Burford’s heritage on display

What do Chipping Norton, Witney, Churchill and Burford have in common and the Wychwoods do not share? The answer is – a museum.

We hope that this piece, on the Tolsey Museum in Burford, will be the first in a series making these wonderful places more accessible and of interest to readers of the Wychwood, possibly encouraging a movement towards getting our own Wychwoods Museum at some time in the future. 

The Burford Museum is housed upstairs in the Tudor Tolsey Building half way up Burford Hill on the right hand side. The building dates from 1525 according to the roof timbers and may even be older. The building also houses the Burford Town Council Chamber and Office but in separate accommodation on the same floor.

As befits an ancient trading town, Burford accumulated many interesting artefacts over the centuries such as council maces and charters written on vellum. When the Corporation was dissolved in 1861, the last burgess, Thomas Cheatle, a benefactor and doctor of the town, took charge of some of these items and they stayed in his family after his death for two generations in spite of the Historic Manuscripts Commission arguing for them to go elsewhere such as to Oxford or to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Thankfully this was resisted.

By 1960 the reading room above the Tolsey building was converted to become a museum and objects saved by various citizens of the town were moved there. Roger Warner who ran a successful antiques business on the other side of the High Street had been accumulating objects of interest to the town but not commercially relevant to his business. He made some 200 of these available to the Museum on a long-term loan, eventually as a gift. Other objects were acquired by the Museum in auctions over the years. The most recent is the very impressive leaded bronze mortar from the Burford foundry of Edward Neale created in 1659 for Francis Keble whose name is on the casting.

A married couple, Raymond and Joan Moody, moved to Burford in 1960 and started to carry out extensive local history research which resulted in many books and the compilation of an extensive archive. Now in their 90s, they were keen for this to find a secure home. The Museum was simply no longer big enough to encompass all the historical riches of the town! However, a possible solution became apparent.

The Falkland Hall charity came to the rescue, with substantial capital funds for a new project, when Roger Warner’s daughter proposed converting a family property, an old builder’s store in Swan Lane, which had once belonged to Pethers. This conversion is now nearing completion (planned for March 2022) with grants from West Oxfordshire District Council (£50,000), other trusts and through generous local fundraising. This has left less than £45,000 for the community to cover and this is being achieved. The converted building will be known as the Burford Archive building and will be part of a renamed Burford Tolsey Museum and Archive, run by a single committee. It will contain all the primary research material currently dispersed around the town and will have working space with internet connection to enable original research to be carried out. There will be a small self-contained flat which will be rented out to provide income for the financial sustainability of the project.

Curator: Chris Walker

The Museum now contains hundreds of fascinating local objects connected with the industries once prevalent in the town such as brewing, baking, textiles, bell founding, clock making etc. There are ancient Burford seals, charters and record books. There is a splendid portrait of Speaker Lenthall and a large and detailed dolls house built in 1939 and based on the Great House on Witney Street. This was once admired by Queen Mary, who had her own version in Windsor.

The Museum is open every day from April to the end of October from 14.00 to 17.00. until Christmas, when it is open for the same hours but only at weekends. The Museum shuts between Christmas and the 1st of April. The Curator, Chris Walker, is seemingly equipped with a photographic memory for all things to do with Burford’s past and has been running the Museum for twenty years; definitely worth a visit.

Alan Vickers

December 2021 – January 2022