Spalding’s treasure of a museum

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It’s been a home for Belgian refugees in the First World War, a ballet school and a wedding reception venue.

Since 1986, Spalding’s Grade 1 listed Ayscoughfee Hall has been a museum and its grounds have long been the perfect place to head to on a summer’s day.

However, Ayscoughfee Hall has been an imposing landmark in the town since it was built in the 1450s, when Henry VI was on the throne, probably by someone called Ayscough.

According to museum officer Julia Knight it was built as a stately family home. Of the families who lived in it, the most famous were the Johnsons, who gave their name to the local hospital. They were in the house from the mid-17th century until the house was sold to the people of Spalding in 1898 – for £2,000.

The first Johnson – John – was followed by six generations of Maurice Johnson, and the most interesting of these is the second (1688-1755), a lawyer by profession, who was an antiquarian and had an interest in science. It was he who founded Spalding Gentlemen’s Society and corresponded with people such as Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope and William Stukeley, who was a childhood friend. Incidentally, he and his wife Elizabeth had 26 children.

Julia says: “The most frustrating thing from my point of view is that they sold the contents of the house at the same time as the house so we have the catalogue of things that were here. If they had stayed here, we’d be like a National Trust property and have the rooms as they were.

“Practically, we are not that type of museum because, to bring us right up to date, we had a big Heritage Lottery Fund grant and closed for a few years about ten years ago and part of the conditions of funding were that the main exhibit is the house itself as opposed to the objects in it. It is one of the earliest brick domestic dwellings in this part of the world.”

Most of the building is original, the additions through the years covering up rather than destroying medieval features, and it is these that fortunate visitors on the occasional heritage tours are permitted to see.

Julia explains: “We don’t have regular tours because we have bats in our roof but we are hoping to do one later in the year when the bats are hibernating and are keeping a list of names of people who are interested.

“They get to see the medieval cellar, the gallery, the bedroom above the gallery and then go out on to the roof. We go into the roof space and can see the original 15th century English oak roof beams complete with medieval craftsmen’s carvings and graffiti.”

The museum has a lot of locally donated collections that can be viewed by appointment, and displays consist of information about the house and its inhabitants as well as local history.