Yorkshire is blessed with some of the most well-known and acclaimed museums and galleries in the country. The National Railway Museum (York), the Science and Media Museum (Bradford), the Royal Armouries (Leeds), the National Coalmining Museum (Wakefield) and the Yorkshire and Castle Museums (York) immediately spring to mind. The county though is also filled with many small, often volunteer-run, museums and heritage trusts frequently telling the story of a local area, person, or industry.
This month is the ideal time to visit some of the smaller ones, where you will often find fascinating collections in museums that are sometimes quirky, usually less busy, and in most cases far more relevant to local communities. In addition, many of the smaller museums suffered badly over the pandemic and were closed for many months; they really want and need the public to visit, enjoy what they offer and buy a coffee in their café or a make a purchase from their gift shop.
The county is full of these fascinating places. With today being Yorkshire Day, I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the quirky and the unusual examples that the county has to offer.
Gissing Centre, Wakefield
All museums enjoy publicity, but that received by the Gissing Centre in Wakefield in 2014 was not what they would have wanted. ‘Inside Yorkshire’s least visited attraction’, was the Yorkshire Post headline, after the museum welcomed just 118 visitors the previous year.
The Gissing Centre is housed in the former Georgian childhood home of renowned Victorian author George Gissing. Almost unknown today even in Wakefield, Gissing is a writer whose popularity once rivalled that of Charles Dickens. Orwell said of him, “England has produced very few better novelists”. Gissing wrote 23 novels, short stories and two studies of Dickens. He left Wakefield as a young man, but the city is featured in his work, especially in A Life’s Morning, in which the “places and settings of the book are modelled on Wakefield’s buildings and landmarks”.
The Gissing Trust was founded in 1978 by Wakefield Historical Society, Wakefield Civic Society and others, to acquire and house family memorabilia, books, and an exhibition. Opening times for the rest of this year can be found at The Gissing Trust – Wakefield Historical Society
Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre, Darfield (Barnsley)
Writing in the New Statesman some ten years ago, Ian McMillan penned the immortal lines “Once a month my wife and I volunteer at the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in Darfield, our village near Barnsley, and when I welcome people and tell them to mind the step as they come in, I proudly announce that they are standing in the only museum in the world named after a gay, cross-dressing ex-Gordon Highlander”. If that does not immediately capture at least a modicum of interest in a potential visitor nothing will!
Dobson and his partner Fred Halliday ran a grocery shop in the mining village of Darfield and were popular and well-known figures at a time. At a time when homosexuality was illegal and a wide section of the population were firmly against same sex relationships, their openness, and the tolerance that in the main was shown to them, was rare. As Ian wrote in his article “They were accepted, they were celebrated, they were appreciated, and they sold the most amazing sweets from huge glass jars that shone in the sun”.
The museum is situated in what was Dobson’s shop, a former Georgian yeoman’s residence. It opened in 2000, following the building’s restoration, and displays a fascinating collection of artefacts left by Dobson himself, along with many more donated to the museum by the local community that illustrates Darfield’s history domestic, industrial, and otherwise.
The museum is open Wednesdays and Saturdays, and yes it does have a tearoom and a small museum shop. Further details can be found on the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre website.
Victoria Jubilee Museum, Cawthorne (Barnsley)
If your perfect museum is one which is overflowing with a wonderful eclectic collection of everything but the kitchen sink (although it is possible there is one of those tucked away in there as well!) then Cawthorne’s Victoria Jubilee Museum is just the place for you. There is also a certain charm about somewhere whose seasonal opening begins not on a set date but on Palm Sunday, something you suspect has been the case for many years.
In 1884, the Rev. Charles Tiplady Pratt, the parish vicar, founded the Cawthorne Museum Society. He wanted to encourage local youngsters to become interested in natural history, so he formed groups to undertake nature studies and collect fossils, shells, and grasses, and to study astronomy and the weather. Some of his collecting – such as bird’s eggs and flowers – would now thankfully be illegal. These studies were helped by winter seasons of lectures – or ‘penny readings’ as they were known by.
The current museum building opened in October 1889. It was constructed by staff from the Cannon Hall estate, which was then the home of the Spencer-Stanhope family. Roddam Spencer-Stanhope was a friend of John Ruskin who supported the build. In 1951, Cannon Hall was sold to Barnsley Council for a museum, and the Cannon Hall Estate offered the Cawthorne Victoria Jubilee Museum building to the village for the sum of £100. The money was raised and became the property of the village. It has since been extended and restored.
The Cawthorne Village website refers to the museum as a “typical Victorian hotch potch and we wouldn’t have it any other way” something I find quite irresistible. Whichever way you turn there is something to interest and catch your eye.
The museum is open from Palm Sunday to the last weekend in October: Saturday, Sunday, and Bank Holiday Monday afternoons 2–5pm.
More to offer
These three are only a small example of the considerable number of small, fascinating, and informative museums that are to be found the length and breadth of the country. I am sure you will discover some that are just your cup of tea … and on that note, a cup of tea is just what I’m going to have.
If you would like to write about your own local museum, please email [email protected] – we’d love to run a series on this and we know there are so many to choose from!