TWENTY YEARS OF LOCAL EFFORT
Honorary CuratorNovember 1976
ASHBURTON MUSEUM - TWENTY YEARS OF LOCAL EFFORT
A Museum in a small town like Ashburton? How does it happen? This account will show that the persistence and determination of a few public-spirited people can surmount all the obstacles that bureaucracy automatically places in their way.
We owe the Ashburton Museum to the inspiration and perseverance of the late Robert Garner, who died on 26th August, 1976 aged ninety. He was a Member of the Urban District Council and became Portreeve in 1952. He and Mrs. Margery Morris, the Town Clerk, negotiated with the County Authorities for the use of the Tower Room of St. Lawrence Chapel. In spite of letters from the Clerk to Devon County Council saying he was unable to find any means by which Ashburton Urban District Council might lawfully spend money on a Museum and that the continued use of St. Lawrence Chapel could not be guaranteed, the Museum was finally opened by the late Sydney Baker, Chairman of the Ashburton Urban District council on 22nd February 1958. With the help of Stanley Gill and D. Nicol, who became Hon. Curators, Robert Garner had collected objects of local historical interest and items of less local interest, which were housed in a space only 15'(foot) by 8'(foot) up a steep winding stair in the Tower. At this stage Miss Kennard acted as Hon. Secretary.
A visit by Paul Endacott of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, whose Father, Frank Charles Endacott was born in Ashburton in 1871 and attended the old Ashburton Grammar School, resulted in a generous gift of American-Indian Relics and 200 dollars to provide showcases in memory of his father. These proved to be too much for the limited accommodation of 1960, so negotiations began for larger premises. Again the Clerk to Devon County Council "found difficulty in the Urban District Council entering into covenants obliging them to indemnify the County Council for use of premises" but a way round was suggested in "Friends of the Museum" and by 1962 he announced that the appropriate Committee was prepared to let an ex-classroom at a rental of £1 per annum.
On the 10th April 1962 the County Land Agent sent keys and stated that the Ashburton Museum Committee would be carrying out the necessary preparatory work at their own risk. (How careful can you be in Local Government?) These stalwart people, including the then Primary School Headmaster, (the late C.V. Bowden), Alfred Davies, the late Christopher Gamble, R.L. Webb of the National Westminster Bank, and Joseph Reayer, Headmaster of the County Secondary School, chaired by Robert Garner and guided through the official labyrinth by Mrs. Margery Morris, set to work. But a rusty cistern held up progress by threatening to flood their efforts.
However, in May 1962 Robert Garner, Alfred Davies and Margery Morris were cited as joint tenants in a Tenancy Agreement which was executed in June.
So the contents of the Tower Room were moved to what is now the Pottery of the County Primary School (formerly Blacksmith Shop of the Old Grammar School) where they remained until 1968. But meanwhile Paul Endacott had continued his benevolent interest by sending regular sums of money. Display cases were made and the collection outgrew the available space, mainly due to the acquisition of the Mapleton bequest from Newton Abbot,
In 1858 the present building, No.1 West Street, was the property of Lord Cranstoun and passed through Margaret Macleod, Baroness de Virte de Rathsamhausen to John Isaac Lamason in 1893, to F.H. Head in 1937 and then to Mrs. Vaughan-Robertson in 1963, the price moving from £120 to £250 to £1,800. John Lamason was a brush manufacturer and his name still shows through the paint on the facia. In the attic (access to which has now gone with the removal of the chimney stack and addition of a new roof) there was a window and perhaps family, or apprentices', sleeping quarters behind oak panel doors.
Many residents remember the premises first as a draper's and then as a barber's shop, where you had a little-known glimpse of the River Ashburn from an overhanging shed. Then for a few years Mrs. Vaughan-Robertson was a familiar figure in the street with her tiny dog. It was through her generosity that the Museum Committee was able to acquire the property (at about half its valuation) in 1967 on condition that it became a Museum.
In 1967 Trustees were appointed and the Department of Education and Science entered the Museum in its Register of Charities. There was an official opening on 18th May 1968 by the Portreeve, F.R. Harris, and in 1969 exemption from taxation was agreed by the Inland Revenue. Also in 1969 R-L. Charles made a favourable expert report on behalf of the Joint Committee of the Museums Association and the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, resulting in a £500 grant for more necessary alterations and display cases. During this period Tony Thurley was a very active honorary curator.
So far little mention has been made of official financial assistance. At first there was none. The beginnings were supported entirely by voluntary donations and local fund raising efforts, such as a coffee morning, and prize draws by Mrs. Coole at the Woolshop. But later there were small local government grants in cash, and allocations were made to the Area Museum Council by the Devon County Council. At this stage help and advice came from A.A. Gumming, O.B.E., Director of the Area Museum Council for the South West; and J. Manning, a member of his staff, has personally spent many hours on the displays. New cases have been fixed, security has been increased, and a small room for serious students has been provided.
Since local government re-organisation the Ashburton Town Council makes an annual grant to cover maintenance costs. But the voluntary aspect has so far continued unabated. In fact all the staffing is entirely voluntary, some 24 stewards maintaining a rota through the months of May to September, four afternoons a week, two or three at a time; in winter some of the Trustees and their friends do the work of cataloguing and maintenance; while boys of the Ashburton and Buckfastleigh Secondary School have made a swinging sign to hang outside.
What impact has all this work had on the public? Local residents, especially school children, continue to visit the Museum, some bringing finds which they hope will interest the Curator. Tourists are more prevalent on wet days than fine. The average attendance of visitors for the last three years has been 75 a week, with a preponderance, of course, in the school holidays. Admission is free. Perhaps a proof of the interest of visitors may be the fact that more than £50 is found in the collecting box during the five opening months. Also a large proportion of the signatures in the visitors' book are those of foreigners.
What the Trustees would value more than anything else are gifts of items illustrating the wool trade and the Stannary Town (Tin Mining) period of Ashburton's history, most of which have disappeared. But rather than dwell on what is not visible visitors should look at a splendid Elizabethan seal on a document dated 1572, some locally made pewter, Bristol sealed bottles, a cock-fighting sign, B. Bonn's Maps, and nineteenth century election broadsheets. Upstairs there are geological specimens from the locality and costumes, also bygone farm implements and real American Indian antiques of the Sioux, Apache and other tribes.
Within the Conservation Area of Ashburton at the junction of North, East and West Streets the Museum, though small, has the great advantage of accessibility. If voluntary effort can be sustained the Trustees hope it will become a worthy repository of much local historical material.
Extract from 'The Devon Historian1 Vol. 13. October 1976.