About Richard Jefferies and the Museum
Richard Jefferies (christened John Richard Jefferies) was a Victorian nature writer with a passion for the English countryside and the richness that he saw all around him. He was born at the house which is now the museum, in Coate, Swindon, on the 6th November 1848, and died at the tragically early age of 38 on 14th August 1887. Noted for his depiction of English rural life in essays, books of natural history, and novels, his childhood at Coate had a great influence on him and provides the background to all his major works of fiction.
Jefferies’s writings includes a diversity of genres and topics, including Bevis (1882), a classic children’s book, and After London (1885), an early work of science fiction. For much of his adult life, he suffered from tuberculosis, and his struggles with the illness and with poverty also play a role in his writing. Jefferies valued and cultivated an intensity of feeling in his experience of the world around him, a cultivation that he describes in detail in The Story of My Heart(1883). This work, an introspective depiction of his thoughts and feelings on the world, gained him the reputation of a nature mystic at the time. But it is his success in conveying his awareness of nature and people within it, both in his fiction and in essay collections such as The Amateur Poacher (1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880), that has drawn most admirers.
consists of a seventeenth century thatched cottage bought by the Jefferies family in 1800, a later, nineteenth century three-storied farmhouse, plus outbuildings, gardens, a copse, orchard and vegetable gardens. The site is run by the Richard Jefferies Museum Trust
and is fully accredited by Arts Council England.
Inside, there is an extensive collection of items relating to Jefferies, mostly on loan from the Richard Jefferies Society. For example, there are first editions of many of Richard Jefferies’ writings, the manuscript of Wood Magic and photographs, paintings and memorabilia. Furthermore, much of the house has been restored to create the atmosphere of a mid to late 19th Century farmhouse, complete with four-poster bed, a diorama of Jefferies as a young boy reading on his bed, and even a cheese room. Many of the exhibits give fascinating insights into bygone times. Occasionally, they bridge different layers of Swindon’s rich history; for example, a plaque placed on Liddington Hill in 1938 (with the support of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain) was later reputedly shot at by US troops in advance of their push into Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
The museum Trust has been working hard to develop the museum. Some of the things the Trust is working on are quite obvious and necessary: restoration work; sprucing up of some of the artefacts and displays; setting up more facilities; tidying up the garden; involving more volunteers and visitors, and so on. The site also has several outbuildings that offer huge potential for additional elements, and the links between the house, Coate Water country park and other attractions (such as the Sun Inn and the miniature railway) are being developed to improve the overall visitor experience.
There are also strong opportunities to link to the rich tapestry of archaeological evidence in and around the Coate area, particularly the prehistoric monuments and landscape. For example, there are Bronze Age barrows in the field next to the Old House at Coate, and Jefferies himself discovered evidence of a Neolithic stone circle near Coate Water. Closely tied in to Jefferies’ passion for the countryside, was a strong interest in the agricultural life that played such a big part of his growing up. Incredibly, Swindon owns a fascinating collection of agricultural artefacts, relating to the long history that the Swindon area has in agriculture. The collection once formed the basis of the Coate Agricultural Museum which closed in the 1980s, and it is hoped that some of the artefacts could be used to augment the offer at the musuem, possibly in one of the outbuildings.