Tom Brown's School Museum. Standing on a corner of old sunken roads close by the churchyard in the village of Uffington, this tiny and unusual museum has an interesting history. It is housed in the nearly 400 year-old schoolroom that featured in Thomas Hughes’ book ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’. The Museum explains the history and archaeology of the area, including the world-famous Uffington White Horse, illustrates the village’s connections with Thomas Hughes and his famous books, and also the time that the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, spent living in Uffington with his family. It continues to record the changes in village life through the decades. Part of the Museum is arranged to show how it would have appeared when operating as a school in Victorian times.
‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, written by Thomas Hughes, includes extensive descriptions of life in Uffington in the 19th century. Hughes, who was born in 1822, was the son of Uffington’s Vicar, and much of the village is still as it was during his childhood. The book recounts Tom’s adventures at Rugby public school, and it illustrates Hughes’s radical ideas about education with his characterisation of the kindly headmaster Doctor Arnold. Another of Hughes’ books, ‘The Scouring of the White Horse’, records the celebrations that accompanied the renovation of the Horse in 1857. Hughes was an important influence for social reform in the 19th century. He supported Christian Socialist causes, was the first President of the Co-operative Congress, and founded a colony in Rugby, Tennessee which still exists today. Thomas Hughes died on 22nd March 1896. There is a statue of him at Rugby School. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ is still in print, and is of course available as an electronic ‘e-book’. There is a memorial plaque to Hughes in the North Transept of Uffington Church. It was donated by his friend and fellow worker, Walter Morrison, and unveiled on 29th November, 1912. In the Museum you can see an exhibit celebrating Hughes’ life and achievements.
The Uffington White Horse is the most impressive chalk hill figure in Britain. Though on the Berkshire Downs, the White Horse has been in Oxfordshire since county boundary alterations in the 1970s. With its uniquely elegant lines, at around 3000 years old it is now thought to be the oldest hill figure in the country. The image is a stylised representation of a horse some 114 metres (374 feet) in length. Until 1995 the Uffington White Horse was thought to date from the Iron Age, but in the 1990s a new dating technique called optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL) was developed. This revealed the Horse to be some 3000 years old, dating it to the late Bronze Age. Images similar to the outline of the Horse have been found on coins from that period, and there is a theory that the figure represents a horse goddess connected with the local Belgae tribe. Traditionally the Horse was ritually scoured every seven years under the jurisdiction of the local Lord, who had to fund the event. The festival – for that is what it became – could last for over three days and consisted of fun and games, traditional cheese rolling, wrestling and other pastimes. The festival was re-created by the people of Uffington in 2000 as part of their Millennium celebrations. Uffington Castle, also on White Horse Hill, is an impressive Iron Age hill fort, once protected by timber walls on top of the surviving banks and ditches. Go to the Museum to see finds from White Horse Hill and an explanation of the archaeological work carried out there.
Sir John Betjeman, who became Poet Laureate in 1972, was a very high profile figure and was well known through his appearances on television and for his love of traditional architecture and churches. He was born in London in 1906. Betjeman’s interest in churches and architecture was kindled at the Dragon School, Oxford, but he had been interested in poetry from an early age. At Magdalen College, he was part of the ‘literary set’ and after Oxford he was determined not to join his father’s business but to carve out a literary career instead. Betjeman and his wife Penelope rented Garrards Farm in Uffington in 1934. They soon became immersed in village life and also entertained many famous friends here. Their son Paul was born in Uffington in 1937. Their daughter, Candida, was born in 1924 while they were in Ireland. The family moved to Farnborough in 1945, then to Wantage in 1951. Sir John Betjeman died at Trebetherick in Cornwall on 19th May 1984. Later in her life Candida and her husband again lived in Uffington. She was a great supporter of the Museum and donated a large amount of Betjeman’s correspondence to them. The museum has a fascinating display on the Betjeman family and their connections with Uffington.
The Museum is housed in the nearly 400-year-old schoolroom that featured in Thomas Hughes’ book ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’. The building dates from 1617, and was built for Thomas Saunders when he founded a school for boys in the village. Saunders lived at Hall Place in Woolstone. Schools developed in most places through the provision of a Sunday School during the 1800’s, so the provision of a school in Uffington in the 17th century was a very early example of education for ordinary villagers. The Saunders Trust, which funded the School, was almost certainly established during his lifetime. In Saunders’ will, proved at Oxford in 1644, he charged his son (also Thomas) to use the proceeds from certain property in Uffington to the ‘maynetenance and releiffe of the said Scholemaster for the teacheinge of twelve poore schollers’. Visit them to find out more about Thomas Saunders, read about how the school was run, and see what a Victorian school would have looked like.
Inside the Museum, most of the displays, the computer for visitor use, and the Museum archives are on the ground floor. The annual gallery exhibition is on a mezzanine floor which is reached by a flight of stairs. Because of the age and position of the Museum building, people who are using wheelchairs or who have difficulty climbing steps will need assistance to get to the entrance. Between the road and the Museum there are two steps and a sloping grass path. The Museum doorway is 74 cm wide at its narrowest point. Assistance dogs are welcome. Because of the size of the museum, they are unable to provide refreshments or toilet facilities themselves, but on Saturdays there is a Vintage Tea Room at Uffington's Memorial Hall and on summer Sunday afternoons there are cream teas at St Mary's Church, next door to the Museum. Uffington's pub, the Fox and Hounds, is open from 11:00 to 23:00 on Saturdays and noon to 22:30 on Sundays.
Location : Tom Brown's School Museum, Broad St, Uffington, Swindon SN7 7RA
Transport : Swindon (National Rail) then bus (X47). Bus Routes : X47 from Swindon to Wantage stops in Uffington on Saturdays.
Opening Times : Saturdays, Sundays + Bank Holidays 14:00 to 17:00.
Tickets : Free
Tel. : 01367 820978