This tranquil time capsule is a storehouse of local history. Highlights are: finds from medieval ship building; what Time Team discovered at Smallhythe; models and maps; weights and measures; photographs, postcards and old maps; Victoriana; a horse drawn fire engine; ceramics; elements of old buildings; agricultural machinery and mementoes of Hop Gardens, and the Tenterden Tapestry. Archival material is also available on Aktiv Access in the Entrance Room which gives the visitor extra insights into this most beautiful Wealden town and district.
There are six exhibition rooms that are full of curiosities. The first room contains extensive materials about our changing coastline, the ship building harbour of Small Hythe, and town memorabilia. The Tapestry Room features details about Samuel Tilden, Governor of New York in 1874, as well as many other artefacts. The Final downstairs room focuses on the First World War. Upstairs agricultural life is explored as well as local building traditions. The Tenterden Motor Cycle Club, which started in 1948 and is still active today, has a unique display in the Exhibition Room.
The Story of the Museum Project
On 26th July 1928 the Tenterden Borough Council received from the owner of Pebbles, Mrs Alice Woods, the offer of the house for use as an art gallery and museum for the Borough of Tenterden. This was considered by the Council on 20th September, when it was felt that the expense would be too heavy unless the donor would consent to the land at the back being sold to produce a sum towards converting the building. At the meeting on 12th October, a special committee reported that the cost of adapting the building, with maintenance, would require the equivalent of a rate of 3d in the £; therefore, the offer was, with great reluctance and regret, declined, but a letter expressing appreciation was sent to the donor.
A year earlier a wooden box, containing the original standard imperial weights and measures made for the Borough in 1825, which had been put aside (presumably in 1888, when the duty of inspecting weights and measures had passed to the new county councils) was rediscovered in the Police Station at 52 High Street, on the corner of Church Road. This building, which had replaced the 17th century jail in 1884, was occupied on the upper floor by the Magistrates Court, where petty sessions were regularly held up to 1936. The box of weights and measures was removed to the Borough Highways Depot in the 19th century coach builders’ works in Danemore. Here, in the former paint shop on the upper floor, they were again rediscovered forty years later, together with many other historic items, including by then some ARP signs and other Civil Defence equipment from the building’s war time use as the Borough Civil Defence H.Q.
In 1930 Leslie Chalk, proprietor of the estate agents Hatch and Waterman, was elected to the Borough Council and began to assemble a collection of items of historical interest, including agricultural implements, and, in particular, what are now known as the “Shoobridge Papers”. Thomas Buss Shoobridge was a wine and spirit merchant who lived at the east end of the High Street above his wine cellars, later to become famous as ‘The Cellars’ public house. Some of his wine casks are now in the Museum. In 1836 he moved into Homewood House and took up farming. A few years later his son, Thomas Buss Shoobridge Junior, eloped with Anna Maria Morphett Chennell, daughter of John Chennell of Calverley House – which was subsequently known as Chennell Park. His importance to the story of the Museum is that he never threw anything away. Tollgate receipts; receipts and demand notes for parish rates, hundred rates, poor rate, lighting rates; tradesmen’s bills; his letters from boarding school to his parents enquiring after Miss Chennell; scraps of paper with illiterate receipts from farm labourers, oddjob men, seamstresses; Anna Maria’s school exercise books; railway timetables; an admission ticket of 1792 for a ball at the newly built Assembly Rooms. All these were later collected by Leslie Chalk for the Museum he hoped one day to see.
After the War, Mrs Woods succeeded in her desire to give The Pebbles to the town, this time as a War Memorial “for the benefit of the people of Tenterden”. (It was this wording of the terms of the gift which in 1974 enabled the Town Council to argue that The Pebbles was not local authority property and should not therefore be handed over to Ashford.) In 1960 Leslie Chalk tried to revive the idea of using the building as a museum, but the Council felt it was not suitable and the ground floor was instead leased to the County Council as a home for the County Library, which at that time was situated in the former photographic studio behind the pharmacy at 60 High Street.
In 1968 there was a burst of activity at the Town Hall. Conscious of the continuing loss of historic buildings in the town the Council commissioned (in conjunction with the County Council) “Tenterden Explored”, a “planning bible” which quickly became a model for planning authorities everywhere. The Borough Finance Department moved out of its cramped quarters in the former Magistrates Court above the old Police Station into The Pebbles, above the Library, and the Borough Surveyor’s office moved into the Drill Hall in Church Road. The Council’s interest in the idea of a museum was revived by a letter from Mr and Mrs Brian Kingston and, most importantly, the Town Clerk, Cecil Saunders, became interested. He found that under recent legislation Borough Councils could apply to the Department of Education and Science to be recognised as Museum Authorities, and he took up the suggestion with the Department and with the County Council (the existing Museum Authority). The County Council advised Tenterden to wait until publication of the 1970/71 budget and meanwhile the Borough Council set up a Museum Sub-committee which included representatives from the Tenterden Trust, the Local History Society and the Railway Company, together with Admiral Urquart, the County Councillor, with the object of arousing public interest, looking into the financial implications, and investigating possible premises.
The Town Clerk also learned that the Science Museum’s Reserve Store near Olympia in West London wished to get rid of some surplus Victorian display cases and was prepared to give them to any museum which would bear the cost of transport. These heavy glass and mahogany cases and the two black painted sets of specimen drawers with display cases on top later proved invaluable for display and for storage of papers, books and small items.
The Council’s application for recognition as a Museum authority was eventually turned down by the Department of Education and Science in view of the imminence of Local Government Reorganisation, but the County Council remained sympathetic and suggested that Tenterden might set up a ”Semi-Permanent Exhibition” under the auspices of Area Museums Services if suitable premises and necessary finance could be found. A temporary exhibition was held in the Drill Hall in 1974 at which the Junior’s School’s Commemoration Week “Tenterden Tapestry” was on display, together with the 1825 Weights and Measures, the 19th Century market scales, the 18th century Volunteers’ Drum, and other items found among Leslie Chalk’s collection, which had been retrieved from the Highways Depot before it was transferred to Ashford in 1974.
The Museum Sub-committee looked at a number of buildings which had recently become empty, including Ashbourne Watermill opposite Rolvenden Station, Eastwell Barn, the School in Church Road, the Drill Hall, and the site of the 18th century theatre behind Bells Lane, where Theatre Cottages, part of the theatre property, were awaiting restoration while the site of the theatre itself remained vacant. However, about this time, following the Public Inquiry into car parking in Tenterden (which resulted in the introduction of yellow lines into the town) the Council was looking for sites for car parks, and acquired the builder’s yard and premises in Station Road. In 1974 the yard and the 19th century industrial building, which the Council had started to renovate, were transferred with other Council property to the new Ashford Borough Council. The new authority wanted the car park but had no use for the building and agreed to lease the latter, under proper safeguards as to maintenance and fire precautions, at a peppercorn rent to the Town Council, who undertook the responsibility ‘provided there should be no cost to the rates’.
A public meeting was held with the object of setting up a Museum Association to find the money, and fit out and run the museum. The first meeting of the Committee of Association was held in February 1976, and the “Semi-Permanent Exhibition”, designed and professionally mounted by Area Museums Services, was completed by September 1976, in the eastern end of the building, and officially opened in April 1977. The members of the Association, which quickly achieved a membership of 250, were enthusiastic and put in an incredible amount of work in preparing the rest of the ground floor, part of which still had an earth floor from its days as a cart shed, as an exhibition area – laying carpet tiles, moving and dressing display cases, mounting the “Tenterden Tapestry”, arranging the “Omdurman” spears and shields, and wall displays, while the railway members set up their excellent exhibition at the far end.
There have been many changes since then, but in general the original idea of an explanation of the history of Tenterden in the first room, with items of general interest beyond, has been preserved as first conceived 24 years ago, and the Museum is still run by the voluntary efforts of the Association members.
The Colonel Stephen’s Railway Museum was moved from the Tenterden and District Museum in 1995.