“ Council Offices / Adam & Eve Street / Market Harborough / LE16 7AG / Tel: 01858 821085 „
I live in rural Northamptonshire in a part of the county that could fairly be described as quaint or quiet or even pretty. It should therefore come as no surprise that its also at times a bit on the dull side. In fact, Id go as far as to suggest that Northamptonshire and the southern end of the neighbouring county of Leicestershire are actually pretty much closed during the winter months. In the summer we are bursting with stately homes a-plenty but nothing opens before Easter. The gentry of the area are clearly in hibernation probably tucked up with their foxhounds and saving on their heating bills.
A couple of weeks ago I had a visitor a girl from Colorado whos the daughter of an old friend. I invited her to come and stay whilst she's visiting the UK but maybe I should have given more thought to what to do with a 20-year-old student in such a quiet place. Once I'd put the large bag of her dirty laundry on to wash, we needed to find somewhere to go.
I kicked off her introduction to English village life with a very twee coffee morning at my neighbours house where everyone I asked recommended that Market Harborough was THE place to go. One old dear told us about the Harborough museum and its fascinating collection of corsets. How could we resist?
So after filling up on home made cake and buying a few raffle tickets we set off the small town of Market Harborough not exactly an expedition for me as I go there a couple of times each month. However I had never been to the museum in fact, I hadnt even realised there was one.
~ Finding The Museum ~
The museum is tucked behind the library and the local council offices in a converted factory building a corset factory no less - on the delightfully named Adam and Eve Street. Entering through a large arch, the museum is on the left-hand side and theres parking to the right whether its public parking or for council employees only, Im not sure. Access to the museum is up a flight of stairs so if you are in a wheelchair or cant manage stairs, youll need to enter through the council offices back on the main street where theres a lift available. If you are planning to visit on a Sunday and cant manage the stairs you should call ahead to make sure you can get access to the lift.
~ First impressions ~
The museum is about the size of a small library all on one floor and easy to see everything in about 30-45 minutes. It focuses on the history of Market Harborough and the surrounding areas and has a distinctly eclectic set of exhibits.
On first entering we ploughed straight into an exhibition on the womens Land Army during the second world war with photographs, clothes and personal comments from ex Land Girls. Next was a display of hats (including a big basket of assorted head gear for kids to play with).
There was a display about being in domestic service in the early 20th Century with an interactive assessment tool with lots of buttons for the kids to push. Questions about your education, your family, physical strength etc were used to tell you what sort of domestic job you could have expected to get back in the early decades of the 20th Century:- From good family? In good health? Strong and a hard worker? even so youd most likely end up as a general servant in a middle class home. There were examples of old domestic equipment including an early washing machine, an old-style water closet and so on. By this stage I was feeling pretty pleased about being born too late to get dragged into such delights and was feeling very grateful for my washing machine that was eating its way through Lauren's laundry whilst we were out playing.
~ Local Industry ~
A lot of the displays relate to local industry in and around Market Harborough. Like its southern neighbour, Northampton, Market Harborough had a shoe making industry. The museum has a replica of a shoemakers workshop complete with all the equipment and the wooden shoe lasts. Theres also a small display of shoes through the ages some of which Id be more than happy to have taken home with me if only I had the dainty paws of a bygone age.
For me the highlight of the collection was the display of corsetry in the Symington collection. There were childrens vests and liberty bodices alongside old advertising statues including a delightful display of a kangaroo and lots of little joeys all wearing their liberty bodices. The ladies under-garments ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous via the positively torturous and tracked the changes in the desired body shape through time. From the tiny waists of the pre-first world war era, through to the bust flattening fashions of the post war flappers, on to the parachute silk undies of the make do and mend generation during the Second World War. There were contraptions I remember my mother wearing anyone else spend their childhood fascinated by the 18-hour Girdle? What happened to all the flab during the other 6 hours per day and some very jazzy 1970s psychedelic big pants. Decade by decade waists went in, hips went out and boobs went every which way.
I sucked in my tummy and thanked my lucky stars to have missed out on the body fascism of the past that had kept women in their place just as much as any employment legislation or absence of the right to vote. Anyone who thinks todays debates on skinny models are something new should take a trip round the corset display at Harborough museum.
The museum has a set of brass Swedish maidens. These headless, limbless torso moulds with their tight waists and oddly asymmetric forms were used to steam the starched corsets to create the ideal body shape of their time. There are also samples of the machinery used and the highly uncomfortable machinists sewing stools from the Symington factory.
~ What else? ~
Its not all work and no play though theres a small display of very old childrens street toys from an era when a hoop, a stick and a spinning top could still captivate a childs imagination as fully as any playstation game would today. I believe most of them came from St Dionysiuss Church just down the road where they were found in a bricked up stairwell and are believed to have been confiscated from the children during services.
Its also not all 20th Century history some goes a lot earlier. There is a display of Roman mosaic flooring thats suffered centuries of rather slap-dash maintenance.
~ Other facilities ~
Theres a small shop with post cards and nick-nacks, a visitors book, lots of pamphlets about local issues like composting (!) and an information desk.
~ Would I Recommend? ~
To be entirely honest, its not the sort of museum thats going to set the world alight and I wouldnt drive out of my way to see it. Im more of a fan of the Northampton Museum with its enormous shoe collection than I am of the tiny Haborough museum. However, if you find yourself in the area, if its the down season for all the stately homes, if its raining and all the cutesy tea shops are full to bursting, you could do a lot less than a quick half hour in the museum. Its free, its central and its a pleasant diversion when youve run out of other things to do.
~ Other Recommendations ~
Pop into St Dionysiuss Church its rather a nice one although its currently undergoing a lot of renovation and looks a bit of a mess. We found a nice old lady who insisted on showing us round, pointing out all the best sites and telling us lots about the history of the place. Other than that have a nice afternoon tea, tuck into a good cake and try not to think about the corsets!
Council Offices, Adam & Eve Street,
Market Harborough LE16 7AG
Telephone: 01858 821085
Admission Free! My favourite price.
10 am to 4.30 pm Monday to Saturday
2 pm to 5 pm on Sundays.
The Museum is closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Day, Good Friday and the last full week of January.
Harborough Museum is open daily througout the year and admission is free. There is a programme of temporary exhibitions and special events. The Museum opened in 1983 and is operated in partnership by Leicestershire County Council, Harborough District Council and the Market Harborough Historical Society. There is one full time Keeper and six part time Museum Assistants. There are a number of volunteers and a small Friends group.