Penny for a Pumpkin

Museum staff and volunteers are off for a power nap in a darkened room with a cuppa now October half term and Halloween are over. Then it is back to it as the Christmas preparations such as wrapping presents and building grottos and putting up decorations begin. The week or two around Halloween is now one of the busiest times on the museum year calendar as we welcome thousands of visitors and host many events and activities for all ages. When Sandwell Museums first started doing Halloween events about 20 years ago there was a spooky evening tour for adults and then a more developed ghost stories and fright nights. In fact we were one of the first places doing this kind of thing and the museum curator at the time thought ‘this was something you shouldn’t do in a museum’. Some people may still think that but it has certainly grown and we now do many events over the period.

safe daytime trick or treating at the Manor House

Back to this later but why have we been running around in purple wigs and black capes, playing creepy games and and running spooky activities for the last couple of weeks? How has this time of year become associated with ghouls and ghosts – it’s all a bit of fun now but where has it all come from?

Staff at the Oak House prepare for the family ‘fun’ day!

If you ask many older people they will say that Halloween is an American invention and that when they were children it was more about Bonfire Night and Halloween was far less important than it is today. Even in my lifetime (I’m in my mid forties) I remember children having created scarecrow like figures of Guy Fawkes out of old clothes and wheeling it around in a wheelbarrow asking for a ‘penny for the Guy’. The idea being that they ‘Guys’ would then be burned on the bonfire. This is a sight that is pretty much never seen today. I also remember there being a few Halloween parties when I was a child but there certainly wasn’t the choice of costumes and accessories that there is today and people rarely went ‘Trick or Treating’. In fact as most of you over 40 will remember there were 2 choices of Halloween costumes – white sheets or bin liners and maybe a mask or a wig! These days it seems Halloween has taken over as the dominant autumn festival over Bonfire Night (as well as there now being lots of other autumn festival celebrations to brighten up this time of year with new communities moving into Britain over the last 100 years-showcasing how many cultures have autumn lights festivals)

However, we’ve only been celebrating Bonfire night since the year after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Almost immediately the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was celebrated with bonfires and the burning of effigies of the pope and later Guy Fawkes. It was very convenient for the Protestant government that Robert Catesby and his fellow Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the King and Parliament on 5th November just after Halloween and All Saints’ Day as this was a rather Catholic festival. The autumn festival of lights, fires, celebration and commemoration was shifted, in England at least away from All Hallows and All Saints and onto Bonfire Night and commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. So for many hundreds of years Halloween took a back seat in England (So if you are enjoying a bonfire party this year then take a moment to remember, while you are waving your sparkler around, that the festival is born out of religious tensions, and the crushing of a terrorist plot born out of persecution and led to brutal executions- just saying!)

the carved swede – much creepier than a pumpkin

Like Easter and Christmas, Halloween has its origins in much older festivals that were later incorporated into Christianity. These festivals noticeably follow changes of seasons and celebrations of new life, coming of light, harvests, encouraging spring to come back, light in mid-winter etc.

It is believed that the ancient festival of Samhain marked the end of the life of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter and death. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Like Easter and Christmas the autumn festival of Samhain was taken on and changed by the church in the 700sAD. “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints Day”; originally a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs celebrated on 13th May until Pope Gregory had the date moved to 1st November. It is thought that in doing so, he was attempting to incorporate the old autumn festival of the dead with a related but church approved celebration. Catholic countries today still commemorate the dead at this time eg think of the Day of the Dead in Mexico which is a big festival and in Malta November is the month of the dead when you visit your deceased relatives.

The night or evening of Samhain therefore became known as All-hallows, seen as a time of the year when many believed that the spirit world can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most potent.

All Hallows eve became Halloween traditionally celebrated by games such as bobbing for apples (in itself associated with a Roman tradition celebrated on 31st October), telling stories and carving faces into hollowed-out swedes and turnips (which isn’t easy as they are very hard vegetables). These faces would be lit by a candle and the vegetable lanterns displayed on doorsteps to ward off any evil spirits or light the way for spirits to get back to their own world. Bonfires were also lit to ward away evil spirits so light was very much part of Halloween celebrations. so it is easy to see how some of these traditions easily developed and shifted around Bonfire Night after the Gunpowder Plot.

However in the last few years Halloween has been making a come back and in a major way – and yes there are American imports such as pumpkins and ‘trick or treat’ but in essence Halloween is very much a festival which was celebrated in England centuries ago. In fact even the ‘trick or treat’ may have come from a much older European tradition which certainly until very recently was still practised in Scotland. Children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits and went ‘guising’. In centuries gone by it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that were abroad that night. Children arriving at a house so ‘disguised’ would receive an offering to ward off evil.

This all however must be taken with a warning – in the 1800s in many areas an attempt was made to reintroduce ancient traditions which actually weren’t ancient at all but reinvented or just invented -so it is difficult to say how many of the ancient traditions are fully ancient.

As for the Gunpowder Plot- Well Sandwell had it’s very own Gunpowder plotters!

The West Midlands found itself very much at the heart of the Gunpowder plot. Even though Guy Fawkes was discovered with barrels of gunpowder in London, many of the conspirators had land and houses in the Midlands.  Many gentry families in the early 1600s in the Midlands remained Catholics whereas the up and coming ‘middling sort’ such as the Turtons at Oak House were Puritans (staunch Protestants), so would not have been sympathetic to the plotters cause.

The showdown against most of the plotters and the Sheriff of Worcester took place at Holbeche Hall in Staffordhsire but two of the plotters had already left on their way towards Rowley Regis. The two plotters were Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttleton. They were on their way to find sanctuary with Stephen’s relative, Humphrey Lyttleton at Hagley House.  Before the plotters reached Hagley House they took shelter in barns and farms in Rowley Regis which would have been part of Humphrey Lyttleton’s land. Stephen Lyttleton and Robert Wintour were eventually discovered in January 1606 and taken to London for execution. The Rowley Regis farmers didn’t get away with having hidden the plotters and were executed in Wolverhampton.

We hope you enjoyed our Halloween spooky fun, autumnal activities and half term fun. It may be spooky season but the event fairies were working hard! Museum staff with help from our fabulous volunteers organised all the activities, dressed up and delivered the activities, decorated the buildings, carved pumpkins, made up stories, quizzes and trails, put together craft activities, cut out tickets and trails and generally worked really hard so we hope you had a great time. There’s still some autumn activities to go and then we’ll have a great programme of festive fun and winter wonder starting in late November.

visit our listings page at for details of our Christmas activities which will be listed by the first week in November.

Why have you painted it pink?

The great hall at Bromwic Hall – The Manor House dating from the 1270s and furnished in the style of the mid 1400s

Staff at Bromwich Hall- The Manor House Museum have been asked this question on several occasions. Well actually it isn’t pink, it is red ochre and we’ve painted over other parts of the building with yellow ochre, gold ochre and what looks like a lime wash!

What! painting a medieval building bright colours, why? Shouldn’t they be black and white? I hear some of you cry!

I was also once asked the question

‘Why have you decorated the great hall at the Manor House like this – it would have been much more rustic, it was medieval times after all’

We’ve all seen movies and TV programmes about medieval times where peasants have mud and dung on their faces and matted hair, where the rich and powerful live in large foreboding black and white timber framed Manor Houses or in cold draft ridden castles with bare stone walls and dark wooden furniture. In Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Marian appears to be living in a ruin at times (and we won’t even mention how Robin intends to get from the south coast to Nottingham on foot via Hadrian’s Wall by sundown as it isn’t relevant to this discussion).

So have we taken leave of our senses by painting the Manor House with red, gold and yellow, putting up stripy hangings and decorating it with beautifully carved light in colour oak furniture? No not at all, in fact we haven’t gone far enough…yet!

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that medieval buildings belonging to the wealthy were full of bright cloth and handsome furnishings, that walls were plastered and painted and hung with decorated or woven cloth (or tapestries if you were one of the very richest people around).

The medieval period ended over 500 years ago so what we have left today is often a very faded version of what once would have been there, but there are many clues to show that castles didn’t have bare stone walls and manor houses weren’t black and white and even the homes of the more moderately wealthy like merchants had some colour. The medieval world has left behind traces of wall paintings and hangings, floor tiles, medieval illustrations showing painted rooms and furniture, remnants of cloth and some descriptions. As well as items that people would have put inside their homes such as pottery and metalwork.

Restoration work at The Manor House revealed traces of a red chevron pattern on some of the wooden beams. It is likely that most, if not all of the beams would have been painted over with designs and patterns or at very least painted in the same colour as the rest of the room and then hung with textile hangings. The black and white look was invented by the Victorians as they thought it looked pretty and fitting.

There now follows a few of my holiday snaps to illustrate this point…. (I can hear you all thinking ‘what a nerd’)

Here is the faded but rather lovely remains of a painted beam at St Nicholas Place in Kings Norton, Birmingham which I got rather excited about and took a picture of when I visited recently. You can clearly see the remains of a red/brown design. The house is a rather nice high status, late 1400s merchant’s residence and like all rich houses would have been full of colour.

The picture above was taken at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset. It shows the remains of painted plaster which would have been very striking in the 15th century when it was painted.

The wall painting above is from the abbot’s office, also at Cleeve Abbey. Although these are in a religious rather than a domestic setting it does show that painted plaster was common in the medieval period.

Tretower Court on the Welsh borders (now run by Cadw) has also gone a long way to decorating their great hall as it might have looked in the 1400s (like our decorations at West Bromwich). However in medieval times the walls and the wooden screen you can see hiding the screens passage would most likely have been painted too in bright colours and designs. I must admit I am rather jealous of their screen as we don’t have ours. Also note some of the replica pieces of furniture which are beautifully carved and sometimes painted.

Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire has also had many of its rooms displayed in a 15th century style. Again Gainsborough was a Hall or manor house building so a similar level of wealth and social status to the families living at West Bromwich Manor House.

Not a great picture but this is the solar or private space of the Lord and his family. We have 2 solars at West Bromwich.

The Chapel Solar at West Bromwich Manor House (15th century) – not furnished at the moment but you can see the remains of the large fireplace and the ample size of the room

The outside of buildings would also have been painted and the beams would have been painted over the same colour as the infills. Buildings may have been painted in red ochre or even ox blood (which gave a pink colour), yellow or gold or off white colour, it usually depended on what were local colour pigments or traditions.

Lower Brockhampton in Herefordshire (National Trust) with the beams lime washed. It is also a medieval moated manor house like ours in West Bromwich.

By exploring pictures produced in the medieval period you can clearly see that nobody is sitting about in bare stone rooms without colour or cushions. That colour and textiles and decorations were in abundance if you could afford it.

The medieval period was full of very well trained and talented people who made furniture, carved wood, spun and wove cloth, painted designs on walls and hangings, illuminated manuscripts, made jewellery and clothes and carved stone. Imported goods were also popular such as fine silks, glassware and much more. There was no need for people to live with bare stone or black and white walls and with gloomy dark wooden furniture roughly whittled out of logs and why would they want to? People wanted luxury and comfort and to showcase their wealth and status.

On that note, what about the peasants with dung on their faces and matted hair – again a Hollywood myth. Medieval peasants are never drawn looking filthy or with their heads uncovered in any illustrations from the period. Their clothes are simple and ordinary as was their lives but for many ordinary medieval people they would have cared about the things they did own and how they presented themselves. (Look at some of the images of farm workers shown in the Luttrell Psalter, kept int he British Library ). But the ordinary folk is a story for another day.

If you want to see Bromwic Hall – The Manor House Museum come to life as it might have been in the 1400s with Lords and Ladies, soldiers, knights and servants then visit us this weekend on 12th and 13th October 2019 11am-4pm and discover life in a medieval manor house as Buckingham’s retinue re-enactment group bring the house to life. £1 entry, free parking on site. Activities for young visitors too. Visit our listings page at for times of activities.

Buckingham’s retinue prepare to bring Bromwic Hall to life.

When is a Tudor Hall not a Tudor Hall?

The early life of Haden Old Hall.

We have a range of photos dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The area with two openings at the front of the house is no longer there. It was an addition and was brought down in a storm when the large tree at the front of the picture fell onto it.

Haden Old Hall also known as The Tudor Hall stands in Haden Hill Park on top of Haden Hill next to Haden Hill House, a Victorian addition to the site dating to the 1870s.

If you look at many publications or old newspaper reports you will see that the site has been the home of the Haden family since medieval times when Hadens came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Some publications will have you believe that the Hadens were the local Lords of the Manor or I have even heard that there was a fort on top of the hill!

If you look carefully at this photo taken around 1900 you can see that this end of the Old Hall is in very poor condition – it is being propped up and many windows are broken. We know the other side of the Hall nearest the dovecote was being lived in until the early 1920s.

The Old Hall has also long been known as the Tudor Hall and thought to have been the home of local gentry.

….but is this well told and retold story what really happened on top of Haden Hill and when is a Tudor Hall not a Tudor Hall? In the case of Haden Tudor Hall it is when the building is neither Tudor or a Hall.

Tudors at the Old Hall – Real Tudors may not have seen the Hall but we do have fake ones from time to time as part of our lively events and activities programme.

There is no evidence at all for the Haden family coming to England from France with William the Conqueror, and in fact we now know that the family invented a grand history for their Haden predecessors in Victorian times. But before you start tutting at their fraudulent activities this wasn’t uncommon. Many families did something very similar creating long histories to inflate the importance and wealth of their ancestors stretching back many generations.

Victorian historians also had a bit of a tendency of filling in gaps and making assumptions where there was no actual evidence. These stories are then re-told by others and taken as fact until someone decides to go back to the original primary sources (original documents from the time) and re-visit the story. So it has taken some time to pick apart the evidence and get to the real story. The real story of the Haden family is no less fascinating than the made up one! 

Is the hill named after the Hadens or the Hadens after the hill?

The earliest reference to the possible presence of Hadens in Rowley Regis is a document from 1270 which mentions Walter atte Hauedene (which probably means Walter at the place of the steep slope). Early references suggest that medieval Hadens were probably local farmers of modest means and that they were named after the place rather than the family giving their name to the site. Whoever the Hadens were at this time they certainly weren’t knights or Lords of the Manor. We know this because we know exactly who were Lords of the Manor in the Rowley area at the time and how the estates were being run.

A Hall is the name given to the building at the centre of a medieval manor (an estate) where the Lord of the Manor would have lived as well as being the centre of administration for the local area. For example another one of our museum sites, West Bromwich Manor House was once known as ‘Bromwich Hall‘ or may have just been known as ‘the Hall’ or ‘so and so’s Hall’. This building and the the other buildings which would once have made up the manor house complex were at the centre of a medieval administrative estate or a manor. Haden Old Hall never was a manor building so it isn’t a Hall and there is no evidence in the current building that there was an earlier medieval building on the site, although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one of course.

Bromwich Hall – The Manor House Museum. An actual Hall which we call a house
when Haden Old Hall is a house which we call a Hall???

We then jump to 1547 when the marriage of Alys Haden is recorded in the Rowley Regis parish register. It is clear there were Hadens living in the Rowley area but we don’t know if they lived at Haden Hill or somewhere else. We haven’t found any evidence to prove it either way.

Not a Hall but a 17th century posh farmhouse!

It is most likely that the Hall roughly as it stands today was built in the later 1600s (or rather it is a heavily restored/ reconstruction of the 17th century house). Certainly it is clear from the strange uneven floor levels, scarring and variety of bricks on the building that it has been much added to and altered over the years. Its long story is written all over it!

The Friends of Haden Hill Estate (our fantastic volunteer group) painting the inside of Haden Old Hall with historic 17th century colours. You will see the 17th century magnificent fireplace, which is actually a 1930s replica of the one at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire to make the house look more grand than it actually ever was. Also rooms were knocked through to create a great hall. Again this was something a 17th century posh farmhouse wouldn’t have had.

It seems the wealth of the Hadens grew gradually and the Hall started life as a farm house;  home to a wealthy farmer (known as a yeoman). However in the middle of the 1600s  Henry Haden the elder married Mary Bloomer of Halesowen who brought with her a dowry of £600 (a huge sum of money at the time) and his son Henry the younger in 1683 married Elizabeth Fullwood of Studley who brought £650 and quite a lot of land as her dowry. This helped propel our family up the social ladder and probably helped pay for the building or extension of this rather large and smart house, which would have been one of the biggest and best houses in the area.  

Since the later 1800s parts of the Hall have spent quite a lot of time derelict, unused or burnt out. Today it has been largely restored and is opened for a number of open days, events, projects and school groups each year.

A document from March 1660 shows that Henry Haden the elder was describing himself as a yeoman but by 1672 he was calling himself a gentleman and Henry Haden the younger acquired a coat of arms. The Hadens had been buying up parcels of land in the local area for some time and renting it out, gradually increasing the wealth and social status of the family. The 1600s were a good time for the middling sort when many were able to gain wealth, prosperity and position. This is echoed in the story of the Turton family at the Oak House in West Bromwich who started the 1600s as yeoman and by the 1650s were calling themselves gentlemen having extended and added to their smart house.

In 1661 a land tax shows that Henry Haden was assessed as being worth 14s and 7d while the next highest assessed individual was worth 6s and 8d. This illustrates the wealth of the family in comparison to others locally. However, this was modest wealth. It is probably fair to say that they were big fish in a very small pond – well maybe even a medium sized fish in a puddle.

When Henry Haden died in 1675 he was buried in a family vault in St Giles’ church, Rowley Regis –not bad for a family whose origins were as modest farmers!

The interior of the Oak House Museum, West Bromwich built in the 1620s gives an idea as to what Haden Old Hall may once have looked like – Of course all the wood would have been light new oak like the bed. Today Haden Old Hall has some furnishings dating to different periods of the house’s history.

The Hall is decorated with real greenery and traditional decorations at Christmas for visitors to enjoy and get into the festive mood.
School children have used Haden Old Hall as inspiration for artwork and storytelling activities as well as history.

Haden Hall is used extensively as part of our events programme at Haden Hill house and park, particularly in the colder months.

Haden Old Hall is open as part of National Heritage Open Days on

• Saturday 14 September: 2pm-5pm,

• Sunday 15 September: 12pm-4pm

The Old Hall will also be open at various times over the festive season for visitors to look around.

Entrance is FREE

Learn more about Haden Old Hall with our mini doc at

Enjoy some Tudor music at the Old Hall at

A ‘Journey Through Colours’ for all

The only way a visit to the museum could be improved is if there was more food…..apparently.

Exhibitions aren’t things to just be looked at at Sandwell Museums

At Wednesbury Museum & Art Gallery we have just said goodbye to ‘A journey through colours’ – celebrating 30 years of creativity’ the fantastically vibrant Asian art and crafts exhibition by local artist Ranbir Kaur. We even extended the exhibition for several weeks until 13th July and it has been really popular with visitors who have commented on the variety of arts and crafts and the fantastic colours. Ranbir has had a fascinating life having lived and worked in Africa, India and the UK creating intricate and colourful pieces of art inspired by the Indian sub-continent.

She is particularly known for her Rangoli work –  Rangoli is an art form in which patterns are created usually on the ground using materials such as coloured rice, dried food such as beans and lentils, flour, sand or flower petals. It is often made during festivals and it is thought to bring good luck.

For us at Sandwell Museums and Arts, we run quite a lot of temporary exhibition as you can imagine of all different kinds – we’ve had arts and crafts exhibitions, history exhibitions, sci-fi including Dr Who and Star Wars exhibitions, dinosaurs, sharks, portraits, Egyptians, Concorde etc to name but a few.

For us exhibitions are not just to be looked at but experienced, explored and are a chance for visitors to get their hands dirty, try something new or develop a skill.

As we all know Black Country people are creative people, they have worked for hundreds of years with their hands creating things of all kinds from whatever background they are from and I think it is now in the DNA!

From experience, here at Sandwell Museums and Arts Service we know that local people like to ‘have a go’ themselves and get involved.

Anyway with this in mind when we put together a new temporary exhibition we always make sure there are lots of opportunities for visitors, schools and community groups to get involved with and be creative themselves inspired by the displays and this exhibition certainly gave plenty of scope to get inspired and get creative.

Our Arts Officer applied for and successfully gained Town Grants funding ( more info @ to enable Ranbir to work with a variety of education and community groups at the museum as well as running our own simpler activities in school holidays and with other groups.

Here are the activities which we undertook with groups inspired by the exhibition.

  • School holiday Rangoli – using a simple technique, young visitors (often along with the grown up they had brought along to the museum) had a go at creating their own Rangoli peacock (the peacock is the national bird of India) using dried food, colouring in and a paper plate. We even had a grown up come along to have a go to get some inspiration for his own artwork as he had seen the exhibition and was intrigued by some of the techniques used.
Not quite up to Ranbir’s standards but a great activity for children and in fact some adults too!
  • Dementia group – A group of dementia sufferers and their partners or a family member who meet locally in Wednesbury each week as part of a fantastic support group came along for a visit to enjoy the exhibition and have a go themselves at creating a Rangoli tile. While the group were working away at their pieces of art we reminisced about holidays; first of all to see if anyone had been to India or anywhere exotic and then European holidays and then down to camping and caravan holidays in the UK. We also looked at some old photos from holidays in the past. The group had a great time, loved the exhibition, loved having a go and loved having a chat and we all had a laugh. They want to come back again and experience our old toys collection. 
working with this fantastic group – it was very much a giggle.
The group getting messy while they discussed holidays exotic and not so exotic!
The group’s finished rangoli tiles.
  • The Wednesbury Museum painting groups – We have 3 community art groups who meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at Wednesbury museum. They mainly work in oils but from time to time love trying new techniques, or enjoying visits out. On this occasion a selection of members of the 3 groups worked with Ranbir on fabric painting techniques, which was something new to most of them. Funded by Town Grants funding.
Some of our community painting group having a go at something new and working with Ranbir.

Our community painting groups learning something new with textile workshops.
  • Woodgreen Primary – 4 classes of fantastic children came along to the museum over 2 days to explore the exhibition, write stories about the objects they saw, draw pictures, undertake comprehension activities and create their own pieces of Rangoli to take back to school. As the children explored the museum they were also achieving their Arts Mark award, which is a qualification given to primary age children in art as museum staff are trained Arts Award assessors. As with all the groups we worked with we asked the children what they thought of the exhibition and the activities which they undertook. Funded by Town Grants Funding.
4 classes of children came along to enjoy the exhibition, and create pieces of Rangoli themselves.

  • Here is what the children and the teachers said about their day at the museum!
  • I liked all the workers! (we like this comment!)
  • The fancy designs
  • The way we did Rangoli ourselves
  • Sprinkling the beans
  • Decorating the Rangoli
  • Making art with beans
  • I enjoyed when we did the patterns
  • When we put the lentils inside the kidney bean patterns
  • When asked what would make it better most children said more time at the museum or to come again – however one child said the thing that would make the visit better was food. I’m assuming he didn’t just mean the dried beans and lentils to make the Rangoli!
  • The teacher said -amazing activity- the children have learnt a lot and had great fun, great ideas to take back to school
School children wrote short stories inspired by the pieces of art which they saw.
  • The children with autism – Will also worked with a class of children from the Meadows School who came along to explore and enjoy the exhibition and with Ranbir worked on a large piece of Rangoli together with the name of their school on it. This they would take back to school to finish their and display it for parents, visitors and other children to see. It was a great opportunity for the children to explore and experience something new and they all really enjoyed the day out. Funded by Town Grants Funding.
  • A temple group – A group of ladies came along from the temple which Ranbir has close ties with. The ladies enjoyed the exhibition and discussed the objects and worked with Ranbir. In their feedback forms they said it was a great opportunity for them to get out and meet new people and experience new things, they also said it was great for the younger generation to see some of the traditional craft techniques from India. One of the ladies that came was the grand old age of 99!! Funded by Town Grants Funding.
The ladies from the temple group came to work with Ranbir and take a tour of the exhibition.

Members of the public- On two Saturday afternoons Ranbir was at the museum for members of the public to come along and see arts and crafts demonstrations, creating rag dolls and Rangoli. Visitors were also able to ask questions and get involved and were shown around the exhibition by Ranbir herself. Visitors feedback from this was that it helped them to learn new skills, raises awareness of some of these fantastic art forms and also of the museum itself, other noted ideas to try at home and one person said it ‘reminds me of my olden days’ which I think is a fantastic phrase. It was also great to see people from all parts of our fantastic diverse Black Country community coming along and enjoying together and sharing. Funded by Town Grants Funding.

This exhibition and the activities we undertook around it is a fantastic example of some of the things we get up to at Sandwell Museums and Arts, working with the community and educational groups as well as families and other members of the public. Our buildings and activities are community resources enjoyed by many different members of the community in different ways.

Our next temporary exhibition has just opened at Wednesbury Museum displaying Chance’s glassware and extracts from the staff magazines from the 1940s to 1960s. Also later today after I finish writing this blog we are running glass (well plastic) decorating workshops with families as part of our school holidays activities programme. We also have our Arts Trail on display, where local amateur artists and groups submitted pieces of art, photos and drawings along this years’ theme of ‘All the Fun of the Fair’. The entries are on display at our 4 main museum sites and you can vote for your favourite. Also at Wednesbury Museum throughout the summer you can see a fantastic piece of art created by Mesty Croft Primary Academy who were inspired by a variety of famous artists and a pop art display created by another local artist – this is not to mention our lively and varied school holiday activities taking place throughout August…..and that’s just one of our sites!

The new Chance Bros exhibition – Chance’s People is now on at Wednesbury Museum.

One of the activities we have been doing with young visitors over the school holidays is to design pieces of glass (well plastic) inspired by our Chance’s glass exhibition.

If you thought museums were places to be quiet and not touch anything at all then you haven’t visited Sandwell Museums!!!

Find out more about what’s on at Sandwell Museums and Arts at

Jane Hanney-Martin – Museum Services Manager &

Alex Howell – Arts and Projects Officer

Where has the priest hole gone?

I was working front of house the other day at Oak House and while the Oak House staff delivered summer holiday activities and space themed fun in the visitor centre, I manned the house itself and spoke to visitors as they came in to look around (or younger visitors who came in to do the moon trail).

Anyway some lovely ladies came in who had enjoyed Oak House as children around 50 years ago and were enjoying looking around and discovering how much it had changed over that time. They enjoyed what we had done to the house to help tell the fascinating story of the site and make it look more and more like a 17th century home fit for the ‘middling sort’.

When they returned to the hall they asked the question that staff have been asked many many times before by older visitors…….

…..’where have the priest holes gone?’

I explained that there aren’t any priest holes at Oak House. As with countless other visitors before them the answer came back that they were shown a priest hole many decades previously so they know there was definitely a priest hole.

I gave the ladies my usual response saying that what they were shown was actually a cupboard. On hearing this I am usually faced with disappointment or often disbelief as visitors insist that there was definitely a priest hole and they were shown it decades ago!

So how do we know there aren’t any priest holes?

By the late 1500s and early 1600s it became very dangerous to be a Catholic in England.  It was illegal to have a Catholic priest in your home and practice Catholic forms of worship. Therefore Catholic families devised elaborate ways of hiding their priests in case a search was carried out. The penalty for discovery was certain death for the priest and possible death for the owner of the house or a least confiscation of their wealth.

The family at Oak House were not Catholics, in fact they were Puritans, which was a very devout form of Protestantism. Therefore the Turtons certainly would not have been hiding Catholic priests at the Oak House in the mid 1600s.

When I explained to the two ladies who had visited on this particular day that the family were Puritans, what I had told them about the priest hole being a cupboard suddenly made sense. The enthusiasm they had as children for secret hideaways and tales of hidden priests had made them forget what they knew as adults about it being only Catholics who needed to hide their priests.

If you have ever visited a Catholic house where there are real priest holes such as Harvington Hall or Baddesley Clinton you will know how elaborately constructed priest holes were, with secret chambers behind other secret chambers, hiding places under toilets, behind fireplaces, in wall cavities and under staircases. It shows even more clearly that what we have at Oak House are actually just really useful cupboard spaces for underwear and bed linen (unless it was a rather risky double bluff hoping that soldiers coming to raid the house would think it too obvious so didn’t bother checking the cupboard!)

Is there a priest hole in here? No!

At Oak House there are actually quite a lot of cupboards built into the walls.  Houses had only a few key pieces of furniture so these cupboards were very useful, particularly those around the chimney which would act as an airing cupboard and keep linen from becoming damp.

Also not a priest hole – but it is a very useful storage space around a chimney breast which would have probably kept linen and bed clothes warm.

Storage built into the walls and panelling may also have been used to store expensive books and other valuables like pewter plates, goblets or tankards and could have been locked.

Is that a priest hole? Nooooo

So it would seem that at some point in the 1950s/60s there was a member of staff at Oak House who were showing visitors the Oak House ‘priest hole’ with excitement and enthusiasm. We don’t know if they believed that it was really a priest hole or if it was just a way to liven up people’s visit to the house. Also sometimes there is also just an assumption that Tudor and Stuart houses all had priest holes – but of course it wasn’t wrong to be a Christian, just to follow Catholicism.

We would love to know which of our cupboards was being shown off as a priest hole, so if anyone can remember where they were shown the priest hole was then do drop us a message.

Just to dispel another myth there are not only no priest holes but also no tunnels to Dudley Castle or to a local pub or to anywhere else – but we’ll save that story for another blog!

The Oak House hall, which would have been the entrance, and dining room for Oak House.

So what about the answer to the question ‘where has the priest hole gone?’ well essentially the priest hole has gone the way of many myths. More research, further study of original documents and a greater interest from staff in telling the real story rather than a tale has mean that the Oak House priest hole has disappeared along with lots of other long told stories about our buildings.

There may be no priest holes here at Oak House but the story of the Turton family and Oak House is still absolutely fascinating. So why not come and visit – we’re open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays 2pm-5pm until the end of September then we move to our winter opening hours.

You can find out more about visiting at and follow the link to Oak House or find out what’s on at Or call us Tuesday- Friday on 0121 553 0759

Jane – Museum Services Manager

Mine’s a pint

As I was sharing some information with colleagues I mentioned that in 1701 a malt tax was introduced which raised the price of beer and forced the poor to drink water increasing Cholera and other water born diseases across the country. This reminded me of our continual struggle in museums to correct so many commonly held myths about the past  and Sandwell’s historic buildings: secret passages, priest holes, visits by Guy Fawkes, William Shakespeare, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Richard III, ghostly nuns, haunted wardrobes, smells of tobacco etc.

The Hall at Oak House Museum, West Bromwich – famous for not having priest holes (the family were Puritans), or secret tunnels to Dudley Castle or a local pub (why would you bother?) and neither Guy Fawkes, Richard III stayed there as it wasn’t built until after they died. However it did have a very nice well. 

One of the most pervading (don’t get me started on thresholds, pot-luck and ‘raining cats and dogs’!) is that in olden times everyone drank beer because the fresh water was foul, polluted and tasted bad and was known to spread illness and disease. Beer for breakfast, dinner and supper – for refreshment, for celebration and just for passing the time. This just isn’t true. Fresh water supplies were highly valued and if you had a fresh clean water supply you would certainly drink the water. There are references to people drinking water throughout history although for obvious reasons there are more references to enjoying wine or ale.

The Sand Well or spring at Sandwell Valley

“Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul – if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.” ~ Lupus Servatus, Abbot of Ferrieres (9th century)

“Ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale’ ~ Ælfric’s Colloquy (10th century)

When Renaissance artist Michelangelo was suffering from kidney stones, a doctor advised him to drink waters from a spring outside of Rome. Later the artist wrote to his physician stating “I am much better than I have been. Morning and evening I have been drinking the water from a spring about forty miles from Rome, which breaks up the stone…I have had to lay in a supply at home and cannot drink or cook with anything else.”

Most of Sandwell is particularly well favoured with clean water springs, as a consequence of the underlying geology. There are great deposits of glacial sand, which filters and cleans the water and clay, forming underground reservoirs. West Bromwich still has the Sand Well in Sandwell Valley and the Lyne Purl on Stoney Lane, near the hospital. The Lyne Purl was the main water supply for West Brom until it was condemned in 1848. In 1606 the manorial court had forbidden washing filthie clothes and beastes bellies in or near it.

The Manor House Museum – no particular reason but it’s a nice building. However we do know that using culverts under the house they were channelling used water away from the residents of the Manor House and down the hill (no doubt towards the poor people)

In 2014 during the restoration works at the Oak House barns we uncovered a well lined with 17th century brick, although it is likely that the well itself is considerably older. You can see the spot marked with a semi-circle of bricks in the courtyard if you visit the site today. Also as any competent home brewer will tell you – bad water makes bad beer.   Where towns didn’t have a good clean water supply, or sufficient fresh water, significant expenditure went on providing pipes and conduits from further afield. In Lichfield, where I live not-withstanding the pools in the town centre, from the 14th century water was piped into the city centre from the appropriately named Pipe Hill, and the medieval culverts and pipes of Exeter still survive; the medieval engineers placed the lead pipes in tunnels running beneath the streets so that when a water main burst there was no need to dig the entire street up. Perhaps something our own utility companies could take a look at!   Beer cost money whereas water was free (try suggesting that to the water companies today!) and in the absence of licensing legislation anyone could buy grain, make a brew and sell it to their neighbours.

Another nice picture of Oak House

The West Bromwich court appointed two ale tasters annually who were empowered to sample beer being sold in the parish and fine the brewers of (and ultimately destroy) beer of poor quality. It is clear that the common preference was for beer over water: Andrew Boorde, in his 1542 Dyetary of Health, wrote: “water is nat holsome . . . for an Englysshe man, . . . water is colde, slowe, and slake of digestyon. The beste water is rayne water so be it that it be clene and purely taken Next to it is rōnynge water, ye whiche doth swyftly rōne from the Eest into the west vpon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed is ryuer or broke water, the which is clere rōnynge on pybles & grauayl. Standynge waters the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng is cōmendable, but standyng waters, and well waters, to the which the sōne hath no reflexciō, although they be lyghter thē other rōnyng waters be, yet they be nat so cōmendable. And let euery man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be purryfyed with froth, duckemeat, and mod, for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingendre many infyrmytes”. And the Italian physician Michele Savonarola had this advice for pregnant women: . . .”beware of drinking cold water. It is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls. So keep drinking wine”. Advice an expectant friend of mine, living in Montpellier, Southern France, received almost verbatim from her doctor in the 1990s (except for the bit about generating girls!)

Frank – Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage

Ruskin Pottery and Black Country People at Work

” The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” John Ruskin

William Howson Taylor – Sandwell Community History and Archives Service

I woke up on Thursday morning having dreamt about moving Ruskin Pottery around. Luckily my dream wasn’t a nightmare and I didn’t drop any in my sleep! Anyway the reason for this dream was that moving Ruskin Pottery around is one of the things I have actually been doing in my waking life as we have been re-displaying this fabulous colourful pottery in a new gallery at Wednesbury Museum (Sandwell’s Museum and Art Gallery).

When people think about the area that is now Sandwell around 1900 they usually think of heavy industry and not decorative arts, but actually there was lots of artistic creativity going on in the area as well as heavy industry.

Ruskin Pottery – 1898-1935

The pottery created at the Ruskin Pottery factory in Smethwick, began production in 1898. It was notable for experimental glazes in a range of vibrantly coloured pots, vases, bowls, buttons, tea services, plaques and jewellery. It became an award winning studio pottery, but was an expensive commodity which was out of the price range of ordinary Black Country people.

advert from an art magazine 1926

173-174 Oldbury Road, Smethwick

173 and 174 Oldbury Road were bought by Edward Richard Taylor who, with his son William Howson Taylor, converted the site into the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works. In the early 1900s the pottery was renamed after John Ruskin, who was a Victorian writer and critic. Ruskin believed that there was not enough beauty in everyday life and these ideals seemed to fit with the ideas the Taylors had for their new, modern pottery.

The Ruskin Creators

Edward Taylor

Edward R Taylor was the headmaster of Birmingham School of Art. He invested his entire life savings of around £10,000 to set up the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works in Smethwick. Despite being in his sixties it is believed that Edward Taylor would stay up until the early hours of the morning taking an active role in the production of the pottery. He was often seen travelling to and from the factory on his tricycle.

Edward’s son, William Howson Taylor had a small kiln in the garden at the family home in Highfields Road, Edgbaston where he conducted experiments with pottery and glazes which later inspired the exciting patterns in Ruskin Pottery glazes.

In 1912 Edward Taylor died and William Howson Taylor took full control of the pottery business. William Howson Taylor was a kind employer who worked long hours. He was also a perfectionist, personally supervising all areas of production insisting on the high standards of the pottery being maintained.

Black Country People at Work

The twenty or so employees were a close knit and well trained workforce. Many of the workers were related to each other by blood or marriage and lived in the Smethwick area, in Spon Lane, Oldbury Road, Lonsdale Road and Thimblemill Road. Workers at the Ruskin factory had good wages and were treated well compared to similar employment at the turn of the 20th century.

The working day began at 8am when a whistle summoned the workers to the factory. There were three breaks during the day; a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch and the day finished at 6pm unless the kiln was being fired, when it had to be watched all night.

A Day in the Country

Sometimes on Saturdays, William Howson Taylor and his workers went on day trips and picnics into the nearby countryside. They caught a train to Stourbridge and then walked to Arley, Kinver or the Clent Hills seeking fresh air and inspiration from nature.

The factory buildings

When William Howson Taylor wrote to one of his workers, Harry Hill while he was away fighting the First World War, he often mentioned the outings into the countryside writing “What tales you will be able to tell us all when we go to Clent of Sats, and may those days be soon.” Harry Hill returned from the war and joined the other workers on many outings.

The women who worked at the factory went on their own outings organised by Mr Howson Taylor, often taking refreshments at the Vine Inn,  Clent after a brisk walk.

The Great War 1914-1918

Many workers volunteered to fight and after January 1916 were conscripted into the conflict. While they were away fighting William Howson Taylor kept their jobs open and wrote to them on the front line. At the end of the war all of the craftsmen returned to the factory and William Howson Taylor sent each man to his tailor for a new suit, which he paid for himself. He also raised their wages to £4.10 shillings a week which was a very good wage at the time.

sent to Harry Hill from Howson Taylor while he was at war. Harry served in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and was a sapper. This is essentially a digger and would have had to create earthworks in the blistering heat

The Secret to the Grave

In December 1933 a notice was posted on the wall of the factory informing workers that the factory would close at the end of the week.

The day that the factory closed was the first day William had not been there, as he could not bear to see the factory close. Howson Taylor’s health was failing, he had no children to carry on the business and his loyal skilled workforce was growing old.

After years of hard work he needed a rest. Mr Howson Taylor married Florence Tilley, who he had been engaged to during his father’s lifetime. Florence had once worked at the factory but had been living in America for many years. They moved into the house attached to the factory and spent the next year selling off remaining stock. In September 1935 they retired to Devon, but shortly after William Howson Taylor died aged just fifty-nine. Howson Taylor refused to sell the secret of how his unusual pottery was made and the knowledge went to the grave with him.

Ruskin Today

Today Ruskin Pottery is collected all over the world. Examples of Ruskin Pottery are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other museums throughout the country.

Ruskin Pottery is now acknowledged as one of the most important small-scale studio pottery factories of the early twentieth century.

Sandwell Museum Service holds one of the largest public collections of Ruskin Pottery the nucleus of which is believed to have been donated by William Howson Taylor himself. The collection has since been developed through private donations and purchases.

Visit our new Ruskin Pottery gallery at Wednesbury Museum and come along to one of our fascinating talks and photo display and learn more about life at the factory celebrating the opening of the new display. You can also see more of our collection with our ‘Ruskin on Tour’ exhibition at Haden Hill House from the end of July until the end of October. Also look out for our school holiday arts and crafts activities inspired by the fabulous colours and shapes of Ruskin Pottery

Certainly Ruskin Pottery is something Sandwell should be very proud of.

Jane- Museum Services Manager

Possibly the most famous person you’ve never heard of!

‘I was born in Old England, near the foot of Hamstead Bridge, in the parish of Handsworth, about four miles from Birmingham, in Staffordshire, and according to my after-knowledge on the 20th or 21st day of August, in the year of our Lord 1745.’

Francis Asbury is a well know figure in American history and in the story of religion in the USA. He travelled thousands of miles across America preaching and spreading the Methodist word, putting forward anti-slavery views, supporting the American War of Independence and even meeting George Washington. His journals are an invaluable source for historians of the period and he has countless churches and roads named after him as well as a number of statues including one on the Capitol Hill. So how did a boy who grew up in a tiny cottage in Great Barr (now part of Sandwell) become this fascinating and important historical figure!

When Francis was about 12 months old his family moved to the tiny cottage which is now Bishop Asbury Cottage Museum on Newton Road. The dominant figure in the young Francis’s life was his mother Elizabeth (‘Eliza’). His father, Joseph, appears as a more distant figure who, whilst a hard working man who ably provided for his family, never fully embraced the Methodist faith that was eventually to become so significant in both his wife’s and son’s lives. Unusually for the period, when large families were the norm, Eliza and Joseph are recorded as only having had one other child – a girl, Sarah, who was born in May 1743 and who was to die just before her 5th birthday.

Eliza never got over the death of her daughter and turned to god for comfort and particularly embraced the up and coming Methodist form of Christianity. At this time Methodism was a new movement within the Church of England, attractive to working people as the movement treated them as equals before god. Reading scriptures was encouraged and lay preachers were important. The more traditional Church of England forms of worship and outlook was associated with the upper classes and the established order. With its emphasis upon emotional conversion experiences, its use of lay-preachers and its outright criticism of the conditions and attitudes within the established church, Methodism proved to be extremely controversial, not least with some of the people at the top of the social scale who greatly resented the idea that they were tainted with the same sinfulness as those at the bottom of the social heap. An excellent example of this is a letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon quoted by the famous historian E. P. Thompson in his book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’:

“I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth”.

John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement preached in Wednesbury in 1743 a few years before Francis was born. This caused riots in the town and Wesley’s hair was pulled and his coat torn. This chaos demonstrates the controversial nature of Methodist teaching at the time and the strength of feeling on both sides.

Unusually the local landowner in the area where the Asbury family lived, the Earl of Dartmouth was himself a Methodist. At Methodist meetings he was simply known as brother Dartmouth

It seems that at the age of 13 Francis gave up on formal schooling as he did not like his school master who was rather severe and beat the young Asbury. Francis did enjoy reading though and later claimed he could read the scriptures by the age of 6. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith at a local forge located a short walk from Francis’s parent’s home and by all accounts he was very happy there.

Francis gradually became interested in the Methodist movement which was so important to his mother. He probably initially heard Methodist ideas when attending his local Anglican church, All Saints in West Bromwich, and listening to the vicar, Rev. Edward Stillingfleet, who was sympathetic with the Methodist cause. As Francis read more and more and attended more and more sermons, (sometimes walking miles to here Methodist preachers) he became more and more interested in Methodist ideals.

Francis became a lay preacher himself and his first official sermon was at Manwood’s cottage a short walk from his place of work. Methodist meetings at this time often happened in fields, in front of buildings or landmarks (including our own Oak House) and inside ordinary houses including the Asbury’s own home and Eliza continued to host meetings even after Francis left for America. Francis soon became a travelling preacher, going to ‘almost every place within my reach’ as he later wrote.

For the next 5 years Francis’s ministry took him further and further afield in England- first Staffordshire and Gloucestershire then Bedfordshire and Sussex before moving on to Northamptonshire (1769) and Wiltshire (1770). Then on the 7th of August 1771, Francis responded to a question that would forever result in his name being more closely associated with America than his own native land as Wesley asked for preachers to go to America to spread the word.

The prophet on the long road

“Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others to do so.”

Asbury first set foot on American soil in Philadelphia on the 27th October 1771, preaching his first sermon the next day at St. George’s Church. By 1772 Wesley had appointed him his general assistant in America – a position he was to lose the following year when he was replaced by a more experienced preacher, Thomas Rankin. At first based in and around New York, Francis was eager to push further into the continent of America taking his message to the pioneers who were pushing forward the boundaries of the colonies. By the time of his death in 1816 Francis, in his bid to reach as many people as possible with his message, had travelled 270,000 miles, preached 15,000 sermons and, as Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, ordained 4,000 clergymen.

In 1784 John Wesley sent a Mr Thomas Coke to America to ordain Francis and, with him, oversee the Methodist Church in America, both sharing the role and title of ‘superintendent’. Within four years this title had somehow changed to ‘Bishop’, much to the disgust of Wesley. The Methodist movement in England didn’t and still doesn’t have Bishops. Wesley wrote to Asbury…

“How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called a Bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me a Bishop!”

The years of relentless travel – mostly on horseback, though frequently on foot – and the harsh living conditions inevitably took its toll upon the health of the Bishop, who travelled until the year of his death. In 1815, he spoke of the physical hardship he had endured in the course of his 45 years of ministry, describing the rheumatism that had recently rendered him unable to use his legs. He died on Sunday 31st March 1816, having preached his last sermon the previous Sunday, at the home of a friend, in Spottsylvania, Virginia.

Once he left the little cottage which is now part of Sandwell Museum Service, he never returned to England despite having told his mother he would be back before he was 30.

On October 15th 1924, the 30th President of the United States – Calvin Coolidge – unveiled a statue of Bishop Asbury in Washington DC. In a speech honouring the work of this man who had done so much to spread the Christian gospel in the fledgling American nation Coolidge stated that’He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.’

From humble origins in the heart of England to being honoured by the President of a land thousands of miles away, having both seen and made history, the story of Bishop Francis Asbury is a truly amazing one.

Bishop Asbury Cottage is open on several open days each year including Saturday 27th April 10am-12pm and Monday 29th April 1pm-3pm- Entrance is Free.

Find out more about Sandwell Museum Service part of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council at

Baker, F. (1976) From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in early American Methodism. Duke University Press, Durham.                                              Clark, E. ed (1958) The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury (In Three Volumes). Epworth Press, London.                                       Edwards, M. (1972) Francis Asbury. Penwork (Leeds) Ltd, Manchester.                                                          Gregory, B. (1936) Francis Asbury. Epworth Press, London.                                                                Hallam, D. (2003) Eliza Asbury: Her cottage and her son. Brewin Books, Studley.                                                                      Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell (1959) Asbury Cottage: Restored, re-opened and dedicated. Reprint of an original booklet celebrating the opening of Asbury's childhood home to the public.                                                        Prince, H. (1925) The Romance of Early Methodism in and around West  Bromwich and Wednesbury. Published by the author.  Stevens Bucke, E. ed. (1964) The History of American Methodism. Abingdon Press, New York.                                    Townsend, W. et al eds. (1909) A New History of Methodism. Hodder & Stoughton, London.                                                                    Wesley, J. (1703-91) The Journal of John Wesley. Popular edition condensed 1903. Charles H. Kelly, London.                                                        Wigger, J. (2001) Taking heaven by Storm: Methodism and the rise of popular Christianity in America. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

We’re Open

Sandwell Museums open again to general visitors from April

Sandwell Museum sites open again from the beginning of April to general visitors after being closed since the end of the Christmas activities in December.

This doesn’t mean however that museum staff have been sat around finishing off the last of the Christmas chocs since January. Not in the slightest – In fact the winter closed period is one of our busiest times of year (however I do say that about the school summer holidays, Halloween and Christmas too) . January, February and March are an opportunity for staff to undertake activities which they can’t the rest of the year while they are welcoming visitors and users.

The deep clean in the library at Haden Hill – everything is removed and cleaned before re-display

Firstly museum staff usually take an extra few days holiday after the Christmas break in January to take some of the extra time which they spent working evening and weekend events throughout the festive season. Once they are back the business of taking down the Christmas decorations begins. This can take over a week as all the decs have to go back in the correct boxes and lugged back up to the attic or into storage cupboards. The large Christmas tree which beautifully decorated the hallway at Haden Hill House took 4 of us to dismantle and try unsuccessfully to squeeze it back into its box. We ended up giving up and wrapping it in black bags and parcel tape (our staff are always resourceful). Once we had finished it looked like a dead body. In fact it looked like we had murdered Hagrid and were trying to dispose of the evidence. He is now lying in the attic waiting for the 2019 festivities to get underway in November.

Our museum technician – building artificial walls and painting ready for a new display at Wednesbury Museum

So once Christmas has been put back in its box the closed season tasks begin. This usually involves painting rooms or galleries, undertaking re-displays of rooms or exhibitions, updating information or interpretation, undertaking maintenance or putting down new carpets or curtains normally purchased by our Friends volunteer groups, packing away old exhibitions and putting together new temporary or permanent exhibitions, planning events and activities for the coming year, doing end of year activities like stock taking, various admin and business planning tasks for the coming year, sorting old paperwork out and having an office sort out (they can get a bit messy when its full on event season and there are all sorts of random things hanging around like vampire wigs or Santa hats or bits of displays etc we even had an incendiary bomb under the desk for a while – it was a replica).

We also plan new projects which we are undertaking in the coming year. For example one of our Visitor Services Assistants is planning a project with our community art groups to create wall hangings inspired by 17th century wall hangings, so all this had to be prepared and ready to go. We do have quite a small team of staff with one full time and 2 part-time members of staff on average in each of our 4 main buildings plus a couple of us who work across all sites, so it does take us a while to get through all the jobs.

We then take a bit of a break to deliver February half term activities and we let the public in for one week only. From February we are actually open for a number of users including our regular groups like our painting groups, knitters, gardeners, crafters, school groups and other pre-booked groups and activities. Once half term is done we’re back to it.

office move around and deep clean at the Manor House

Another important job in the closed season is the deep clean. The closed season allows us to move furniture and clean behind it and inside it, to wash curtains or other soft furnishings or carefully conservation clean any precious items like the bedspread at Oak House. We are also able to clean light fittings and on top of shelves and all sorts of nooks and crannies which we aren’t able to clean when we’re servicing visitors. We take crockery out of dressers and carefully clean it with soap and water and remove everything from display cases and dust those too. Dust is rather unpleasant and attracts the little creepy crawlies which like to eat our collection. The deep clean enables us to prevent this and to check that we don’t have any pests crawling around.

This year we have also been redecorating Wednesbury Museum after a flood late last year (more about this in another post) and we are re-displaying the rather beautiful Ruskin Pottery Gallery and creating a new space downstairs.

The closed season also gives all of our permanent staff (and a few of our casual staff too) a rare chance to all get together for our annual museums conference, where we discuss future developments, key priorities, ideas and business planning. This year we also looked at customer journey mapping and attracting different audiences too.

We are opening with some lovely temporary exhibitions for visitors to enjoy across our sites. At Wednesbury Museum Ranbir Kaur celebrates 30 years as an artist displaying some of her beautiful arts and craft inspired by Asian techniques. Certainly well worth a visit.

At Haden Hill House, Midland Painting Group have paintings, drawings and crafts on display with a showcase weekend on 27th and 28th April when there will be more works around the house and some of the members of the group painting so visitors can talk to them about their work and their inspirations.

At Oak House we have dug deep into our museum collection and put out on display some fantastic pieces of textiles which have been produced over the last 400 years. These include embroidery and lace and samplers produced by young girls around 200 years ago and much more – well worth popping in on a visit to Oak House.

Of course now we are open we also have a lively and varied programme of events and activities over the early spring season for all ages to enjoy. Visit our listings page for details at

If you want to find out more about general opening times, facilities and a bit more about our fabulous buildings visit and follow the relevant links.

So if you ever wonder what museum staff are doing in January, February and March – now you know!

Jane – Museum Services Manager

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