Situated on the outskirts of Basingstoke, Milestones is Hampshire’s Living History Museum. I was recently invited to spend a day there, meeting Museum staff. Afterwards, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the atmospheric cobbled streets, visiting buildings and shops that have been recreated from a bygone era.
Milestones is a relatively new Museum and was the vision of curator Gary Wragg. In 1996, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, of over £6 million, was awarded to build a Museum that celebrated Hampshire’s rich industrial and social heritage. The new building also enabled some of the vast collection of objects housed in the county’s museum store to be put on display, for the very first time, in one location. Milestones was opened on 1st December 2000 by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. The Museum has since gone from strength to strength and in 2003 was awarded the National Heritage Museum of the Year Social and Industrial History Award.
There are over twenty-one thousand objects on display at Milestones from the Victorian era to the 1940s. It is a pure delight for anyone with a passion for history, no matter what your age, to be able to enjoy domestic and industrial artefacts in their appropriate context. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the county of Hampshire was an extremely important centre for industrial manufacture and Milestones showcases this superbly.
I asked the Commercial Activities Manager at Milestones, Louise Mackay, what exhibits are most popular with visitors?: ‘The steam locomotives are a favourite with all ages but the 1940s exhibits are probably our most popular at the moment. I think that one of the reasons is our older visitors can still identify with this period. Over the last few years, interest in all things vintage has also helped raise awareness of this era. In fact earlier this month we hosted our first Blackout Party. An after hours event for adults, with a 1940s theme. Guests listened to music from the era and many came dressed in Forties clothes. We had about four hundred guests. Next summer we are hoping to host another Vintage Festival here and expect this to be as popular with our visitors as the one we held in June.’
Milestones is divided into court yards, main streets and back streets which gives the visitor the experience of walking around an established town. In Anna Valley Place, enter Waterloo Ironworks and discover the history of W. Tasker & Sons Ltd, an engineering firm that was based near to Andover, Hampshire. Taskers was established in 1813 and for one hundred and seventy years became the leading manufacturer of a wide range of agricultural implements. In the Thornycroft works shed there is a large collection of vehicles manufactured by this Basingstoke firm. Another important industrial firm was Wallis & Steevens, based in Basingstoke at Station Hill. Founded in 1856 and during its one hundred and twenty-five years of trading they designed steam engines, tractors, wagons and road rollers. They were particularly known for their steam and petrol rollers.
On the main High Street you can take visit a wide range of shops stocked with artefacts from times past. Every type of trade is represented, greengrocer, ironmonger, jeweller and watchmaker, Co-operative Society, Post-Office, milliner, saddlery, sweet shop, cycle shop, gas showroom, garage, a pub, chemist, photographer, toy shop and many more besides.
The streets are filled with vintage vehicles and there is even a railway station which is a replica of the former Chesil Street Station in Winchester complete with a Governess Cart setting-down its passengers for an afternoon departure.
A free hand-held audio guide is also available for visitors. This provides additional background information on the exhibits and helps to bring the settings to life. I must praise the curatorial team who have avoided the common mistake, so often made with this type of museum, of creating a historical ‘theme park’. The costumed interpreters are not intrusive or pushy but extremely knowledgeable about their particular era and most importantly have a genuine passion for bringing the past alive and to as wider audience as possible. It is with this talented group of individuals that I found the heart and soul of Milestones.
Armed with my penny and mini ration book sheet, which visitors can obtain from the gift shop, I was escorted to the 1940s sweet shop by Kate, one of the superb costumed interpreters. The delightful young lady explained to me the idea behind this particular exhibit: ‘We would like visitors to experience a traditional sweet shop during World War Two when rationing was in place. They can select one type of sweet from the selection on offer here and for your penny you will get two ounces of sweets. We then mark-off your ration sheet to show you have had your weekly allowance. Two ounces were the weekly sweet ration in the 1940s. There is no chocolate available in this sweetshop either.’
Sweets were rationed in Britain from 26th July 1942 to 5th February 1953. Chocolate was rationed from 1941. The government banned manufacturers from using fresh milk. Consequently, Ration Chocolate was all that was available and this was made using dried skimmed milk powder.
Kate told me about the origin of various sweets that we all know and love today. I didn’t realise that ‘Jelly Babies’ were originally known as ‘Peace Babies’. Bassett’s created ‘Peace Babies’ in 1918, to mark the end of World War One. During World War Two, production ceased and in 1953 the popular sweet was re-launched as ‘Jelly Babies’. I chose two ounces of Jelly Babies.
The sweet shop is staffed by a team of dedicated volunteers and open on weekdays 1-3pm and weekends, bank holidays and school holidays 12-4pm. One of the volunteers told me why she enjoyed working in the shop so much: ‘It is the stories that we are told by some of our older customers who remember similar sweet shops during the War. One particular customer told me that when she was a child, her town was badly bombed one night. The next day she discovered that in addition to the homes that were destroyed in her neighbourhood, the sweet shop had also suffered the same fate. It was the loss of the local sweet shop that she had found particularly upsetting. Another customer told me that when she got her weekly sweet rations she would choose sweets that she could cut in half so that they lasted longer. I also enjoy seeing grandparents talking to their grandchildren about their memories of Wartime and rationing. It is lovely to see such interactions between the different generations.’
In 1967, famous chocolate manufacturers, Bendicks, moved to premises in Winchester, Hampshire. Bendicks were established in 1930 by Mr Oscar Benson and Colonel ‘Bertie’ Dickson and began production in 1931 from a tiny basement beneath 184 Church Street, Kensington, London. In 1962, Bendicks received the much coveted Royal Warrant. Bendicks dark English mint batons use Black Mitcham peppermint that is grown at a farm in the foothills of the Hampshire Downs.
Below are a few sweet brands that you might know, together with the year they first went on sale:
1881 – Rowntree’s Crystallised gums (later became Fruit Pastilles)
1887 – Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate
1899-1900 – Seaside rock first produced
1909 – Maynard’s Wine Gums
1911 – Wrigley’s Chewing Gum
1914 – Fry’s Turkish Delight
c.1918 – Fox’s Glacier Mins
1935 – Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisps (became Kit Kat in 1937)
1938 – Cadbury’s Roses
1951 – Bounty (Mars)
1959 – Mars’ Opal Fruits
1967 – Mars’ Twix
Kate then accompanied me across the pretty cobble streets to the 1930s gramophone record shop. This shop really is something special, a stunning interior packed to the rafters with home entertainment objects from a bygone era. Visitors select a record, from a large choice presented in a catalogue, to be played on a 1928 gramophone. I just couldn’t decide, so asked Kate to choose her favourite, which was ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ (1932).
The playing of this record instantly transported us both back to our respective childhoods, only difference is that our household didn’t have a gramophone in it. Kate told me: ‘I remember as a child that there was a gramophone in our home. My parents were very interested in history and vintage objects. I think that is one of the reasons why I have such a passion for the bringing the past alive. Nowadays, in these difficult economic times, people are looking back to a time when everything seemed to be more wholesome, better.’
I also spoke with another costumed interpreter, Dickon. Dickon has worked at Milestones for seven years and his specialist areas of interest are transport history and industrial heritage. I asked Dickon whether he had always been interested in living history?: ‘Yes, very much. I come from an art and design background originally but inherited my love of transport history from my father who has been collecting vintage cars for over thirty years. I also own a 1929 Austin 7. I often attend vintage events in my spare time and have a Wing Commanders uniform that I wear when I am driving my Austin 7.’
Dickon has a number of different characters that he interprets at Milestones, including a 1930s car salesman. However, on the day of my visit his persona was a road repair man from the late 1920s. Dickon explained that during this period, workmen would travel up and down the country with their steam roller and towed ‘living van’. I asked Dickon what his favourite exhibit at Milestones was?: ‘The 1903 motorcar by Thornycroft of Basingstoke. It is the oldest Thornycroft motorcar in existence. It is a 10hp, two-cylinder and has had its bodywork completely restored. Luckily, we had the original drawings for the vehicle which helped considerably in the restoration process. The paintwork is not sprayed but all painted by hand. I particularly like the beautiful wooden spokes on the wheels, such attention to detail. The first owner of this car was Reverend H. A. Acheson-Gray. I haven’t driven the car myself but it is one of my dreams to be able to do so.’
Thornycroft of Basingstoke are probably best known for their shipbuilding, marine engineering and commercial vehicle endeavours. However, between 1903 and 1912 they manufactured high quality motor cars. If you want to find-out more about Thornycroft’s car industry and read a full history of the 1903 car displayed at Milestones, which includes background on the restoration process, then CLICK HERE.
Milestones is such a wonderful day-out for visitors of all ages who are interested in history and vintage or just want a slice of good old-fashioned nostalgia. There is a well-stocked gift shop with a wide range of history books too and a 1950s style café for you to rest your weary legs. For adults there is even a working Edwardian pub, Baverstock Arms (but do check its opening times upon arrival). Alton-born James Baverstock (1741-1815) was a Brewer and thought to be the first person to make use of a hydrometer in the brewing process. In 1769 he married Jane Hinton, daughter of the Reverend John Hinton of Chawton, Hampshire with whom he had a large family and plenty of heirs to carry on his brewery business for him.
If you are looking for somewhere to visit over the Christmas period then the good news is Milestones will be open. The Museum is easily accessible by both car and public transport. I can vouch for the latter as this was how I chose to travel there. Basingstoke is only forty-five minutes by train from London Waterloo. A shuttle bus (by Courtney Buses www.courtneybuses.com) runs at regular intervals from outside Basingstoke Railway Station to Milestones (fare currently costs £2 return). Because Milestones is all undercover, there is no need to worry about the weather spoiling your visit either. All in all the perfect day out for the whole family. For further visitor, collection and event information, please CLICK HERE. Admission charges do apply.
Christmas Opening Times
- Sat 22 Dec and Sun 23 Dec: Open 11am–4.45pm
- Mon 24 Dec to Weds 26 Dec: CLOSED
- Thurs 27 to Mon 31 Dec: Weekdays open 10am–4.45pm, weekends 11am–4.45pm
- Tues 1 Jan: CLOSED
- Weds 2 to Sun 6 Jan: Weekdays open 10am–4.45pm, weekends 11am–4.45pm
Normal Opening Times
- Tue–Fri, Bank Holidays, 10am–4.45pm
- Sat and Sun, 11am–4.45pm
- Last admission 3.45pm
- Closed Monday.