Retro: Doncaster’s pioneering museum

Doncaster Beechfield House
Doncaster Beechfield House

Last year Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery celebrated 50 years in its present position in Chequer Road. But its origins stretch back to the 19th century when a desire in Britain to learn and impart knowledge led to a growth in the establishment of museums.

By the 1880s, this country had around 200 museums. Only about 45 were owned by municipal authorities, the remainder were founded and controlled by societies or institutions.

Examples of museums built around the 1880s are the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the British Museum (Natural History). Another is Sheffield’s first art gallery which was built in 1887 in accordance with the will of John Newton Mappin, a local brewer.

At a Doncaster Corporation meeting on December 14, 1896, a deputation from the Doncaster Scientific Society asked if they would grant space in the Old Free Library for the nucleus of a town museum.

In December 1899, after lengthy negotiations, it was recommended a room adjoining the Guildhall Council chamber be set apart for a museum. Some of the first items to be displayed in the makeshift building included coins, old prints, curios and tokens.

In 1903, the newly-formed museum committee asked the corporation to assist in the creation of a town museum on an enlarged scale. The corporation replied that it would discuss the idea favourably when able to provide suitable and adequate accommodation in some public-owned property.

Five years later, the estates committee viewed the recently purchased Beechfield house and grounds.

The property was built around 1812 by Henry Preston on a close or pasture ground called Chequer or Waterdale Close.

At that time, the house stood alone in a rural setting and included a dining room, drawing room, breakfast parlour, an ante room, butler’s pantry, servant’s hall, housekeeper’s room, laundry, eight bedrooms and dressing rooms, servants’ sleeping rooms, cellars, stabling for three horses, double coach house, hay chambers and piggery.

The house stood in almost five acres, containing ornamental planting, a meadow and kitchen gardens.

By September 1829, Beechfield was owned by the Rev William Cuthbert who ran a private school on the premises. Cuthbert’s wife tragically died in the house during 1832 after her dress caught fire.

He lived there another nine years until J W Sturgess, owner of the Bowling Ironworks in West Yorkshire, acquired the property.

Two years after his death in 1861, his widow sold Beechfield to William Henry Foreman, who also owned Nether Hall and Hall Cross House.

Foreman extended and altered Beechfield and also improved the gardens. He then leased the property to several tenants, among them Sir Isaac Morley, director of the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway Co, and Richard Morris.

The latter eventually transformed the grounds at Beechfield, featuring fountains, caverns and lawns, and frequently opened them to the public.

Morris’s wife continued to live at Beechfield seven years after his death in 1900, when the Trustees of W H Foreman’s estate offered the house and adjoining lands to Doncaster Corporation for £12,500, which was accepted.

The corporation’s estate committee recommended that the Doncaster museum committee be allowed to use three ground-floor rooms in Beechfield House for the town museum.

At a meeting of the estates committee on November 4, 1908, a communication was considered from Doncaster Art Club which had grown from a sketching club formed in 1901.

The committee recommended the use of some rooms on the first floor of Beechfield house for Art Club members.

During 1909, it was agreed that the entire museum committee be elected annually by the council, also that £150 should be granted to cover the cost of removal of exhibits from the Guildhall to Beechfield House and fitting up Beechfield as a museum.

In the same year it was agreed that the first floor of Beeechfield be known as the Municipal Art Gallery and that a committee should be formed to manage it, consisting of four members of the Art Club and six members of the corporation.

Also in 1909, a Dr Corbett was nominated as curator at £50 a year. The opening of the Art Gallery occurred on October 28, 1909 and Viscountess Halifax officiated at the ceremony.

The remainder of the building after conversion for museum purposes opened to the public on March 23, 1910. The collections increased quickly and a popular attraction after the First World War was a German tank presented to the corporation by the National War Savings Committee. It was displayed outside the front entrance on a concrete foundation until 1938, when it was sold to T W Ward of Sheffield for £75 10s for scrap.

A prestigious event formerly held in the art gallery was the Summer Exhibition. Who first suggested the event is unknown but in retrospect for a recently-opened gallery to organise such an exhibition was far-sighted. And it is an event which has, arguably, never been equalled since.

The exhibition was held annually between 1910 and 1940, except for a break from 1916 to 1921. Many artists holding national recognition were brought together at the exhibition including Charles Sims, Harold and Laura Knight, George Clausen, Horace Brodzsky, Jacob Kramer, John and Paul Nash and Henry Moore.

The exhibition’s opening ceremonies regularly provided a platform for views to be expressed about the need for a new art gallery.

Curator Norman Sylvester at the 1931 opening said that he would not apologise for the bad hanging of the pictures as he had been shouting for a new art gallery for long enough.

However, this did not occur until much later and during the Second World War the Beechfield gardens were largely taken over for growing vegetables.

In the post-war years, Beechfield continued as one of the town’s major institutions until the building of a new technical college was envisaged in Waterdale, and this meant that the house and grounds would have to be cleared. This happened in 1963.