“ Taylor Hill / Cawthorne / Barnsley / South Yorkshire / S75 4HQ / Tel:+44 (0)1226 790 545 „
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By all accounts the Reverend Charles Tiplady Pratt was quite a character. He was the vicar of the parish of Cawthorne near Barnsley during the 19th century and he had a deep love for the natural world and all things exotic. Today, Cawthorne is the setting of the Cawthorne Victoria Jubilee Museum, which houses a vast collection of the many weird and wonderful artefacts that the Reverend collected over a span of more than 50 years.
Cawthorne village is a quintessentially English sort of place with rolling green fields and a bubbling stream. On the outskirts of Cawthorne lies one of Yorkshire's finest English country houses called Cannon Hall, which for several centuries was the family home of the Spencer-Stanhope family. Cannon Hall is now a museum owned by Barnsley council but this house plays an important part in this story too.
The Reverend himself was not a particularly well travelled man but his collection spans the four corners of the world. This is because the then owner of Cannon Hall knew of the reverends obsession with curiosities and he therefore made a point of bringing back a gift from each of his visits. Soon word spread throughout the Spencer-Stanhope family and the Reverend's collection began to expand rapidly.
In 1834 Reverend Charles Pratt formed a society called The Cawthorne Museum Society and he began a series of lectures to the locals that were to later be known as "penny readings". This society encouraged the collection of bird nests, their eggs and wild flowers (all activities that are now frowned upon today). He also taught the local village folk about the weather and astronomy.
In 1887 the Reverend convinced Sir Walter Spencer-Stanhope and his brother Roddam that Cawthorne needed a museum to house all of these curios. The squire of Cannon Hall liked the idea of a museum and instructed the men of his estate to begin work on it immediately. The site of the museum was to be right in the heart of the village, quite close to the church. A few years earlier the Reverend had persuaded the Spencer-Stanhopes to renovate the church so it would seem that he was a very influential and persuasive man.
The museum stands on the site of a row of old cottages that the craftsmen carefully demolished, replacing many of the stones with those from old buildings on the estate. Finally they added the black oak timber frames from a 13th century crook barn and two years after the project had begun the building was completed.
The museum officially opened in the October of 1889 and quickly became the pride of the local community. However its fate was uncertain in 1951 when Cannon Hall was sold to Barnsley council. Following negotiations the Cawthorne Victoria Jubilee Museum was offered to the village for the sum of £100. Despite vigorous fund raising activities the small number of locals struggled to raise this amount of cash, but eventually they reached this target and ownership passed to them. Upon completion of the transfer of deeds an anonymous donor matched this amount of £100 ensuring that the future of this museum was safe.
Today, the museum that we see has the outer appearance of an old medieval timber framed building but in more recent years it has been expanded to almost double its original size. This expansion took place in 1983 and was the result of a sum of money bequeathed to the society by its secretary of over 40 years. Along with this sum of £18,000 further money was raised through fund raising and grants were obtained. This new extension at the rear of the building though modern is sympathetic to the original design and many visitors do not even notice it all, as it is very much in keeping with the rest of the building.
I actually recently discovered this museum quite by chance. I had visited Cannon Hall and whilst there picked up a leaflet on this place. I didn't however read this leaflet until after I returned home so at the time I did not realise that it was just around the corner but when I returned to Cannon Hall a few weeks later I made a point of also visiting this museum.
The Cawthorne Victoria Museum is quite a low key affair. As far as I know there are no signs to it from the main road but once you are in the village centre you really cannot miss it. Access is via a set of rather steep steps which would not be suitable for disabled visitors although I understand that there is another entrance at the rear that can be opened on request. Having said that however the layout of the interior is very cramped so I feel that there would be insufficient space to accommodate wheelchair users.
There is a nominal charge to enter the museum. This is currently 50p for adults and 20p for children and concessions. Payment is made at a small desk just inside the doorway.
During my recent visited I was greeted by an incredibly friendly man who almost seemed guilty to take my admission money. He enquired if I had been before and when I advised him that I had not he then began to explain a little bit about the place. I was told that there was no logical order to anything in any of the rooms and that things were simply placed wherever there was space. I was also told that I was free to wander round at my own will and touch anything that I wanted.
To describe the collections as compact would be a bit of an understatement but I quickly realised that this was its main charm. Apparently new items arrive every week and so far everything that has turned up has been found a space. The gentleman on the doorway told me that many things are simply left on the doorstep in boxes but other items on display here are on loan from private individuals. One such recent item that was left outside was a Penny-Farthing bicycle. After wondering where such a large item could be displayed it was decided for the moment to simply hang it from the ceiling.
The majority of the items have little commercial value but some of them obviously do. Many items that are given to the museum include things like old biscuit tins and such like that people have just found in their attics and their garden sheds. These range from the early 20th century to the 1990's. I found some of the more recent items to evoke memories of my childhood. Did you know for instance that the packaging of a Terry's Chocolate Orange has barely changed over the decades and that a 1930's box and a present day one are remarkable similar, or that other complimentary items in the range like Chocolate Lemons and Chocolate Apples were briefly introduced.
A vast area of the floor, wall and ceiling space is taken up by stuffed birds, animals, bird's eggs and their nests, butterflies and other insects. The Victorians were avid collectors of such things and would happily kill anything that looked a little bit different to bring it home as a trophy. I am a very keen naturalist so I found these displays fascinating although it has to be said that I much prefer to see such things in their natural habitat. There was a time when I would have felt quite uncomfortable about looking at such things but I now know that the legacy that the Victorians left us with has been invaluable to science and nature.
Amongst the stuffed birds there is a Great Auk. This is one of only 78 examples of this now extinct bird known in the world. I know that there is one in the Natural History Museum in London but I have no idea where the other 76 are. The Great Auk was an Arctic sea bird related to the Puffin but twice its size and without a multi-coloured bill. We know that during the 18th century huge numbers of these birds wintered off the British coast but they were hunted in vast numbers and by the mid 19th century they were extinct. The last known pair with eggs dates from 1844 and the last reliable sighting of this bird was in 1852 in Newfoundland, Canada.
Amongst the stuffed animals there is a rather bizarre two headed lamb and a gigantic gall stone from a horse that weights almost 4.5Kgs. Modern scientists now know that horses don't actually have gall bladders but back in the 19th century it was thought that they did. This object has more recently been re-identified as originating from a horse's intestines but it is still labelled as a gall stone from a horse with an explanatory note beneath it. One of the most popular stuffed animals is a Cheetah that is almost impossible to pass by without giving it a stroke.
I was quickly fascinated by everything that I saw but there are so many items here that you really could visit many times and not see everything. Non animal related items that are now firmly embedded in my memory include a very early television set and an even earlier refrigerator.
As well as the exhibits the other lasting memory that I was left with was the friendliness of the man at the door. He was one of sixteen locals that help run and maintain the museum on a voluntary basis. I told him that I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit and that I hoped to return to which he apologised that they were normally only open to the general public on a Saturday afternoon and for a few hours on a Sunday. I assured him that this would not be a problem as my visit would be on one of these days. However he insisted on giving me his mobile number just in case I wanted to visit at another time during the week, he was more than happy to come and open up just for me to have another look around.
I would definitely recommend a visit to this place as there really is something that will be of interest to everyone.
The opening hours are Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday afternoons from 2.00pm until 5.00pm.
Victoria Jubilee Museum
Telephone - 01226 790545
The Cawthorne Museum Society was founded in 1884 by the Rev. Charles Tiplady Pratt who was vicar of the parish at the time. He encouraged the young people of the village to become interested in Natural History, and he formed groups to study and collect birds eggs, flowers (illegal to do so today), fossils, shells and grasses, and to study astronomy and the weather.