The old history behind the new city

Posted 19th June 2023

We love peeking into the past and sharing the secrets and stories of our local history, but this month, we thought we would shine a light on all that the Museum has to offer. 

It’s a constantly expanding collection and the only one that tells the complete history of the place we all call home…

Yes, Milton Keynes is a new city, but the space it occupies is rich in history – and here at Milton Keynes Museum, we have been sharing that history for 50 years.

Street of Shops at Milton Keynes Museum
MK Museum’s wonderful Street of Shops with many original store fronts

When you enter the Museum you do so through the front door, but in Victorian times only important visitors were afforded that privilege!

As we have explored in the past, Stacey Bushes Farm was bought by Oxford’s Dr Radcliffe, but that farmhouse has long-since disappeared and the farmstead you visit today was built in 1847.

Around the same time that work on the farmhouse progressed, someone planted a Cedar of Lebanon tree, which is magnificent and dominates the space to the front of the property.

Once inside, you’ll head straight into The Parlour. On a chilly day, the roar of an open fire as the winter sun peeks through the curtains makes the space instantly inviting.

Victorians used The Parlour as a space to display their most favourite possessions – they wanted to impress their visitors, and back then, the pianola and fancy curiosities were to be envied. 

Across the hall, a room dedicated to Home Entertainment is to be enjoyed. 

Forget downloads and music streams. Victorians were charmed by Roller Organs, Seraphones and Polyphon music boxes, and when you’ve brushed up on those, you can learn what it was like to hear a recorded voice for the first time from cylinders played on Edison’s phonograph. 

It was the cutting edge technology of its time and its arrival would have been met by much excitement.

Our Servants’ Room explores what life was like for those in service – a ‘career’ which began at just 13 years old. 

Today, we can order food online, or ask a robot to deliver it to our door. In the 19th century, things were very different, and when you had the food, you didn’t store it in a fridge – there were no fridges!

The Kitchen – another hot spot on a cold day – is also the place to make fresh toast using the range. There were no shortcuts in Victorian times, but they did have tools for everything and we have many of them on display. Our wonderful volunteers will be happy to explain how they worked and let you try many of them out yourselves. Wherever possible, we like to be a hands-on Museum.

If you fancy a spot of window shopping with a difference, our Street of Shops is the place to head to; this is a truly authentic, unique opportunity to browse the stores of yesteryear which existed in our local towns.

We have the original facades for many shops, including the art deco appeal of the Newport Pagnell Co-op, Stony Stratford’s long-since gone watering hole, The Angel, and the earlier branch of the Cox & Robinson chemist, complete with many original fixtures and fittings.

Contents of the ironmongers came from the long and trusted Odell name, and from Olney business Sowman’s, which was founded before 1822 and declared themselves, ‘Electric and hot water engineers, general furnishings and building ironmongers, shoe grindry merchants, house furniture, gas, tin and coppersmiths, artificial manure merchants and crockery merchants.’

If they didn’t have what you were looking for, no-one would!

If you came over ill while shopping at these stores back in their time, you might have needed an ambulance. Our Bischoffsheim dates to 1903, and was hand carried. Reassuringly, it bears no comparison to today’s high-tech ambulances. The Bischoffsheim have their place in history though, and were widely used by the police – they weren’t withdrawn from use until 1938.

Children left school at a younger age than today, but the importance of learning hasn’t changed.

Pupils were expected to show respect for their teacher and for their lessons, but the punishment was more severe. Boys not willing to toe the line might well feel the cane across their backsides or on the hands.

HM Queen Victoria
One of our familiar visitors, HM Queen Victoria

Finger stocks were used on those who would bite their nails, fidgeted or would not sit still during lessons – will you be brave enough to try them for size in our Schoolroom on your visit?

Continue on and you will come to the Barn, which will explore our relationship with the land which we were all connected in the not-too-distant past; we understood its value, knew the changing seasons, and could tell the time from the sun.

This ability is sadly largely forgotten today. The barn is also full of the equipment that our ancestors used in the efforts to fend off starvation and provide for the community.

The Communication Gallery is always a smash hit with children and adults who are actively encouraged to dial a phone or use the switchboard – very novel when you consider today’s clever tech!

We do have a wide-variety of mobile phones too, including some early examples that you might well recognise. And Buzby the cartoon bird who fronted TV ads for Post Office Telecommunications (remember the catchphrase, ‘Make someone happy with a phone call?’) is resident here.

How do you take your news today? On your phone, possibly? 

In Wolverton, ‘The Print’ was McCorquodale’s Print Works which offered jobs to women who couldn’t work at the Works across the road, and was the way to share the news of the day.

The machines on display in our Print Room show 150 years of printing and are still in working order.

As you move into the Hall of Transport, you will be greeted by the magnificence of the world’s biggest steam tram, which once ferried workers between Stony Stratford and the Railway Works.

Old toys at Milton Keynes Museum
Toys through the ages are popular with every generation

Sedan Chairs were popular during the 1600s and comprised a cabin mounted on poles, which would be carried by two men. It was a rudimentary forerunner of today’s cab, and just the same as today, they needed to be licensed too.

Canals and waterways were crucial when it came to transportation of goods, and they have representation here, as do bicycles that span the centuries; from Penny Farthings, through to Chopper bikes.

Back in the 1859s, workers at Wolverton Works had no baths at home, and so a bath house was built for them to scrub up.

The hall of transport includes items from the bath house, including one of the baths.

And we have a lovely example of a horse-drawn steam fire engine, which came from Newport Pagnell.

The first recorded use of the ‘Lovat’ as she became known was at the Unionist Working Men’s Club on Boxing Day 1912. The engine remained in service until 1939.

This brief stroll around the Museum is just a glimpse at what is on offer, and we hope you’ll come to explore more of the history on your doorstep with us.

Our outside space is perfect for relaxation and enjoying the fresh air – we have a nature trail, the Bloomer locomotive, and you can stroll around our kitchen and war-time gardens which are rich in vegetables and have plenty of petal power during the summer months and beyond.

And a visit to the Museum could never be complete without catching sight of our ‘moo-dy’ residents, the world-famous concrete cows!

As we celebrate our 50th year as a Museum we are working on our future; which will include taking visitors back to our ancient past, before dropping you into the here and now.

After all, what happens today is tomorrow’s history…

Milton Keynes Museum LogoMilton Keynes Museum is one of the best interactive museums, a perfect outing for all ages, staffed by friendly volunteers, and highly recommended by visitors on TripAdvisor. 

This feature was written by Milton Keynes Museum. Find out more about forthcoming events and see our opening times at: