Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Exhibition, History, Literature, Motoring History, Museum, Rural Heritage

Exhibition: St. Barbe Museum, Lymington – ‘Lives Less Ordinary’, 30 Famous Locals From New Forest

  • Behind the scenes at St. Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington, featuring the Museum’s Director, Mark Tomlinson and Emma, Editor of Come Step Back in Time. Uploaded to You Tube, 3.10.14. Film made by The Reel Media Deal .

An exciting and fascinating new exhibition opens at St. Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, on Saturday 15th November and continues until Saturday 10th January, 2015. The exhibition, ‘Lives Less Ordinary’, is supported by law firm Clarke Willmott and celebrates the lives of nearly thirty local residents who made a mark both close to home and nationally.

Gilbert Oswald Smith. Image courtesy of the National Football Museum.
Gilbert Oswald Smith, former captain of the England Football team. G.O. Smith captained the England team on at least thirteen, and possibly as many as sixteen, occasions between 1896 and 1901, winning at least eight games, possibly as many as ten, and drawing two. Image courtesy of the National Football Museum.

The exhibition provides a chance to discover more about an eclectic mix of people whose exploits, influence and vision brought them to prominence or notoriety on the New Forest coast and beyond. These range from Gilbert Oswald (‘G.O.’) Smith (1872-1943), the David Beckham of his day, captain of the England Football team and every schoolboy’s idol to religious cult leader Mary Ann Girling (1827-1886), founder of a sect called The People of God, also known as the New Forest Shakers.

I am particularly interested in The New Forest Shakers, over the last year I have been researching this topic but there is a lot more library legwork still to do. A community of Shakers, led by Mary Ann Girling, settled in Hordle from 1873-1886. At their height, her group had one hundred and forty members. Whilst the community flourished in Hordle, worldwide Shaker membership declined, partly due to their doctrine of celibacy, the cult’s future looked bleak.

At first their eccentric doings attracted crowds from all the neighbourhood, and brakeloads of people from Southampton would drive over on Sunday afternoons to see the Shakers go through their wild performances. But as novelty wore off there was less to attract the hysterical, funds dwindled and the faith of the devotees dwindled also; and though some lingered on in destitute condition the death of the organiser [Girling] was the death also of the sect.

(Extract from a 1908 Guide)

Many people of Hordle and surrounding areas were none too keen on this ‘alternative’ community and remained unhappy at unwanted attention being brought upon this otherwise tranquil area. Eventually, through a series of unfortunate incidents, mainly relating to an unpaid mortgage, the group were evicted from their house, New Forest Lodge (now Hordle Grange) where they had been living for three years. The Lodge had been partly paid for by one of the followers, Julia Wood and the remainder financed by way of a mortgage. The group did, however, have a number of high profile supporters including Auberon Herbert, Andrew Peterson and William Cowper (1811-1888).

The group of a hundred and forty were forced to resettle on an estate in Ashley. Several months later they moved to a field near New Forest Lodge and in 1878 settled in nearby Tiptoe, living in huts and tents until Girling’s death from uterine cancer in 1886.  Following her death, the community disintegrated. Girling is buried in Hordle churchyard.

Other people of note featured in ‘Lives Less Ordinary’ include: occult novelist Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977); Arthur Philip (1738-1814), who originally founded the colony of New South Wales, and was the beginning of what would eventually become the nation of Australia; local hero Sir Harry Burrard-Neale (1755-1813, a British officer in the Royal Navy and MP for Lymington; John Howlett (1863-1974), who helped shape modern Lymington; Andrew Peterson (1813-1906) the eccentric builder of Sway Tower, a 66m high Grade II listed folly in the heart of the New Forest; and William Charles Retford (1875-1970), the best violin bow craftsman of his time.

Local actor Bruce Clitherow reading from William Retford's Memoirs of Growing-up in Ashley.
Local actor Bruce Clitherow reading from William Retford’s Memoirs of Growing-up in Ashley at a previous event in St. Barbe Museum.

Retford wrote, Memoirs of Growing-Up in Ashley, which provides a wonderful glimpse of rural life in late Victorian Ashley and Burley, two villages not far from Lymington. Retford moved to London in 1892 to take-up an apprenticeship as a bow-maker for cellos and violins:

All good things come to an end.  In 1892 Arthur Hill, the violin maker, spent the weekend at the Old House and offered me a job.  By the end of March I was in a third floor back in New Bond Street cleaning fiddles and fitting pegs.  Unhappy and hard up.  After the first week I was taught nothing more for a year. “Thereby hangs a tale,” written but quite unprintable.  Cleaning fiddles was kids play to me.

(For a transcript of Retford’s Memoirs together with a more detailed biography of his extraordinary life, CLICK HERE.)

The lives of contemporary figures will also be showcased such as Sammy Miller, championship winning motorcycle racer, in both road racing and trials, and Sir Ben Ainslie; the most successful sailor in Olympic history who has won medals at five consecutive Olympic Games including gold at the last four.

  • For more information about the ‘Lives Less Ordinary’ exhibition, click here;
  • For visitor information on St. Barbe Museum & Gallery, including ticket prices and opening hours, click here.
  • Follow on Twitter @StBarbeMuseum or Facebook.



Ben Ainslie featured in Lives Less Ordinary.
Sir Ben Ainslie featured, one of the modern-day local heroes featured in ‘Lives Less Ordinary’.

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