A Volunteer reminiscing


My Reminiscence experience I think began with meeting Harry Patch. He Harry Patch in wheelchairvisited Weston to open a RAFA memorial in 2005 and at the age of 106 years was still active although confined to a wheelchair. I had read his autobiography ‘The Last Tommy’, the account of his First World War experience in
the trenches and his later life, and went to meet him on the beach lawns to autograph my copy of his book. The crowds came out to greet him, brass bands played loudly, army cadets marched proudly past the old ‘warrior’ but unfortunately there was no way I was going to penetrate the throng to get my autograph so a disappointment.

However the idea of preserving the memories of those fast-disappearing veterans was born and I bought a small voice recorder, a camera and registered my interest on the Somerset reminiscence web site. My participants were found in Church coffee mornings, residential homes and any friends who wanted their elderly relatives’ life story recorded. I transcribed our conversations and uploaded them to the website; I found it a joy to listen to and record living history.

It was therefore with great interest I heard that the new museum was having a local display gallery with an audio content which I felt I could contribute to. A one day course on reminiscing was advertised by the museum and Katherine the museum supervisor, who knew of my interest, invited me to join which I accepted.

On a sunny Wednesday in July I joined a group of similar minded people in the museum. Kate Horbury was our trainer with assistance from various charity members. The model we were to use was from the ‘Art 4 Dementia’ course based in London. This involves getting involved in activities such as music, singing, drama, painting, photography, creative writing and dancing but we were going to confine our area of speciality to visual and creative activities with the use of paintings, photographs and objects. Role play was used to help us with real life situations and to that end we were split up into leaders and participants. A 1930’s poster of a beach scene with 4 young women on donkeys was shown to our group and comments were invited. The charity overseers scrutinised our replies and provided helpful tips such as “slow down with your responses and be patient” etc. I came away feeling confident and ready to engage with the outreach team.

My first session was at Tilsley House residential home. Accompanied by Katherine and Tina we were warmly welcomed by Jane and her staff and introduced to our participants sitting at several tables. Sticky labels with our names on were handed out by Tina and the reminiscent boxes opened and the contents handed to the residents for their comments. My training did not prepare me for what come next; a painting brought little or no response from my companions, it quickly became apparent that they were handicapped by deafness, blindness and dementia and together with repetitive answers to my questions made my conversation one way. A break for tea saw my companions slowly drift off despite my efforts.

As a postscript, although my first session was a disappointment, I remembered the old adage, ‘One Sparrow does not a Summer Make’. So I took a leap of faith and rejoined the team for their next event. Amazingly, the residents opened up their hearts to us! Singing songs of yesteryear; sharing their love of animals; confiding their life stories-wonderful tales of past encounters. For example, Joan (not her real name) worked at Filton airport in WW2 manufacturing the tail fins of Bristol Beaufighters. The air raid alarm sounded but she was not able to get to the shelter. This saved her life as the shelter took a direct hit and there were many killed including her dear cousin.

It’s social history like this that makes reminiscing such rewarding work. May I say to new reminiscers, although the museum training is limiting, on-the-job experience can be so rewarding. It’s fun; go out there and enjoy our social heritage while it’s still there.


The Not-So Dismal News

Aerial Uphill
Drone view of St. Nicholas Church Uphill .

Banksy mania is in town. Black balloons with ‘I am an imbecile’ flout down the High Street, an international crowd form
crocodile queues at the Tropicana, now converted into ‘Dismaland’; see Tina’s take on Dismaland on her blog:- http://westonmuseum.org/friday-21st-august-2015/ ).

Discove Uphill Church 2015But on a sunnier note there’s good news at St. Nicholas Church, Uphill. It’s ‘Discover Hidden Somerset’ week, and with the aid of a grant from the late Professor Mick Aston’s legacy fund, an excavation has been made within the church. Trenches have been dug by professional archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology led by Dr Neil Rushton with the help of local
volunteers. One of the trenches has been surprisingly rich in content and Phil Harding of Time Team fame came to give us a ‘Trench Story’.

Phil said there was initial disappointment at the Victorian spoil coming out but when digging deeper the original  11th century floor was uncovered, a yellowy creamy layer which was placed on top of the limestone bedrock. Layers of floor had accumulated over time with sequences of dirt, red sand and mortar until finally a thick sandy layer suggested the roof was open to the elements and sand from Weston beach was able to settle on the floor surface.

Phil Harding at Trench
Time Team’s Phil Harding indicating the blocked-up doorway to the trench
The Trench 2015 Uphill
Phil’s Trench with furnace pit, original floor and robber layer

An unusual imprint stone layer above the floor dated to the 19th century, with Welsh slate inclusions, clay pipe and flower pot pieces. Phil had pondered on this assortment and felt it could be where robbers had removed the font and stone steps; the original font is now in the modern church. A large pit with burning had been made, drilled down through the original floor and could have contained a furnace which was used for roof repairs or metal working; the red scorched earth with charcoal remnants suggested high temperature firing.  Finally Phill said he found fill-shapes by the original floor and conjected it could be the remains of a burial as it wasn’t unknown for burials inside a church. That was the final piece of the puzzle and an ovation was given to Phil for his brilliant Trench Story.

EBay Volunteers

Dolls and teddy

A sad time has arrived for the old Burlington museum.  Its final moments are fading into history; the preparation to auction off  ‘Surplus to Requirement’ items has commenced, thus laying the ground for the contractors to shortly start stripping the building to a shell.

Katherine and a few valiant volunteers including myself started the process, photographing and describing the items to enter on EBay. The mood was jovial and light; unusual objects, such as the naked mannequins being manoeuvred into the floodlight area, brought an enjoyable banter. But more importantly, they bring a good price at the auction. Items such as suitcases, chairs, stationery, projectors, children’s toys etc were inspected, adjusted and repositioned under the photoflood to pick out their best selling features. The work continues and will need more volunteers so please contact Katherine on her email address:  katherine.bell@wsm-tc.gov.uk

Tilsley House

Tilsley House photo

It was a great privilege to accompany museum supervisor Katherine Bell and assistant Tina Bishop to Tilsley House to provide an hour of entertainment for the residents using reminiscence boxes: These cover a range of different topics including events, leisure and transport, childhood and the seaside.  Katherine said “Taking part in reminiscence sessions can be a highly rewarding and enriching experience, not only for the attendees, but also for the people leading and supporting a session”. She also added the museum is looking for volunteers to help with this project and other outreach work. The manager Ian Gwynne Jago said what he was looking to do was to enhance the experiences of the staff teams and their methodology on how we interact with the people we have here

The museum is providing an outreach reminiscence service now the museum has closed, where people can share their memories of days gone by and Tilsley House in Clarence Road South was the first to take part in the new service. My thanks go to Jane and her staff at Tilsley House for their hospitality; to the residents who enriched my experience of living with dementia and to the Mercury newspaper for their picture.

Heather’s Garden Party

Heather Party cutting the cakeThe punch bowl over flows; tables groan under the weight of a fabulous spread and the guests are deep in ritualistic behaviour-glasses in hand and platters-a-ready; party time has arrived at Chez Nous, Ashcombe Lodge, for Chairman, Heather Morrissey’s  annual Friends of the Museum’s Garden Party.

In the midst of this hubbub I was photo-called by Pat to the dining room where the ceremony of cutting the cake was being performed by the main players of this feast: Annie Pickard, cake maker extraordinaire and Heather. The gong was bonged and the assembly were then invited to ‘dive in’.

The weather remained fair and an enjoyable afternoon was spent in Heather’s wild life garden, hard to believe we were in the centre of Weston!

The History of Penguin Books

'Railway  discoveries' tour of  Mount washington.

‘Oh no’ I hear my friends sigh. ‘Not another railway item!’ But our speaker, whose subject at the museum today, ‘The History of Penguin Books’, is the renowned travel tour manager for the ‘Railway Discoveries Company’  Mr Barry Edwards of Frome. Before he plunged into his subject, he gave a short autobiography of himself. 39 years a teacher, he ended his career at a private school in Bideford as Deputy Head. He then went abroad to Singapore as an educational consultant. In his retirement he currently organises rail tours, mostly in Europe.

Penguin books

Barry has amassed a collection of 1,440 of the 1,500 published Penguin paperback books; from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. It all started, he explained, with his family shopping trips. He hates shopping so decided to leave the family spend their money while he discovered what interesting things he could find in local charity and antique shops. He was eventually drawn to the Penguin books by their appearance; the feel of the paper; the titles within coloured bands; their range of subjects and the rarity of the war year publications.

Barry Edwards and one of his Penguin paperbacks

Barry said the Penguin book company was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane. Other publishers had tried in the 1920’s to sell paperbacks, notably Victor Gollancz, but their books were of poor quality, unlike the Penguin brand, which was a high quality, low price product. Initially, they sold for 6 old pence (2½p) as compared to hard backs at 4 shillings (20p). The books took off with the public and were distributed by the Woolworth stores in the UK, USA, Canada and South Africa. A further boost to their popularity was when Lane shrewdly published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 which sold 3.5 million copies! On the 7th July 1970 Sir Allen Lane died and the firm went into decline, it is now owned by a Dutch company.

After an appreciative response from the Friends of the Museum audience, Heather Morrisey, our chairman invited questions from the floor. The Penguin Book Club still exists and issues a magazine; Barry was wearing a Penguin logo tie which has been featured by Tim Wonnacott on ‘Bargain Hunt’ and he was sure Bristol University has a Penguin archive-please see:-


Heather thanked our speaker for an enthralling talk. Our next meeting will be held at the Badger Centre- opposite the Blakehay theatre. For more information on the Penguin book story please follow the link:-


A Gala Evening

museum move

The museum has closed! Volunteers are emptying the archive, sorting out arts and crafts, photographing item handling and Amal, our assistant curator, has produced a list of ‘Decanters’; names of volunteers with the dates and times for the start of the packing and parcelling process of the museum’s collections. But what of the Friends of the Museum; what are they up to?

I met a group of them at Victoria church hall last Tuesday evening enjoying a talk on King Tutankhamun given by Lucia Ghalin, lecturer at Bristol, Warwick and Exeter universities.  Her presentation was the finale of the Weston Archaeology and Natural History Societies’ winter programme, entitled “Wonderful Things-Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Treasures”. This is a welcome return by Lucia to Weston after her highly praised talk on Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten.

lucia Ghalin at WSM 2015Lucia was in fine form directing operations from her illuminated lectern. Her story of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s find of the tomb and the history of the boy King fired the audience’s imagination and many difficult questions from the floor were answered by Lucia with her wonderful in-depth knowledge of Egyptian archaeology.

Further details at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutankhamun


Panarama museum atrium

Saturday April 18th 2015, a significant and poignant date in the history of Burlington museum. It’s the last day of opening to the public.

But on this day the museum couldn’t be at its busiest! A real hubbub of voices and movement; visitors taking advantage of free entry, tramping the galleries. An epic speech made: “You are our future” by Councillor John Crockford-Hawley; funds flowing through the tills from bargain basement items. I settled on a book marker inscribed with the museum’s tag. It will bring back memories of 10 years of volunteering such as the educational courses: ’Churches in Somerset’ ‘The History of Archaeology’; Pottery Identification; practical demos of handling and packing, the archive work and much more…but most of all I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow workers, too many to name. It was with mixed emotions that I said goodbye to my colleagues at a farewell dinner at Hadley’s restaurant. How many of those familiar faces will I see again in 2 years time?

Last day at museum, Tina closes door

N.B. And finally at 5pm, Tina closes the sliding doors with a heavy heart, a time portal through which generations of museum lovers have entered. But we look forward to the re-opening of the new museum in two years with new deco, galleries, international exhibitions and much more to tempt the new museum sophisticates.

My First Day

The museum closure invokes fond memories and emotions in each of us, whether as a volunteer or staff member. It is a sad occasion,   especially for many of us time-serving volunteers, but looking back over the years, as I’m sure a few of my colleagues are doing, many pleasant and memorable events are treasured. This one is for Sally who brightened a cloudy day.

Jane's cottage

The photograph shows an uninteresting rear of a cottage. It could be anywhere or anytime but for me it forged my first step in volunteering.

It is 2003. Fresh from my successful interview with Jane Hill, the museum’s resident archaeologist, I ring the bell on the green door of the cottage. Manager Nick Goeff opens up and shows me the way to Jane’s office. I pass the noisy copying machine; up the creaky stairs and take a left turn at the top of the landing. Now I get the first glimpse of my workplace for the next few years: a small converted bedroom with, against one wall, shelves of reference books. In the corner is the computer desk and then, my first shot of realism, alongside the PC is a tiny table covered with plastic bags of things. “Is this it? Is this where I work?” I say incredulously. (I expected a workbench full of the latest scientific tools and gadgets). “Welcome to my world” says Jane impishly, handing me gloves and goggles!

Jane explains my work on accreditation is an essential part of every museum, and the importance of accurately recording the artifacts passing through my hands will ensure the museum is professionally managed.  I start with the Tesco car park excavation…….