Museums come in all sizes, but this one is special, writes Ian McMillan.
I’m sitting in one my favourite places in the whole of Yorkshire, The Café Gallery at the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in the middle of my home village of Darfield, near Barnsley. To be honest I usually just call it Darfield Museum because, like the lovely toasted teacake I’m munching, it’s a bit of a mouthful.
On the other hand, without Maurice there would be no museum, so it’s only fair that we should celebrate him. Maurice was, to put it mildly, a very unusual citizen of the South Yorkshire coalfield of the 1950s and 1960s.
He was a gay make-up-and-nail-polish wearing ex-soldier who ran a corner shop just across the road from the Cross Keys pub. My mother used to recall him and his partner Fred walking down the pit lane to Great Houghton holding hands and looking a bit like Barbara Cartland and Joanna Lumley, and I have a very early memory of going into the shop as a young lad and seeing Maurice perched on a high stool in a powder-blue suit as though he was a character from a Noel Coward one-act play.
He was smoking a cigarette in a long holder and arguing with the stoic Fred in a voice that my dad would have called “light coloured”. It says a lot for the basic decency of the people of the Dearne Valley that Maurice and Fred were an accepted part of the social scene, although Fred was also rumoured to be an ex-marine who would clout any pitmen or teenagers who tried to take the mickey as they bought their Spangles and Park Drives.
When Maurice died in 1990, having been predeceased by Fred, he gave the shop and the splendid 18th century house it joined on to, along with his impressive collection of antiques, to the people of Barnsley (via the Darfield Amenities Society) as a museum.
That’s why I’m now sitting enjoying my toasted teacake and cuppa. Of course these things are always much easier said than done and it was many years before the museum opened its doors. A heritage lottery grant had been obtained in 1998 by the Amenities Society thanks to hours of epic form-filling and the café served its first scone in 2000 and the museum opened to visitors in August of the following year.
The grant was £164,000 and, as Geoffrey Hutchinson from the museum points out, they got that money at the same time that the Lottery gave £8m for the Churchill Papers. I wonder what would they have given for Maurice and Fred’s?
So now the museum sits proudly at the centre of a community that’s been around for hundreds of years. Darfield was mentioned in the Domesday Book, there are Saxon stones in All Saints Church, and Roman coins were found on Quern Way, but the exhibits concentrate on more recent history.
There’s a case devoted to Maurice, of course. He was born in 1912, went down the pit like everybody did round these parts, joined the Army and then worked in the hotel trade before buying 2 Vicar Road in 1956.
The photographs show a glamorous man with piercing mascara’d eyes and a jacket that’s so sharp you could open envelopes with it. The three main rooms are as packed as the shop used to be on delivery day, but none of it feels like clutter.
You can look at mining memorabilia and farming tools, old pit lamps and strange implements for stretching gloves. There’s a chalked timetable for the Camplejohn’s buses that used to chug between Darfield and Wombwell and a thing that looks a bit like a rolling pin that you can use for reducing cellulite.
Each of the objects rings with cultural resonance, each of them might get your grandma or your uncle waxing lyrical for hours, and perhaps that’s the point of smaller museums like this one: they show a community to itself, they give a place a practical sense of how the currents of history aren’t always necessarily national or international, but they’re always local in some way.
So we can learn about the current state of British industry not only by looking at well-documented events like the decline of the coal mines but also by examining half-forgotten Darfield places of work like the Toy Factory and the Football Factory. We can consider the globalisation of entertainment as we look at the old playbills from the Darfield Empire Cinema (now the Church Hall) which closed in 1956.
We can wonder at the backbreaking work of washday as exemplified by the washtubs and possers, and we can marvel at the range of patent medicines that kept the folk of Darfield wheeze-free, bright-eyed and regular. Nujol laxative, anyone?
In the café gallery there’s a group doing decorative card crafts, because at a time of reduced public amenities the museum serves a really valuable purpose as a meeting space and the walls of the gallery part of the café are always full of the work of local artists because, as my grandson Thomas once pointed out, if it was just old stuff in a museum it old be an Oldseum not a Newseum.
I knew what he meant. And maybe every community in Yorkshire could have a place like this, even if it didn’t have characters like Maurice and Fred.
The museum’s not standing still, either; they’re applying for more money to convert an old Reading Room, given to people of Darfield in 1879 by the local rector, into an educational resource and so the form-filling marathon has begun again. I wouldn’t bet against them getting it, though: I reckon Maurice is watching over them from somewhere stylish.
Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre, 2 Vicar Road Darfield, Barnsley S73 9JZ. 01226 754593. Summer opening hours: Sundays 2pm-5pm, Wednesdays 1pm-4pm, Saturdays 10am-4pm