Beccles is a fine market town with some wonderful architecture, an interesting variety of shops and a good range of eating and drinking establishments, all of which combine to make it an essential stopping point of ours whilst out on the southern rivers. Tucked away along Ballygate, just off the town centre, is a little gem of an attraction which may have been overlooked by many visitors – myself included until this week!
Beccles and District Museum is housed in the historic Leman House and is everything that a town museum should be, displaying an eclectic range of exhibits which range from prehistoric sea urchins and Roman artifacts to 18th century mantraps and WW2 memorabilia, all of which help to paint a fascinating picture of the history of Beccles. The museum may be small, but it is crammed full of display cases and static exhibits which can take a good hour or more to explore fully. Named after Sir John Leman, a wealthy Beccles tradesman who was born in 1544 and later became the Mayor of London, the building is believed to have originally been built c1570 but was rebuilt with it’s current brick and flint facade in the 1760s. The building was bequeathed to the town for use as a free school by Sir John Leman in his will of 1631, but it had actually already been established as an educational facility prior to his death. The school could receive up to 48 boys from the age of 8 years old who were required to be able to read and write before they were accepted for tuition. During the summer months the pupils attended school from between 7am to 5pm each day and between 8am to 4pm during winter. It continued to be a free school until around 1908 when it was decided to build the new, larger Sir John Leman Grammar School at Ringsfield Road which opened in 1914. The old building was then used as a private school up until the 1990s before being sold, and subsequently leased for the use of the museum.
The largest room of the museum contains displays which cover trade and industry in the town, geological and archeological artifacts including some beautiful Roman brooches and shards of Roman pottery, and various other aspects of the town’s past. One display case has a fine set of Victorian Mayoral robes which were used for official ceremonies for 100 years! Another contains wartime memorabilia including a bridesmaids dress made from parachute silk and a jar of plums which were bottled in 1940! I moved swiftly past the collection of rather gruesome looking dentistry tools and on into the main reception room of the museum which contains a large model of the town as it was in 1841. Beyond this, another room contains lots of exhibits relating to the history of the port of Beccles and the River Waveney. Throughout the building, the walls are hung with various old photographs of the area and posters for events such as a steamboat trip in 1897 and the Beccles Regatta of 1846 (see above left). I took a few photographs which I’ll post below with brief descriptions. Although it’s impossible for me to cover the vast range of items which can be found on display, I hope that it will at least give a little taste of what the museum has to offer.
On the right is an exhibit relating to building and architecture in Beccles and, in the corner, items relating to Walter Green & Sons Ltd. flour mill. Unseen, to the left, are several large glass cases containing a variety of objects relating to the town’s history which range from the sublime to the downright bizarre!
Part of the area of the museum which covers trade and industry in the town including William Clowes printworks and the Elliott & Garrood engineering works. In the background, to the right of the photograph, is a glass case containing a 19th century diorama of a riverbank scene with stuffed birds and bird eggs. The Victorians seemed to have been rather fond of shooting, stuffing and mounting anything that moved and contemporary accounts of Broadland note that good money could be earned by supplying carcasses to collectors. The rarer the bird, the more prized a target it became!
Part of the display relating to the River Waveney. Above the large, stuffed pike is a model of Geldeston Lock as it would have looked when it was still operational and, on top of that is an old wherry vane. There is an interesting collection of photographs of the Lock and Locks Inn over the years at the museum including one which shows a vintage Deemster motor car being used as a wedding vehicle. The car was apparently owned by Fred Morris, a previous landlord of the Locks, who had acquired it from a couple who came to stay at the pub in the 1930s. They were unable to pay their bill so the landlord took the car instead! It apparently spent many, many years in a shed at the Locks, partly submerged by water before it was eventually re-discovered and restored. I believe that the legendary Susan Ellis originally worked for Fred Morris at the Locks before becoming landlady herself.
The Beccles and District Museum is open from the beginning of April until the end of October, every day except Mondays between 2.15pm and 5.00pm. Entry is free but a donation box is situated by the door. There are also a range of booklets covering various aspects of the town’s history on sale.