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Early days at the Museum
Cooper Harding served as Thirsk Museums Curator for many years before retiring in 2015. In this article, he looks back to the days when he and his wife first became involved in the Museums activities.
Our long association with Thirsk Museum dates from the Spring of 1991 – we had moved into our
cottage in South Kilvington the previous autumn and, having begun to explore Thirsk, were looking for
groups and activities to occupy our leisure hours. Our eyes were caught by a notice in a shop window
advertising The Yards of Thirsk, a talk to be given by Tom Bumby under the auspices
of Thirsk Museum Society. We had noticed that in Kirkgate there was a window marked Museum beneath
a sign bearing the Drover emblem, with a rather dusty group of earthenware vessels housed
in what must have been a jewellers display cabinet. We were not much impressed by what seemed to
be a rather dull layout, but the subject of the talk and the unusual name of the speaker seemed worth
an evening out so we found our way to the Friends Meeting house, joined a closely-packed audience
and heard Tom Bumby take his listeners up the yards one by one with comments on the businesses
and the characters of their owners. At the end of the talk tea was brought out in trays from the
kitchen. The tea was passed along the seated rows of the audience and then came Museum Society
notices, with a particular appeal from a lady who was asking for volunteers to help get the Museum
ready for opening to visitors at Easter. This was Joan Goldthorpe, curator and, as we were to
realise before long, one of the moving spirits behind Thirsk Museum. This seemed something up
our street, so to speak, and our fate was sealed! The museum working party met on Tuesday mornings
and devoted to the kitchen in particular we met Edna Olds and Pat Sinclair, remembered especially
for the freshly-cut scalloped edges of the shelf papers that was their trademark.
How was the Museum laid out at this period? Before No. 14 was added to the premises, entry was into the front room of No. 16 which served both as Reception, with a glass-plated case serving as a counter, and as the home for a cricketing display that befitted the birthplace of Thomas Lord and which was given point by a man-size dummy in full cricket gear, though his 1970s shop-window features were somewhat at odds with his stance at the wicket!
What is now the Farming Room was the Mecca for all James Herriot devotees, those from the USA in particular. The glazed cabinet held veterinary items, most of them tools and instruments given by Alf Wight himself, while the table carried a selection of written and printed material, together with original typescript versions of two of the earliest Herriot books. It is worth noting here that the Museum still holds these, but the Herriot Room was closed down and converted to Farming once the Herriot Centre opened its commercial doors.
With the number of tourists visiting the town there arose a growing need for an information centre of some kind. The premises at No. 14 came on the market and the Museum Society came to an agreement with the Council to provide a Tourist Information Centre on the ground floor, leaving the first floor to be added to the museum rooms above – now set out as the Sitting Room and the Bedroom. While the front room became the information room for tourists and visitors, the inner premises served as an office and store for leaflets – this latter also provided comfort facilities – an unprotected toilet set in the middle of the room, responsible for many a Woops! Sorry – didnt know you were there!
The first-floor layout at the top of the stairs consisted of a short passage leading into the Shops room – originally thus named for four home-made Georgian shop fronts with displays built up from four different areas of the collection – the Chemists particularly colourful with a set of the traditional apothecarys jars. The main problem in this room was that to open the end widow-front the other three had to be removed first!
On the landing passage there was a glass-fronted display case with a space at floor level which, if I remember well, held a wooden 1930 radio set. A door here led into what had been the bathroom in the earlier days and which still had a rarely-used toilet and wash-basin. This room was kept locked and was supposed to be the museum office – correspondence built up there until one or other Committee member was seized by a fit of zeal, dealing with it or throwing it out as seemed best!! It was this part of the first floor layout that prompted Bernard Reynolds to strip out the bathroom fittings and open out the whole area to form the present space to which display cabinets with storage space were added the following year, the Museum having qualified for a grant. Bernard having literally exhausted himself on this project, the new accommodation was rightly named the Reynolds Room.
The activities at the museum did attract some welcome attention, notably in several bequests, of which the most generous legacy was from a lady who ran a prosperous farm, with no family to follow her and who left a bequest of £2,000 which enabled us to install custom-built cases, one to replace the somewhat decrepit shop-case in the front window and one full height to be installed in the main first-floor room. The late Jim Jackson and I had some trouble setting it up and finding when we stepped back to view the result that we had carefully built it upside down and all was to do again!
There was no system of Museum stewards at that time, though Society members would chat to visitors if they were on hand. After purchasing a ticket at the desk in the TIC, entry to the Museum next door was via a swinging bar in the doorway. Entry tickets to the Museum were issued via a different key on the till, a source of confusion at busy times particularly, much to John Parks despair when trying to reconcile the takings of the day! And then at busy times visitors could slip unpaid into the Museum so our figures often tended to the approximate!
Times were a-changing, though. Alf Wight retired and the vets surgery moved to new premises on the industrial estate, while the old house, the original home of the Herriot characters, was up for sale and stood empty for a year. The flourishing Herriot trade was bringing in the visitors and with a view to setting up a Herriot centre, the Council bought the house and its neighbour to be converted into a visitor attraction – The World of James Herriot. The TIC was then moved from its position at No. 14 for a brief period to the new attraction and then to a more central site in the Market Place.
This left the ground floor rooms at No. 14 vacant, but after some negotiation with the Council the twenty-year lease that had some time to run was closed in the Museum Societys favour. The story from then on will probably be familiar to most of the Societys present members.