The Ruskin Museum

Imagine: you are visiting the English Lake District, in the north of the country. It's a typical summer's day - that is, the sky is grey and when it's not raining it drizzles. Outdoor activities don't seem particularly attractive, somehow, and you have already 'done' the main tourist spots, so what can you find for today? Let me tell you about the Ruskin Museum in Coniston.

You may have heard of Coniston as the home of John Ruskin, one of England's greatest Victorians, or as the location for Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' children's books, or perhaps as the place where Donald Campbell was killed while attempting the world water speed record in 1967? The Ruskin Museum recalls all these stories, and much more. My own involvement began after I moved there in 1982, and I was employed as Custodian at the old museum during the time when planning for a new museum was taking place - see later.

Coniston comprises the village itself, a few outlying hamlets and numerous scattered farmsteads. The current population is around 1,000, but in 1890 the figure was nearer 3,000, because this place had something special.

Metallic ores, notably copper, and deposits of slate are found in the nearby mountains. There is evidence of settlement here from prehistoric times, and it is likely that the Romans came in search of the metals. After them the Vikings found a home-from-home in this isolated wooded valley with its steeply-sloping sides and long, narrow lake. Their influence remains in the local dialect, place-names and a culture of independence that endures to this day.

Queen Elisabeth 1 encouraged the mining of copper here in the 1500's, bringing miners from continental Europe to share their expertise. Two centuries later the Industrial Revolution created unprecedented growth of the mines. In the late 1700's Coniston saw its first case of industrial pollution, when local farmers took the mine owners to court, successfully claiming compensation for crops ruined by copper carried down the beck. By 1830 Coniston was exporting 300 tons of copper a month.

Sadly, towards the end of the nineteenth century the mines closed, but the village saw a new wave of invaders - tourists. Wordsworth had described the dramatic, romantic landscape of Lakeland, bringing an influx of fashionable visitors eager to see the sights.

One that stayed was John Ruskin (1819-1900), perhaps the greatest influencer of his time. His views on social reform, national health, the environment, art, architecture and education are still relevant today. He made his home at Brantwood, Coniston, from 1871 and became closely involved in village life.

Begun as a homage to the great man by his friend W G Collingwood, the original Ruskin Museum opened in 1901. Its single room contained artworks and sketches by John Ruskin along with memorabilia and the collection of minerals he donated to the village. The museum was part of the village Institute and open to all, with a 'penny-in-the-slot' turnstile at the (unmanned) door.

Security finally became an issue in the 1980's, when a theft woke the village to their collective responsibility. The Museum Committee, of which I had become a member, was forced to consider the future. Was Coniston prepared to invest in both the building and the collections in order to preserve their local heritage? The answer, thankfully, was 'yes', and after a hard-fought campaign for funding, led by Director Vicky Slowe, (now retired, pictured below), the extended museum took shape. I'm pleased that many of the original display cases have been preserved and re-used, connecting the old with the new.

Vicky Slowe

There are three main galleries, dedicated to Coniston village, Donald Campbell and John Ruskin. The upstairs space is used for art exhibitions, talks and study. A paved area outside is available for events and demonstrations.

Entering the museum from its reception area and shop, one is immediately immersed in a wealth of material. Every inch of the building has been put to good use. Looking up, there are quotations from Ruskin. Looking down, you are walking on locally sourced slate.

Entering the museum

Displays consist mainly of artifacts alongside cases that contain samples, models and documents, with interpretation panels and several optional audio-visual presentations. Overall, it is an engaging mix of professionally produced and local contributions, including some hand-written originals.

Perhaps half of the first gallery is used to illustrate how mining, especially for copper and slate, has shaped both the land and the people for centuries.

Copper mining

This area also contains material about farming and Herdwick sheep, a local breed introduced by Viking settlers. Other industries represented include textiles, inspired by Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement. The museum houses a large collection of linen and lace, found by sliding out the red cabinets to your right as you enter the gallery. They open to reveal the breathtaking intricacy of the work produced by local ladies.

Linen and Lace

Another facet of Coniston's history is mountaineering. The rugged fells that surround the village attracted some of the earliest rock-climbers, and still draw many to follow their example - but with much better equipment!


Meanwhile, from the window, you can see a miniature village... John Usher, a local stonemason, spent many years creating detailed model buildings using local materials. They once stood in his garden and my children loved to look for them on their way home from school. Nearby, a delightfully low-tech loose-leaf file explains his contribution, and his models are also used indoors to illustrate local architecture and construction methods.

Model Village
Models illustrating architecture

Coniston's lake has played a large part in its history, from fishing to boats. We move on now to the museum's Campbell Wing. Donald Campbell had been part of the local community most of his life: he and his team became familiar figures in the village during their successful attempts to break the World Water Speed record in the late 1950's.

Later, Campbell also broke the World Land Speed record, which was soon beaten by an American team. He returned to Coniston to raise funds for a second attempt at 'the double' by breaking his own water speed record. On his final run, in 1967, the ship Bluebird K7 crashed and he was killed. The damaged engine on display is dramatic evidence of the forces involved (pictured at top).

Inside the Campbell wing

The ship was lost beneath the waters of the lake for many years, but has since been restored. Controversy still surrounds 'Bluebird', which was promised to the museum, but has not yet taken its place in the gallery built for it. Further information about the ongoing legal wrangling can be found on the museum website.

Another example of Campbell's innovative designs can also be seen here: the prototype craft Jetstar was conceived by Donald Campbell as a means of reducing the risk of injury from propeller-driven craft by using water jet power.


Following the printed footprints on the floor, we discover Coniston's connection to the writer and Foreign Correspondant, Arthur Ransome, whose 'Swallows and Amazons' stories for children are based largely on his own boyhood adventures during holidays in Coniston.

A case houses a model of the SY Gondola, once a passenger ferry on Coniston, which became the fictional 'Captain Flint's houseboat' in Ransome's tales. After falling into neglect, the steam yacht has since been restored and once again carries passengers in period style up and down the lake. The famous 'Amazon' dinghy also rests here in well-earned retirement.

Amazon's retirement

Coniston's lake is popular with anglers, and is home to many species of fish, including the rare Arctic char. You might notice on the wall nearby stuffed examples of both char and trout, donated by Billy Gibson, a well-known local fisherman.

The final room is dedicated to John Ruskin, whose life and legacy are more adequately documented elsewhere (notably the excellent summary on the museum's own website). The displays in this part of the museum illustrate the breadth of Ruskin's vision.

As the first professor of Art at Oxford University, he encouraged the pursuit of beauty through exploring natural form and colour. Using his connections to the Arts and Crafts Movement he supported local industries, while his friendships with other writers and innovators, including Beatrix Potter and Canon Rawnsley, saw his ideas influence the founding of the National Trust and the National Parks movement. Part of this gallery also highlights Ruskin's travels, notably the 'Grand Tour' of Europe.

In Coniston, John Ruskin found a workforce increasingly without work as the mines declined. He put many of his ideas to work here, supporting local industries in pottery, woodworking and lacemaking; he taught botany to children at the village school and gave the school a set of handbells. He donated funds to local causes, including the Coniston Institute, of which he was made an Honorary member.

My one criticism of the Ruskin Museum is that I saw no mention of the Institute - or rather the 'Coniston Mechanics Institute and Literary Society' - to which the museum is still attached. Founded in 1852 by concerned locals hoping to end the monopoly public houses had on the leisure time of working men, it provided constructive activities and classes.

'Th' Institute', has enriched the lives of many in the village, and is still run by the community as a venue for a variety of activities, including the library, health clinics, meetings and private events, while the outdoor sports facilities remain popular with local clubs.

The village has been - and is - home to many notable characters, decorated war heroes, craftsmen, illustrators and artists, including Bert Smith the violin maker (1910 - 1973), who was seen to hang his newly-varnished instruments on the washing line to dry. It is good to have him remembered here with a case of his materials and tools.

Finally, don't miss the 'stone xylophone', another relic from the original museum, much loved by children (of all ages). It is, and always was, the museum's only truly interactive exhibit.

Stone Xylophone

This is not a touchy-feely place and probably not easy for small children, unless their adults are really good at explaining. The charm of this museum lies in the depth of its attention to detail. Like the village whose story it tells, the whole building is full of unexpected treasures.

Take your time. (Ruskin's home from 1871 - 1900, well worth a visit).

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Evelyn Marsh

I am an educator and lifelong learner. I have lived in the English Lake District for many years, bringing up a family, helping with my husband's Permaculture activities and taking part in a variety of local community groups.