The Museum and its collection exists thanks to Shipston-on-Stour and District Local History Society. With its long title to ensure it includes all surrounding villages, the society was formed back in the mid 1960’s. Promoted by local historians Harry Parry and Leonard Bradley along with other like-minded residents who had a shared interest in local history and a desire to preserve our communities’ heritage. With Mike Ashley amongst them as one of the younger members, he enthused about local history and believed artefacts with personal stories and memories were the best way to capture useful bits of the past for future generations. It is thanks to this boundless enthusiasm that he and fellow curator Dick Burge have preserved the collection as it is today.
To begin with the group was relatively small, meeting regularly for discussion and sharing slides. The first meeting, (a talk on Ditchford Friary, a lost medieval village near Stretton on Fosse), was attended by around 50 members. There was plenty of activity established in the group with regular trips organised. On a monthly basis, an expert speaker was booked to deliver a talk on a wide variety of subjects normally hosted at Shipston High school. With a great deal of commitment and time from many founder members the group became hugely successful.
In October 1965, the Society hosted an exhibition at the Townsend Hall over a weekend (with members sleeping there overnight for security reasons) – a night at the museum! The general public were invited to bring along items of historical interest - preferably local, many setting up their own stalls. Attracting over 1000 visitors this was a real highlight for everyone involved and resulted in many artefacts, photographs and donations being made to the Society. Attracting more interest, at its peak there were eventually over 100 members. Occasional exhibitions continued, talks delivered, and countless contributions were made to all sorts of organisations and events.
With the collection growing, by the early 1970’s it was eventually housed at the Old School room on Old Road, now the Society’s HQ. With so many artefacts donated or on loan there was a drive to open a permanent museum. With Mike Ashley as convenor sadly these plans were never quite realised due to financial constraints and in those days, far fewer tourists and visitors to the town. Although the society continued to flourish until the late 80’s, membership eventually began to dwindle and in the early 90’s meetings were discontinued. Mike and Dick decided to concentrate on preserving the collection. Although the Society was in sleep mode for a while, they continued to visit local schools, host town talks, guided tours and support as many local requests as possible.
Eventually The school room was no longer available to house the collection and with limited resources there was a real danger it would be dismantled/dispersed or re-distributed elsewhere. With most of the items either on loan or gifted by local people it was inconceivable to allow it to be lost. Mike was determined to retain Shipton’s artefacts in the town and make the collection accessible for all. Mike and his wife Jo eventually realised a solution - to provide rent free storage at their home, eventually dedicating one of their rooms for a museum.
Now nominated as joint curators by the remaining members of the society, Mike and Dick worked hard to organise and open a museum in Sheep Street. Eventually there was a grand opening by President, Major Peter Gardner on the 21 st September 2000. The museum then flourished for nearly 20 years – over that time attracting thousands of visitors from all over the world. Both curators had an encyclopaedic knowledge of local history – its people and places, past industry, notable events, well known families from the past, stories from the wars- the list goes on. All of which they loved sharing.
Many visitors would come in search of their ancestors and more often than not Mike or Dick had some snippets of information to pass on. Mike particularly enjoyed regular visits made to and from the local primary school.
In 2019 shortly before Mike’s death, it had been agreed it was time for the museum to find a new home and trustees for the future. A very welcome move had been confirmed to New Clerk house. With tremendous efforts from new President Bekky Hillman, fellow new trustees Martin Russell and Rebecca Ashley there is a real hope the museum will be seen by many more people for years to come. Along with other volunteers and Dick’s continuing help, we are bringing it into the 21st century! The Museum is undergoing an update - we are currently upgrading our system of cataloguing and recording the sizeable collection in more detail. With thousands of photographs to scan, we are planning to make them available online. To make further fundraising possible we aspire to become an accredited museum so that we can raise money and apply for grants to secure our future.
Although the opportunity for an informative chat with Mike has sadly passed, it is with thanks to him that the Museum is open today. It is our hope that these resources will equally have the power to evoke and inspire our connections with the past – just as he intended.