The current Museum was opened in 1904. However some of the collections are associated with the Newbury Literary and Scientific Institution founded in 1843. The Institution began a collection and later operated a small museum from the 1860s to the 1890s in a house in Bartholomew Street. Only a small number of items from this period can be positively identified in the current Museum collection. Some were sold at auction in 1898 with others being saved for a future Newbury Museum. Hardly any documentation survives from this time and means knowledge of this early collection is limited.
Newbury Borough Council had agreed that they would take the material if the Institution folded, which inevitably happened. Fortunately the restoration of the early 17th century Cloth Hall presented the opportunity to open a formal museum for Newbury. From 1904 until 1974 the Museum was run by Newbury Borough Council. In the early years of the Museum there was a high turnover of curators who often were ex-Mayors with Montagu Palmer in 1903, followed a year later by F. Comyns and then W.E. Lewendon in 1905. From 1909 – 1974 direction for the Museum was provided by two Honorary Curators: Harold J.E. Peake (1908-1946), and Harold H. Coghlan (1946-1974). They did much to develop the Museum and its collections.
The work of the Museum always had the very strong support of the Newbury and District Field Club. The Field Club was founded in 1870 and has had a major interest in the natural history, archaeology and local history of the ‘Newbury’ area although it had a fairly wide geographical remit. Its interests often paralleled those of the Museum. Peake resurrected the Field Club in the 1930s after a period of decline. He was President of the club from 1930 to 1946 and its guide and mentor for many years. Coghlan was also closely associated with the club as Vice President. The Field Club used the Museum as its base and many of its members contributed collections to the Museum. The Field Club also funded archaeological excavations in the locality. Some of the most important were the early work at Rams Hill in 1938/9 directed by Stuart Piggott, and Wymer’s excavations at Thatcham. Another local member of the Field Club and contributor to the Museum was O.G.S. Crawford, who became the first Archaeological Officer at the Ordnance Survey. Crawford’s early career was heavily influenced by Peake. Crawford donated a number of archaeological items to the Museum (including some he picked up in the trenches in France during World War One).
With local government reorganisation in 1974 responsibility for the Museum passed to the new Newbury District Council which covered a much wider area than the immediate Newbury borough (virtually the same area as that of West Berkshire District Council in 2015). The Museum was renamed Newbury District Museum. The Council decided that they would appoint a professional curator, and Tony Higgott was appointed in 1978. Since that date much effort was put into documentation, storage and redisplay.
The 1974 local government reorganisation made major changes to administrative boundaries in the area. A substantial part of the old county of Berkshire (beyond the watershed of the Berkshire Downs) was transferred to Oxfordshire. Collections of archaeology and natural history in the Museum previously did cover a wider area, and material from some locations now falls outside the West Berkshire boundary. Other collections tended to be more focussed on Newbury. Since 1974 more effort has been made to extend collecting throughout the Council’s administrative area. This policy accelerated with the change of status of the Council in 1998 when it became a unitary authority (with a change of name to West Berkshire Council). The Museum was once again renamed as the West Berkshire Museum to reflect the new status. It is the only general museum in the whole of the West Berkshire area.
The above is an edited account taken from the Collections Development Policy 2018.