Folkestone Museum – From Smugglers to Dinosaurs
Folkestone has had a museum since the 19th century. Initially established on Tontine Street, the collection was largely of fossils but has grown over the years to include textiles, skeletons and paintings. Now, Folkestone Museum is located in the Town Hall on Guildhall Street, and you can get your hands on many interactive exhibits from dinosaur bones to Morse Code tappers.
Sally Hough, the Exhibitions Coordinator and Jennifer Buchman, the Museum Manager, are working hard filing away the recent Walter Tull exhibits in the Education Room. Folkestone-born Walter Tull was the first Black officer in the British Army during WW1. He was also one of the first Black professional footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town FC.
The museum’s collection is vast. “For a long time it had been split up across the county, due to lack of space to house it, Sally confides. “Do you know about the Master Collection? It’s our best-kept secret! It’s a really rare collection of drawings from the 15th to the 19th century. We’ve got drawings from Il Guercino, Agostino Carracci and Jusepe de Ribera.”
As well as these drawings, which need a lot of research done before they can be exhibited properly, the museum has a rich heritage to draw on. There is a natural history collection of fossils and even dinosaur footprints! “These were quite contentious to start with, but when more were found at The Warren, there’s more weight to their being genuine” says Jennifer, removing her protective white gloves.
A rich heritage
“We’ve got an Ichthyosaur, one of the reptile dinosaurs that look like a cross between a dolphin and an alligator,” Jennifer chimes. Sally focuses on the wealth of Anglo-Saxon finds they have at the museum. “This is something Folkestone has a lot of – Anglo-Saxon burials. We have a skeleton in the museum, called Aefre, which means ‘forever’ in Old English. She’s a possible contemporary of St Eanswythe who founded a monastic society here in Folkestone. What’s fascinating about this skeleton is that we know what she ate, and living by the sea, you’d think the Anglo-Saxons would have taken advantage of the marine life in their diet, but no! She ate meat, no evidence of fish at all!”
“We’ve got lots on the smugglers who brought lots into the UK from the sea. We’ve got ship-wrecks including a really famous one, and a wedding dress from the fishing community from around that time.” Sally counts these off on her fingers. “The Victorians made a huge impact on the town when it turned into a fashionable seaside resort. William Harvey, the man who described the circulation of the blood for the first time, was born here in 1578 and so we’ve always been a place of innovation and discovery.”
Folkestone on the Front Line
Jennifer adds “There’s also all the heritage from the World Wars. Folkestone was a port, and soldiers went in and out of the town. The Belgium refugees landed here in 1914, the wounded came through here on their way to other hospitals around the country. We were the front line, you really got a feel of the horrors of war seeing those returning from the fighting.”
“We’ve got lots more to tell though” says Sally, “this year we’ve got the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and the impact that’s had on the town. There will be an exhibition on that at the end of the year. Before that we’ve got an exhibition by local artist Shane Record. He’s been painting the town for the past 20 years or so, and so his work is a real document and reference to how the town has changed over the first part of this century.”
The Folkestone Museum is open daily, and is a great interactive place for all the family. There’s always something new to learn about, and there are workshops on during the school holidays. Folkestone Museum staff also go out to many schools and clubs to share our heritage, and relate it to what’s happening today with children and adults alike. There are collaborations with community groups in the town, such as with the Shepway Sports Trust to commemorate the life of Walter Tull.