What makes Moyses Hall Museum so curiously captivating?
PUBLISHED: 13:23 23 October 2018 | UPDATED: 13:23 23 October 2018
Its unusual building? Intriguing history? Or distinctly weird collection of contents? Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
What the Dickens is that strange-looking flinty building, sandwiched between the burger bar and chemists at the top of Bury’s Cornhill?
From a distance, it looks like a Victorian school with its sharply pointed gables, bell-turret and clock. But edge closer and the austere old place soon shows its first-floor Norman arches, touch of Tudor tracery, broad stone buttresses and castle-thick walls. Just visible through a door, so quietly marked ‘Museum’, a mysterious vaulted world awaits.
Young Charles Dickens would probably have been acquainted with this historic heavyweight when he found himself reporting on Bury’s political improprieties for the Morning Chronicle in 1836.
Back then, he’d have known it as the Borough Police Station rather than today’s more elegant Moyses Hall, and by the time of his 1859 stay at The Angel, he’d have gazed upon its ‘new’ wall clock and ‘restored’ roofline. It would have had lock-ups, but then the would-be fortress had a long history of ‘hospitality’ as a Bridewell for petty offenders and as a poor house.
It was also part of the once neighbouring Castle Inn, and an earlier, medieval tavern, where townsfolk reputedly piled in for a slap-up breakfast in 1327, after a rioting rampage and hideous murder of one Roger Peasenhall. A chequered history for a building with such a plain façade – and that’s only half the story.
A bit crypt-ic
Just stepping into Moyses Hall can be a tad chilling. Stout stone pillars and the low-vaulted ceiling of the Undercroft naturally seem to bring the temperature down a degree or two, even before thoughts of creepy crypts kick in, or eyes catch sight of the gibbet cage dangling nonchalantly in the mid-distance.
Step through the even lower archway of the West Gallery and within minutes you’re chewing on tales of a wolf with St Edmunds’ severed head between its teeth, peering at the foot of a mutilated medieval spiral staircase and wondering at the strange-headed beasties doodled in medieval book margins, and the Bruegelesque ghouls depicted in the doom-like Cellarers Window painting.
Pointers to the past
Display cases and exhibition boards tie up history into bite-sized Bury bundles – the rise of the Abbey, the local Magna Carta story, and tales of conflict, like the almost pivotal Plantagenet Battle of Fornham.
Amazing gems seem to come in small packages too, like the tiny 7th century gold, garnet-topped mount from a sword belt, the golden tip (aestal) of a 9th century reading pointer, the little files of holy water worn as pilgrim badges and the pendant enveloping a treasured lock of Mary Tudor’s hair.
“This used to be the parcel office for the Great Eastern Railways Company in the 1890s, you know,” says museum curator and storyteller extraordinaire Ron Murrell. He points out the boiler-ash cement and iron stretch of Victorian recycled railway line supporting the floor, both just visible by the open trap door.
He fuels conversation with tales of the Undercroft’s fire station days and how the low arches came under threat for being rather troublesome when getting the engines in and out. His words lend yet another dimension to Moyses Hall, but what were the origins of the building?
“You’ll have noticed the Barnack stone then?” he tests. “The place was probably put up by the abbey. There’s a chronicle which talks of Abbot Samson building some stone houses, and dates seem to fit with the same period as the completion of the west front of the abbey.” So, the building’s well over 900 years old.
That’s a lot of comings and goings. Enough to create a spectral traffic jam perhaps? Surprisingly Ron won’t be led. Suddenly he’s a man of few words, and will only say that he’s been in the place among people and with no one, and he never feels alone.
But perhaps there’s nothing more curious than our own curiosity. Here’s you’ll be drawn to the tavern timepiece which records all the local executions, the ‘strike silent’ casement clock that somehow send shivers down the spine.
And as if the Victorian Red Barn murderer’s scalp with ears intact is not blood-curdling enough, there are all sorts of gory artefacts and details pertaining to prison life and witchcraft in ‘the Passage’ lurking behind the Undercroft. Spot the torturing cat-o’-nine-tails, and the mummified moggy which was cornered up a farmhouse chimney, thanks either to human superstition or sheer feline curiosity.
For a museum which incorporates part of an old pub, there are certainly plenty of sobering things to take in. In the 1970s, two new galleries were created out of an adjacent 16th century property. One is dedicated to giving just a taster of the heroic tales and times of the Suffolk Regiment.
With powerful histories, campaign uniforms and well-chosen army artefacts sympathetically displayed alongside the oak braces and beams of the building, it’s revealing stuff, and definitely whets the appetite for a visit to the dedicated Suffolk Regiment Museum on Bury’s Out Risbygate.
Stay curious though, for who knows quite what you’ll find in the other timber-framed gallery, or the Norman Great Hall, home to an ongoing programme of often upbeat exhibitions. Here you could be confronted by anything from fine art and fashion statements to film icons, Suffragette stories, NASA space race memorabilia, or even an unnerving creature or two from the sci-fi world of Star Wars and the time travels of Dr Who.
But reaching furthest room of the Norman house, packed with sundials, clocks and pocket watches, there’s no doubt that it’s the weird and wonderful which make Moyses Hall tick. The Gershom Parkington Horology collection is unexpected, stunning and represents almost every great clockmaker of England and beyond.
It glitters with gorgeous gems, from Augsburg automaton to exquisite enamelled pocket-watches, and ivory indulgences. But the real show-stealer is a strange little creature. Stop by Moyses Hall on your Suffolk travels and see the tiny, talented turtle from Dickens’ day which points out the time as it swims around its little pond.
What & where
Moyses Hall Museum has existed on its current site since it was opened in 1899. It originally housed items collected by Bury & West Suffolk Archaeological Institute and a former workhouse master, plus ‘interesting’ items lent by local people.
Where: Cornhill, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1DX
When: Open daily. Mon-Sat 10am - 5pm, Sun 12pm- 4pm
How much: Adult £5, child (5-15yr), concessions £3
Need to know: wheelchair and buggy friendly. Lift to upper floor. Child-friendly exhibits/activities.
Find out more: moyseshall.org
Tel: 01284 706183
Who cares about curious – are you feeling brave? Join the Victorian Gentleman (aka Ron Murrell) in Moyses Hall after dark for a chilling Halloween experience. You’ll be locked in and the windows still have the prison bars. Fear not. (Or maybe just a little). Adults only. 31st October 6.30pm- 8.30pm. Tickets: £10.00 online: moyseshall.org or call: 01284 758000.