History of Rye Castle Museum

By Jo Kirkham

by Allan Downend, slightly adapted from the booklet An Introduction to Rye Castle Museum ( 1999) with some additional information from Geoffrey S Bagley and from Kenneth M Clark The Story of the Ypres Tower and Rye Museum (1975).  

The idea of using Rye’s former jail (the Ypres Tower) as a museum was first mooted in 1889 by the Rye Literary Society but it was to be another forty years before a Rye Museum was established and sixty-five before the Ypres Tower became its home.

It was Leopold Vidler, author of A New History of Rye (1934) , who managed to establish the first Museum in Battery House, just north of the Ypres Tower during his time as Mayor of Rye (1927 – 28). The building had been purchased by Rye Council in 1925 from the War Office and it was let for use as a museum at £26 a year. Leopold Vidler was its first and only curator and entrance fees were fixed at 6d for adults and 2d a head for parties of not less than twelve persons. Like the current Museum it was entirely self-supporting and had to rely on visitors, volunteers and fund-raising for its continuation and development.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the Museum’s most valuable items were placed in temporary storage around the town and in 1940 it was closed.

On September 22nd 1942 Battery House, and the adjoining property was severely damaged in an air raid; at the same time the Ypres Tower lost its pyramidal tile roof . Battery House was declared unsafe and the undamaged items still housed there were removed to safer repositories including the Ypres Tower. At the end of the war all the salvaged exhibits and cases were moved to a Corporation garage, there to remain until 1953.

To celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Geoffrey Spink Bagley and Wally Cole of the Rotary Club of Rye and Winchelsea set up an historical exhibition featuring hitherto unseen and forgotten exhibits and reminding people of the museum’s collection. It was decided to re-establish Rye’s Museum.

The survivors of the pre-war committee, plus ‘new blood’, set about finding new premises. Geoffrey Spink Bagley took a leading role in this movement and became Honorary Curator after the death of Leopold Vidler in October 1954. He held the post until his death in 1992, a period of thirty-eight years. It was decided to house the Museum in the Ypres Tower which was now empty except for the mortuary in the basement. Repairs carried out under War Damage provision had made it habitable.

The newly re-formed Museum Association took a lease from the Council for the ground and first floors but the financial resources immediately available amounted to £6 — the balance still standing to the credit of the old Museum Committee., Thus all the help in setting up the Museum came from volunteers and donors of fittings and equipment. From this seemingly amateurish start the Museum opened at Easter 1954 and has continued to develop thanks to further bands of volunteers ever since.

Geoffrey Spink Bagley great enlarged and enhanced the Collection and wrote extensively about Rye and the surrounding area. With a team of volunteers he changed some of the displays each year and in 1975 the museum won an Award for its work and displays. The emphasis was still on local history but the catchment area was widened to include Romney Marsh and the villages surrounding Rye.

In 1992 Margaret Bird became Honorary Curator and realised that the damp conditions in the Tower that had begun to arise during the 1980s were beginning to affect the Collection. She initiated the process that led to the Museum acquiring 3 East Street and then the development of a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to convert that building into a Museum. It had been a bottling factory for beers etc. and was linked to the property known as Gill’s Loft and Help the Aged (now Age UK , the new name for Age Concern and Help the Aged) in the High Street where the beer was originally sold.By the time the Museum Association bought the building the shop had been sold as a separate property and the old factory was in considerable disrepair.

The Lottery Bid was successful and work began on creating the Museum in East Street as well as more work on the Tower. The major work on the structure of the Tower was funded by Rother District Council and took place between 1996 and 1997. Most of the Collection having gone into storage in 1995, the work at East Street took place between 1997 and 1999. In 1998 the new Curator, Allan Downend started work on the setting up of Museum’s East Street site. A team of volunteers helped unpack the Collection when it returned from store in late January 1999 and by the end of March, by dint of both hard work and enthusiasm, they had the exhibition ready for viewing. The new Museum opened to the public at Easter 1999, forty-five years after the post-war re-opening of the Ypres Tower. At the same time new panels and displays were completed at the Tower.

Recent visitors to both the Ypres Tower and East Street sites will know that there have been many additions and improvements over the last decade, the details of which can be found on other parts of this website. Most recently we have been successful in winning a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to repair the Women’s Tower which once housed women prisoners. That work is done and thanks to a joint venture with the Rye Partnership once the building has been appropriately fitted out visitors will be able to see new exhibits there concerning the women and children of Rye.  (The ‘hats’ shown in the photo will be removed  as soon as all is properly dried out.)

[Note: the Women’s Tower renovation was completed in 2014 and the building was then opened to the public for the first time in its history.]

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