A History of the Willis Museum

The Museum in Basingstoke can trace its roots back to the mid-19th century when The Basingstoke Mechanics Institute opened in Cross Street. However it was not till 1931 that the drive and enthusiasm of local businessman, George Willis, resulted in what we now know as Basingstoke’s Willis Museum.

The Willis Museum is now located in the Old Town Hall in the Market Place in Basingstoke.

Willis

George Willis (1877 – 1970)

It was established in 1931 by George Willis, a local clock maker, antiquarian and former Mayor of Basingstoke. His one time premises in Wote Street bears a commemorative plaque, and the original shop window, complete with recreated window display, is an exhibit at Milestones Museum. You can read more about George Willis by purchasing a copy of a small book written some years ago by one of the Friends called “Dear Mr Willis”. Information about acquiring a copy is available from the Publications section of this web site.

The Museum was originally housed in the old Mechanics' Institute building in New Road, since demolished.

Friendshist1

The original Mechanics Institute building

 A new office building whose façade is a close copy of the Mechanics' Institute building stands on the old museum site today.

muesum3

Main exhibition room in the New Street Museum

In 1975 the opening of the new Civic Offices made the old Town Hall, in the Market Place, redundant. In 1984, after a major refurbishment programme which provided an additional floor in the building, the Willis Museum was re-located to this prestigious and central location. In 2008 with the benefit of substantial funding by the Linbury Trust, founded by Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, the building was again re-vamped to provide the Sainsbury Gallery offering facilities to host major national exhibitions. At the same time a new café and shop were created.

The following is a brief chronology for the Museum over this time.  

1841: The Basingstoke Mechanics’ Institute opens in Cross Street “to promote useful knowledge amongst all classes of the community”.

1869: The Institute moves to purpose built premises in New Street. The facilities include a library, a reading room and a room for the exhibition of art and curios. One such exhibition in 1879 is of curios collected on his travels by the institute’s president Sir Wyndham Portal. The reading room houses some “museum objects” including cases of stuffed birds...

... all very appropriate as the building was to become the first home of the Willis Museum.

1927: The Basingstoke Institute has become financially unviable and its premises are offered to the Town Council, for use as a library and museum.

In an address to Basingstoke Rotary Club George Willis puts the case for a Basingstoke museum for which the Institute’s upper room is “admirably suited”, and asks for the Rotary Club’s support in promoting its conversion.

He is a local businessman with a watch, clock and jewellery shop. He is also a councillor and ex-Mayor, a Rotarian and the vice-chairman of the Institute. He has a passionate interest in all things local. He and two friends, John Ellaway and Herbert Rainbow, all keen field walkers, have amassed a large collection of finds and other objects that they want to share with others.

His address emphasises that a museum is not “a dead thing”, but is “entirely dynamic in its character… a developing point of lines of force which when they meet an intelligent mind, result in a flash of intellectual light”. He believes every town of the character of Basingstoke should have a museum to “develop civic tradition and “instil in the minds of the present inhabitants the idea that they are citizens of no mean city…. It must also concern itself with education, particularly the education of younger people.”

1928: The building is handed over to the council, and Basingstoke’s first free public library opens on the ground floor. John Ellaway becomes its honorary librarian and Mr Willis sets up a small display of local archaeological finds there.

1929: Plans for a museum are in abeyance until Thomas Allnutt, a Basingstoke merchant and another former mayor generously offers £500 (2015 equivalent: approximately £20,000) towards equipping a museum if the council will do the same. The Council agrees, so the museum can go ahead.

1930: A year of preparation led by Mr Willis and Mr Ellaway who are to become the Honorary Curator and Deputy Honorary Curator respectively. George Willis sets out his philosophy of museums in a perceptive brochure that is virtually timeless in its relevance. It ends with a list of topics on which he is seeking exhibits. Many exhibits are given by local residents adding to these men’s personal collections.

1931: The Museum is formally opened by the Earl of Malmesbury, Chairman of the County Council on January 22. Exhibits are systematically arranged and predominantly local, working from the underlying geology of the area to its recent history. Opening hours are 2 pm to 9 pm daily, enabling local workers to visit the museum after they finished work.

“Mr Willis had signalled his intention of being available to the public as much as possible, going round to the museum each day after he closed the shop. He had a gift for sharing his enthusiasm with other people.”

Dear Mr Willis, an appreciation, by Derek Wren, Fisher Miller Publishing, 1997 (copies can be purchased from the Museum).

 “The Basingstoke Museum is a good one… and I have seen many. There is about it an atmosphere of helpfulness that puts one in the right frame of mind…. There are not too many exhibits, and the labels are concise and legible and written in really good English” (O G S Crawford, Editor of the periodical Antiquity writing in 1932).

1934: Drawing on the knowledge he has acquired, George Willis lectures the Rotary Club on “Old Basingstoke”. The lecture is fully reported in the local press.

1935: Mr Willis speaks to the Rotary Club on “Geological Exhibits at the museum”. Again this is fully reported in the Hants and Berks Gazette. He will write many more articles for this local newspaper about museum exhibits and about local history.

1940: August 16. German aircraft bomb nearby Church Square. The museum’s windows are blown out, and the museum is forced to close until repairs can be effected.

1943: At last the museum is able to re-open after repairs. For the rest of the war period it is open for just two hours each afternoon.

1945: An unsigned report (but probably by Mr Willis) refers to 4624 visitors over the past year, with good use being made by school parties, and children coming in their own time. Shortage of storage space has caused “several large bygones which it is essential to secure” to be refused.

In accordance with the 1944 Education Act responsibility for the museum passes to the County Council. George Willis continues as Honorary Curator until 1950, and thereafter as Honorary Director until his death in 1970.

He is elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, an honour not often bestowed on non-graduates.

1950: Appointment of Christopher Gowing as the first professional Curator. He serves until 1957

1954: Basingstoke honours Mr Willis by making him the first Freeman of the Borough.

1956: The County Council honours Mr Willis by re-naming the museum he created “The Willis Museum”.

1957: Margaret McFarlane becomes Curator and serves until 1971. Mary Atkinson (now our member Mary Oliver) is assistant Curator from 1963 to 1967. The late Barbara Applin, (also a prominent member of the Friends) then Barbara Glover, is assistant Curator from 1967 to 1970.

1969: The Public Library moves to its present address, leaving the whole former Mechanics’ Institute Building to the museum. A major re-organisation of the exhibits follows to include an art gallery and temporary exhibition area on the ground floor, and a gallery devoted to the history of time keeping with many of the exhibits having been provided from an important collection that Mr Willis’s has put together himself.

1970: Death of George Willis

David Devenish takes over as Curator, serving until 1973

1972: Edited by Barbara McKenzie a collection of Mr Willis’s essays on the history of Basingstoke is published posthumously under the title: Historical Miscellany of Basingstoke.

1973: Alan Burchard takes over as Curator. He serves until the end of 1977

1974: The collection of clocks and watches is recognised as “very important” by the Antiquarian Horological Society.

1978: Tim Schadla-Hall is appointed as Curator, serving until 1982.

The “Friends of the Museum” is launched.

1981: The Borough Council moves to new Civic Offices, vacating the elegant Town Hall that dates from 1832-4. This is sold to a property developer, and changes are put in hand to convert it for office use. They include the insertion of a mezzanine second floor.

1982: From 1982 to 1984 the Curator is Gavin Bowie.

1984: Attempts to let the former Town Hall as offices have proved unsuccessful, so the County Council acquires it for use as a museum, and the New Street building is passed to the property developer. The Willis is partially opened in this much larger and more central new home on June 12th. Temporary exhibitions begin on the ground floor, and preparations begin to open up the rest of the building.

Caroline Goldthorpe takes over as Curator, serving for one year.

1985: New Archaeology and Town Galleries are opened with “displays of a high standard using the latest techniques and materials”.

The Curator from 1985 to 1989 is Peter-Russell Jones.

1987: A second floor gallery is opened housing the clock collection, plus embroidery and dolls.

Part of the clock and watch collection was subsequently transferred to another county museum.

 1989: Sue Frankin takes over as Curator until 1991.

A new Natural History Gallery opens on the ground floor.

1990: Thanks to fund raising by the Friends a stair lift is installed between the first and second floors to assist the museum’s less mobile visitors. A donation from Barclays Bank assists with its cost.

1991: Oonagh Palmer becomes Curator for one year.

1992: Tim Evans takes over as Curator and serves until 2001.

1993: A coffee lounge opens on the ground floor and a local history resources room is opened on the first floor. Work is done to ensure that the museum meets the requirements of the new National Curriculum.

1995: A ramp for wheelchairs is added to the main entrance, and the main staircase from the ground to the first floor is equipped with a stair lift.

1996: Following extensive consultations with local focus groups “The Time Tunnel” local history gallery opens on the first floor. Features include a reverse chronology, a 1960s kitchen and sitting room, a Victorian parlour, bold and imaginative use of photographs, and lecterns with “page devices”.

2000: Basingstoke’s second museum, Milestones: Hampshire’ Living History Museum opens to the public. It includes a replica of Mr Willis’s shop. The two very different museums are complementary rather than rivals.

2001: Sue Tapliss becomes Curator and serves until 2011.

The top floor is re-carpeted to provide a new meeting space.

2002: New exhibits on the top floor include radio sets, toys and other social history materials. The building’s exterior is re-painted to a high standard.

Family activities are introduced for school holidays. They become an important and enduring aspect of the Willis’s work with the community.

2005: The Willis’s children’s workshops and family activities win a “Place to be proud of” award for creativity from Basingstoke and Deane Council.

2007: A Young People’s Panel is set up to enable 14 to 24 year olds to have their say about museums, libraries and Discovery Centres.

A major development plan for the Willis is started to “create a museum fit for the 21st century.

2008: Re-development work proceeds with funding from Hampshire County Council, the Linbury Trust, the DCMS/Wolfson Foundation, Renaissance South East, and the Friends of the Willis Museum.

Key features are:

1. Enlargement of the temporary exhibition area (to be renamed The Sainsbury Gallery) and its re-design to the highest environmental and security standards, enabling it to stage top touring exhibitions.

2. Replacement of the Natural History Gallery by The Cafe Willis coffee shop.

3. Establishment of the Basingstoke Gallery on the first floor for community based temporary exhibitions.

4. Replacement of the top floor gallery display with an enlarged and improved Archaeology Gallery that has been moved from the first floor.

5. Restoration of original features of the building obscured by unsympathetic later developments.

6. Repairs to the external fabric.

2009: The refurbished Willis Museum re-opens in May. The first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Gallery is of paintings by Basingstoke’s most celebrated artist, the late Diana Stanley.

The environmental and security upgrades have qualified the Willis to show, a high profile touring exhibition from the British Museum, China: Journey from the East. Only a small number of local museums are thus qualified. The exhibition is officially opened by Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, KG (who established the Linbury Trust).

More high profile touring exhibitions follow, including an exhibition by the Mary Rose Trust, Made in China: an Imperial Ming Vase, a second exhibition from the British Museum, and the annual Veolia Environment Wildlife photographer of the Year exhibition.

 2010: Equipped with new specially made display cases a re-displayed Archaeology Gallery opens on the top floor. One display case is dedicated to George Willis, his collections (including some items from the clock and watch collection), and his achievements as a Curator.

2011: The Local History Resources moves to a new location within the building and its former room becomes the Ellaway Room for family activities with children.

After ten years as Curator Sue Tapliss retires and the present Curator, Jenny Stevens, takes over.

2012: Local government spending cuts result in staffing reductions, closure on Mondays and earlier closing on Saturdays. New volunteer staff are taken on to help make up the shortfall.

2014: Responsibility for the County Museum Service passes from Hampshire County Council to the Hampshire Cultural Trust. As an independent charitable company this enjoys a higher degree of independence and benefits not previously available to public sector organisations. It should be able to generate more investment from grants and donations, gift aid and rate relief.

2015: Improvements are made to Cafe Willis, including new outdoor seating in the Market Place.

Back to Home page