From grisly relics to curiosity corner

East Anglia's museums can be a bit like Dr Who's Tardis: seemingly much bigger on the inside than out, and with lots of interesting things to look at. Steven Russell continues the tour he started last year, visiting places that keep our history aliveA LOT of people are drawn to this, says Gill Hawkins, pointing to the gibbet beside the front door.

Steven Russell

East Anglia's museums can be a bit like Dr Who's Tardis: seemingly much bigger on the inside than out, and with lots of interesting things to look at. Steven Russell continues the tour he started last year, visiting places that keep our history alive

A LOT of people are drawn to this, says Gill Hawkins, pointing to the gibbet beside the front door. It used to be in the “crime and punishment” area round the corner, but it was moved to its current pride of place a couple of years ago. “We like something that catches the public's attention when they come in,” she laughs.

Of course, behind every museum exhibit there's a tale. In this case, a sad one.

The iron cage dates from the 18th Century. When it was found on the site of Honington aerodrome in 1938 it contained the skeleton of John Nichols, still wearing his boots. He and son Nathan had been convicted of murder, and were hanged in Bury St Edmunds in the spring of 1794. John's corpse was then displayed in the gibbet as both evidence that justice had been done and as a grisly deterrent to others.

The victim of the killing was his daughter Sarah, who was bludgeoned with a hedge-stake and strangled. No-one knows what prompted the murder, and father and son went to the gallows accusing each other.

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Today, we've asked heritage officer Gill to pick out a few highlights at Moyse's Hall in Bury St Edmunds, where she's worked for about six years after a spell in tourist information. The gibbet's her opening gambit.

“And the one thing not to miss is” - she spreads her arms wide and looks up - “the building. This particular room, we've tried to arrange it so it's not cluttered, because it is a particularly good example of the arches.”

This room, the first one into which visitors step, is known as The Undercroft. It dates from 1180 - about the same time as the town's nearby abbey, and is built of the same stone. There were most likely connections with the abbey, though there's no written evidence to confirm the theory.

The Undercroft was probably originally used for commerce and was entered directly from the market place.

Off to the left is The West Gallery, for many years part of the Castle Inn. In the 1890s it was a parcels office for the Great Eastern Railway Company.

Today, its exhibits and displays trace the history of Bury, including the story of St Edmund and how the abbey grew to be so powerful.

Lift a protective lid and you can view a monk's chronicle from the 13th Century - beautiful illuminated Latin script - that records many of the chief events in the life of the abbey.

Back through The Undercroft and up the steps to a room called The Solar. It used to be the private bedchamber of the owner of the house; now it hosts a collection of watches, clocks and paintings.

By the window are the innards of a 19th Century clock, made in Leicester, that used to mark the passage of time at Long Melford school.

Also in this room is a series of oils by a Suffolk artist who was Britain's first professional woman painter. She was lauded by feminists for succeeding in the male-dominated world of portraiture.

“Don't miss the Mary Beale paintings!” urges Gill. “There's been quite a lot in the national press about her, but they didn't state that we had one of her biggest collections!” (Others dwell in the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain.)

The artist was born in 1633 at Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds, where her father was rector. In 1652 she married Charles Beale and moved with him to London, where she established a successful business as a portrait painter. Her clientele included many of the up-coming Puritan clergy.

Beale was in the news last summer because developers wanted to build “executive homes” on the site of her former home and studio in rural Hampshire. The Mary Beale Allbrook Farm Trust urged that Britain's only known pre-18th Century artist's studio should be saved, and support came from artist Tracey Emin and Sir Roy Strong, ex-head of the National Portrait Gallery.

The trust's trying to convince the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to give the site more protection, on the basis of its historic importance. However, it might be wildlife that swings it.

A biodiversity survey found evidence of several protected species living in the area, including newts, dormice, slowworms and grass snakes. A planning inspector's decision on the scheme for a mini housing estate is expected this month.

The big first-floor room at Moyse's is known as The Great Hall. Until the end of March it's the setting for an exhibition, Transformations, which examines the changing shape of women's fashion. Drawing examples from the museum's extensive clothing collection, the display shows how the female shape has altered over the past 200 years, up to today's obsession with size-zero.

It reflects the changing roles of women in society and asks some pertinent questions. Are these the shapes women wanted to be, or the shapes society and/or fashion have decreed they should be?

A new exhibition will be unveiled in May. It will be about local trade and the Bury market - from the time when the abbey was all-powerful up until the present day.

Off The Hall is The Edwardson Room, named after the curator who retired in 1974. The area, part of a 16th Century extension to Moyse's Hall, was incorporated into the museum in 1972. Today it's a great base for visiting children, who can enjoy brass rubbing, puzzles, books and dressing up in costumes.

Intriguing juxtaposition here. On one side of the leaded windows are reminders of the past; outside, in Bury town centre, is evidence of what's important in 21st Century life: a branch of McDonald's and the Vodafone shop!

Until about six years ago or so, the museum used to end here; but then a new wing was opened, thanks to lottery funding. The area at 41 Cornhill used to be Townsend's toyshop, and came into the hands of the borough council in 1979.

Fittingly, the spot just off The Edwardson Room - known as Curiosity Corner - displays some toys from yesteryear, including model cars found when the premises were revamped. Today, there's also a boneshaker bicycle, dating from about 1868 and restored and loaned by local man Charles Allen, and a pennyfarthing from more or less the same period.

On the other side of the liftshaft is The Suffolk Regiment's gallery. The regiment's roots lie in 1685, when James II told the Duke of Norfolk to oppose a threatened rebellion, and run through to the end of the 1950s, when The Suffolk Regiment amalgamated with The Royal Norfolks to form The East Anglian Regiment.

The regiment has its own museum at Gibraltar Barracks, in Newmarket Road, and this section at Moyse's Hall serves as a fine introduction. Colourful displays, featuring mannequins and a video clip, record the service and bravery of the Suffolks.

There are many fascinating artefacts, such as a battered bugle recovered from Colesburg, South Africa, following conflict with the Boers in early 1900.

Down the stairs and we're in the crime and punishment gallery. “This is a popular area. People like gruesome things!” says Gill.

Past the mantrap and there are details of the days when Bury operated its own prison. There are mummified cats, enclosed in walls to ward off evil spirits, and then there's a section on The Red Barn Murder - part of Suffolk lore.

On May 18, 1827, Maria Marten, the 26-year-old daughter of a mole catcher, left her father's cottage at Polstead to meet boyfriend William Corder in the Red Barn. She never returned.

It's said that Thomas Marten's wife later had a dream. It prompted her to urged her husband to search the Red Barn. He discovered a shallow grave and the body of Maria. Corder was arrested in London.

In August, 1828, he was found guilty of murder at a trial in Bury St Edmunds. Corder was hanged at the county gaol in Bury, with thousands of people ignoring heavy rain to watch. The body was taken to the Shire Hall, where it was cut open and laid out on show.

Thousands of people filed past to view it before it was removed for dissection at West Suffolk Hospital.

The scalp and some skin was preserved, with the right ear attached, and surgeon George Creed later had an account of the trial bound in Corder's skin!

“Unfortunately,” says Gill, “you've come when Norwich Castle have just borrowed his scalp and his ear for an exhibition they're holding . . . and the book bound in his skin!”

Moyse's Hall does, however, have a copy of William Corder's death bust. It was kept for many years at the old West Suffolk Hospital. Offered to the museum, it was rejected by the then curator as “too macabre” and thrown away. A passer-by rescued it from a rubbish tip and offered it to a later, less squeamish, curator, who accepted.

There are two of Corder's pistols, and two small flat irons thought to have been Maria Marten's. Visitors can also see a mole spud tool said to have belonged to her father. It might even be the one he used to dig up the floor of the Red Barn . . .

In the middle of the room are two massive Roman stone coffins from the third and fourth centuries. They were discovered at Icklingham in 1871, though the stone came from Lincolnshire.

“And how can we end?” muses Gill. “I know: the polyphon.”

It's a large, German-made musical box dating from 1900 or so and which probably spent most of its life in a pub. In goes 50p, a thin tin disc starts spinning, and the tinkling melody of The Village Blacksmith fills The Undercroft. At Christmas, staff had it playing Good King Wenceslas. The machine was virtually the CD player of its day.

Gill grins. “It's funny. We have little children coming in who don't know what CDs are, because it's all MP3s these days!”

As the museum proves, times certainly change.

MOYSE'S Hall Museum is full of intriguing artefacts, but the building's own history is a colourful story in itself.

It was built in the second half of the 12th Century, most likely by a wealthy builder.

In 1626 it was sold to the Guildhall Feoffment Trust, a charity playing a key role in the town's affairs. The Feoffees used Moyse's Hall as the local jail, the workhouse and the bridewell - or house of correction.

By the 1730s, with numbers growing, the workhouse was moved elsewhere. Moyse's Hall was used as a jail until 1804, when a new prison was opened in Sicklesmere Road. Serious offenders were held in the prison, apparently, and more minor miscreants, such as drunks, tramps and prostitutes, were sent to Moyse's Hall.

It became the police station in the 1830s, though parts of the building were still occupied by offenders.

Just before the turn of the century the police station moved to St John's Street and the notion of Moyse's Hall becoming a museum was raised. It wouldn't happen for a while, though.

Part of the hall was used by the Great Eastern Railway Company as a parcels and enquiry office. In 1894 the Feoffees transferred Moyse's Hall and the Guildhall to the borough council.

A suggestion to convert Moyse's Hall into a fire station triggered public protests and the plan was later dropped. The museum was officially opened by Lord John Hervey in the early summer of 1899.

Moyse's Hall is run by St Edmundsbury council and welcomes about 20,000 visitors a year. It was named Small Attraction of the Year 2005 by the East of England Tourist Board. It's open daily - except bank holidays - from 10am until 5pm (last entry 4pm). Entry is free for St Edmundsbury residents; otherwise it's £2.60 for adults and £2.10 for children and concessions.

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(Lolita Dicks Ltd syndication)

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