Victorian adventurer’s legacy lives on after Lottery throws lifeline

EVEN by Victorian standards, the exploits of Major Percy Stewart were remarkable.

Visitors enjoy the lakes at Burnby Hall. Picture by Gerard Binks.

As a big game hunter and collector, he circumnavigated the globe eight times and survived brushes with elephants and man-eating lions, invariably returning with a prize and bags full of rare artefacts.

But it was with the sense of philanthropy also common to the age that after his death Major Stewart left his estate in trust to the people of Pocklington, bequeathing the magnificent Burnby Hall and Gardens, which he had bought with his wife Katharine in 1901, to the public.

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It was a story that was in danger of being lost in recent years until a lifeline was delivered by the National Lottery, and as the Lottery’s 20th anniversary approaches, it is timely to consider its impact on important regional assets such as Burnby.

Visitors enjoy the lakes at Burnby Hall. Picture by Gerard Binks.

The site has been operated as a trust since 1964, but its ability to share its history and the story of the Stewarts with future generations was gradually diminishing, until the Heritage Lottery Fund stepped in six years ago with a grant of £330,000 to fund the first major refurbishment of the museum.

A six-month project, which involved the specialist input of conservationists, was completed in May 2008, and resulted in a much greater offer for visitors.

As well as improved facilities, better signage, and better access for visitors, staff were also able to increase awareness of what the site has to offer.

This includes the kind of rare and exotic exhibits that would be the envy of most collections, whose value has only increased with time.

There are sporting trophies such as animal heads, a face mask used in initiation rites in Papua New Guinea, a pair of Chinese shoes just three inches long, a kiwi feather Maori chieftain’s cloak, two Chinese snuff bottles, a carved wooden figure from the Solomon Islands, and the major’s diary, which also records details of the Russian Revolution.

In the spectacular gardens a section of a giant redwood tree can also be found, which the major used as his summer 

The public certainly responded. Of the 50,000 visitors who visit the hall and gardens each year, two-thirds of them now also visit the museum, a 30 per cent increase on the numbers before the renovation.

Estate manager Ian Murphy said: “It was completely refurbished, making it more accessible for people in wheelchairs and pushchairs.

“It also made the artefacts more accessible and we were able to give out more information about what they are about and where they come from.

“Part of the remit of getting the bid was also about raising awareness of the museum, which we did.”

He added: “As a charitable trust we really rely on grants. Money from the entrance fee sustains the place and pays the staff but doesn’t leave any capital for big capital projects.

“The Lottery grant was very important, it’s been one of the main ways of improving the place and moving it on.”