Posted January 29th, 2012
by Richard Savage
This morning I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours in the Blake Museum, a “must” for anyone who is interested in the historical heritage of this part of Somerset. What made it a particular pleasure was to talk to some of the enthusiastic band of volunteers who give their time and energy to make the museum interesting and attractive to the general public, and to promote interest in our rich local history.
The Bridgwater Museum at the top of Blake Museum, birthplace of Robert Blake
It is a fact: Bridgwater is full of historical interest, and the museum has exhibits from the Stone Age right through to recent times, so much to see in a very small area. Situated at the top of Blake Streetand believed to be the Blake’s family home and birthplace of Robert Blake himself, since 1926 it has housed a fascinating collection of archaeological and historical artifacts and displays. It is now in the process of refurbishment, so opening times were reduced during the winter months.
Those wishing to visit (and I heartily recommend a visit), please consult the website www.bridgwatermuseum.org.uk . Those who already know something about the local history will see much to illustrate and embellish their existing knowledge. For those who aren’t so familiar, I do recommend reading up a bit beforehand so that you can put the pieces of jigsaw puzzle together in your mind, and see the relevance of the different exhibits.
Let me take you on a virtual tour so that you can be prepared for what you will see. The first surprise you will get after entering the historic building is that admission is free. The aim is that nothing should hinder anyone from getting to see for themselves that history and a museum of past remains and relics is far from dead and boring. We must learn from history, and do our outmost to repent from the attitude which the philosopher Georg Hegel immortalized in his saying: “What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” In other words, no one learns from history. That is certainly true from past events, as seen by the mistakes of leaders like Napoleon and Hitler, although perhaps we can be glad that they made such mistakes, otherwise the course of history might have been quite different!
Turn left after you enter the ground floor and you find a room devoted to the life and exploits of Robert Blake, with artifacts illustrating what it would have been like to be a seaman in those days under Cromwell. Of especial interest is a copy of the Geneva Bible, printed inLondonin 1608 by Robert Barker, printer to James I. This is also known as the “Breeches Bible” from the rendering of Genesis 3: 7 – “The sewed fig trees together and made themselves breeches.” This is the version of the Bible which Blake probably used as a boy.
To the right of the entrance is a meeting room where temporary exhibitions are displayed, and beyond that the Bridgwater Room with a collection of fossils and local geology, remains relating to the medieval Friary and St. John’s Hospital, and material on the history of the Borough. A large 17th century wooden chest once housed the Borough archives. There is also an interesting display on the history of the Bridgwater Borough Police Force, dating back to 1835 when the law was enforced by two constables appointed by the Borough Watch Committee under the Mayor. Later in the 19th century this was increased to a dozen constables, carrying canes. The police station and town gaol were on the south side of Fore Street until 1845 when they moved to the High Street as part of the Town Hall complex. Then in 1911 they moved to Northgate, close to where the present Police Station was opened in 1966. In 1940 the Borough Force amalgamated with the Somerset County Force, which in 1967 merged with the Bath City Police. Finally in 1974 it merged with the Bristol City Police and part of the Gloucestershire Constabulary to become the Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
Ascending the stairs to the upper floor, at the rear of the house is a gallery with an exhibition to the artist John Chubb, born in 1746, the son of a Bridgwater wine and timber merchant, who became mayor of Bridgwater from 1788-1789, and helped to show us what life was like in 18th century Bridgwater through his fine drawings and paintings of scenery and local people. In 1785 he helped to draw up the petition requesting parliament to abolish the slave trade.
At the far end of this gallery is a room devoted to the archaeology of the ancient peoples of the area from the Stone Age through to Medieval times.
Returning to the front of the house are three rooms, the Battle Room, the Maritime Room, and the Bygones Room. The Battle Room depicts the history of the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685 and its aftermath, the “Bloody Assize” when many Bridgwater people were condemned to death or deported to the West Indies. Some of the artifacts have now been moved to another exhibition in Westonzoyland Church, close to the battlefield itself. The Maritime Room displays artifacts, pictures and models illustrating the days when Bridgwater was a flourishing port with wharves and shipyards. The Bygones Room has a collection of artifacts covering the social history of Bridgwater, including horse brasses, and pottery, and exhibits relating to the brick and tile industry, although of these are now exhibited in the Brick and Tile Museum in East Quay. Of particular interest is the nameplate of the Confederate warship Alabama and an original Bath Brick, both of which deserve a story page of their own.
Returning to the ground floor there is a book shop which sells books and souvenirs. I hope that your tour of the museum will give you a taste of the rich historical heritage of Bridgwater, and the purchase of a souvenir or book, or even a donation to the museum would be a worthy thank-you for the hard work the volunteers are doing to make the history of the area interesting for you, and indicate what other places would be worth a visit.
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