Sir John Sykes, Chairman, The Merchant’s House
The Merchant’s House, for 350 years the surviving jewel in Marlborough’s High Street, has opened its doors to visitors for the new season – and with new determination, writes Jeffrey Galvin-Wright.
This year, the charitable trust which runs the magnificent property, celebrates its 20th anniversary since its formation in 1991, a vital moment for optimism for the future says its chairman, Sir John Sykes.
Following an initiative from locally born and bred Michael Gray, now the historical adviser to the trust, it was the far-sighted decision of Marlborough Town Council to purchase The Merchant’s House for the town from WH Smith, for £335,000 in 1991.
That enabled the trust to be set up under the chairmanship of Sir John Sykes, with the objective of raising the funds necessary to restore the property and open it to the public.
Since then the passionate efforts of Sir John and his team to save the house for posterity have raised nearly £1 million through grants, donations and fund-raising events. The unplanned, but very welcome grant from the late Kennet District Council in 2009, cleared the trust’s outstanding mortgage and confirmed its economic viability.
What has been achieved in the refurbishment of the iconic 17th century house, rebuilt by Thomas Bayly, a prosperous Marlborough silk merchant, after the Great Fire in 1653, has been truly amazing.
During the conservation work, unique wall paintings were discovered, both on the staircase and on the walls of the dining room, and most recently during the restoration of the bedroom over the kitchen.
Painstakingly restored by experts, these unique striped wall paintings enhance this visitor attraction, one which features in Simon Jenkins’s book England’s Thousand Best Houses.
Earlier years have seen refurbishment of the shop, main staircase, cellars, grand panelled room, dining room and Thomas Bayly’s study, but more recently the trust has been able to afford to carry out work on the servant’s garrets, the kitchen chamber, and repairs to the servant’s staircase, as well as purchasing a 17th century dining table and other appropriate furnishings.
More restoration work is planned as and when funds become available.
The trust relies on more than one hundred volunteers to keep The Merchant’s House running smoothly. In total, they donate 240 hours of voluntary effort each week, serving in the shop, giving conducted tours of the house, organising events, costume making, working on the turkeywork dining chairs project, restoration work and maintenance in the garden.
The trust houses a comprehensive library specialising in local history, 17th century history, craftsmanship history and a growing archive of items relating to Marlborough over the centuries.
Many volunteers are also Friends of The Merchant’s House. The ‘Friends’ is a large and committed group, around 400 strong, which supports the work of the trust and in return receives membership benefits.
Behind the house, a 17th century style garden has been constructed. The design, construction and planting have been carefully researched, so that the garden is as accurate as possible to the style of a formal yet utilitarian town-house garden which would have existed in the mid to late 17th century, belonging to a Puritan family.
Sir John says: “ The project continues to challenge and enthuse everyone involved in it as well as our visitors. We enter 2011 with optimism and in good shape but local support remains vital.
“Not only are we restoring and furnishing the building to an exceptional standard, but the many ways in which we use the house are playing a major part in enhancing the cultural and educational life of the town, and making it a must-visit tourist attraction”.
The Merchant’s House and the garden is now open to visitors until the end of October on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am-4pm. Entrance is £5 for adults. Under 16s £1. Or why not visit the house on its free open day — on Saturday 21 May.
More information on our web site www.themerchantshouse.co.uk