Many people aren’t aware of the fact Peterborough has a museum, least of all where it is! It’s actually tucked around the back of Cowgate in one of Peterborough’s most historic buildings.
The first recorded house on the Museum site was in the 16th century, when a grand mansion was built there for the Orme family, who were given land in the area by King Henry VIII in 1536. The Orme family were MPs and magistrates for the city and were chiefly responsible for building the Guildhall in Cathedral Square which still stands today. Some stonework still survives from this original house in the cellars under the Museum, and there may be more elsewhere in the building.
The main part of the current building dates from 1816, when it was a grand Georgian house for Peterborough magistrate, Thomas Cooke and his new wife Charlotte. He lived in the building until his death in 1854.
In 1856, the Priestgate mansion was sold to the 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam, who allowed it to be used as the City’s first hospital, the Peterborough infirmary from 1857 until 1928. The building was altered after a fire in 1884, with wings being added on the side and an extension to the rear. The infirmary, run by a charitable trust, continued to outgrow the building, leading to the construction of a new hospital as a memorial to Peterborians killed in the First World War. Upon completion in 1928, the hospital was moved to this building, until recently part of the Peterborough District Hospital.
The Peterborough Natural History Society and Field Club was founded in 1871 to promote interest in local natural history. Within a decade, the Society had widened its interest and laid the foundation of a museum and a library. It became the Natural History, Scientific and Archaeological Society and in 1947 took its modern title of the Museum Society.
The Museum building was acquired by Percy Malcolm Stewart, Chair of the London Brick Company, who donated it to the Museum Society. It was opened as a museum in 1931, with the art gallery added in 1939.
Many of the original Georgian features can still be seen today, as can traces of its use as a hospital – we still have the old operating theatre, which is being restored as part of the current museum redevelopment. The Museum also has a darker side to its past, and is said to be the most haunted building in the city.
There are currently over 200,000 items in the collections. They include the Norman Cross prisoner of war craftwork, Jurassic marine reptiles, artefacts from Roman Peterborough, and the original manuscripts of the famous poet John Clare.
With Natural history, art, Social History (with items relevant to Peterborough’s history such as a Perkins engine), Norman Cross, Geology and Archaelogy collections, it really is worth a morning wandering around.
I took my 3 year old in Half Term to the Museum Menagerie activity (which was heaving) and she loved looking round the Changing Landscapes gallery with dinosaur bones and the Ice Age section (or “the ice age film” as she called it).
Walking round the Victorian Operating Theatre is a strange experience with it’s original tiling floors and walls. You can almost smell the antiseptic.
There is also a great little coffee shop on site.
Where to find the Museum?
Peterborough Museum, Priestgate, Peterborough, PE1 1LF
When is it open?
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm (last admission 4.30pm)
Open Mondays (School holidays and Bank Holidays), 10am – 5pm (last admission 4.30pm)
Open Mondays (School terms) for pre-booked groups only.
Closed 22-24 December, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year.
General admission is FREE.
Admission on special event days: Adults £3, Children, Students and Seniors £2, Families £6 (2 adults and up to 3 children), under 5s and Heritage Pass holders FREE.
All images courtesy of Vivacity Peterborough