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Monday, July 15, 2024
History & CommunityA Walk through History

A Walk through History

Margery Hookings calls in on Beaminster Museum and is fascinated by what she finds. The museum is wholly volunteer-based and has been going for 25 years.


It’s a Friday morning and Beaminster Museum is absolutely buzzing with volunteers.

I first came here some years ago. I feel rather guilty that I haven’t been here more recently, because it’s a treasure trove of information, with permanent and temporary exhibitions on so many facets of West Dorset life.

The place is a wonderful resource and full of lots of interesting things—not just about the town but also surrounding villages.

Housed in the old Congregational Chapel in Whitcombe Road, its exhibitions are over two floors—the ground floor and the gallery. It has a shop, which sells gifts, souvenirs and new and second hand books about the area’s history. And it has a reference section of books, maps and other resources. There’s also a meeting room and a kitchen, both of which are available for hire.

But the museum is running out of space. Plans are being formulated to extend the premises out into the back yard. Proposals will be put before the committee and planning consent sought from West Dorset District Council.

The chapel was built in 1749 and enlarged in 1825. It’s a charming Grade II listed building, whose supporters included leading townsfolk such as the families of James Daniel, who fought for Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor of 1685, and Richard Hine, who published his History of Beaminster in 1914.

You can still see the memorial stone on the wall to James Daniel, who had a miraculous escape from Sedgemoor and its bloody aftermath and lived to be 100.

The chapel’s nineteenth century organ still works and there’s a button you can press to hear it play.

Beaminster Museum Trust, a registered charity, acquired the chapel in 1990.

Brian Earl, who’s been voluntary curator since 2013, says: “The trust existed before the museum and was desperate for a building. Richard Hine wanted it to be in the Public Hall but that was overtaken by World War I.”

Volunteers are at the heart of the museum’s success. It is fortunate to have around 70 people helping out—including 50 stewards—who give various amounts of time and energy to make the place what it is today.

But there is always room for more helpers, says Brian, whose own story about becoming a volunteer will ring bells with others who become involved in the goings on of their own communities.

Not interested in history at school and with a degree in modern languages and a background in IT, Brian says: “Someone I played cricket with said they had problems with their computers, so I came along, sorted it out and then got sucked into it.”

The museum has a strong focus on local history, with a main exhibition for the year supported by two, smaller exhibitions. In the winter, the museum runs a series of interesting and successful talks, while the volunteers work on the displays for the coming year.

Currently, there’s a fascinating exhibition called Wood You Know, which runs until the end of October and explores the local history of woodlands, wood and woodworkers. This was supplemented this year by Forty Years of Twinning, photography by Beaminster School students and Three Hundred Years of Freemasonry, the latter being available to see until 29 October when the museum closes for the season. The Beaminster Lodge, which is right opposite the museum, was formed in 1872 and you can read the minutes of its inaugural meeting.

“Exhibitions are planned roughly about two years in advance,” says the museum’s publicity officer, Doug Beazer.

Next year’s main exhibition is going to be called Hatch, Match and Despatch. It’s about birth, marriages and deaths.

Taking me around the Wood You Know exhibition, which includes a wooden rocking horse for children to ride, Doug says: “We like to provide a combination of things for people to read, look at and pick up in our displays. We’re very conscious that we want to involve the generations.”

An insight into school life through the ages can be found in the school room, which is dedicated to the history of education in Beaminster, where Frances Tucker founded a school in the seventeenth century, and surrounding villages.

The museum also organises educational visits to schools and has a loan boxes scheme, in which artefacts relating to many different topics are lent to schools in the area. These range from fossil boxes to items from the 1950s and 60s.

There’s also a dressing up area for children to try on clothes from days gone by and have their photographs taken.

The area’s long history with flax and hemp is examined in an exhibition in the gallery, Hanging By A Thread. The area’s agricultural heritage is on show, along with information and displays about World War I and World War II.

A magnet for children is the corner devoted to the story of Horn Park Quarry, a National Nature Reserve on a privately-owned industrial estate between Beaminster and Broadwindsor. Youngsters can pick up fossils and put a dinosaur jigsaw together.

The museum can organise visits to this reserve, which is the smallest in Britain. According to Natural England, the reserve is important because it contains the most complete Aalenian ammonite succession known to date in England, with all four Aalenian ammonite zones being present. It is an internationally important site for the study and correlation of Aalenian rocks throughout Britain and across Europe.

The limestones contain an extremely diverse and well preserved fossil fauna dominated by ammonites and bivalves. One of the most spectacular features is the ‘fossil bed’—a layer packed with ammonites, bivalves, brachiopods, sponges and fossil wood which lies sandwiched between other, less fossiliferous strata.

This part of Dorset has a rich history, dating back millions of years. And Beaminster Museum is as good a place as any to delve into the various bits of it. Having felt guilty for leaving it so long, I’ll be back.

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