The weird and wonderful stories behind Britain's quirkiest museums

Find a collection of gnomes in Devon
Devon harbours a woodland full of gnomes - but why? Credit: The Gnome Reserve

Britain has no shortage of niche museums, but how did they come to be? Who conjured up Kent's island of teapots, for example, and why are their 130 dog collars on display in Leeds Caste?

From the mildly quirky to the downright bizarre, these are the stories behind nine of them...

1. Dog Collar Museum, Leeds

三级成人视频Leeds Castle - which lies, misleadingly, in Kent not Leeds - owns a collection of more than 130 rare and valuable dog collars. In 1977, Mrs Gertrude Hunt, presented them to the castle foundation in memory of her husband, Irish medieval historian John Hunt. Both Mr and Mrs Hunt were avid collectors and had together curated a hefty collection of antiquities - the dog collars, however, were Mrs Hunt’s particular weakness.

Her donation came to over 60 collars from all corners of Europe, and dated from the 16th to the 19th century. A further 30 collars were later found in the castle’s storage; clearly, the museum was meant to be. The Dog Collar Museum is now a permanent fixture in the castle and the collection has since expanded. Perhaps the most interesting are the ones from the 15th to 17th century, which were designed to protect dogs from the wolves and bears roaming Europe at the time.

Dog collars on display at Leeds Castle Credit: Matthew Walker Photography / Leeds Castle

2. Derwent Pencil Museum, Lake District

The Lake District三级成人视频 town of Keswick, has a long-running relationship with pencils. The first factory opened there in 1832, but the origins of the town’s pencil industry date all the way back to 1564, when Borrowdale shepherds supposedly discovered a black substance at the base of an upturned tree, and started marking their sheep with it.

三级成人视频Upon inspection, it was decided the black crystals must be “plumbago”—Latin for “lead ore”—and a mining industry sprang up around the find. In reality the “lead” was graphite (which is why pencils are sometimes falsely thought to contain lead) and by the 18th century it was priced at £5,000 per ton. Armed guards were stationed outside the mine at all times, and workers were strip searched at the end of the day - to check no valuable graphite flakes had made their way ‘by accident’ into their trousers.

Another kind of graphite-based subterfuge happened during WW2, when Keswick pencil-makers were commissioned by MI6’s Charles Fraser-Smith – the real-life Q – to make a gadget for British airmen. The result? Pencils stuffed with miniature brass compasses and rolled tissue-paper maps that displayed escape routes out of Germany.

三级成人视频The factory changed hands and names over the years, but eventually in 1981 became known as the Derwent Pencil Museum. Though the company still runs today, in 2007 the Keswick factory was closed down and moved to the town of Workington. The museum was thankfully kept open, and still tells the story of Keswick’s most important product.

Swatches of pencil colours Credit: Derwent Pencil Museum

3. The Devil’s Porridge Museum, Dumfriesshire

三级成人视频In May 1915, The Times reported on a worrying lack of ammunition for British soldiers in France. The ensuing panic over the ‘Shell Crisis’ led the government to appoint Lloyd George as the Minister of Munitions. He went on to order the construction of HM Factory Gretna: the largest munitions factory in the world.

The nine-mile wide site lies on the quiet Anglo-Scottish Border and stretches from Longtown in England to Dornock in Scotland三级成人视频. By 1916, munitions work had begun, and around 12,000 women had travelled across Britain to work in the factory, mixing the highly volatile paste that went into the shells. After visiting the factory as a War Correspondent, Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle dubbed this mixture ‘the Devil’s Porridge’.

三级成人视频Munitions production ceased in 1918, and the manufacturing plants were demolished shortly thereafter, but in 1997 a small exhibition about the “Gretna girls” was launched, and eventually grew into the Devil’s Porridge Museum that stands on the former site today. 

The Gretna girls Credit: The Devil's Porridge Museum

4. Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Cornwall

In 1951, English folk magician Cecil Williamson founded the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, to display his personal collection of spell-casting artefacts. He’d previously set up a similar museum in Stratford-upon-Avon but local opposition drove him to up sticks and move to the more magic-friendly island.

After the move, the founder of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardner, came on board as the museum’s “resident witch”. Alas, no spell could save the two men’s friendship - by 1954, the pair were at loggerheads, and Gardner purchased the premises from Williamson, renaming it the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft. But the story doesn’t end here. 

Williamson returned to the mainland to open his own rival Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, ending up in the town of Boscastle in Cornwall三级成人视频 after violent protests saw him routed from Windsor, then Bourton-on-the-Water. In 1996, Williamson sold his Cornish Museum of Magic and Witchcraft to British film producer Graham King. In 2013 the museum was transferred to art director Simon Costin, who now runs it alongside his own Museum of British Folklore. 

三级成人视频As for Gardner? He kept the Isle of Man museum open until his death in the 1970s, whereupon the contents were sold to the Ripley's brand.

A spellbinding experience Credit: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

5. Teapot Island, Kent

Teapot Island isn’t, in fact, an island. You’ll find this homage to teapots in Yalding, in a building that started life in the 1950s as a tin shack, selling bait and pots of tea to fishermen. That shack went onto become a café, and ditched the bait for a variety of baked goods.

Current owner Sue Blazye started collecting teapots after being given one by her grandmother in 1983; her collection grew to such a size that she ended up taking over the cafe in 2003 and setting up ‘Teapot Island’, a museum consisting entirely of teapots, on the premises. The collection is now the biggest in England, with more than 7,600 teapots on display.

The museum, however, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It featured in the book Crap Days Out, summarised thus: "It's awful if you don't like teapots. But it's probably alright if you do.”

The collection of teapots is wide-ranging Credit: Teapot Island, Kent

6. British Lawnmower Museum, Merseyside

三级成人视频The lawnmower was invented in Britain in 1830, when Edwin Beard Budding designed a machine to cut the knap from newly woven cloth. His neighbours considered him to be a lunatic, so the shy budding mechanic tested the machine on his lawn at midnight. He discovered the machine cut grass too, and the lawnmower was born. 

Similarly fascinated with machinery, ex-racing champion Brian Radam opened his British Lawnmower Museum after spending years working in his family’s business: Lawnmower World. A highly skilled engineer, he’s restored hundreds of lawnmowers and is a champion of British engineering from the Industrial Revolution until the Fifties, when, he says, decline began.

三级成人视频You may find a lawnmower museum eccentric, but to Radam, it goes beyond that. "Up to the Fifties, Britain made the finest cars, the finest motorbikes and the finest lawnmowers," he says. "I am saving fine workmanship from the scrapheap and displaying it to the world with pride."

British Lawnmower Museum: championing British industry Credit: British Lawnmower Museum

7. Old Operating Theatre, London

There’s a surprise inside London三级成人视频’s St Thomas' Church - one of the world’s oldest surviving operating theatres. The church’s garret was used by the apothecaries of neighbouring St Thomas' Hospital to dry herbs and store medicines (dried heads of opium plants were later found in the rafters) but was converted into a purpose-built operating theatre in 1822.

三级成人视频The women’s ward abutted the garrett, and prior to the theatre being built, patients were operated on in the ward. Though a separate room for operations was a slight upgrade, conditions were still pretty poor. Anaesthetics weren’t available until 1847, and operations depended on swift technique (it was said surgeons could perform an amputation in a minute or less). A viewing gallery was also included, so ghoulish paying pundits could watch proceedings.

In 1862, the hospital moved to its current location in Lambeth, and the old operating theatre lay undiscovered until 1956, when researcher Raymond Russell decided to investigate the opening to the church’s attic. Inside, he found the only 19th century operating theatre in Europe still standing - after a meticulous restoration, the Old Operating Theatre museum was opened to the public in 1962. 

The museum showcases the only surviving 19th century operating theatre in Europe Credit: Old Operating Theatre

8. The Smallest House in Great Britain, Conwy

三级成人视频Located in the Welsh town of Conwy, The Smallest House in Great Britain museum is quite literally what it says on the tin. Measuring 72 inches across, 122 inches high and 120 inches deep, the tiny house was created in the 16th century as an infill property between the cottages to either side. Amazingly enough, people did live inside the structure, which contains one bedroom and living area with cooking facilities. The last resident, a fisherman called Robert Jones, moved out in 1900 when the cottage was declared unfit for habitation. 

三级成人视频The owner - coincidentally also called Robert Jones - was persuaded by the editor of Conwy’s local paper to tour the UK so as to be able to declare the house The Smallest House in Great Britain. This was later officially confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records, and the house, still family-owned, now has a Welsh lady in traditional clothing standing outside to tell visitors about its history.

There's not enough room in the house for a gift shop Credit: John Hudson / Flickr

9. The Gnome Reserve, Devon

If you go down to these woods in Devon, you’ll find 2,000 garden figurines. Set in the parish of West Putney, the four acre Gnome Reserve and Wildflower Garden was founded in 1979 by Ann Atkin, a former art student, as a pastoral refuge for garden gnomes. About half of the reserve is an old beechwood, which is where the majority of them live.

Why gnomes? While struggling with her painting development, Atkin said: "one day a gnome appeared in my mind and seemed to say: ‘Don’t go left; don’t go right; you must build your own road straight across.’” The Gnome Reserve followed shortly after.

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