry Walton (1875-1959), local artist George Biles (famous for his pub signs), Francis Henry (‘Fra’) Newbery (Devon-born but Bridport-reared), and Reynolds Stone, the artist and engraver whose lifelong fascination with Dorset began with family holidays in Bridport – creator of the work of graphic art owned by the largest number of people in Britain, the royal arms on the front of the British passport.
But it is as a museum that it performs its primary function today, celebrating in particular Bridport’s age-old association with rope and net making. The first written record dates as far back as 1211, when King John, convinced that a French invasion was imminent, demanded that Bridport provide ropes for ships, urging them to work ‘night and day’ to keep the supply going. The section of the museum devoted to rope and net exhibits two net-making machines plus other machinery used by the rope-makers, together with samples of rope, twine and net. There is also an exhaustive illustrated history of the industry in Bridport displayed on large information boards, which reveals such gems as the fact that the goal nets in England’s 1966 World Cup win came from Bridport, as do the nets for the Wimbledon tennis championships. Small wonder that the town’s strong connection with the industry inspired a nickname for the hangman’s noose: the ‘Bridport Dagger’. The museum displays one of these grisly items, thankfully unused. We are also reminded that the industry is far from dead: the 300-year-old firm of Bridport Gundry mutated into AmSafe and now makes aircraft safety material – for example, arrester nets for aircraft carriers, which prevent planes falling into the sea.
Given Bridport’s location on the Jurassic Coast, it is hardly surprising that the museum has an extensive fossil collection. Most of the specimens were collected locally between Lyme Regis and Burton Bradstock: there are ammonites, starfish and even a plesiosaur, a huge, long-necked marine reptile – not the whole beast, but an impressive chunk of it. The museum has a small-scale reconstruction of the creature suspended from the ceiling, not made from any conventional materials, rather from Lego bricks, which perhaps accounts for its slightly bewildered expression. By contrast the (real) starfish are small and delicate, with a preserved fragility that belies their immense age.
No museum would be complete without an archaeological display, and Bridport has one of the most significant Roman military collections in Southern England. The material comes from two local sites, Watton Hill and Waddon Hill. The latter was a 1st-century Roman hillfort established shortly after the invasion of 43 AD with a mixed garrison of legionaries, auxiliaries, infantry and archers. The artefacts confirming this include a decorated dagger scabbard, a pilum (a shield-piercing javelin) and a sample of a legionary’s body armour known as lorica segmentata.
The museum has a natural history collection, which includes cabinets full of birds’ eggs and butterflies as well as birds and mammals. It also has a collection of military and commemorative medals and coins, including a penny minted at Bridport in the time of William the Conqueror.
The social history collection is inevitably focused more locally; the most remarkable part of it is that devoted to Dr Giles Roberts, a Bridport-born apothecary and pharmacist who trained at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals in London. Once established back in Bridport, he was able to conduct experiments, and he developed the formula for a revolutionary ointment for aches and pains which became known as ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’. It was so effective that it was still being produced in 1965, although its lead and mercury content would prevent it from being marketed today. The museum’s collection contains some of his medical instruments, the ‘Medical Commonplace Book’ containing his medical recipes, pots of his ointment – and a somewhat disconcerting life-size waxwork of the man himself. There is also a wooden pulpit: Roberts was a staunch Methodist and preached at many places locally. The museum also reveals his experiments with electric shock treatment, and how they ended abruptly after an electrocuted dog leapt through his shop window.
With such a variety of exhibits, the museum is certainly a ‘must see’ on a visit to Bridport. Entry has been free since 2009 and it is open from April to October. But the curator, Emily Hicks, is determined to have it open all year round, which could only happen if the heating system is improved. If the proposed redevelopment of the museum goes ahead, it will indeed happen. The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the museum a Stage 1 Pass for this redevelopment, which in layman’s terms means nearly £100,000 for architects, designers, project managers and consultants. When the draft plans are drawn up, they will be sent to the Heritage Lottery Fund to apply for the full grant – which would be over £1 million. Emily says that the catalyst for redevelopment was the bequest of the rope and net collection of Anthony and Frances Sanctuary, which she describes as ‘a museum’s worth of items’ connected with the rope and net firm Bridport Gundry – photos, plans, work and training records, ledgers, samples, together with a considerable amount of machinery, much of which is hand operable and could be reassembled so that visitors to the museum could operate it themselves. But the museum is already well-filled – so much so that items not on display are stored in the Local History Centre, a hundred yards away in Gundry Lane. The museum will need to be redesigned to make better use of the available space, and the rope and net collection will form the centrepiece of the main gallery.
The redevelopment will give the museum the chance to modernise the elderly heating system – the night storage heaters are not efficient enough to heat the building in a British winter – so that Emily Hicks’s dream of year-round opening will be achieved. ‘If it’s open throughout the year,’ she says, ‘it will give the 13,000 residents of Bridport more chance to make use of their museum, and they won’t have to compete with holidaymakers. We’ll be able to make it much more user friendly by improving the toilet facilities – people always judge somewhere on the quality of its toilets! And also at the moment the first floor is inaccessible to pushchair and wheelchair users, so we’re going to install a lift. While the work is going on, we’ll be able to do some very necessary repairs to this beautiful old building – there is much essential repair and conservation work to be done, particularly to the windows and stonework, and we’ll combat the ever-increasing damp problems with a damp course.
‘As for the contents of the museum, we want to have new displays for all our collections. Downstairs will be a multi-functional learning space which will include such activities as dressing up, objects to handle and interactive games, and there’ll be touch screens with photographs and further information.’
The museum will be expected to match fund the initial grant, so Emily is already busy with fundraising. Museums are traditionally preoccupied with the past, but this one definitely has a future. ◗