The House on Crutches Museum is situated in a remarkable timber framed building dating back to Elizabethan times. It houses an extensive social history collection covering many aspects of community life and agriculture in Bishop's Castle and South West Shrophire. The story of this unique small town is told through displays of local artefacts and memorabilia, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rural life and farming were very important in this area on the remote borders between England and Wales, but the town supported thriving industries such as brewing, shoemaking and tanning which are well represented in the museum. They also provide a glimpse into domestic life at a time when industrial innovations began to find their way into rural homes across the country.
When visiting the House on Crutches Museum, the first room you enter is the kitchen. Here you will find a replica cooking range and accessories and a display devoted to wash days. There are also replica items of period costume, and you can try some of them on! The ritual of the weekly wash, undertaken by women, was well established in most households by the 1850s. It was hard work, which took up most of the day, traditionally on Monday. Cotton and linen fabrics were widely available and popular by the late 1700s and early 1800s because of importation of cheap raw cotton from America. They were soaked and boiled in the copper, heated from below by coal or gas, then rubbed and washed by hand. Woollens such as jumpers, cardigans and socks were usually all hand knitted and had to be treated with great care to avoid shrinkage.
The Town Room is devoted to the history of local businesses. Clogs were sold from the nearby Welsh town of Knighton by the grandfather of the present shoemaker in the town. They had a regular contract for the local gas factory where irons on the soles would have been a distinct fire hazard. In earlier times, clogs met the need for cheap and durable footwear. Wooden soles and leather uppers were weatherproof and most families did the repairs themselves with the aid of a last. The irons and rubbers were easily obtainable and even the loss of a strap button could be dealt with easily. The Bishop’s Castle Tannery was at the bottom of the town, conveniently near a constant flow of water needed for the tanning pools. The brook also provided drinking water for the cattle market which was held at the bottom of Church Street outside the Six Bells. The tannery was perhaps, not so conveniently situated for the nearby church. Tanning is one of the oldest and smelliest of trades. Leather making involved a great many processes one of which was carried out with a scudding knife. It was used to scrape the underside of the hide, removing the soft tissue. The hides would be soaked in pools as part of the tanning process. Oak bark, stripped from felled trees, was the source of tannin, crucial to the curing process. It was this ingredient that gave the profession its name. Leather production encouraged the tradition of shoemaking in the town. However, the growth of factories in the North, making cheap mass produced footwear, meant that the production of bespoke boots and shoes was no longer economic. This shift in 'carriage' trade heralded a spate of shoe shops in the town. At one stage no fewer than seven shoe retailers could be found here.
The agricultural room is devoted to the influence of agriculture and countryside pursuits on Bishop's Castle and its South Shropshire hinterland. Everything required manpower and muscle. Mechanised farming began in earnest in the 1800s, leading to the introduction of steam driven machinery on the larger farms. On smaller holdings, largely because of the expense, hand operated tools and machinery continued to be an important feature of agricultural life until well after the Second World War. Manpower was cheaper and smaller farms simply could not afford large machines. Some farming tasks, such as hedge-laying, have never been effectively mechanised, and still rely on a knowledge of the old country crafts. Sheep farming played an important part in the economy of the area, as it still does today and there is a hand-cranked shearing machine on disply. Sprung-steel hand clippers would have been attached. The recent Foot and Mouth epidemic that devastated many small farms, meant that no shearers could come onto the farms for fear of cross- contamination. Machines such as these were taken out of mothballs, greased up and put to good use. The pig crack is a long table used in the meticulous cleaning of the pig carcass. The pig was an important animal in most country households. There were sties in most gardens, including those in towns. Pigs are easily fed and managed - they eat anything and get fat. They supplied the family with meat, bacon and ham, while any surplus could be sold at market. This particular example is fitted with iron wheels so it could be moved easily. The crack was also often used as a milking table if the householder was lucky enough to own a goat which was tethered onto the table so the animal was at a more convenient height.
The Parlour brings the visitor back to domesticity, but it is a domestic scene much changed by the centuries from the kitchen where the story of the town began. It now houses the museum's collection of children’s toys and domestic pastimes from the 19th century. The doll’s house dates from the 1920s and was made locally by an elder brother for his young sister. Much of the furniture is original. A number of small and miniature toys are displayed here. Of particular interest is the performing bare-back rider, which may have belonged to a circus set - popular in Victorian times. Less privileged children would have had simpler toys. Tops and whips, yoyos and kites, or a small boat to sail on the Wintle Pools, would have been more usual. Toys like these would have been home made. Because of the nature of the building itself there is very limited access for visitors with mobility difficulties, and there is wheelchair access only into the entrance hall. The two upper rooms are accessed by a staircase. On the other hand there are a lot of tactile experiences for the visually impaired. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Opposite Town Hall, High Street, Bishops Castle, Shropshire SY9 5AA
Transport: Craven Arms (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 543, 745 and 775 stop close by.
Opening Times : Saturdays, Sundays + Bank Holidays 14:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Free
Tel: 01588 630556