Wallingford Museum -
A Brief History
In the 1920s, R R Hutchinson, the manager of the Wallingford Westminster Bank, established a small museum in the Free Library, St Leonard's Square. When he moved away in the 1930s, the museum closed and the contents were given to the Town Council for safe keeping.
In 1974 The Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Society (TWHAS) was founded. The society thrived, and the need for a new museum soon became apparent - a place to display the results of research, to deposit excavation finds and to collect local artefacts. TWHAS gained expertise by putting on a series of exhibitions in the Town Hall while actively seeking premises for a permanent museum.
In 1977 Flint House became vacant. The owners, the Town Council, agreed to lease it as a workshop (downstairs) and a Museum (the top two floors). The rent was £1000 per year each. TWHAS did a feasibility study on conversion costs, sought advice from the County Museum on storage and organisation. It was decided that the Museum was a viable project but should be a Charitable Trust, quite separate from TWHAS. At a Public Meeting in November 1978 a steering committee was appointed - a year later the first Trust Deed was signed and the new Trustees appointed the Management Committee.
Meanwhile, work had begun on converting Flint House (pictured above as it was at the time). Central heating was put in, the whole building was rewired, fire alarms and a security system were installed, displays were prepared and the rooms were opened out, which led to the discovery of fine 15th century timber-work. Almost everything was done by volunteers and the project was funded by a continuous jumble sale in the guise of a charity shop. The Museum was due to open on Carnival Day 1980.
But on May 1st 1980, a serious fire broke out in Flint Cottage, the adjoining private residence, originally part of the same medieval hall-house. Fire swept through the common roof -space, destroying the ancient timber roof and threatening the whole building.
It took eight fire engines many hours to bring it under control – miraculously neither the flint façade nor the timber framing of the building was damaged.
Fortunately, the fire was contained and doubly fortunately, the old Hutchinson collection, due to be deposited in the Museum within a few days, had not yet been moved in. It was a moment of great despondency, but the work of re-construction began.
The roof was completely rebuilt, sadly not in its original oak but in softwood as the owners of Flint Cottage were under-insured.
Opening Day 18th April 1981
At last, on April 18th 1981, Wallingford Museum opened to the public. In September the 'offical' opening took place, to the sound of the guns of the Sealed Knot re-enacting a Civil War skirmish on the Kinecroft opposite. The photo shows Museum Chairman Stephen Whitwell (third from left) and the Mayor Bill Revell processing to the Museum with members of the Sealed Knot for the official opening.
In 1989 history came full circle when the Trustees asked the members of the TWHAS Committee to take on the responsibility for day-to-day management of the Museum, a situation which continues today.
The Big Re-Design 1991
For a decade the Museum staged ever more ambitious special exhibitions, the last of these, the history of Payne and Son (silversmiths and jewellers) involved constructing a complete shop (see picture above).
At this point we realised that now our permanent displays looked dull and dowdy compared to our special ones, so in 1991, the Committee launched a major fund-raising campaign to make radical changes to the display areas.
The Museum closed completely while the first stage of this work was undertaken – the total refurbishment of the main exhibition room (known as the Hutchinson Room), to provide a series of settings in which changing exhibits would be displayed. Centred around a paved and cobbled street/courtyard, it consists of a walk-in shop, with a domestic area and workshop at the rear, plus a pub area, a peep-show of life in the Workhouse and a Church/School area.
With this new room completed, the Museum re-opened to the public in May 1993. Almost immediately work began on the Norreys Room to provide a maze-like series of areas which provide a 'walk through time' - tracing the early history of the town from Saxon times, through the rise of the castle, a 'cloister' denoting religious places and events, and ending up in the 'market place' under the pillars of the 17th century Town Hall.
To enhance the experience, this area was designed without captions – instead a continuous narration with music and sound effects carried the visitor through. It also surreptitiously controlled the speed of his/her progression, ensuring that there were no traffic jams in the confined corridors!
Nearly all this work was done in-house to the Director's detailed plans by a small team of Museum volunteers, with some professional assistance for texturing walls and floors. The Norreys Room, complete with tape commentary voiced by former BBC announcer Robin Whitting, finally opened in 1995, thus completing the refurbishment and creating the Museum on the first floor as we see it today.
Another ten years passed and then it was time for an even more radical change - in 2004 we were offered a lease on the whole of Flint House - an offer we accepted with enthusiasm.
So in the next year we extended the Museum to include the ground floor and moved the main entrance to the front door off the High Street. This effectively doubled our display space, as well as making our presence in the High Street much more prominent.
Importantly, it also gave us the ability to offer flat floor access to the ground floor for wheelchair users. Although we can't install a lift or chair-lift because of the historic nature of the building, we can offer some downstairs galleries and now have somewhere where people who cannot access the stairs will be able to view a video of the upstairs exhibitions.
The first task was to get Change of Use Planning Permission and listed building consent to 'break open' the blocked door on the ground floor thus linking the two parts of the building.
We then redecorated the whole of the ground floor, laid a new carpet and installed a smart new Reception Desk. We also created a glass lobby around the front door so the door can be kept open during public hours.
Major Museum Improvements 2018/19
Over the years our collection of artefacts has grown considerably, partly through local donations and partly through archaeological field work. However, the facilities offered to visitors were limited as we did not have a public toilet or a room where small groups such as from a school or coach party could gather to hear about the town’s history.
To resolve the issues we proposed constructing a new timber Collections and Archaeology building – thus freeing up space within Flint House to allow a new accessible toilet for visitor's. Also the remodelling of working/storage areas provided more flexibility for exhibitions and lecture room facilities.
The design of the work took some time given that Flint House is a Grade ll listed medieval hall house and that the internal spaces which we were proposing to better use were rather tight for size. However, planning permission and listed building consent were granted in December 2017.
This allowed for a new accessible toilet to be installed in the current downstairs storage corridor; the conversion of the downstairs kitchen/back room to a meeting and general purpose area (including a mini kitchen) and the replacement of the outside sheds with a 8m x 6m timber log cabin to provide the new archive and archaeological store.
We also took the opportunity to extend the gas central heating to include the downstairs of Flint House which will not only make it more comfortable but also reduce running costs when compared with the portable electric heaters we had been using.
The work started with the placing of an order for the building in August 2018 giving time to clear out two old storage sheds, construct the footings and have the building erected towards the end of our open season in November 2018. This cleared the way to carry out the remodelling work in the museum during our closed season which was done by the main contractor, John Druce.
As might be imagined, there was a lot of stored material that needed to be sorted and moved and we had several sessions with volunteer ‘chain-gangs’ passing boxes etc from the attic store room down two flights of stairs to the newly fitted out Daphne Baker Building.
But it was all worth it as the work was completed comfortably before the normal March 2019 reopening day.
The extra improved storage facilities, educational area and toilet have been of great benefit and allow us to use the building to its maximum potential.
The new building is called the Daphne Baker Building in memory of a long serving member of the museum who gave many years work to help create the museum and left a generous bequest.
We are grateful for the support from Wallingford Town Council which owns the property, the EU funded LEADER grant and funds raised by public donation from previous appeals without which the project could not have progressed.