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One of the UK’s oldest purpose-built museums rescued 3

photo of a two storey late Georgian style building with graveyard and church to its side

Wisbech and Fenland Museum. © Historic England

Home to a varied and curious collection of objects, Wisbech and Fenland Museum has secured a Historic England grant to save its iconic but at-risk building

As one of the first purpose-built museums in the country, Wisbech and Fenland Museum is of exceptional significance and not inconsiderable charm, but in common with many smaller museums occupying historic buildings in the UK, the Grade II* listed Victorian structure has long been in need of repair.

Designed by architect George Buckler, who used Classical Greek architectural features in his design, the museum dating to 1846-7 boasts a symmetrical front elevation with decorative cornices and a central stone portico.

Inside, original period details can be found in its cornices, doors and fireplaces. And for fans of atmospheric interiors filled with quintessentially Victorian museum fixtures and fittings, the original bookcases and display cases all survive. It is even thought that the picturesque gallery and staircase of the main display hall are original.

However, recent paint layers have peeled off in places, due to leaks, which has however revealed historic paintwork and wallpaper. These leaks are also causing some cracking and loss of plaster.

Now, thanks to a Historic England grant of £616,000, vital repairs to this listed treasure can now go ahead.

a handwritten ink manuscript

Dicken’s ms of Great Expectations was bequeathed to the Museum by the Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend in 1868. © Wisbech & Fenland Museum

museum interior with balcony and cases seen from above

West room view from north east. © Patricia Payne/Historic England

a Bronze age brooch

A bronze disk brooch in the ” Urnes” style, 10-11 century A.D., found on the site of Wisbech Museum during its construction in 1846. © Wisbech & Fenland Museum

The poor and declining condition of the building led to it being added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2018 with major problems identified with the roof and drainage, including cracked and slipping tiles and leaks damaging the museum’s historic interior, which protects a varied and fascinating collection.

From Egyptology and local archaeology to natural history, decorative arts and costume and textiles the museum has grown from a collection largely based on natural sciences, local flora and fauna, and the collecting interests of the founders of the original Museum Society in 1835 to a vibrant holding that collects, cares for and interprets the natural and cultural heritage of Wisbech and the surrounding Fenland.

The Museum also holds a substantial archive of parish registers, local government records, photographs and maps.

Its library comprises 12,000 volumes in two distinct collections. The Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (20 April 1798 – 25 February 1868) donated a significant collection of over 500 documents of handwriting by the great and good of his day, including British and foreign monarchs, politicians, writers, academics and performers.

He also bequeathed in 1868 one of the museum’s most famous artefacts; the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Townshend is said to have acquired the manuscript as a result of his friendship with Dickens, which sprang from their shared interest in Mesmerism.

The museum also holds powerful anti-slavery artefacts owned by Thomas Clarkson (28 March 1760 – 26 September 1846) one of the main architects of the anti-slavery movement.

photo of African textiles and other objects displayed around a case

Thomas Clarkson’s chest of African artefacts. Copyright of Wisbech & Fenland Museum/S. Cousins

photo of a taxidermied pigeon with a russet breast

The specimen of the extinct passenger pigeon is just one example of the curious natural history objects held at the museum. © Wisbech & Fenland Museum/S. Cousins

a small matchbox with a kitchen interior inside it

Kitchen in a matchbox. Early 20th century. Copyright of Wisbech & Fenland Museum/S. Cousins

The Wisbech and Fenland Museum is run by an independent charity committed to keeping the museum collection in the historic building for which it was designed and they are fundraising for the match funding required to complete the project.

The Historic England grant will enable long-term roof repairs to begin in spring 2021 covering 90% of total costs.

Describing the grant as a “dream come true”, David Ball, Vice-Chairman of the Wisbech and Fenland Trustee Company Ltd, says “the condition of the building has been a concern of previous trustees for generations and we are on the brink, at last, of repairing and restoring the external fabric of the building to a condition that might be recognised by the original builders but will not have been seen since Victorian times.”

“We simply could not do this without Historic England and are most grateful to everyone there, for their guidance during the whole process of the last three years and now for the financial support contained in this grant.”

For now one of our first purpose-built museum buildings, of national significance and hugely important to its local community, can continue to delight visitors with the fascinating collections for which it was created.


Wisbech and Fenland Museum

Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Wisbech & Fenland Museum is one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the country. The original Museum Society was formed in 1835, and the present building dates from 1847. The well-preserved Museum interior enables visitors to step back in time to the heyday of the Victorian museum. The Hudson Wing…

3 comments on “One of the UK’s oldest purpose-built museums rescued

  1. Lionel Burman on

    My only visit to this museum was in 1952. it was a depressing experience, and it seemed to be suffering from neglect.
    I was a student, and later, as a museum professional, I retained an image of it as a warning to be avoided.My only clear memory was of a display case holding a jumble of unrelated objects including a mummy’s hand.
    Now this is an example of how the museum world has changed.


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