Behind the scenes at the Museum of Cannock Chase

Our speaker in May 2023 was Diane Leer-Hargreaves who is an education assistant, based at the Museum of Cannock Chase. Diane told us that the Museum, which is supported by Cannock Chase District Council, was established in 1989 on the site of a former colliery in the Hednesford Hills. The Museum, is now 10 years old and a nature reserve was added in 2022. The land was originally part of the Marquis of Anglesea's estate. It was given to the Council "for the use of the people of Hednesford".

The site was formerly the Valley Colliery, which was opened in 1874, and later connected underground to Wimblebury Colliery whose heyday was from 1860-1950. The two collieries are a mile apart and Wimblebury was part of the Marquis of Anglesea's estate, to which the mines paid a levy on coal produced. A reservoir was located on top of the hill so a deep tunnel was needed. Nevertheless, water did enter in the late 19th century. Subsidence occurred in the 1890s - when the reservoir collapsed! There were no injuries but sidings and a tramway were destroyed.

There were training galleries at the mine and pithead baths were installed in the 1940s (costing 3,500) for which the miners paid a shilling a week ( 2 today). Former miners still tell about their work and experiences at the baths where they would rub each other's backs. Eventually the mine was nationalised and electricity was introduced in the 1950s but the colliery closed in the 1960s.

From 1946 to 1982 training was given to 17,000 miners on the site, until this was transferred to colleges. Some buildings were left, including the present Museum building, the lamp building and the weighbridge. Subsequently it was decided to establish a heritage complex across the Chase with six visitor centres, including the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust's Wolesley Centre, Forestry England's Birches Valley, Cannock Chase Visitor Centre at Marquis Drive, Chasewater and Shugborough Hall. There is also a 10 mile heritage trail running from Cannock to Rugeley.

The Museum includes a research library, working to keep mining history alive. There are two replica cottages with interiors dating from 1920 and 1940; two permanent galleries (including the Tourist Information Point for Cannock Chase) and holiday workshops and award winning hands on sessions for the education service. For Primary Schools, tours to Castle Ring hillfort and other Roman sites are included. Local History fairs are attended by staff from the Museum. A conference room is available for hire. There is a book shop with a collection of local history books; local notables, such as Thomas Coulthwaite, are featured (He was a horse trainer, winning races from 1920-30). The mining gallery was refurbished in 2014 to give an enhanced experience with interactive features, including a coalface experience.

The Museum incorporates both the history of the colliery and domestic history. Before Covid-19 there were 45,000 visitors. The VE Day celebrations were one main event, halted by the epidemic and then disrupted by the Coronation, so will be celebrated in September this year. During Covid some events took place outside. There are family days, in both summer and in winter, which include craft activities. There is a sculpture trail. As a heritage venue the income provides for both operations and paid staff and the Rangers work hard to maintain the site. A new concept is the removal of objects behind glass! This was developed to encourage footfall.

The 1920s Miner's Cottage gallery is a two up, two down, with a black-leaded grate, tin bath (only a little water would suffice!), mangle, dolly tub and chamber pot (gazunda), newspaper for loo roll - with the Radio Times being superior - or tissue paper from fruit. People brought in many artefacts from which a selection had to be made. There is a 'Self Rescuer', which would give 30 minutes of breathable oxygen if the air in the mine become bad; this was essential equipment for all miners working below ground. Lunch was hung up in the roof, out of reach of pit ponies and moggies (the local name for a mouse).

In the 1940s room there is a fireplace, which was donated by a local family, and a wireless that broadcasts Churchill and Chamberlain's wartime speeches. The range has now been replaced by an oven with a temperature gauge; and there are black-out curtains with taped windows to complete the picture. There is a toy house, made from cardboard boxes with cotton reel chimneys (wooden of course) and doilie for curtains.

The Local History gallery features another local notable; a Doctor who had a private zoo. The zoo included a giraffe who could be seen over the wall, an elephant which ended up at the local abattoir, zebras and an ocelot. The doctor disappeared at the time of WW2; but where did the animals go? Another notable was a poetess who committed suicide. The war on the Chase is also recorded. There is the WW2 training camp - J.R.R. Tolkein was at Brockton Camp (Great Haywood House) - and Brindley village had a hospital.

There is also a Toy History gallery where children can play with toys both old and new. The collections officer has to select appropriate objects from the thousands that are brought in. Volunteers of all ages, including recently an 84 year old man whose daughter has also been a volunteer. The library provides research material, objects to look at and objects for children's projects. Setting up for temporary exhibitions is hard work, usually taking a week. There is currently an exhibition about Rugeley Power Station.

Art and Craft workshops take place at Halloween, Christmas, half-term, Easter and Summer and there is a 'little friends' toddler group. Drama sessions give a convincing experience. Staff may be multi-taskers too, running courses, being first aiders etc.

The area around the Museum is the Hednesford Hills. It has its own micro-climate and, as common land, it supports both sheep and Dexter cattle. This local habitat is important. Children are taken to experience the plants and animals at the heathland.

One question from the floor was "who are the visitors"; Diane answered that they come from everywhere - as can be verified from the visitors book.

This was an entertaining and informative talk; much appreciated by the audience. Diane supplemented her interesting narrative with many illustrations of the Cannock Chase centres. These centres, especially the Museum, make a great visit for people and children of all ages.

Lorna Bushell
May 2023