The Gershom Parkington Collection

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, April 1996 | Go to article overview

The Gershom Parkington Collection


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk is a delightful town, so attractive that even the peevish William Cobbett liked it. He called it `the neatest place that ever was seen'. The novelist Ouida, who lived there, thought otherwise (`that slowest and dreariest of boroughs'), but Mr Pickwick ate an excellent dinner at the Angel Hotel. Within Bury St Edmunds is the Manor House Museum and within the Manor House Museum is the Gershom Parkington Collection of Time Measurement Instruments.

The Gershom Parkington Quintette used to be a household name, playing light music on the wireless. Its founder and leader was one of the Parkingtons who ran a successful tailoring business in the town for generations. He was born in 1886, to the surprise of his parents, seven years after the rest of their brood. They christened him Gershom from the Bible, where it apparently means `a little surprise', though he used to say afterwards that it really meant `the unwanted one'. He was a gifted cellist, trained at the Royal Academy of Music and excused from entering the family business to become a professional musician. He conducted the local orchestra at Bridlington Spa for a time and broadcast for the BBC for almost thirty years.

Gershom Parkington bought rare clocks, watches, sundials and sand-glasses, largely through a specialist dealer named Percy Webster, of Queen Street, Mayfair, and built up a notable collection. Tragically, Parkington's only son, John, was killed at twenty-one in a tank action in North Africa in 1941. Parkington, who retired to Jersey after the war, decided to leave his collection to Bury St Edmunds in his son's memory, and after his death in 1952 it was moved to the town and put in a Queen Anne house owned by the National Trust on the comer of Angel Hill. Here the assembled timepieces lived cheek by jowl, all ticking, tocking, banging, booming, tinkling, whispering, whirring and swinging their pendulums, striking when it occurred to them and setting up altogether the most wonderful susurration and serenity of sound.

They were looked after by a Colonel Ashton, who was succeeded in the 1970s by the legendary Captain Meyrick. Stories of Captain Meyrick's crustiness, bad temper and general frightfulness are legion and there are still some Bury St Edmunds citizens who are too scared to visit the collection, though Captain Meyrick died in harness in 1986.

At this point a professional horologist was appointed for the first time, the present curator, Viscount Midleton. The borough by now had two more collections to cope with, a vast assemblage of textiles and a collection of 800 paintings and numerous objets d'art given by the last of the Cullum family of local grandees. It was decided to put them together and when the Manor House in Honey Hill came on the market, the borough bought it, restored it handsomely and opened it to the public in 1993.

Something has been lost in the move from Angel Hill, an endearing dottiness and rich muddle, possibly spiced by the lurking menace of Captain Meyrick. On the other hand, everything is now more orderly and the information system has been hugely improved. There are no labels to be awkwardly peered at in the cabinets. Each piece has a number, which you tap in on a nearby computer screen to get up to five levels of information about it. …

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