Background: In the late 1980’s there was a surge in the re-development of the inner harbour area. As youngsters, we had always known Commercial Road as a traditional working area and the harbour area was referred to as the ‘backwater’. The ‘Boat Train’ trundled backwards and forwards to the wooden pier throughout the summer months taking happy holidaymakers to the quay to catch the steamers which would take them to the Channel Islands.
By the junction with Westham Bridge stood the old Melcombe Regis School (opened in 1911) which had become redundant by 1970. Directly opposite, on the other side of the bridge stood the fabricated, pre-war, single storey building that was the Weymouth Library.
In 1971, the then Chief Librarian, Jack West had permission to set up a ‘Local History Exhibition’, in the old school. The building proved to be surprisingly adaptable with plenty of light and space in the old classrooms. Even the cellars were brought into use to store the archives (although they were very wet!). Entrance was free and local people gradually became quite attached to this ‘ad hoc’ museum and the collection grew. Technically this was under the auspices of the local authority because many of the items and the various privately donated ‘collections’ were gifted to the inhabitants of Weymouth. In 1974 it formally became Weymouth Museum.
1987: plans were announced for the quite significant re-development of Commercial Road; new shops, new blocks of flats and a re-alignment of the quayside as well as the evolution of this part of the harbour into a new marina. The site of the old school was to be the Marina Headquarters. The old school had to be demolished and the museum would have to be either discarded or a new home found to house the now quite important collections and archives.
Jack West called a general meeting of townsfolk in the old museum and I remember that it was well attended. The then Mayor, Michael Jewkes was there, as was Harvey Bailey, the then Weymouth & Portland Borough Council ‘Entertainments Chief’ who had been given the brief to oversee the relocation of the collections. The choices were stark; either find a new home or the collection would be transported in its entirety to a Pickford’s repository near Bristol. It was decided at that first meeting to form an ‘action group’ to resist the removal of the collection as we feared that once gone, the collection would be forgotten and never return. Many meetings were then held with a core group of ‘Friends’ that included my old friend Richard Crumbleholme and even the town crier, Doris Eastwood! There were about seven of us but I cannot remember all the names and there was a certain amount of ‘coming and going’ in the early days. I do remember that Eric Ricketts, the celebrated local architect and expert on local buildings, was very supportive. Essentially, we wanted to write a constitution, set up charitable status, but most importantly find a new home for the collection. This was achieved within a year and the ‘Friends of Weymouth Museum’ (FOWM) was born.
Then in 1988: something quite remarkable happened. John Cannon, owner of Devenish Breweries, was in the throes of converting the old brewery into a shopping village and visitor attraction, later to be known as Brewer’s Quay. He offered the FOWM space on the first floor and a 25 year agreement was drawn up to offer some degree of security to the collection and to the ‘Friends’. Roger Dalton had been appointed as General Manager of Brewer’s Quay and he also saw the value in having the museum stand alongside the ‘Timewalk’ visitor attraction and was thus highly supportive of FOWM group. By the spring of 1990, the ‘Timewalk’ had opened and the collection was safely housed and ready for the public once again.
In order to maintain local interest, the FOWM organised monthly speaker meetings, an AGM and special events such as a charity auction to raise funds. We even organised a big ‘Weymouth History Day’ at the Pavilion which was incredibly well attended; providing clear evidence that Weymouth folk certainly were interested in their town’s colourful history. Eric Coetzee became the Editor of the quarterly newsletter which helped to keep members informed of activities and developments.
Jack West stayed on as museum curator for a short while to oversee the transfers to the new site but his health was precarious and so a new curator was soon employed, Rodney Alcock. Rodney remained curator until 2004 when he retired.
In 2000 Weymouth Museum was separated from the Timewalk in order to become eligible for conversion to a charitable trust, although this never happened due to the frequent changes of ownership of Brewers Quay. The ‘Friends’ continued to work closely with museum management, providing a pool of volunteers and organising events. The fund raising enabled the buying of equipment and collection items for the museum.
I had been elected as Chairman from the beginning of the process and remained so until 2003, with Richard Crumbleholme remaining as secretary throughout that time. In 2003 a new chairman, David Riches, was elected who in turn handed over the baton to our current Chairman, Pauline Carter in 2015. Membership fluctuated but there was always a core of stalwart volunteers who kept the museum alive and offered a valuable asset to general visitors and local history researchers alike.
Last words: The Friends are continuing to thrive with an active programme of talks twice a year and visits to various local heritage site around Weymouth & Melcolme including some visits to Museums further afield. So do join the Friends of Weymouth Museum to show your support for a new Weymouth Museum.