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From woolly mammoths to wartime photographers - tracing the history of Cromer Museum

PUBLISHED: 11:24 19 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:24 19 March 2019

The 250,000th visitor to Cromer Museum, a milestone which was reached in August 1987. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

The 250,000th visitor to Cromer Museum, a milestone which was reached in August 1987. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

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Cromer Museum has provided a portal to the region’s rich heritage for more than 40 years. Curator ALISTAIR MURPHY traces the history of the museum.

The former fishermans' cottages, which were to become Cromer Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUMThe former fishermans' cottages, which were to become Cromer Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

Many years ago Thomas Fowell Buxton, of Colne House in Cromer sent a letter to the secretary of the Norwich Museum telling him of the largest tusk of the extinct southern elephant ever discovered, which he had in his possession.

The letter was dated 1868 and stated “Certain Gentlemen in Cromer are anxious to set afoot a local Museum. Should this be carried out I should give (the tusk) to them, but if it fails, I should be very happy to offer it to the Norwich Museum......”

In the event nothing came of the plans for a museum, though the growing numbers of visitors to this fascinating corner of the country would have appreciated one.

The town council had been considering the establishment of a museum in Cromer for many years but it was not until they purchased eight former fisherman’s cottages in 1967, for £1,000, that the dream moved towards became a reality.

Cromer Museum's re-opening in 2006. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUMCromer Museum's re-opening in 2006. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

After negotiations the buildings were purchased on the understanding that the council would not disturb the very elderly tenants living in the cottages and allow them to remain as long as they wished.

Three of the cottages were suitable for modernisation, whilst the remaining terrace of five, which now form the museum, had been condemned and had a closing order on them.

The local government reorganisation of 1974 and the fact that the cottages had elderly residents in them meant that it was to take over ten years for the museum to actually admit its first visitor.

In 1976 a loan for £12,500 was raised and work began.

Cromer Museum covered in snow in winter, 2018. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUMCromer Museum covered in snow in winter, 2018. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

The then town clerk, Philip Sage was instrumental in the creation of the museum which finally opened in 1978.

At a simple ceremony, Lady Preston of Cromer Hall on behalf of Cromer Town Council declared the museum open and handed over its care to the Norfolk Museums Service.

It represented the culmination of years of planning and labour by town councillors, officers and volunteers to renovate a near derelict terrace of cottages which they had purchased and turn them into a local museum.

Since then the museum has gone from strength to strength.

A self-portrait of Olive Edis. Cromer Museum has a large collection of the photographer's work. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUMA self-portrait of Olive Edis. Cromer Museum has a large collection of the photographer's work. Picture: SUPPLIED BY CROMER MUSEUM

The collections were started from scratch and built up with the aid of an appeal to the public.

In less than six months prior to the opening a gifted young curator, Jane Anne Bagnall-Oakley had shaped the displays and the collections which would form the corner stone of the museum.

The museum was established in a difficult financial climate but it was evidently justified for, despite its small scale, it has always been popular and attracted attention from far and wide.

In 1981 the collection was enhanced when the museum acquired an important local history collection created by the late Cyril Crawford Holden.

Cromer Museum has reopened for 2019. Picture: STUART ANDERSONCromer Museum has reopened for 2019. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

This has been of immense value for display work, answering enquiries and to the public and scholars too.

Over the years, several dedicated volunteers have indexed the collection thoroughly, enhancing its value even more. Martin Warren, who became curator in 1978 led the drive across the Norfolk Museums Service to computerise information about the county’s collections as well as being a well-known and respected figure around the town in which he still lives.

Having a geologist as a curator and being located near to where the West Runton Mammoth was found the museum further enhanced its reputation during the excavation.

Since then it has been the primary place of display for parts of this internationally important find – only the small size of our buildings and the large size of the mammoth has hampered us displaying its skeleton in its entirety.

In the early 2000s a plan was hatched to refurbish and reinvigorate the museum ready for the new century. With a budget of about £660,000 raised with the help of the Friends of the Museum, the county and district councils, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Union, a new frontage including a shop and lift were added to the museum and the displays were completely redesigned.

The area in front of the museum, which prior to refurbishment was under used, has now become an attractive and lively area of the town – particularly at carnival time.

In 2008 the museum purchased a large collection of the work of Olive Edis, the notable early 20th century Sheringham photographer. At the time Sheringham Museum were unable to make the purchase so to ensure that the photographs stayed in the north Norfolk area, Cromer Museum, stepped in, using money given, again, by the Heritage Lottery Fund. New displays, exhibitions and an online presence for her work were created and as a result the significance of her and her photography has grown over the last ten years. The museum remains the holder of by far the largest collection of her work in the world.

The museum, nestling in its prime location beside the chancel of the church continues to do its important job as a treasure trove for the millions of years of rich history relating to the local area.

Standing as it does on the high street in also remains an important point of call on the tourist trail.

For upcoming events at the museum visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/cromer-museum/whats-on, find their Facebook page, or pick up a leaflet at the museum, Cromer Tourist Information Centre and the Rocket House Cafe.

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