In the ancient town of Wisbech sits a little gem of a museum. Its honey-coloured stonework and neoclassical fronting gives it the look and feel of a Georgian townhouse, but don’t let that fool you: inside is a small but impressive collection of local and international history.
I first visited the Wisbech and Fenland Museum for the parish registers held in its archives rather than the museum itself. As part of my research into the history of the Civil War and the witch hunts that blighted the east of England in the 1640s, I was looking for leads on a particular family who had lived in Wisbech during that time. The rich and diverse collections on display in the museum were a welcome bonus: they gave me an illuminating insight into the history of the Fens, as well as offering some unique little surprises.
My first discovery was that the museum building is an artefact in itself. Opened in 1847, according to the museum’s curator it can claim the title of being the second purpose-built museum in England. The interior and exterior are both original, giving visitors the opportunity to experience what it might have been like to be one of the Victorian visitors for whom the museum was originally created. The only obvious change between now and 175 years ago is the visitor’s entrance: to aid accessibility, it has been moved round the back.
Passing through the walled and paved garden – in which local school groups were making bug hotels when I visited – you enter the bright entrance foyer. Admission is free (donations encouraged) and the museum is open between 10am-4pm Wednesday-Saturday. Taking the lift or stairs to the right of the welcome desk you’re met with a newly-refurbished exhibition space, but the main event lies beyond. As you go through these more modern-feeling rooms, the light dims and the air becomes warmer and sweeter as you enter a large, dark wood-panelled chamber.
Original wood and glass display tables stretch across the floor towards a grand staircase which leads up to balcony ringing the walls. Each case is truly a cabinet of curiosities, demonstrating the eclectic interests of the museum’s original founders. Prehistoric fossils and taxidermy Fenland wildlife sit alongside artefacts from Ancient Egypt; early 20th century biscuit advertisements are just a few feet away from 1500 year old coins. Of particular interest to me was the collection of esoteric objects dotted around the museum - for instance, the extensive display of bellarmine jugs. These stoneware jugs decorated with a bearded face were sometimes used as ‘witch bottles’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If someone suspected they had been cursed, a bellarmine could be filled with nails, pins, and some of the afflicted’s urine, then stoppered and either buried in the ground or placed in a fire. The aim of this was to cause so much discomfort to the witch who cast the curse that they would reverse the spell. Other magical objects in the museum include a nineteenth-century crystal ball used by the author Charles Dickens and his partner-in-esotericism, Chauncey Hare Townshend.
My niche interests aside, other parts of the collection will have a broader appeal. Wisbech holds the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, which among other things sketches out an alternative ending to the story. The personal effects of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson are also on display. Clarkson travelled over 35,000 miles collecting evidence and giving talks as part of his campaign to end the trafficking of enslaved people. He took a travelling chest with him for much of these endeavours, which is now held – along with its original contents – by the museum.
Museums like the Wisbech and Fenland are sometimes easy to overlook: as they mostly contain local artefacts, it’s generally assumed that they will only be of local interest. But this isn’t true: the museum taught me about this unique region of England, as well as exposing me to world history which I couldn’t have encountered anywhere else.
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Dr Tabitha Stanmore is a historian of medieval and early modern magic. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, UK, working on the Leverhulme Seven County Witch Hunt Project investigating the Matthew Hopkins witch trials of 1640s England.