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Friends of the Willis Museum Logo

A registered charity that promotes, supports, assists and helps improve the Willis Museum in Basingstoke.

A History of The Friends

The Friends of the Willis Museum was established in the latter part of 1978 with the object of promoting, supporting, assisting and improving the Willis Museum. This followed a letter from the museum curator to the Gazette publicising the proposal. An inaugural meeting was held in the former Mechanics’ Institute building in New Street which had become a part museum and part public library in 1931 and was now part museum and part art gallery, the library having moved to its present premises in 1969.

The following is a brief history of “The Friends” since that time. 


Curator Tim-Schadla Hall writes to the Basingstoke Gazette proposing a Friends’ Association for the Willis Museum and asking for expressions of interest.

Readers show interest, and an inaugural meeting follows chaired by the late Dudley Keep, a Borough and County Councillor who subsequently hands over the chairmanship to a member and becomes President. These key structures are soon put in place:

  • a constitution (objective: “to promote, support and improve the Willis Museum”),
  • a committee elected by members at an Annual General Meeting,
  • Registration with the Charity Commission.

A programme of lectures and other events is drawn up and the annual subscription is fixed at £2.50.

At this time the museum is located in New Street, Basingstoke in a building that was originally the Mechanics’ Institute.


A Fund raising committee of Friends is set up tasked with raising funds for improvements to the museum’s entrance and reception area, including better access for the disabled. This will commemorate the 50th anniversary of when the museum first opened as the Borough Museum in 1931. A separate “improvements account” is created.

Raising funds for specific improvements to our museum continues to be a key activity.


The Fund Raising target is met, partly through soliciting donations from local industries, though the improvements have yet to be finished.


The number of Friends has risen to 67. The Chairman reports that the monthly lectures have become so popular that “we are on occasion short of space and even chairs.”

The first Friends’ newsletter is issued to keep members up to date with news from the County Museum Service, and with forthcoming events. There are to be three issues a year.

 The newsletter continues to serve the same purpose, though content has widened to include articles on local history and various other subjects of particular interest to Friends. All Friends are encouraged to contribute. Months of issue have varied, and for a period there were four issues a year, later reverting again to three.

 In the first issue the curator asks if Friends will offer temporary help at the museum “during times when staff members are away on holiday or off sick.” In the second issue he thanks Friends for “responding magnificently to the call,” and for their “invaluable” help in keeping the museum open.

Friends continue to give valuable volunteer assistance to the museum, both “front of house” and behind the scenes.


Dressed in rustic costume, the Friends publicise themselves on a float in the Basingstoke Carnival. It is towed by a Basingstoke built Wallis and Stevens steamroller.

The Friends’ carnival float in the 1983 Basingstoke Carnival: standing second from the right is Shirley Whatmore the then secretary of the Friends, and third from right wearing what is meant to be a farmer’s smock but looks more like a frock is Gavin Bowie, the Willis Museum Curator at that time.

The first printed annual programme of talks and other activities is issued. “Saving Hampshire’s heritage”, “Ghosts of North Hampshire”, and The London and South Western Railway” are among the lecture subjects. Three field trips are announced, as well as an evening visit to Whitchurch Silk Mill, a “Keepers’ evening” (an invitation to bring objects of interest for discussion with museum experts), a Musical evening and a Christmas social.

Talks on a wide range of historical topics (mostly local) continue, and so does the Christmas social. Visits continue, too, but are usually limited to one a year. Unfortunately our present location is not well suited to musical events. Meetings have always been held on the third Thursday of the month.

The Friends enthusiastically support a plan to move the museum to the former Basingstoke Town Hall. They like the more central location and the prospect of having twice the exhibition space – even though benefits from their first fund raising effort will be very short lived. It is agreed that funding better access for the disabled to the new museum will be a priority


The Willis moves to its new and present home in the former Basingstoke Town Hall.

The Friends buy window boxes and plants as a first gift to the new museum. Fundraising begins for aids for disabled visitors.


A pocket “Visitor’s guide to Old Basingstoke” is produced in partnership with Basingstoke Art Club who provide the drawings. The printing costs are kindly met by the Eli Lilly Company. Copies go on sale at the museum.

For the first time the Friends purchase as an exhibit for the museum, an item of early 20th century commemorative china. This is an ornament in the shape of a cottage with a reproduction of the seal of Basingstoke on its roof. More gifts of exhibits follow over the next two years including a barometer and a gold bracelet that are both identifiable as having been sold at the shop kept by the museum’s founder, George Willis, and a ceramic in which a local chemist Arkas Sapp sold tooth powder.


The Friends accept a challenge from the Friends of the Curtis Museum Alton to a skittles match. They lose the match.

The match becomes an almost annual event. There is a (not very) valuable cup for the winning team, and a treasured wooden spoon for the losers.


Thanks to fund raising by the Friends a stair lift is installed between the first and second floors to assist the museum’s less mobile visitors. A donation from Barclays Bank helps with its cost.


The Friends fund the re-installation of a chandelier original to the building over the stair well. They also part fund the purchase of the Basing House stump work (raised embroidery) exhibit.


The Friends make an ex gratia payment for conservation work by a volunteer on the museum’s costume collection, and purchase a microfiche reader for the Resources Room.


The Friends contribute to the cost of newly installed stair lift for the main staircase, and purchase two wheelchairs for use by less mobile visitors, one for first floor and one for second floor.


A Friends’ donation chest comes into use, a valuable source of funds exclusively for bettering our museum (as distinct from improvements to the county museum service).


The Friends support the publication of the biography of George Willis by Derek Wren.


The Friends fund the purchase of a computer and printer for the Resources Room, and part fund the purchase of a bottle collection for exhibition.


The Friends help to pay for improved lighting on the ground floor.


A contribution is made towards the cost of new padded chairs for the meeting room, and towards replica Roman costumes for visiting school groups.


The Friends assist with the purchase of an environmentally controlled display case for the Basing House stump work. This enables it to go on public display for the first time in many years.

The Friends help to win assurances that the Willis will not be closed and its collections dispersed when the Basingstoke Public Library becomes a Discovery Centre.

As a registered charity the “Friends” receives its first Gift Aid payment from the Inland Revenue.

A member bakes a commemorative cake to celebrate the Association’s 25th birthday.


The Friends and the Tadley and District Historical Society jointly purchase for the museum a medieval gold and sapphire ring found in Tadley by a metal detector.


Members put together a “Basingstoke then and now” exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Borough Museum by George Willis in 1931.


The Friends’ website is created by the late Chris Cullingham, a volunteer attached to Basingstoke Volunteer Bureau. Chris also becomes the website’s first manager. Some newsletters are sent out by email for the first time.

The Friends sponsor a new version of Derek Wren’s The story of Basingstoke. Originally made as a tape/slide presentation, with a commentary spoken by the late John Arlott, and subsequently produced as a VHS video, it is re-mastered as a DVD with revised and additional material including a second part to bring the story up to date. All profits from sales go to the Friends to be used exclusively for improvements to the museum. The DVD becomes a local best seller and the Friends’ No 1 fund raiser.

The Friends contribute £5000 towards a major museum re-vamp. This covers restoration work by a specialist craftsman on historic ceilings and cornices on the ground floor, one of a raft of alterations designed to bring the building back to something more like its original 19th century condition.


A members’ survey produces a clear indication of how Friends would like to see the museum develop in the future. A priority emerges to make the museum’s Time Tunnel exhibition more “Basingstoke focused”. This aim becomes the main objective of current fund raising.

The Friends fund a sound system for the top floor meeting room.


For exhibition, The Friends buy an engraved silver salver that had been presented to the Borough Council to John May, a great benefactor to the town, “on his retirement from the mayoralty in 1894”.

Asked to comment on the County Council’s Museums and arts strategic planning review, a response by the council to anticipated cuts in government spending, the Friends submit a document expressing particular concerns for the museum’s future in four areas, namely acquisitions, conservation, the display of objects, and an apparent loss of curatorial and specialist expertise. A series of meetings begins with Janet Owen, the Head of the Museum Service (and now Chief Executive Officer of its successor the Hampshire Cultural Trust) at which the Friends promote their vision of the museum’s future.


The Friends mark the retirement of Sue Tapliss as Curator with the presentation of a specially commissioned painting of the Museum.


The museum recruits new “front of house” volunteers to cover reductions in staffing that have resulted from government spending cuts. A number of Friends volunteer.


A book by the Friends on The Basingstoke Triumphal Gateway is launched. Printing costs are met by a heritage grant from Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council. Copies go on sale at the museum shop, and free copies are given to local schools.

The gateway’s bronze plaques by Peter Parkinson were cast in Basingstoke by the famous Morris Singer Foundry which casts bronzes for sculptors. The plaques cover aspects of the town’s history and culture which the book explains and relates to exhibits in the museum.

The Friends fund new a projector screen for the meeting room, and new shelving for the Resources Room which has moved to a different location within the building.


A small Friends’ exhibition commemorates the centenary of the birth of John Arlott, the Basingstoke born broadcaster, cricket commentator and writer. A major Friends’ exhibition on the Morris Singer Foundry (now located at nearby Lasham) follows. Assistance is given by the Basingstoke Archaeological and Historical Society and by past and present foundry workers.

A revised edition of the Visitor’s Guide to Old Basingstoke is produced with updated text and a new map, but retaining the original drawings.


The Morris Singer Exhibition goes “on tour” to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester.

The Friends fund new furniture for an outdoor café area at the museum.


The Friends fund a new scanner/printer for archiving work and assistance to researchers. In collaboration with the Basingstoke and District Railway Society, Friends mount a small exhibition (two display cases) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of regular steam trains through Basingstoke on Britain’s last steam-operated mainline. It is visited by railway author John Bird with his new book on the subject. Friends are present with a display table at a Hampshire Genealogical Society Family History Day event at the Basingstoke Discovery Centre.


Using two display cases twelve Friends join forces to put on an exhibition of “Toys before Star Wars”. This complements the record-breaking “May the toys be with you” touring exhibition of Star Wars toys and memorabilia in the Sainsbury Gallery. Good use is made of small wooden easels that the Friends purchased for the museum.


A special issue newsletter marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Friends at the end of 1978. In the Association’s 41st year the keystone Talks programme is as popular as ever sometimes filling the meeting room to capacity, and the number of non-members admitted is reduced to try to ensure that no members have to be turned away. In accordance with the long-standing practice of a summer group visit to a place of historical interest, seventeen members tour the archaeological dig at the Roman city of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), guided by Professor Mike Fulford of Reading University.

In the biennial skittles match versus the Friends of the Curtis Museum, Alton takes place, and once again the Friends’ team is victorious. Several outreach talks are given to local societies. The Friends fund a new data projector for the museum. Using one small display case volunteers start a regularly changed display of documents and photos from the Willis Museum’s archives collection. A members’ survey results in added practical assistance from the members for the museum and for the association. A display table publicising the museum, its history and its exhibits is organised and staffed by Friends at a Local History Day at the Basingstoke Discovery Centre.  Friends are represented in a Working Party to plan an eventual redesign of the Willis Museum’s “Story of Basingstoke” gallery.