On 30th December, 1920, Godalming Corporations General Purposes Committee resolved to recommend to the Council that the upper portion of the Old Town Hall be converted into a Public Museum.
There had been other museums in the town, offering varying degrees of access to private collections. Charterhouse School had a museum, which is sometimes referred to as the Godalming Museum in the 19th century Proceedings of the Surrey Archaeological Society. In 1890 Messrs Mellersh had auctioned the museum made and set up by the late Mr W. Stafford, who is listed in the street directories as living in the High Street. The auction catalogue, addressed To Naturalists, Museum Collectors and Persons seeking Curiosities, shows the range of Staffords collection.
In building up his museum, Mr Stafford must have been competing for specimens with another Godalming collector, Mr Battson. The Godalming Directory for 1908 includes an advertisement for the Railway Hotel, Old Station, Godalming, which observes that Visitors and others should call and see the Museum which consists of Fowls, Dogs, Birds, Badgers, Fishes, Reptiles, Wild Cat, a Crocodile Killed in the Common Meadows, a Wonderful Cock-Hen that laid 300 Eggs and a lot of other Curios found in the Neighbourhood, collected by the Late Mr Benjamin Battson about 40 years ago. Sadly, this collection was destroyed when the hotel burnt down in 1930.
Now the Council proposed to establish Godalmings first public museum which was to display specimens of local interest. Haslemere Educational Museum, established only 32 years earlier with a collection (like those of Charterhouse, Mr Stafford and Mr Battson) encompassing ethnographic material, archaeology and natural history from around the world, is a fine example of the wide-ranging, universally educational aims of Victorian museum founders. The Godalming Councillors had a 20th century vision of a local museum interpreting and preserving the history of its particular community – though its roots were inevitably in the Victorian period.
The 19th century had been a time of rapid development for the town and the surrounding area. Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the Town Warden and his Assistants were replaced by a Mayor and Aldermen and, as the century wore on, the Godalming Corporations responsibilities and powers expanded. The Borough was extended and granted a new coat of arms in 1892. The Council outgrew the Old Town Hall and, in 1908, the new Borough Hall would open in Bridge Street.
The railway reached the town, connecting it with London in 1849 and with Havant (and ultimately Portsmouth) ten years later. Then Godalming experienced the usual population growth and building boom. The Street Directory for 1896 described how:
during the last few years building operations have been carried on very extensively in the town and its neighbourhood. The demand for residences is daily increasing – the general salubrity of the locality and the facility of railway accommodation offering great inducements for families desiring convenient country residences.
Among others, the railway brought London artists and intellectuals to the area, attracted by the beautiful (and accessible) scenery.
Charterhouse School moved down from London in 1872 and was welcomed as bringing academic distinction as well as employment to the town. Its Masters are to be seen in early 20th century film of civic occasions, processing formally with the Councillors. Old boys like Sir Robert Baden Powell gave the town a personal connection with world events. Godalming resident Joshua May, who died in 1968, remembered the relief of Mafeking: What joy there was in Godalming for was not Baden Powell, its senior officer, an Old Charterhouse boy? We felt so proud of him then, and again, later when he founded the Boy Scouts.
Institutions were built to serve the expanded population as well as to meet the demands of new legislation and the Victorians sense of social responsibility. The National School moved to larger premises in Moss Lane in 1843. Farncombe National School was built in 1856; Busbridge school in 1867 and the British Schools new premises in Bridge Road in 1872. The Technical Institute and Art School was built in Bridge Road in 1896. There were also numerous private schools in the town. St Johns Church in Farncombe was built in 1849, Busbridge Church in 1867, a new Congregational Church in 1868 and St Edmunds Catholic Church in 1899. Westbrook Place was bought by the Countess of Meath and opened as the Meath Home for epileptic women in 1892.
The 19th century also saw a flowering of antiquarianism in Godalming. Was it the rise of the Victorian middle class, blessed with the time, the resources and the education to pursue their own interests which brought this about? Or was it a reaction to the pace of change in the town? Was it inspired by a growing sense of civic identity and pride? Was it fuelled by the presence of intellectuals and artists, perhaps influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement with its respect and nostalgia for traditional ways? Whatever the reason, 19th century Godalming was the home of antiquaries who contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the town and its surrounding area and who gave their support to the proposal for founding Godalming Museum.
Contributor:Alison Pattison, Godalming Museum