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The Rural Life Centre in Tilford, Surrey has the
largest countryside historical collection in England’s South
The village of Tilford in south west Surrey, England is known for cricket matches on the village green and the more than 800-year-old Tilford Oak tree beside the green. It is also home to a museum celebrating over 150 years of village life, farming, and the rural industry. The Rural Life Centre sits on ten acres and contains over 30 buildings and 40,000 artifacts. The buildings include many “rescued” buildings, which were moved to the grounds and restored for museum use.
Madge and Henry Jackson started the museum when they realized valued country objects were becoming outdated and were being discarded. They built a collection of artifacts and opened the Old Kiln Museum in 1974. It was open only on Sundays. Henry’s Yard, now just one portion of the Centre, is the site of the original museum. It consists of a Wealdon iron furnace, a blacksmith’s forge, a brewing exhibition, and domestic interiors from the Victorian age and the 1930s.
Over the years the collection and museum grew. In 1984, Henry Jackson created the Kiln Museum Trust. When he died in 2004, he left the collection and the property to the Trust, which now runs the Centre.
The collection includes a variety of machinery and tools used over the years in farming and other rural industries, including wood crafts, hops harvesting and brewing.
Domestic life is also well-represented at the museum. Homes, a school, a village hall and a church are all part of the collection of buildings. The Tilford Building displays a number of store fronts, including a cobbler’s shop, a photographer studio, a gardening store, a veterinarian, a bakery, and a wheelwright.
The school room reminded me of one-room schools I’d seen in museums in Canada. The school room at the Rural Life Centre is made of wood and tin. The old Canadian one-room schools were primarily wood. Many of the other domestic and tool displays seemed similar to displays I might find in museums in Canada. There were similarities in the lives of people on either side of the ocean.
There were also things I’d be unlikely to find in a Canadian museum, like the egg vending machine in the photo above. It was used by farmers in the 1950s to sell their eggs at the farm gate in opposition to the government’s Egg Marketing Board which insisted on grading all eggs for size and stamping them with a lion symbol. The machines were completely mechanical and required no electricity. They could be placed in isolated locations.
Anderson Shelters were built during World War II from kits. They were to be built as far away from the house as possible. The steel panels were bolted together. The shelter was half buried and the top covered with earth. By September 1939, more than one and a half million Andersons had been issued. Families earning less than £5 per week received their shelter for free. The shelters were effective against blast and shrapnel, but uncomfortable and prone to flooding. They also did not mask the noise of the air raids.
The Centre also contains a Polish Camp with an exhibition on the Polish community that lived in the ex-military camp at Thursley from 1947 to the 1960s. Tweedsmuir Camp was located near Tilford and was built as a depot by Royal Canadian Engineers. Many thousands of Canadian troops may have passed through on their way to battles in Europe. After the war the camp was used as temporary accommodation for personnel of the Polish Resettlement Corps. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 offered British citizenship to displaced Polish troops on British soil who had fought against the Nazis and did not want to return to Soviet-occupied Poland.
There are several other buildings I have neither showcased nor mentioned. There is also a light railway which operates in the main season. It can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours to tour the Centre depending on how closely you examine each exhibit. If you are fascinated with old tools and machinery, you may want to linger longer. Dogs on leads are allowed. The Centre has free parking, disabled access, a café, and picnic areas. The Centre is open Wednesday to Sunday during the summer and Wednesday and Sunday during the winter. Check the Rural Life Centre site for exact times and for special scheduled events.
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