A museum in the former offices of Benskins Brewery is an intriguing idea, and Watford Museum certainly did not disappoint. The Georgian building dates from 1775 and stands impressively at the lower end of Watford High Street; a quite unexpected gem snuggled in next to supermarkets, bus stops and offices. On entering up the steps and through the large wooden door, I am reminded of a story told to me by the staff. A gentleman recently visited the museum for the first time in 75 years. His last visit through this door had been as a small boy with an empty jam jar, collecting yeast to take home to his mother to bake with. One wonders how many similar stories this grandiose building holds. In its heyday, Benskins Brewery had 50 horses and dreys and was producing 30,000 barrels a week.
I am visiting Watford Museum at Christmas time and the brightly decorated foyer Christmas tree is a microcosm of the museum itself. Strewn with handmade decorations, my eye is drawn first to the hand knitted Watford FC scarf, which weaves around the evergreen branches. The history of the local area is represented through baubles in the shape of the Audentior (the town’s coat of arms), a Benskins bottle and World War Two National Registration identity card. In place of a star, there is a glitter covered newspaper model of the museum itself which sits above a large Watford FC rosette. From the bottom of the tree, dangle handmade reproductions of some of the fine art the museum holds. My curiosity about these paintings leads me to my next stop – the Cassiobury gallery.
Entering the Cassiobury gallery is like entering a different world. The peaceful pale blue walls are covered with portraits and landscapes that would not look out of place at a much larger national gallery. Indeed, when Cassiobury House was demolished in 1927 many of the priceless artworks were sold and distributed to museums and galleries across the globe. A carved staircase, for example, can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Cassiobury House was the ancestral seat of the Earls of Essex, and many of their portraits can be found here on display. There is also a Turner painting and a Grinling Gibbons clock surround, whilst the display cabinet holds miniatures, coronets and a cricket ball. Perhaps most interesting for me is the 1748 painting A View of Cassiobury Park by John Wootton. The comprehensive information panels explain the significance of this artwork. It contains evidence that Black history in Watford dates back over 300 years. I decide to explore a bit more of this treasure trove of a museum.
Through the foyer, I head past the wooden Pennant bar and up the stairs dotted in black and white photos from Watford’s past. Watford has a rich and diverse history, and it is well represented on the first floor of the museum. We are transported from canals and trains through 20th Century Watford to Victorian Watford. My favourite gallery on this floor is the specially created Space 2. This bright and airy room, with light pouring in through the open shutters, hosts temporary exhibitions for local artists, community groups and schools. At the time of my visit, the gallery is full of the colour and vibrancy of the Crosstown Lockdown art project. This is an exhibition of artworks by the community collected by Cathartic CIC, in partnership with the Peace Hospice. The art is completely different to the Cassiobury gallery downstairs but just as powerful. The stories behind some of the installations are incredibly moving and poignant.
It is time to start finishing my visit but there is still so much to see. The archaeology gallery holds a Phoenician bronze bowl that was discovered in 1960 at a dig in a local supermarket car park. The rest of the Holywell hoard and a giant ammonite are displayed here too. Downstairs is the Watford at war gallery and football gallery. The Elton John stage costume in the football gallery is a welcome distraction for those not so keen on the football aspect here.
The last and biggest gallery in the museum is printing, which is appropriate, as Watford was at one time the epicentre of printing in Europe. There are many shiny and interesting machines, but my favourite is the Columbian press. Recently voted third in the Hertfordshire ‘Object of The Year’ competition, it had to be transported in by crane because of its weight. The Museum has specially adapted floors and walls to accommodate this 101-year-old masterpiece. It even printed the first copy of local newspaper the Watford Observer in 1863. Beside its speed and ease of use, the Columbian press was most famous for its striking and unusual decorations. The golden eagle represents the American inventor, the green dragons represent the Chinese origins of printing and the staff of Hermes - the messenger of the gods - represents printing taking news to the people.
In a sense, this staff of Hermes represents Watford Museum itself. Though it is a small and local museum, it takes the news and heritage of Watford’s past to the people of Watford. Furthermore, it gives local people a platform to express and share their own stories with galleries like the foyer display and Space 2 gallery. It is thus truly of the people for the people.
In 2022, Watford celebrates the centenary of becoming a borough and gaining the Audientior coat of arms that was displayed on the foyer Christmas tree. Never has the Audientior’s motto been more relevant in our modern world today. A quote from Vigil’s Aeneid VI, it reads: “tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito, quam tua te Fortuna sinet. Or, translated: “Yield not thou to ills but go forth to face them more boldly than thy Fortune shall allow thee.”
Watford museum is free to enter and is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 – 5. There is a comprehensive shop selling a large variety of books, posters, postcards stationery and some more unusual items to purchase such as local honey. Although there is no café, it is a very short walk to Watford town centre, which has many cafes and restaurants. The museum haswheelchair access toilets and an entrance for wheelchair users at rear. It has a lift to all public areas and baby-changing facilities. There is a beautiful Museum garden
Watford is easily accessible from the M25 and M1 and there is easy access to the museum from both the Watford Junction and High Street railway stations (the latter is only 300 yards away).
There are a number of public car parks in the centre of town, all of which are within easy walking distance. The Museum has a very small car park but cannot guarantee a parking space onsite, for more details please email them in advance of your visit.
Watford Museums website can be found at https://www.watfordmuseum.org.uk/ and also on Facebook and Instagram @watfordmuseum
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Clare Davies has recently become interim Learning officer at Watford Museum. Clare has had a 25-year career as a primary teacher, teaching locally and to a variety of ages groups from Reception up to Year 7, across 3 different primary schools. Since changing careers Clare has volunteered at Watford Museum since April 2021, focusing on learning, social media and community heritage. She also volunteers at Guildhall art gallery and remotely with the Zooniverse World Architecture unlocked project, the Whipple Museum of Science and the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall.