The old cu­rios­ity spot

Hor­ri­ble his­tory at Moy­ses Hall MusuemN

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS & PHO­TOS: Lind­say Want

What the Dick­ens is that strangelook­ing flinty build­ing, sand­wiched be­tween the burger bar and chemists at the top of Bury’s Corn­hill?

From a dis­tance, it looks like a Vic­to­rian school with its sharply pointed gables, bell-tur­ret and clock. But edge closer and the aus­tere old place soon shows its first-floor Nor­man arches, touch of Tu­dor trac­ery, broad stone but­tresses and cas­tle-thick walls. Just vis­i­ble through a door, so qui­etly marked ‘Mu­seum’, a mys­te­ri­ous vaulted world awaits.

Young Charles Dick­ens would prob­a­bly have been ac­quainted with this his­toric heavy­weight when he found him­self re­port­ing on Bury’s po­lit­i­cal im­pro­pri­eties for the Morn­ing Chron­i­cle in 1836. Back then, he’d have known it as the Bor­ough Po­lice Sta­tion rather than to­day’s more el­e­gant Moy­ses Hall, and by the time of his 1859 stay at The An­gel, he’d have gazed upon its ‘new’ wall clock and ‘re­stored’ roofline. It would have had lock-ups, but then the would-be fortress had a long his­tory of ‘hospi­tal­ity’ as a Bridewell for petty of­fend­ers and as a poor house. It was also part of the once neigh­bour­ing Cas­tle Inn, and an ear­lier, me­dieval tav­ern, where towns­folk re­put­edly piled in for a slap-up break­fast in 1327, after a ri­ot­ing ram­page and hideous mur­der of one Roger Peasen­hall. A che­quered his­tory for a build­ing with such a plain façade – and that’s only half the story.


Just step­ping into Moy­ses Hall can be a tad chill­ing. Stout stone pil­lars and the low-vaulted ceil­ing of the Un­der­croft nat­u­rally seem to bring the tem­per­a­ture down a de­gree or two, even be­fore thoughts of creepy crypts kick in, or eyes catch sight of the gib­bet cage dan­gling non­cha­lantly in the mid-dis­tance.

Step through the even lower arch­way of the West Gallery and within min­utes you’re chew­ing on tales of a wolf with St Ed­munds’ sev­ered head be­tween its teeth, peer­ing at the foot of a mu­ti­lated me­dieval spi­ral stair­case and won­der­ing at the strange-headed beast­ies doo­dled in me­dieval book mar­gins, and the Bruege­lesque ghouls de­picted in the doom-like Cel­lar­ers Win­dow paint­ing.


Dis­play cases and ex­hi­bi­tion boards tie up his­tory into bite­sized Bury bun­dles – the rise of the Abbey, the lo­cal Magna Carta

story, and tales of con­flict, like the al­most piv­otal Plan­ta­genet Bat­tle of Forn­ham.

Amaz­ing gems seem to come in small pack­ages too, like the tiny 7th cen­tury gold, gar­net­topped mount from a sword belt, the golden tip (aestal) of a 9th cen­tury read­ing poin­ter, the lit­tle files of holy wa­ter worn as pil­grim badges and the pen­dant en­velop­ing a trea­sured lock of Mary Tu­dor’s hair.

“This used to be the par­cel of­fice for the Great Eastern Rail­ways Com­pany in the 1890s, you know,” says mu­seum cu­ra­tor and sto­ry­teller ex­traor­di­naire Ron Mur­rell. He points out the boiler-ash ce­ment and iron stretch of Vic­to­rian re­cy­cled rail­way line sup­port­ing the floor, both just vis­i­ble by the open trap door. He fu­els con­ver­sa­tion with

tales of the Un­der­croft’s fire sta­tion days and how the low arches came un­der threat for be­ing rather trou­ble­some when get­ting the en­gines in and out. His words lend yet an­other di­men­sion to Moy­ses Hall, but what were the ori­gins of the build­ing?

“You’ll have no­ticed the Bar­nack stone then?” he tests. “The place was prob­a­bly put up by the abbey. There’s a chron­i­cle which talks of Ab­bot Sam­son build­ing some stone houses, and dates seem to fit with the same pe­riod as the com­ple­tion of the west front of the abbey.” So, the build­ing’s well over 900 years old. That’s a lot of com­ings and go­ings. Enough to cre­ate a spec­tral traf­fic jam per­haps? Sur­pris­ingly Ron won’t be led. Sud­denly he’s a man of few words, and will only say that he’s been in the place among peo­ple and with no one, and he never feels alone

But per­haps there’s noth­ing more cu­ri­ous than our own cu­rios­ity. Here’s you’ll be drawn to the tav­ern time­piece which records all the lo­cal ex­e­cu­tions, the ‘strike silent’ case­ment clock that some­how send shiv­ers down the spine. And as if the Vic­to­rian Red Barn mur­derer’s scalp with ears in­tact is not blood-cur­dling enough, there are all sorts of gory arte­facts and de­tails per­tain­ing to prison life and witch­craft in ‘the Pas­sage’ lurk­ing be­hind the Un­der­croft. Spot the tor­tur­ing cato’-nine-tails, and the mum­mi­fied moggy which was cor­nered up a farm­house chim­ney, thanks ei­ther to hu­man su­per­sti­tion or sheer fe­line cu­rios­ity.

For a mu­seum which in­cor­po­rates part of an old pub, there are cer­tainly plenty of sober­ing things to take in. In the 1970s, two new gal­leries were cre­ated out of an ad­ja­cent 16th cen­tury prop­erty. One is ded­i­cated to giv­ing just a taster of the heroic tales and times of the Suf­folk Reg­i­ment. With pow­er­ful his­to­ries, cam­paign uni­forms and well-cho­sen army arte­facts sym­pa­thet­i­cally dis­played along­side the oak braces and beams of the build­ing, it’s re­veal­ing stuff, and def­i­nitely whets the ap­petite for a visit to the ded­i­cated Suf­folk Reg­i­ment Mu­seum on Bury’s Out Ris­by­gate. Stay cu­ri­ous though, for who knows quite what you’ll find in the other tim­ber-framed gallery, or the Nor­man Great Hall, home to an on­go­ing pro­gramme of of­ten up­beat ex­hi­bi­tions. Here you could be con­fronted by any­thing from fine art and fash­ion state­ments to film icons, Suf­fragette sto­ries, NASA space race mem­o­ra­bilia, or even an un­nerv­ing crea­ture or two from the sci-fi world of Star Wars and the time trav­els of Dr Who.

But reach­ing fur­thest room of the Nor­man house, packed with sun­di­als, clocks and pocket watches, there’s no doubt that it’s the weird and won­der­ful which make Moy­ses Hall tick. The Ger­shom Park­ing­ton Horol­ogy col­lec­tion is un­ex­pected, stun­ning and rep­re­sents al­most ev­ery great clock­maker of Eng­land and beyond. It glitters with gor­geous gems, from Augs­burg au­tom­a­ton to ex­quis­ite enam­elled pocket-watches, and ivory in­dul­gences. But the real show-stealer is a strange lit­tle crea­ture. Stop by Moy­ses Hall on your Suf­folk trav­els and see the tiny, ta­lented tur­tle from Dick­ens’ day which points out the time as it swims around its lit­tle pond.


TOP RIGHT:Moy­ses Hall Mu­seum, Bury St Ed­mundsBELOW LEFT:Ghoul­ish go­ing­son in the Cel­lars Win­dow paint­ingBELOW RIGHT: The Wil­liam Corder ex­hi­bi­tion. Corder was hanged for the mur­der of Maria Marten

The gib­bet cage non­cha­lantly hang­ing in the crime and pun­ish­ment dis­play

A mum­mi­fied cat, to ward off witches per­haps?

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