A Village that Treasures its Past
The best life of the English country side
“The Listener” for October 5th 1932 had an article called “A Village that Treasures its Past”. It began by saying that this village was not remarkable for any unusual buildings (I am glad the writer made haste to add “unless I except the lovely old church”) but was just a village typical of the good, prosperous, settled life of the East Hertfordshire Downs, a village representative of the best life of the English country side. The rest is a glowing account of the establishing in this village of a local museum both unusual and unique.
Ashwell was probably a halting place on the road from London to the North in olden days, and coins of almost all the Roman Emperors have been picked up in the fields near the village, and all manner of objects from the Neolithic Period of the Stone Age onwards have been found within a mile of the village.
Two Schoolboys Start Museum
Some years ago two school boys, John Bray and Albert Sheldrick, became interested in collecting Roman remains and all kinds of relics for which the district is noted. Everything was dated, arranged on shelves, labelled and kept in an old outhouse, everything was kept in perfect order.
The young curators drew up a circular which said:-
Formed October 1927
Days of opening
Saturdays 2.30 to 5 pm – 6 to 7 pm
A. Sheldrick J. Bray
Just about this time a block of old cottages right in the middle of Ashwell was condemned and all the cottages but one were destroyed. The boys looking round for a larger place in which to store their treasures that they might enlarge their scope, thought that this old cottage might serve their purpose. It was a very old house, being in fact the old Tithe House. The boys bought it for about £20 and then the venture was placed under trustees and an appeal for funds issued. There was a ready response and they set to work to renovate the old cottage.
Soon a piece of the ceiling fell in exposing a king-post roof. The boys began to strip the ugly plaster off the walls and to their amazement an almost perfect specimen of a fourteenth century cottage slowly revealed itself, a beautiful half-timbered dwelling with old fireplaces, quaint windows and great oak beams. The sad thing was that they only had enough money to patch it up, in 20th century style. But “there are fairies at the bottom of our garden in Ashwell.” In this case, the fairy took the form of Sir William Gentle, at one time Chief Constable of Brighton and an old Ashwell boy.
Sir William Gentle steps in
When he heard of the enterprise he said, “ the boys might have the cottage restored in keeping with its old character” and he would bear the whole cost. This was done under the supervision and with the advice of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.
It was a great event when the restored building, looking much as it must have done six hundred years ago, was opened by Sir William Gentle himself.
It is not possible here to give an idea as to the number and scope of the exhibits but it is a rule that everything in the Museum must be of local interest.
One of the most valuable treasures is a 15th Century Reliquary. It was either found in the precincts of a farm mentioned in the schedule of the property of the Guild of St John the Baptist or has always been in the possession of the various tenants of that property.
Amongst over 2000 exhibits are:
An ancient spinning wheel
A man-trap made of iron.
A pair of very antique candle snuffers.
A piece of pudding stone
A greenstone celt found at the Westbury 200 B.C.
Fossil shark teeth found in Ashwell.
Fragments of medieval pottery
Snuff box made from horn of deer.
Ashwell market disc.
Pewter pots and measures.
Coins of all times since B.C.