“ The Judges' Lodgings, at the top of Upper Church Street, was at one time the residence of Thomas Covell, Keeper of Lancaster Castle. It is now open to the public as a museum. The Covell Cross is in the left foreground. „
The museum promises much but fails to deliver. The museum is staid and dull and the staff are uninformed and lacklustre. The 'coffee shop' serving light refreshments is very limited. I found the information booklet too wordy and too deep for most people, without prior knowledge. The free museum at the maritime down the road is good and there's much more to see.
The Judges Lodgings Museum is one of several museums in the UK with this name; to make things clear from the start, the particular one I am reviewing here is in the historic city of Lancaster. The museum takes its name from the Lancaster Castle Assize Judges who lodged in this building for nearly two hundred years between 1776 and 1975. During this time, every town council used to have to make available suitable accommodation for the circuit judges who travelled around the assize courts, and this was Lancasters comfortable offering, a fine town house in the city centre, just a short walk from the courts themselves, which were held in the castle on a regular basis.
Much of the fabric of the Judges Lodgings dates from around 1550, but it was reconstructed to its present appearance in 1639, creating what is now Lancasters oldest town house and a Grade 1 listed building. Probably the most famous resident of the Lodgings was one Thomas Covell, Keeper of Lancaster Castle for fifty years during the seventeenth century. Covell, who was described by a contemporary as a beastly man, was involved in investigating the infamous Pendle Witches case in 1612 and who was ultimately responsible for sending a group of (very probably innocent) men and women to be executed. The Pendle Witches are the most notorious witches in English legal history, accused of selling their souls to familiar spirits or devils for the power to murder seventeen people in the Pendle area in a story that is both fascinating and shocking by modern standards (an excellent website on it can be found at www.pendlewitches.co.uk if you want to read more). This association between Judges Lodgings Museum and Lancaster Castle (which houses both the courts and the prison) makes them a very good combination for a days visit to the city, and the histories of the two buildings are so intertwined. I would highly recommend visiting both to get a fuller appreciation of the history of Lancaster.
Lancashire Museums Service took over the Judges Lodgings in 1978, after the building was no longer required for its original use, and it was developed into what is essentially three museums in one, interpreting the history of the building as a Judges residence, the history of the Gillow furniture company (an important Lancaster manufacturing business) and, more eclectically, a museum of childhood occupying the top floor. Finding the museum is very easy as it is well signposted from the city centre; it is less than 10 minutes walk from either the centre or the castle, depending on which direction you are coming from. I would advise you to approach on foot, as the museum itself has no dedicated car park; besides, walking will allow you to better appreciate the fine architecture of this part of the city! If you are coming to the city by car, the nearest car park is at Mitre House Parksafe on Damside.
The majority of the museum is presented through a series of room sets depicting the role of the building as a residence for judges such as the bedroom, drawing room and dining room and as such, displays mostly fine art material with a little local history tied in (think National Trust property!). These rooms contained fine furniture, much of it manufactured or owned locally, and portraits of great Lancashire families, together with a selection of Old Master and Impressionist paintings. On the ground floor you can see the below stairs kitchen and servants hall, which makes quite a refreshing change in an interpretation of this kind; all too often in historical properties like this you are presented with the impressive grandeur of the rich family alone, comfortably ignoring the army of servants behind the scenes who would have been necessary to maintain such a standard of living. On most of the next two floors, you encounter the Judges world of opulence, grand furniture and fine paintings, with a display of Judges robes in the Senior Judges Bedroom. The interpretation of the room sets is left up to guide leaflets that the visitors take around with them to read as and when they please. This was fine in that it didnt interrupt the enjoyment of the rooms as real historical entities, but I found that the sheets were written in quite a small typeface and were a bit too information dense, while the same time managing to assume a broader knowledge of fine art and local history than I suspect most visitors would have. Some of the rooms needed to be kept at low light levels for conservation reasons (strong light can be damaging to textiles and papers) and this made reading some parts of the sheet a little uncomfortable. Separate activity sheets were also available for children to take around with them.
The two other sections of the museum are distinct and different areas within the building, one being the traditional glass case style museum gallery given over to the history of Gillow furniture manufacturing (a Lancaster firm who set trends in furniture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), and the museum of childhood, which occupied the entire top floor of the Judges Lodgings. The Gillow gallery sits rather uncomfortably amongst the room sets and serves to present examples of the furniture and plenty of text panels explaining the importance of the works and the manufacturing processes involved. There is also a reconstructed furniture workshop set to 1948 (for no particular reason that I could find). I didnt linger long in this part of the museum. I am not a fine art specialist and I have to admit that this display left me cold.
The museum of childhood was a later addition to Judges Lodgings, and opened shortly after the rest of the museum became available to the public. The childhood collection was first exhibited in the lower levels of the building, but was moved up to take over the top floor when the displays were rearranged in the mid-1980s, separating the childhood material spatially from the fine art and local history collections on display in the rest of building. Indeed, placing the childhood material in the former attic space of what was once a house was rather appropriate, as this was what was commonly done with Victorian and Edwardian nurseries, to separate the childrens world from the adults. This sensation of leaving the fine art material of the adult world and entering such a childrens domain was emphasised by the inclusion of nursery room sets in the childhood museum. The displays on this floor were a mixture of such room sets a day nursery, night nursery and schoolroom and traditional museum galleries with objects in glass cases. I rather liked the childhood museum more that the rest of the displays at Judges Lodgings. Although it initially had the tendency of other childhood museums I have visited of cramming the display with toys alone in some misguided belief that the childs world contains nothing else, there was also (thankfully!) wider interpretation of local educational history and a fascinating display on local childrens rhymes, songs and memories. While I appreciate that many visitors will be happy with the easy history of toys, offering oral histories and some more challenging aspects of childhood past (such as acknowledging that many Lancaster children in the nineteenth century only went to school half-time so that they could also work in the local mills) made the display, for me, much more engaging.
Overall, the Judges Lodgings Museum is a bit of a mixed bag. If you are into architecture, fine art, furniture or the local history of the area, you will enjoy your visit; equally, I think most people with get something out of the childhood museum, even if it is only the warm glow of nostalgia. It is also, I think, an economical day out, with an adult ticket set at just £2 for a visit that would last one to two hours for most people, and any accompanied children getting in for free. On the downside, the interpretation in the room sets leaves a lot to be desired, and the visitor services were restricted. Access around the building is difficult for anyone with mobility problems (always assuming they could get up the steps at the entrance to begin with), but with this being a Grade 1 listed building, that is unlikely to change unless the whole museum packs up and moves to a new location. The toilets and shop were satisfactory, but the café was tiny and offered only a very limited range of drinks and snacks that had to be ordered at the admissions desk; making the best use of space it may be, but it is hardly convenient to your customers (I ended up going into the city for lunch in the end). Plenty of potential, but could do better, I think.
Recommended. But only just!
Good Friday to 30 June
Monday to Friday 13.00-16.00
Saturday, Sunday 12.00-16.00
July to September
Monday to Friday 10.00 -16.00
Saturday, Sunday 12.00-16.00
Monday to Friday 13.00 -16.00
Saturday, Sunday 12.00-16.00
Admission Price: Adults £2; Concessions £1; Accompanied Children Free
Useful Websites: http://www.priory.lancs.ac.uk/judges_l.html