Almost 50% of the collections in Guildford Museum belong to the Surrey Archaeological Society, which founded the museum in 1898. Today we think of archaeology in terms of excavations but the Victorians took a broader view. The collections of the Surrey Archaeological Society contain not only Prehistoric, Roman and Medieval artefacts, but also prints, maps, needlework and one of the most important rural life collections in the country. Research by members of the society over the last century includes archaeology and local history and the Society has played a major role in defining our understanding of Guildford’s and Surrey’s past.
1888 -Town acquires a museum
When in 1885 Guildford Borough Council bought the Castle Grounds, the SyAS offered to move its collection to the town if accommodation could be found. It was an age when social improvement for the masses was as important as tourism or social housing is today. Having created a park to care for the lungs of Guildfordians it seemed natural to acquire a museum to expand their minds. The move was approved in 1888 but had to wait until 1898 when the lease on the corner house in Castle Arch expired.
1898 – Museum opens in Castle Arch House
The Museum opened in 1898 and in 1903 the first curator and librarian, Frederick H Elsey was appointed who remained connected with the museum until his death in 1944. The location for the museum was Castle Arch House, one of the oldest houses in the town. It is a typical hall and cross wing built up against the castle wall dating back to 1544 but most of it dates from around 1630.
1911 – Gertrude Jekyll Collection
In 1907 the SyAS received an offer of a large collection which would change its relationship with the Borough. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll offered her collection of rural cottage furniture and utensils acquired over 30 years. It was and still is a very important social history collection. The society could not, however, afford the commercial rent on premises to store and display the collection.
The Borough therefore agreed to build an extension to the museum. However, the rate payers were spared the expense of construction when Alderman Smallpiece stepped in and paid for it. His family had connections with the town going back generations and had long been closely associated with the Corporation. The extension opened in 1911 and the museum became known as “The Guildford Borough and Surrey Archaeological Society’s Museum”.
1929 – Excavations on Guildown
The SyAS was running a museum, adding to collections, publishing research and maintaining a library. It was also excavating. Without the SyAS and the Surrey County Archaeology Unit our knowledge of Guildford would be so much poorer.
One of the most important excavations in Guildford took
place in 1929[i]. When
Mr and Mrs Kempter’s gardener found some remains in the back garden of a house
on the Mount the SyAS stepped in. At the time, the over enthusiastic
archaeologists thought they had uncovered the remains of a massacre recorded at
Guildford shortly before the Norman conquest. In reality they found a Saxon
cemetery with some wonderful artefacts such as rare glass beakers. More
importantly they found proof of Guildford’s Saxon origins.
1933 – Town takes over the running of the museum
From 1911 the museum was jointly and equally run by the Borough and SyAS. The theory continued that the town provided the building and the society provided the exhibits although the town was starting to acquire its own collections.
As collecting continued the museum’s running costs increased and the borough eventually took over the full running of the museum in 1933 but under the new agreement (renewed in 1953 and 1957) the SyAS had to deposit all its collections from the entire county (except graphics) in the museum.
1974 – Dominican Friary Excavations
The demolition of the Friary Brewery in the late 1960s provided a chance to find the remains of the original medieval Dominican Friary. Excavations between 1974 and 1978 revealed the entire plan of the Friary. Volunteers from the SyAS helped with the excavations which were run and written up by Rob Poulton of the Surrey County Archaeological Unit and published by the Surrey Archaeological Society in 1984
1985 – Wanborough Temple Excavations
In the mid-1980s a metal detectorist discovered gold coins in a field at Wanborough. Under the law of treasure trove any items of gold discovered are automatically the property at the crown. An inquest was held in 1985 and the judge made the mistake of revealing the location of the site. Shortly afterwards thieves turned up with shovels and even mechanical diggers to unearth literally thousands of Roman and Iron Age coins which were then sold on the market. There were stories of diggers shovelling lorry loads of earth into trucks which were taken away and sifted through. The volume of coins flooding the market was so great that the price of Iron Age coins dropped. The police became involved and there was no option but to excavate the site. The Surrey Archaeological Society stepped in and discovered a Roman temple along with many finds. Four headdresses were discovered on this site along with other religious items. Only 7 headdresses had been previously discovered in Britain and only one in Surrey. Sceptre handles were also unearthed. In 1999 a further excavation revealed a second temple. The theft of the coins became national news and resulted in a change to the law covering treasure trove.
1990 – Excavations at Guildford Castle
It had long been known that there was more to Guildford Castle than the keep. As a result, the Surrey Archaeological Society, Surrey County Excavation Unit, Guildford Museum and Guildford Borough Council came together to organise five summer excavations. The aim was to discover more about the town’s castle whilst also promoting the role of archaeology. In the first year (1990) over 150 volunteers took part in the excavations which was as many as the site could hold. Guided tours were provided and over 600 school children came to see the excavations and learn about the castle. When the Castle was restored in 2003-4 a model was created based on the discoveries. The excavations along with historical research and reports from earlier digs at the castle were published in an important volume by the Surrey Archaeological Society.
2015 Eviction and move to Abinger
Over more than a century the Surrey Archaeological Society had given the town a museum, shared important collections, published volumes of research, acquired a great reputation in academic circles, become the largest volunteer run heritage organisation in the county and made an enormous contribution to our understanding of Guildford’s past. So the decision by Guildford Borough Council to force it out of the town was a disgrace. In 2015 the new council suddenly issued an eviction notice as part of its plan to close the museum. The town’s lost a valuable partner but the SyAS has set itself up at a former school in Abinger where there is much more room for storage, post excavation work and research. The SyAS retains an office at Guildford Museum and will hopefully be as much a part of its future as it has been part of its past.