Stur’s Museum – small but perfectly formed
Home to Thomas Hardy and William Barnes, famous for a livestock market dating back 800 years, Sturminster Newton has a history to be proud of. Tony Burton-Page visited the museum that celebrates it.
Published in May ’15
Sturminster Newton is something of a wonder. After the setbacks it has suffered over the last fifty years – the closure of the railway, the closures of the livestock market, and the closure the creamery – it is surprising that it has survived, let alone that it continues to flourish and to re-invent itself.
This survival is a tribute to the stoutheartedness and tenacity of the citizens of the town, and these qualities are also manifest in the saga of the creation of its museum. It also comes as something of a surprise to learn that a town so rich in history did not have a museum until as recently as 1989, and even then it was banished to the outskirts of the town: its present location in the town centre has only been the museum’s home since 2007.
Sturminster Newton’s more historically-minded residents had long wanted a museum; but it was the death of Ray Rogers, the former registrar of the town and an avid collector of archive material, which triggered them into founding the Sturminster Newton Museum Society in 1984. Rogers himself had been a keen advocate for starting a museum in the town for a long time. In 1986 the lease of the disused chapel of the old Union Workhouse, then owned by Dorset CC, was negotiated; until then it had been used as a storage facility by the social services department. Finally, on 15 July 1989, Sturminster Newton’s first museum opened, with a triumphant flourish, by Miss Agnes Williams, the granddaughter of Montague Williams, who built the chapel in 1890.
It was a huge step forward – but there were many disadvantages. It was some distance away from the centre of the town, it had very limited parking facilities, and there was no running water or toilet. Moreover, the high roofs meant that it was a very cold building and extremely expensive to heat – in fact, because of this it was closed from October to April – and also very difficult to keep clean without erecting scaffolding. Such conditions were highly unsuitable for conservation, and they were hardly attractive for vistors. But even with all these drawbacks, the museum was successfully registered as a nationally recognised museum in 2000.
Unsurprisingly, the Museum Society members always had the possibility of a better venue at the back of their minds. When the Town Council announced in 2006 that they were selling the 16th-century thatched building at the south end of the market place, they started making enquiries. It turned out that the council, who had been using the building as offices, were now moving to the newly-completed Exchange building and had no further use for them. The Society consulted the Dorset County Museums adviser, who agreed that this historic building was an excellent alternative. An application for a mortgage was then sought from the Charity Bank, a social purpose bank which uses savings to make loans to charities and social enterprises. The bank responded positively but asked for a large deposit.
So in 2007 the Society began their efforts to raise money from the community. Sylvia Denham, the Curator, remembers: ‘We distributed flyers everywhere we could think of, and there was massive support. We raised £56,000 just from the local community, and so we were able to pay the deposit.’
The building is still mortgaged, and the repayments are subsidised by the letting of two rooms in the building as offices. But before it could be opened to the public, many alterations had to be made to comply with fire regulations. As in many such cases, the Heritage Lottery Fund came to the rescue, with a grant of £47,000. ‘We spent £35,000 just on the building and electrical alterations,’ says Sylvia. ‘The rest went on updating the museum furniture, such as new display cases, and on purchasing a computer.’
The new museum opened on 1 August 2008, and there was an immediate difference: visitor numbers increased tenfold, and consequently so did donations and sales from the museum shop.
The museum is not supported financially by any of the local councils. Income comes from donations, membership fees, occasional small grants, holding monthly talks in the Exchange, events such as quizzes and cream teas, and sales from the Museum shop and admission charges and sales at Sturminster Newton Mill, for by 1994 the Society had been asked to take over care of the Mill, which had been empty at the time. There is no entry fee to the museum, but this encourages return visits, especially from local residents, and return visits often lead to donations. It is open all year round and is manned by a team of about thirty volunteers.
The museum’s permanent displays are all related to the three main industries which drove the town: the market, the creamery and the railway. The story of the development of the livestock market, which can be dated back to 1219, and the ‘milk factory’, which for many years produced prize-winning cheeses, is told in photographs of the changing scene and by associated objects, such as cheese presses and curd cutters. The Somerset & Dorset Railway came to Sturminster Newton in 1863 and, until it was killed off in 1966 by the Beeching closures, was crucial in keeping the livestock market going for so many years. The museum celebrates this period with the ‘Railway Room’, which contains a working model of the station and market area as it was at the time of closure. It is probably the most popular exhibit in the whole museum – especially amongst children, who at the drop of a (small) coin can set the replica trains in motion.
Sturminster’s literary heritage is also celebrated. There are displays about William Barnes (who was born in nearby Bagber and lived in Sturminster until he was 18), Thomas Hardy (who lived in the town for two years and while there wrote The Return of the Native, one of his slightly more uplifting novels), and Robert Young (alias the poet ‘Rabin Hill’). The latter lived to the age of 97 and was frequently to be seen being wheeled around the town in his Bath chair, which can be seen beside a portrait of the poet by the artist Paul Hart, founder of the Dorset Doddlers and Sturminster’s own Barrelhouse Blues Club.
Rather than presenting random artefacts like some rural museums, Sturminster’s prefers theirs to be connected with the history of the town. For example, the daughter of Canon Lowndes, vicar of St Mary’s church in the late 19th century, was Mary Lowndes, Britain’s first female stained-glass maker; two of her windows are in the church, and the museum currently has an area devoted to her and her craft. And since the museum itself is a thatched building, there is a display about thatching, complete with tools donated by a local thatcher.
Charming as the building is, though, it is on the small side as museums go. Herein lies a problem. Sylvia Denham says: ‘We need more space so that we can do more of the things we should be doing, particularly on the educational front. For instance, if we have parties of schoolchildren we have to split them up into two or three groups because they can’t all go round the museum at once. We do actually have a space which we can use to expand: there is an open area on the north aspect of the building which contains a caged-off overhang in which we display some of the things which are too big to be in the museum, such as the sign for the old Red Lion pub and the town’s Somerset & Dorset station sign – well, it’s a long name! Unfortunately there are usually cars parked in front of it, so the items are difficult to see. We applied for funding to convert that space and the area immediately to the east of it into an extension to the museum – we already have planning permission to put glass walls around the cage and extend down the side of the building, and the plans have been drawn up by an architect who knows the museum well and is a member of the Society. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, so we may have to appeal for funds from the public again.
‘The increased space will give us more room for our archives. We have thousands of images and also census records, and we’re hoping to install a touch screen so that the general public can have access to it all. But we can’t be be a local history centre as well as a museum without the extra space!’
This museum has come a remarkably long way in a comparatively short time. It was awarded full accreditation by the Arts Council – as Sylvia Denham says, ‘an impressive achievement for a small museum manned entirely by volunteers.’ ◗
❱ For more information visit
Or contact the Vice-Chairman of the Sturminster Newton Museum & Mill Society, John Pidgeon, on 01258 475125