A history of Newton Abbot Museum and the Newton’s Place Project

Brief History of the Museum

It’s been a long road for Newton Abbot Museum to get to where it is now. It has grown from a random assortment of objects kept at the library to a custom-built space at the heart of the town.

Before the Museum

Newton Abbot has had a small collection of items of historical interest for many years before the Museum even existed. The items were looked after by a Mr Moon and kept on the top floor of the library. The collection had no governing policy and consisted of a wide range of artefacts, many of them with no connection at all to the town’s history. 

Number 9 Devon Square

This photo shows the Devon Square building in the 1950’s, when it was the YMCA

In 1989 Newton Abbot Town Council was formed and moved to a new location at Devon Square, it was here that the idea of a proper museum for Newton Abbot, connected to the local history and the huge influence of the railways, was born.

Plans were drawn up and in October 1989 a part time curator was employed for just 2.5 days a week with the modest aim of creating an exhibition on the history of the town. In July 1990 the museum was officially opened, housed in a single room within the Town Hall at Devon Square.

The museum was opened by Diane Fishwick, Chairman of the Area Museum Council South West, July 1990. Felicity Cole (second from left) was the curator

Despite limited space, over the next 15 years the museum went from strength to strength: hosting a huge outdoor Transport Festival, publishing books, designing travelling exhibitions, bringing together pottery collectors from around the world to display their locally-made pots and much more.

Festival of Transport at Forde House in 2000
The early days of the museum, a single room with simple cases and display boards
In 1991 a Great Western Railway Room was added to the museum
The GWR room included a working signal

Felicity Cole and her crack team of volunteers created a huge variety of displays and exhibits within the Town Hall: using colourful floor-to-ceiling display boards, a great many stories were told in a tiny space.

The museum was popular, attracting between 1200 and 6000 visitors a year despite being tucked away quite a distance from the town centre.

Later: dividing walls were added and large-scale printing was used to make use of every inch of space- even the floor, to tell the story of Lethbridge and his diving engine
Every bit of space was used to tell the stories of Newton Abbot

 However, feedback showed that we were losing some visitors due to being hard to find and difficult to access, so a larger more accessible space that was welcoming for everyone was always the ambition. The Town Council supported this dream: wanting to create a community hub that combined Council services with community spaces as well as the museum, but finding a suitable space proved very difficult.

Newton’s Place is conceived

The new location needed to be accessible, easy to find and bigger than what we already had. Finding such a building was no easy task, but in 2016, Newton Abbot Town Council finally began to realise their aspiration of a new more central home by purchasing the former St Leonard’s church. This meant that not only would the town gain a new community hub, but a decaying landmark building would also be rescued.

History of the Church

St Leonard’s Church is a grade two listed building, which first welcomed worshippers in 1836 ( it replaced an earlier nearby church, most of which was demolished for a road widening scheme) the ‘new’ St Leonard’s flourished in the first half of its life and was extended in the 1870s.

But in modern times attendance fell sharply and the church closed its doors permanently in 1997. Since being deconsecrated the former church spent quite some time as an antiques centre. After the closure of the antiques centre it stood empty and deteriorating for many years.

The church when it was an antique centre in the late 80s/ early 90s

Rescue, Restoration and Reimagining

The next four years were a whirlwind of activity, the community were consulted in many different ways to find out what they would want to see in the new space, designs were drawn up and building and conservation work began.

Early mock ups of the museum space
Early designs for the Madge Mellor displays
Children’s ideas of what the museum should look like
Consulting the public about the museum
Leaving the old Town Hall for our new home in early 2020

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, Newton Abbot Museum was completely finished and ready to open its doors. In the beginning we could have just six visitors at a time, wearing facemasks and staying 2 metres apart.

image on left shows an empty church building image on right shows a group of people in face masks cutting ribbons to show museum is open
This before and after shows the derelict church contrasted with our opening ceremony

Newton Abbot Photography Club took fantastic shots on the entire building project, click through the slideshow below to explore more images of Newton’s Place taking shape:

Although we wanted a museum that was modern and vibrant: conservation and preservation was a also a huge part of the refurbishment project, with many of the original architectural features of the church highlighted throughout the space, including:

  • Stained glass
  • Pulpit
  • Font
  • Column tops
  • Chancel Ceiling
a series of images showing a dirty grey pulpit with empty alcoves, saints statues with some damage, a man in a hard hat cleaning the pulpit and the pulpit with clean statues put back into the alcoves
images show carved cherub faces at the top of a column in various stages of repair

You can see some ‘before and after’ photographs of the restoration work museum in this blog post:

2020- A Year of Great Change | Newton Abbot Museum (museum-newtonabbot.org.uk)

The Museum Today

Now named Newton’s Place, the building you stand in today houses the Town Council, the museum and flexible meeting rooms that can be used by the community. Each part of the building has been custom-designed for its purpose.

Various images of the museum. Children trying on a roman helmet and drawing on a model pot, a woman in a fabric mask pulling a signal lever, a green 2 mertre distance reminder sticker and a photo of the building at night
the wedding dress being packed in tissue paper