Dover Museum History
Dover Museum was founded by the Dover Museum and Philosophical Institute in 1836. The Institute aimed to promote “literary and scientific knowledge by means of a museum, library and reading room, conversazioni and classes.”
The Institute originally met in the Old Guildhall, which had just recently been vacated by the Council following their move to the newly purchased Maison Dieu. Initially, 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 mostly natural history specimens. The Mayor of Dover E. P. Thompson was the first donor to be entered in the new accession book. Thompson bequeathed 420 birds and several other exotic items to the museum. His donations successfully established the museum's natural history collection, to which even the great collector Lord Rothschild was a frequent contributor.
In order to expand the cultural life of Victorian Dover, lectures were given at the museum on a variety of interesting and topical issues. On March 25th 1851 a Mr Mottley gave a lecture entitled “The Electric Light” which included numerous experiments performed with a powerful battery. Another lecture which took place in the same year was entitled “The Chemistry of the Breakfast Table” and was a thorough examination of water, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar.
The museum also hosted soirees, nature rambles and discussion groups. It provided the people of Dover with rich cultural life, all for only 12/- a year.
The museum moved from strength to strength in the subsequent years and soon it became increasingly obvious new premises were needed. In 1849 the museum re-opened at a brand new site in a purpose-built building. The new location incorporated a somewhat strange concept: there was a museum above and market below. The council minutes over the preceding years indicate that there were frequent complaints of offensive smells which had penetrated into the museum. For the most part, however, the arrangement worked well; the museum's position was central and the accommodation was far superior to that in the Town Hall.
In 1848 the collections were moved to the new premises and set up in all their splendour; the new museum officially re-opened in January 1849. The collections now included Edward Pett Thompson's donations of 470 specimens of vertebrate zoology, 1070 specimens of invertebrate zoology, 50 specimens of fossils, 180 specimens of minerals and 8 ethnological specimens.
The founders of the museum included 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 and G. H. Vanderbut.
Further natural history specimans were added to Dover’s collection, including donations from the famed taxidermist Charles Crudden, who won a bronze medal at the great Exhibition of 1851 for a case of ornithological taxidermy depicting the 'mobbing of an owl'.
The museum also housed the Plomley Collection of birds, which was donated by a local collector from Maidstone, and the Sloper Collection of butterflies. The museum also proudly housed items of local interest, including wooden plaques from houses on ancient Snargate Street. There were also several items of national interest displayed in the museum, including a Prisoner-of-War bone ship which was given in 1894 by Captain Lang. The ship, a fine Man O'War model named 'Cesar', was rumoured to have been made in Dover Castle. The story goes that the French prisoner who was making it had not quite finished it upon the signing of the Peace of Amiens in 1802, so he remained in Dover. Unfortunately, by the time the ship was completed, war against France had once again been declared and the prisoner had to remain in Dover Castle for another ten years. The story is unlikely to be true: very few prisoners were kept at Dover Castle and most models were made in the Midlands in the Norman Cross prison.
In the 1850s, the museum started to incorporate more objects which had been collected by travellers on visits abroad. These objects included an Egyptian mummy, a Chinese sunshade, Chinese paintbooks and paints. Some of the museum’s more unusual specimens included 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.
The museum was expanding fast, although by the 1850s the museum's lectures and cultural activities became much less frequent. The museum was instead becoming a "cabinet of curiosities". This was partly because it was suffering from a lack of space and partly because there was no discrimination between noteworthy and uninteresting items.
By the 1920s the museum’s crowded and eclectic collection was deemed necessary to be reviewed. Mr Frederick Knocker was asked to make a report. Knocker found the museum to be unsuitable in many respects: the entrance structure “could never be other than unimposing” and the cases were of “odd shapes, sizes and doubtful utility”. There was also a shortage of staff: there was an honorary curator, an exhibitor on a salary of £156 per annum and an attendant with a salary of £52 per annum. A charwoman was called in periodically.
In the 1930s Knocker began a proper programme of reorganisation for the museum. He heavily criticised the way in which the museum had been allowed to decline. Knocker recommended the disposal of many of the more dubious specimens, which by this period included a cat found crushed in a roof in Wiltshire. Work was progressing well when the Second World War broke out in 1939.
Initially during the war the museum witnessed a real boost in visitor numbers, thus while some items were moved to safer storage, most were left where they were. Disaster struck in 1942 when two bombs fell directly onto the museum, destroying about 70% of the collection. One report describes pieces of mummy cloth falling all around the town. The surviving collection was moved to caves and derelict houses where even further bomb damage occurred.
Following the end of the war, the Museum temporarily re-established itself in Ladywell. Unfortunately, even before the doors opened the new premises were found to be inadequate.
On 28th November 1949 Mr Warner, the then-curator, re-opened the museum and congratulated his committee for the “conversion of a dump into what you see to-day.” Warner said that he regretted that within the museum a sub-tropical desert scene and a scene depicting polar life were next-door to one another, but lack of space compelled it.
Mr Warner's personal interests were in the fields of fine, decorative art. He was keen to expand this section of the Museum. Through a bequest from Lady Cory of London, the museum established its collection of Victorian furniture and it also received numerous other gifts of needlework furniture and pottery.
Mr Warner continued as Curator until the 1960s when he was succeeded by Mr McQueeney. McQueeney wanted desperately to popularise the museum. His interests lay less in natural history or art and more in the recent past. He had a particular interest in military and transport history. McQueeney augmented the collection by borrowing private collections of First and Second World War relics and bus tickets. McQueeney also went into schools and clubs in order to promote the museum and to encourage the people of Dover to visit the Museum.
The problem of storage remained a problem, despite McQueeney’s attempts to regenerate the museum. Much of the pre-war collection had not been restored to the Museum’s premises and was stored in the Tower above the Town Sergeant's office in Dover Town Hall. Many of the specimens were too big to be squeezed up the stairs and consequently many of these items, including a large black bear, stood ready to frighten any unsuspecting visitor on the spiral staircase.
Even in the 1950s much of this pre-war collection had been judged as unlikely to “enhance the appearance of the new museum even were there room.” By the late 1960s much of the collection held there was beyond repair. Some of it was salvaged, some was lent to schools, some was sold or given away and a few exemplary items have since returned to the museum and have been restored.
Since the 1960s the museum has become more focused on the history of Dover and the surrounding area. The museum's collection is now guided by a collecting policy identifying the areas in which the museum is interested. This has helped shape the museum's stock into the strong local history and archaeology collection that it is today.
In 1989 the museum moved back to the Market Square, into a new building behind the old façade of the Market Hall. In 1999, it was expanded to include the award-winning Dover Bronze Age Boat Gallery. The Museum is now a must-see tourist attraction in Dover, containing this famed archaeology gallery of national interest and a wonderfully diverse collection highlighting the fascinating history of the coastal town of Dover.
Text © Dover Museum