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Blue Town Heritage Centre reopens with stunning new displays of Sheppey history


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Do you remember how we used to live when there was no double-glazing or central heating?

Families would huddle around a coal fire on cold winter nights, sleep in beds with sheets, blankets and eiderdowns, not duvets, and wake shivering to find ice had formed on the inside of the windows.

Drying the washing in the kitchen over a clothes horse. Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre
Drying the washing in the kitchen over a clothes horse. Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre
Inside the outside toilet. Note there was no light at night- just a candle. Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre
Inside the outside toilet. Note there was no light at night- just a candle. Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre

Large families crammed into tiny two-room terraced houses and had to share one bedroom with children sleeping "top and tail" to fit in.

Women (it was always the women) struggled to ring hand-washed clothes through the mangle and then hang them over a clothes horse dangling from the kitchen ceiling to dry.

And don't mention going to the loo. There were no inside toilets in those days. I can still recall the mixture of surprise and horror the first time I discovered my grandparents had to go to the lavatory at the bottom of their garden. It was cold and wet and had squares of newspaper hanging from a string on the wall.

If you were posh, you used something called Izal toilet paper which was really only good enough for converting a comb into an improvised musical instrument.

If you think these are all distant memories, then take a real-life trip down Memory Lane and visit the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey run by Jenny Hurkett and her husband Ian. It is housed in the renovated Criterion Music Hall in the high street and now boasts themed "rooms from the past" upstairs.

Kitchen and dining room. Note the large working fridge on the left.Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre
Kitchen and dining room. Note the large working fridge on the left.Travel back in time at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey housed upstairs at the Criterion Theatre
Jenny Hurkett in the school room at the Criterion Theatre and Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheppey
Jenny Hurkett in the school room at the Criterion Theatre and Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheppey
The Rev Cindy Kent in the Sunday School room at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
The Rev Cindy Kent in the Sunday School room at the Blue Town Heritage Centre

There is a kitchen and 1940s parlour with a vintage wooden Ewbank carpet sweeper and wind-up gramophone, tin bath, wooden ironing board and what is claimed to be Britain's oldest working fridge donated by Island electrical firm Brian's.

Along the corridor is a school room with tiny wooden desks and a blackboard and easel recovered from the former Halfway Houses Primary School before it closed.

Next door is a typical Sunday School room based on the Bethel church with a large wooden "mouse" chair originally from the Island's former Girls Technical School and, strangely, the skin of a crocodile and an old pith helmet to remind pupils what early Christian missionaries had to face when spreading the word of God across the world. The room is a favourite of the Rev Cindy Kent.

Across the hall is a replica Co-op shop with old-fashioned till and shelves stuffed with packets of Oxo cubes, tins of corned beef and biscuits. Sheppey claims to be the birthplace of the Cooperative movement with the creation of the Sheerness Economical Society in 1816. An original ledger is on show in a glass cabinet.

The room has been put together by volunteers Sue Rivers-Nash, 69, from Iwade, her husband Kelvin, 71, who is a retired Royal Mail accountant, and Brenda Nash.

Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre.
Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre.
Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre.
Volunteers Sue and Kelvin Rivers-Simpson from Iwade have helped recreate a Sheerness Economical Society shop from the 19th century at the Blue Town Heritage Centre.

Sue said: "We didn't know about the museum until we were introduced to a music hall show by a friend. When we heard Jenny was looking for volunteers we offered to help. It is wonderful here."

There is a reference room where visitors can learn about their own past thanks to Graham and Penny Martin from Kemsley who explore the centre's archives in conjunction with on-line resources.

Penny said: "We can show how people used to live in abject poverty. Using information from the national census we can see how many lived in each house over the years. At one time, there was a man and woman sharing a typical terrace house at 31 Church Street with seven children all under the age of 15. And these tiny rooms."

Directories and reports of inquests held in pubs are packed with details of long-standing Sheppey families such as the Crockfords, Nicholls and Whelans. The amateur house detectives have unearthed a few skeletons as well, says Graham, who admitted: "Some tales have reduced me to tears during our research."

At the top of the building is the impressive Maritime Room with a reproduction of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's poop deck on HMS Victory. He not only began his naval career in Sheerness when he joined the crew of HMS Raisonnable in 1771 as a 12-year-old boy but ended it there, too, when his body, preserved in a barrel of brandy, was brought ashore from the Victory following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Jenny Hurkett outside the new-look Criterion Theatre and Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheppey
Jenny Hurkett outside the new-look Criterion Theatre and Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheppey
The Criterion Theatre music hall and its new seats at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
The Criterion Theatre music hall and its new seats at the Blue Town Heritage Centre

The heritage centre is Jenny's dream and amalgamates a series of popular TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, A House Through Time and Through The Keyhole under one roof. She and Ian were running a kitchen showroom in the premises when they discovered it had been a former theatre and set about renovating it. It has been a labour of love bringing it back to life but it has included many setbacks along the way.

When they failed to get a £300,000 National Lottery grant to add a third storey to show off their massive collection of artefacts and historical records Ian hit upon the novel idea of creating a third floor by lowering a ceiling and raising a floor to squeeze an entire new level between the two.

The the latest £65,000 phase began during the last Covid lockdown but ran out of cash before they could install a lift. But the centre still reopened on time last month. Swale's civic great and good were in the audience and former mayor Ken Ingleton gave an illustrated talk about Sheerness Royal Naval Dockyard.

It was in 1665 that King Charles II gave the go-ahead to help defend Britain from the Dutch and Samuel Pepys, secretary to Navy Board, set to work. But the Dutch invaded Sheppey in 1667 before it was finished. Engineer John Rennie began work on a new design in 1720. The dockyard was finally closed in 1960 after nearly 300 years with the loss of 2,000 jobs.

A new booklet aimed at children and their families has been funded by the Naval Dockyard Society and written by Minster resident Barbara Twiselton. It is available free to schools and groups as part of a series of history workshops.

Barbara Twiselton from Minster with her book Royal Naval Dockyard Sheerness 1665-1960 at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
Barbara Twiselton from Minster with her book Royal Naval Dockyard Sheerness 1665-1960 at the Blue Town Heritage Centre

Jenny said: "Sheppey should be truly proud of its rich history and particularly the Royal Naval Dockyard. It brought wealth and prosperity to the Island but also established Sheerness as a place of national importance."

She and her team are doing their bit to help bring history to life. Visitors will be relieved to hear the centre has up to date indoor toilets, too.

For more details visit www.criterionbluetown.co.uk or call 01795 662981.

What's on at the Criterion

Oh Boy. Live music from the 50s and 60s featuring Mickie Driver on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout June. £35 including fish and chip lunch.

Abbachic. Abba music. Friday, July 30. £20.

Singer Jess Conrad, the Criterion's patron, with Gerald Ford as Norman Wisdom, September 12. £25.

Elvis Presley tribute band Taking Care of Vegas, which launched the Criterion's new live entertainment season on May 29, return with a Christmas special on December 19. £20.

Film club every Friday at 1.30pm. A new folk club starts on September 11.

Read more: All the latest news from Sheppey

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