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Dover Museum History

dover-museumDover Museum was founded by the Dover Museum and Philosophical Institute in 1836 for the :

'promotion of literary and scientific knowledge by means of a museum, library and reading room, conversazioni and classes'

The Institute met in the Old Guildhall, then just recently vacated by the Council who had moved to the newly purchased Maison Dieu At first the museum was only open to members, but in December 1837 it was reported in the Dover Telegraph that:

' The Museum would be open every Monday to all classes gratuitously. This arrangement began on Boxing Day and 1500 people attended in 5 days. They did no damage and the hall was so crowded that not all could sign the visitors book.'

The first donations to the museum were mainly natural history specimens. The Mayor E. P. Thompson was the first donor to be entered in the new accession book. Amongst other exotic items he gave were 420 stuffed birds, setting the pattern for the growth of a huge natural history collection to which even the great collector Lord Rothschild was a frequent contributor.

Lectures were given regularly (a practice partly revived in 1986 with a regular summer programme in the Town Hall).

On March 25th 1851 a Mr Mottley gave ' The Electric Light' illustrated with numerous and brilliant experiments performed with a powerful battery. Another in the same year was ' The Chemistry of the Breakfast Table' , an examination of water, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar.

There were also soirees, nature rambles and discussion groups on alternate Tuesday evenings. Such a rich cultural life and all for 12/- a year!

As the museum moved from strength to strength it became obvious that it needed new premises and in 1849 the museum re-opened in a brand new imposing site in the purpose-built building ' the old Market Hall and Museum. It incorporated a somewhat strange concept ' a museum above and market below. Following the council minutes over the years, it seems that there were frequent incursions of offensive smells into the museum, most particularly from the fish market. But for the most part it worked well. The position was central and the accommodation far superior to that in the Town Hall.

In 1848 the collections were moved and set up in all their splendour, and opened in January 1849. It was based on Edward Pett Thompson's first gift of 470 specimens of vertebrate zoology, 1070 specimens of invertebrate zoology, 50 specimens of fossils, 180 specimens of minerals and 8 ethnological specimens. Other names appearing in the founders list in the accessions register read like a who's who of Dover intelligentsia:

  • Sir J. R. Read
  • Major Hammond
  • Mesdames W. Mostens and C. Green
  • The Rev. J. M. Sayer
  • G. T. Thompson
  • J. P. Plumtree, MP
  • W. Mowll
  • G. H. Vanderbut and so on.

To the basis of natural history specimens were added more and more, helped by the work of the taxidermist Charles Crudden, who was talented enough to win a bronze medal at the great Exhibition of 1851 for a case of ornithological taxidermy depicting the 'mobbing of an owl'.

Some other important collections were given to Dover Museum, such as the Plomley Collection of birds, given by a Maidstone man, and later the Sloper Collection of butterflies. The museum also collected items of local interest such as wooden plaques from houses in Snargate Street and of national interest, for example a Prisoner-of-War bone ship which was given in 1894 by Captain Lang. This fine Man O'War model named 'Cesar'; is rumoured to have been made in Dover Castle. The story is that the prisoner who was making it had not quite finished it when the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802, so he stayed on. By the time the ship was made war had again been declared and the prisoner had to remain in Dover Castle for another ten years. The story though fun is apocryphal since very few prisoners were kept at Dover Castle and most models were, in fact, made in the Midlands in the Norman Cross prison.

At the same time the museum was gathering many objects which had nothing to do with Dover or the collection as it stood, but were the results of people's visits abroad. These included an Egyptian mummy, a Chinese sunshade, Chinese paintbooks and paints and some even more unusual objects, some of them rather gruesome - for example a collection of rats dressed up as a skiing party and a collection of stuffed kittens made to look as if they were drinking tea. These set-pieces were the 'seamier' side of the Victorian fascination with natural history.

The museum was thus expanding fast, but the cultural side of its activities seems to have disappeared by the 1850s, so that the museum itself was becoming a 'cabinet of curiosities'. This was partly because it was suffering from a lack of space, a habitual complaint of all museums which even the extension of 1901 did not cure, and partly because there was no collecting policy and no discrimination between useful additions and rubbish.

By the 1920s the museum needed advice and Mr Frederick Knocker was asked to make a report. Firstly he examined the building which he found unsuitable in many respects: the entrance structure ' could never be other than unimposing' , the cases were of 'odd shapes, sizes and doubtful utility'. The staff consisted on an honorary curator, an exhibitor on a salary£156 per annum and an attendant, salary of £52 per annum. A charwoman was called in periodically.

In the 1930s a proper programme of reorganisation was begun by Frederick Knocker. He heavily criticised the way in which the museum had been allowed to decline and recommended the disposal of many of the more dubious specimens such as a cat found crushed in a roof in Wiltshire. Work was progressing well when the war broke out in 1939. At first the museum witnessed a real boost in visitor numbers; some items was removed to safer storage but most were left. Disaster struck in 1942 when two direct hits fell on the museum destroying about 70% of the collection. One report describes pieces of mummy cloth falling all around the town. The remaining items were moved but to caves and derelict houses where even further damage occurred.

After the war the premises were re-established in Ladywell on a 'temporary basis'. But even before the doors were open and even with a much reduced collection, the premises were found to be inadequate.

On 28th November 1939 Mr Warner, then curator, opened the museum congratulating his committee for the ' conversion of a dump into what you see to-day' . He also regretted that a sub tropical desert scene and polar life were next-door neighbours but space compelled it.

Mr Warner's interest were in the fields of fine - decorative art, and the post war collection includes most of the ceramics still in the collection. Through a bequest from Lady Cory of London, the museum's collection of Victorian furniture was established and numerous other gifts of needlework furniture and pottery may be traced ' in Mr Warner's appalling handwriting - through the pages of the Accessions books.

Mr Warner continued as Curator until the 1960s when he was succeeded by Mr McQueeney, a man of action who wanted desperately to popularise the museum. His interests lay in the more recent past and in military and transport history. He soon augmented the collection by borrowing private collections of cap badges, war relics and bus tickets.. At the same time he went into schools and clubs, bringing the museum to the people and encouraging them to come and see.

In the meanwhile, the problem of storage was becoming embarrassing. Much of the pre-war collection was stored in the Tower above the Town Sergeant's office in Dover Town Hall - some of it, like a large black bear, could not be squeezed up the stairs and so stood ready to frighten any unsuspecting visitor on the spiral staircase. Even in the 1950s it had been judged as unlikely to ' enhance the appearance of the new museum even were there room' , and by the late 1960s much of the collection held there was beyond repair. Some was salvaged, some was lent to schools, some was sold or given away; a few times have since returned to the museum and have been restored - away from the cramped store and with little time and care they have proved to be more interesting and more valuable than they must have seemed in the past.

Since the 1960s the museum has become more focussed on the history of Dover and the surrounding area. The museum's collecting activity is guided by a collecting policy identifying the areas in which the museum is interested, and this has helped form the museum's collection into the strong local history and archaeology collection that it is today. In 1989 the museum moved back to the Market Square, but this time into a new building behind the old façade of the Market Hall. In 1999, it was expended to include the Dover Bronze Age Boat Gallery, added an archaeology gallery of national interest to the existing locally significant collection on display.

Text © Dover Museum




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Dover Museum
Market Square
Kent CT16 1PH

Tel: 01304 201066

Opening Hours

Monday to Saturday     9.30am-5pm
Sunday (April-Sept)      10am-3pm
Closed Sundays October to March
Closed December 25th, 26th and 1st January

Admission Prices

Adult £4.00
Child/senior citizen/concession    £2.75
Family Ticket £10.00

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