Revealing the secrets hidden at Beccles & District Museum
PUBLISHED: 13:26 16 October 2018
Beccles & District Museum in Sir John Leman's House high above the River Waveney, was home to an historic free school for over 350 years | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
Take a wander along Beccles Ballygate and there’s one building that’s sure to catch the eye. Faced in fine flint and brick with many gothic-style windows, ‘Disce aut Discede’ – Learn or Go – it demands authoritatively alongside a rather flamboyant coat of arms.
Hand-forged numbers swirl a 1670 date-stamp, but it’s the little bell turret perched on the porch and the sudden plainness of brick walls which gives away the schoolroom history of the property that now houses the Beccles & District Museum.
Step inside, and the exhibits and artefacts couldn’t be more at home, every display a meticulously planned lesson in Beccles borough, or local and natural history.
Spot a butterfly collection here, a cabinet of curiosities there, full of precious finds like old rumbler horse bells, buckles, coins and bits of ancient pottery. Great wooden boards, where proud local school-leavers made their final mark, grace the walls alongside smartly carved emblems, evidently the revered touchstones of many a school house captain.
And hiding amongst the tales of trade and transport, the medicine cabinet and dentists’ drill-bits come the flip-top desk, writing slates and pencil boxes, stripy ties and school reports, not to mention the much prized trophy cupboard. “The building is much older than it looks,” explains smiling curator and expert meeter-and-greeter, Alan Freeman.
“It’s timber-framed really, from around 1570, and was the home of Sir John Leman. Beccles High School still takes his name, but the free school was here from Leman’s day until 1905.”
Head into the museum’s Elizabethan room and you’ll find an excellent model of the Sir John Leman School in 1841 complete with studious students.
The old schoolroom space next door is still very much intact as the main exhibition room, filled with all the explanations and paraphernalia of trades where young lads may have sought apprenticeships in the days when Beccles ranked third in Suffolk after Bury and Ipswich.
Alongside tales of printers, clockmakers, millers, maltsters and wheelwrights, mayoral robes show off the pomp of civic life and a lonely bed lays bare the harsh realities of Victorian poverty and the Mettingham workhouse.
One of the joys of Beccles Museum is that it hasn’t succumbed to an overload of touch-screen devices beyond its well-utilised digital archives. It’s like a Boy’s Own annual packed with exciting discoveries, from the giant pike caught in the Waveney to the aeroplane propeller built by a local Edwardian aviation business, church wardens’ nose warmers (clay pipes) to a mysterious talismatic ball from Anglo-Saxon times.
Plenty to ponder as you sit outside in the museum garden, realising that the shouts of youngsters in the Lido below echo those of schoolboy ancestors splashing in the Waveney after a long day of lessons.
John Leman had an ambitious zest for life growing up in the 1550s. He left the dairy farms, fishing waters and the busy trading route of the Waveney to find his fortune in London. By 19, he was apprenticed to the eminent Fishmonger’s Company, by his late 20s he was a ‘freeman’ of the city.
He became Prime Warden of the Fishmongers’ Company, Sheriff of London, Lord Mayor in 1616 and was knighted by James I. In his will of 1631, he gave Beccles a building, a place for the education of 48 local boys, and a supporting legacy. It was already a school and he wanted it to stay that way.