Robin Hood’s Bay Museum

Above: The museum located on Fisherhead with the sea in the distance. Credit: Lynn Setterington

My favourite museum sits on the North Yorkshire coast of England in the picturesque resort of Robin Hood’s Bay and like many small rural museums, it is run entirely by volunteers. The one at Bay, (as it is called) is housed in the old coroner’s court in the heart of the old village and like many of its counterparts across the country offers a wealth of information on the history and origins of the area. (

Originally a small cottage, the building which houses the museum was purchased by the local vicar, the Reverend R.J. Cooper in 1891. He used his own money to convert the space into a coroner’s court, so fisherman drown at sea could be brought here instead of a public house or someone’s front room. In 1900, Reverend Cooper suggested it take on a new direction, becoming a reading room free to the local community which remained its vocation for many years. However, in 1980 when a mobile library was established and less people lived permanently in the old village, the building shifted focus again when it was purchased by the Museum Trust.

I got to know the museum and its key custodians Pat and Alan Staniforth when I was carrying out research for PhD. I visited the museum for the first time by chance on a family holiday in 2013 and was immediately drawn to a richly worked embroidery covered in hand sewn signatures pinned to the wall. Not only was my research closely connected to this genre of stitched cloths, but I was also searching for an example to interrogate, as a way of highlighting the value of these overlooked artworks as sources of tactile social and local history. This exquisitely worked tablecloth covered in a mass of embroidered autographs had its origins boldly embroidered into its surface, 1936 Robin Hood’s Bay Methodist Church Building Fund - I was hooked!

Detail from Rachel A Scales autograph cloth
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington

Robin Hood’s Bay is now a popular tourist destination, nettled between the North Sea cliffs and the rugged terrain that is North Yorkshire moors, with narrow streets and quaint cottages, but it also has a rich and romantic history as a sea faring community with tales of fishing and smuggling. It was also self-sufficient with shops and skilled people supplying all manner of goods and a railways station linking it to Scarborough in the South and Whitby to the north.

A vessel painted on the lid of a wooden chest
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington
Bookcases from the old reading room in the background and Rachel A Scales 1936 embroidered fundraiser on the table
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington

The museum is today made up of three small rooms packed with objects linked to its maritime history, be it fishing tools, gansey knitting patterns - the traditional sweaters worn by fisherman on this coast or the geology of this coast rich in fossils and jet.

The old coroners court, one of three rooms which make up the RHB museum
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington

Local friendly societies were prominent in Bay, with banners, sashes on show alongside photographs of processions. These societies were valuable community resources and subscriptions, or fines were collected to enable families to be ‘relieved’ in time of need such as injury or death before the introduction of the wealth fare state. Another interesting set of objects are the shop panels removed from a store in King St, where they were part of the sales counter. Made of embossed leather, possibly from Italy, they are unusual reminders of the hay day of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Shop panel saved from a shop on King St made from embossed leather
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington

With my background in stitched textiles, a large hand worked wedding mat rug on show in the old coroner’s court and made in 1875 has always drawn my attention. It is a poignant reminder of a union: its colours remain bright and the initials of the wedded couple, William Ventress and Elizabeth Moorsom are boldly sewn into the cloth.

Detail of an embroidered wedding mat from 1895
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lynn Setterington

Today the museum remains free to visitors and a team of local volunteers led by Pat and Alan Staniforth, enable the building to stay open in the holiday season. Such places, and there are many spread across the globe are amazing sources of knowledge and updating them and keeping them relevant is so important, so that locals, visitors and scholars alike can learn from and about these past communities and ways of life.

After the success of the BBC Radio 4 series, The History of the World in 100 objects some years back, I was pleased to hear that the British Museum director Neil Mac Gregor had moved his gaze away from the metropolitan elite to explore in the latest series, less well-known museums, including many important local and regional centres of excellence; for as we know, these are also vital stores of knowledge.

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Lynn Setterington

Lynn Setterington is a major British textile artist known for her hand-stitched quilts and collaborations with community organisations and museums. Her work interrogates social injustices, celebrates the overlooked and draws on popular culture and folk and textile history. She has undertaken commissions and partnerships with numerous groups and worked with The University of Nebraska, Belsay Hall, Northumberland, the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Rochdale Borough Council, North Yorkshire County Records office and Sreepur in Bangladesh. Setterington’s work is held in many leading museum collections including the V&A, Terrance Higgins Trust, Denver Museum of Art and the IQSC in the US. Her doctoral study at the University for the Creative Arts utilises her longstanding experience to examine the tensions and hidden values in shared embroidery practice.