Hidden Treasure Trail For The South East

By Graham Spicer | 15 May 2006
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Read on to discover some of the south east’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

photo of a shears like tool with four blades

Who knows what these agricultural tools were for? Photo Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is set in 50 acres of Sussex countryside and has almost 50 restored buildings from the 13th to 19th centuries, saved from their original locations and preserved at the site. The unique 15th century timber framed Bayleaf Farmstead is up for nomination to the People's Museum.

Along with trug and stick makers’ tools there are also a number of ‘mystery objects’ – rural tools the use of the visitor can only guess at.

‘Spiritual middens’ were old pieces of clothing, bottles or even animals we places by windows, doors or fireplaces to ward of witches and evil spirits and were used up until the early 20th century. This find is unusual because there are so many of them in one place – The museum found about 80 shoes in a fireplace in a house in East Sussex, and some are now on display.

One of the buildings on show is a traditional charcoal burner’s hut, with its charcoal kiln. Charcoal is made by burning wood with a restricted air supply – the process has to be constantly watched, so the charcoal burner would live on site with his family.

photo of four old shoes

'Spiritual Middens' used to ward off evil spirits. Photo Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

The Tenterden and District Museum is another museum that helps to remind us of the region’s rural history. Kent has a long tradition of hop picking and real ale enthusiasts would be scuppered without its fuggles hops and other varieties to flavour traditional beers.

Hop-picking was done by hand, mainly by families from London’s East End who would travel to the countryside for the month long picking season. Although the first hop-picking machine was made in the 1930s they were little used until the early 1950s. By the 1960s, however, the traditional method of picking hops from the bine by hand had vanished.

The museum has an array of hop-picking items, from hop tokens, which would be given out to pickers as work progressed and exchanged for cash at the end of the season, to traditional carts and photos of the East End pickers.

Along with the agricultural exhibits, the museum holds the Royal Red Cross (the VC of nursing) awarded to Victorian nurse Sister Janet, which is on the list for inclusion to the People's Museum.

photo of an old lue and white painted wooden cart

A hop-picking trolley from the old days of Kent's rural life. Photo Tenterden and District Museum

Sandwich, along with Hythe, New Romney, Hastings and Dover, is one of the south east’s original Cinque Ports. From the 13th century the Cinque Ports were granted special taxation and legal privileges in return for ship service, whereby each town had to provide boats and men to be used by the king for 15 days a year.

The Sandwich Guildhall Museum has many artefacts from the port’s rich (and sometimes grissly) history. Branding was a particularly cruel punishment of the past – an 18th century back branding iron and a smaller one for the cheek or possibly forehead are on display, recovered from the town’s ‘House of Correction’.

A happier scene is recorded in the building’s large stained glass window, dedicated to Dick Baker, Town Clerk and Clerk of the Peace for Sandwich who died in 1906. The window illustrates a visit to the town by Queen Elizabeth I in 1572 where the then Town Clerk is handing her a petition.

The World War II Kitchener refugee camp journal can also be found at the museum, and is in the running for inclusion into the People's Museum.

Sandwich was also the site for admiralty tests of the Fulton Torpedo – a 19th century wooden submersible mine. An American, Robert Fulton originally designed the ‘torpedo’ for Napoleon to attack British ships but was convinced to change sides.

The torpedo at the Guildhall is a working scale model and thought to be the only still in existence – they never caught on partly because British officers thought they were unsporting and also, after the defeat of Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar, British naval superiority was assured.

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The Fulton torpedo - a prototype submersible mine from the early 19th century. Photo Sandwich Guildhall Museum

Not far along the coast, Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent served as a royal dockyard from 1613 until its closure in 1984 and built more than 400 naval ships, including Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory. It is now open for visitors to experience the sights and sounds of a mid-18th dockyard in the glory days of sail.

Pride of place at the dockyard is HMS Cavalier, the last of Britain's World War II destroyers, one of the nominees for the People's Museum.

Many nautical terms have crept into the general language, one of which is ‘square meal’. This comes from the days from the 17th to 19th centuries when meals onboard Royal Navy ships were served on square wooden plates. Navy food was substantial and nourishing and served three times a day – hence the term “three square meals”.

The museum’s example is from the Invincible, originally a French ship from the 1740s that was captured by the British and used as a warship.

Warships needed miles of rope to operate and Chatham’s ropery has been functioning for almost 400 years. The current quarter of a mile long building was built in 1791 and still has working 200-year-old equipment where visitors can see how rope was made and have a go themselves.

photo of a long room with men working on strands of rope in it

Chatham's historic ropery - quarter a mile long. Photo Chatham Historic Dockyard

Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery has an interesting collection with many naval and exotic items, partly because of its proximity to Chatham naval dockyards. It also has Benstead's Iguanodon diary from his local dig in 1834, which could be voted into the People's Museum.

Julius Brenchley was a 19th century gentleman explorer and in the ‘second wave’ of explorers after Darwin and Cook et al. While Darwin went on one research trip and made his fame by subsequently publicising his theories Brenchley avoided widespread fame by continuing to explore, away from the public eye.

Brenchley visited every continent apart from Antarctica and was particularly active in the South Seas, where he collected many ethnographic and zoological specimens from Hawaii before it was owned by the USA and its indigenous culture and wildlife began to erode.

Gentlemen explorers were quite welcome on naval expeditions if they were self financing as they helped to discover new botany that could be used in medicine and other useful applications for the growing empire.

On one adventure in North America Brenchley was shot by Sioux tribesmen and the museum has the arrowhead to prove it.

Legend says that King Henry VIII sat on the museum’s heavily decorated ash rack chair in 1527 while visiting Sir Henry Wyatt at nearby Allington Castle. The story says that the king issued a light hearted warning that any lady subsequently sitting there would have to submit to the penalty of a kiss.

old black and photo of an anchored three masted sailing ship

HMS Curacao in Sydney Harbour - one of the vessels explorer Julius Brenchley travelled on. Photo Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery

After Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered there in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage. When part of the cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1174 the proceeds from the pilgrims were used to build a new Quire and fill it and the Trinity Chapel with outstanding pieces of stained glass, the best examples of late 12th century stained glass in the world.

St Thomas’s shrine was in the Trinity Chapel, and 12 windows known as the Miracle Windows told the tale of Becket’s life and the miracles that had taken place at his tomb there after his death. Many pilgrims would never see such beautiful craftsmanship anywhere else.

Another interesting fixture of the cathedral is the motifs adorning the vaults of the south walk of the cloisters – they include a carving of Jack in the Green, a pre-Christian fertility symbol.

The Saxon sundial at the cathedral - the oldest watch in the English-speaking world, just missed out on being voted into the People's Museum.

There are many tombs at Canterbury Cathedral with the infamous Edward, the Black Prince, buried there. Son of King Edward III and father of Richard II he was the victor of several battles against the French in the 100 Years War and also known to have ordered the slaughter of thousands of civilians.

photo of several medieval metal badges some of which have a mans face on them

Pewter badges worn by pilgrims who visited Thomas Beckett's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. Photo Canterbury Museum

The nearby Museum of Canterbury also has evidence of the ancient pilgrim trail to the city, with a selection of pilgrimage badges. These inexpensive souvenirs were purchased by the faithful to proclaim their journeys and were often made of pewter – many of the Canterbury badges bore likenesses of Beckett.

More than 750 years after Beckett’s death another important event would happen to Canterbury – the opening of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway in 1830. It was only the third railway line in the country and attracted many of the famous engineers of the day to work on it.

George Stephenson and his son Robert made the locomotive and line and the new Invicta engine was modelled on the original Rocket that serviced the Liverpool and Manchester line.

You can now see the Invicta at Canterbury Museum, which also houses a collection of children’s television and Rupert the Bear artefacts. The original Bagpuss puppet, from the cult 1970s children's programme is one of the nominees for the People's Museum. Ivor the Engine and Clangers models are also bound to bring a nostalgic smile to those who grew up in the 1970s.

Perhaps the most bizarre exhibit there, however, is its sample of medieval faeces, which, if you so desire, can be examined underneath a microscope.

photo of a pink wool mouse like puppet

Auntie from children's TV show The Clangers. Photo Canterbury Museum

Dover Castle is perched atop the eponymous White Cliffs, watching over the port below. A fortress has probably stood on this spot since Anglo-Saxon times although the fortifications now standing were started by Henry II in the second half of the 12th century.

Its keep is the largest in Britain and was strategically important during the English Civil War when parliamentarian forces attacked and captured it.

The castle also contains artefacts spanning the ages, from Elizabeth I’s pocket pistol to a display on the 20th century Cold War. It has an example of one of Barnes Wallis's bouncing bombs - the museum's nomination for the People's Museum.

Henry VIII built another of the region’s important castles at Walmer in Kent in the 16th century, amid fears of invasion by Spain. By this time, artillery bombardment was a major feature of warfare and the castle was built with this in mind.

Unlike the high defensive walls of earlier fortifications, Walmer Castle featured lower outer walls to provide a smaller target area, and these were reinforced with solid bastions and had surrounding earth ramparts and moats.

In later times it became official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, whose number included many famous names like William Pitt the Younger, Tory prime minister from 1783-1801 and again from 1804-06, and the Duke of Wellington (who was also to become Tory prime minister), who died there in 1852. The original pair of Wellington boots belonging to the Iron Duke himself are up for voting into the People's Museum.

Pitt’s room can still be visited as can the bedroom where Queen Victoria stayed when Wellington entertained her there.

Other renowned alumni of the post include Winston Churchill, the late Queen Mother and WH Smith, the founder of the high-street shops, who was appointed warden in 1891. One of the original WHSmith’s deedbooks is preserved at the castle.

black and white photo of a black and white cat in a basket

Able seacat Simon - the only cat to have won the Dickin Medal for Animal Bravery. Photo Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is not only home to the famous warships Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, but also the Royal Naval Museum, which ably tells the story of Britain’s ‘senior service’.

A World War II German Enigma ciphering machine is on display - one of the nominees for the People's Museum.

It recounts the tale of Able Seacat Simon, ratcatcher aboard HMS Amethyst in 1949 when it was attacked by shore batteries along the Yangtze River in China. Although injured in the attack, the fearless feline was soon back on duty, and also spent time in the sickbay, providing a morale boost to his injured (human) comrades.

Simon was awarded the Amethyst Campaign Medal and the Dickin Medal for animal bravery, as is still the only cat to have been awarded this honour.

The museum also has one of the world’s best collections of warship figureheads, which had become ubiquitous on warships by the 18th century. Developed from earlier superstitious or religious decorations, figureheads came to symbolize a ship’s name, were a sign of her prestige and helped illiterate sailors find her in busy ports.

One of the most illustrious British warships of all was the HMS Victory, which is preserved in dry dock at the dockyard. Her fore topsail from the Battle of Trafalgar is on show. The second biggest sail on board and the only surviving from the battle, it measures measure 80ft at its foot and is full of bullet and cannonball holes.

photo of several brightly painted figureheads in a museum gallery

Figureheads were signs of a ship's prestige and helped illiterate seamen find their home. Photo Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Portsmouth FC beat Wolves 4-2 in 1939 to lift the FA Cup and were to hold for the next six years as the cup was postponed during the Second World War. Portsmouth City Museum has a vintage signed football from the victorious team. It also houses a copy of Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story from 1886, the museum's nomination to the People's Museum.

Alec Rose was the second man to sail single-handed around the world in the yacht Lady Lively in 1968. The museum now owns the boat and has its original radio on display.

Lady Lively is back in action and about to embark upon another around the world trip with the yacht that pipped it to the post back in the 60s – Sir Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth.

John the Painter was the pseudonym of James Aitken, a Scot who trained as a painter and decorator but travelled to London to make his fortune in the 1770s. He soon drifted into shady circles, however, and after indulging in a spot of highway robbery sailed to America, where he became embroiled in revolutionary politics.

He returned to England just before the declaration of independence and decided that it would be a major blow to the crown if he could destroy Britain’s naval bases. The American agent in Paris lent tacit support to his plans and John the Painter proceeded to set fire to parts of Portsmouth and Bristol docks.

Eventually captured, he was put to the death and hung from the mast of the frigate HMS Arethusa is Portsmouth. John the Painter has been described as the world’s first modern terrorist and the tools he had with him when caught can be found at the museum.

close up photo of a organ keyboard and its ornately carved case

Detail from the 'Princess Elizabeth' Chamber Organ, built in 1602 and now proudly displayed at Carisbrooke Castle Museum. Photo Carisbrooke Castle Museum

Over on the Isle of Wight Carisbrooke Castle Museum was founded by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, in 1898 and contains many items relating to the history of the island and castle. It also has a nightcap belonging to Charles II, which is up for nomination to the People's Museum.

It has some 150 musical items with a very early chamber organ built by Hoffheimer in 1602 – dubbed the Princess Elizabeth Organ but unlikely to have been played by the princess when she lived at Carisbrooke Castle.

It was in fact made for the Earl of Montrose and was always much admired by Princess Beatrice. On her 80th birthday in 1937 it was returned to the castle through a local public subscription.

They also have a rare collection of silhouettes by John Buncombe, who lived and worked on Newport High Street at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the days before photography his silhouettes were very popular, especially with the many military men posted on the island who would pose in uniform.

The island has always been in a strategic position due to its proximity to France, and smuggling ships came over to the island from there and beyond, loaded with contraband which would be jettisoned into shallow water.

Islanders would later search for the goods using peeptubs – wooden casks with glass bottoms, which they would place into the water. The glass would reduce the glare from the water and aid them in finding the sunken goods.

A wooden disk could be placed over the glass window, so they could be innocuously filled with normal goods to disguise their true use.

Interestingly, there is evidence that many local smugglers also served as lifeboat men and saved many lives thanks to their intimate knowledge of the local waters.

photo of a wooden tub with a glass bottom

A smugglers' peeptub, used to help locate hidden booty underwater. Carisbrooke Castle Museum

Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex was the home of artist Vanessa Bell and her husband Clive from 1916. It became the meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of bohemian artists and intellectuals and Charleston itself became known for the group’s social and artistic experimentation.

Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister, was a prominent in the group and the economist John Maynard Keynes was also an important member of the set. The 1917 portrait of Keynes by Duncan Grant has been nominated for inclusion into the People's Museum.

The whole house is a work of art – the wallpaper was designed by Vanessa and there were murals, fireplaces and doors by Duncan Grant. It seems that more or less everything the visitors and residents could get their hands on, they painted or adorned.

Shows a photo of an ornate white building with many Indian-style domes and minarets surrounded by landscaped gardens

Brighton Pavilion, one of the many other places to visit in the south-east

Yet more museums with fascinating collections to be found in the south east...Young and old alike will enjoy a visit to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, situated in the master storyteller’s former home.

The Royal Pavilion at Brighton was the fantastic creation of George, the Prince Regent, later to become George IV. An Indian-inspired palace on the outside, its interior is resplendent with Oriental and Chinese furniture and ornamentation.

Further down the Sussex coast, Newhaven Fort was the starting point for the ill-fated raid of Dieppe by a mainly Canadian force during the Second World War. It also houses many other artefacts relating to the history of the present building, which dates from the 1860s, and the previous fortifications that stood there.

Kent Battle of Britain Museum in Folkestone stands testament to the heroic effort of ‘the few’ that protected the country against threat of invasion during the dark days of 1940.

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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