Reasons to be cheerful at Cuckfield Museum

The world can be a dark and scary place but, if you look hard enough, you can find plenty of things to make you smile.

The royal wedding was good for a knees-up and the World Cup is only a few short weeks away – though history tells us that, for the England team at least, this is more likely to end in tears than smiles...

Baby show during World War One

Baby show during World War One

At Cuckfield Museum, the team has set up a new exhibition celebrating Reasons To Be Cheerful – weddings and babies. One of the things learnt by the museum team as they put together the display was that vintage dresses very rarely fit onto modern mannequins.

Women were either naturally smaller in the past or pulled their corsets really tight – one way or another a 20 inch waist seems to have been the norm.

Another surprise was the number of girls who chose to get married in colours other than white.

For example, the display includes a violet Victorian fringed bustle two-piece, worn by a prosperous butcher’s daughter on her wedding day. Also, a dusky blue crepe dress with elegant embellishment for a wartime bride, and a home-made purple velvet gown for a local farmer’s daughter.

Museum curator, Phillipa Malins, said: “Just looking at these two dresses again, on loan from the Marion May Collection – the violet dress from 1874 was worn by the daughter of the prosperous butcher of Funtingdon.

“We know that cream and white were generally worn only by the very wealthy but it still seems an unusual colour and was normally associated with one of the later stages of mourning.

“It’s certainly a very vibrant shade and she would have looked extremely striking. She married a wealthy farmer.

“The rather subdued little dress from 1947 is a complete contrast, very understated but beautifully cut in crepe with delicate beaded hand embroidery.

“The length reflects the shortages in fabric at the time – it was a dress that could have easily been worn again.

“We know that the wedding took place at Guildford Registry Office so perhaps the bride was a widow or of a certain age.”

For the babies, the display includes simple teething toys and pacifiers that have not really changed much over centuries.

When it came to the cherished Christening gowns, handed down through generations, there was only one problem – babies, as well as adults, are getting bigger!

In addition to objects from the museum’s own collection, there have been generous loans from local residents, and the Marian May Costume Collection.

From the Brighton Toy Museum, there is a rare coral teether from the late 18th century as well as a 17th century carved oak cradle from Horsham Museum.

Henfield Museum loaned a dolls’ pram in astonishingly good condition.

While the pram is listed as Victorian, Phillipa said she thought it was actually Edwardian.

She added: “The coral teether is fascinating. Coral was long thought to be a soothing material for babies’ gums – the belief goes back to Roman times and beyond. It was hard, but not as hard as bone, smooth and didn’t splinter.

“There was also something about the rich colour that symbolised health and strength and what they wished for their babies.

“This teether is a fantastic multi- purpose aid, with the coral, the bells for the baby to shake and the whistle for the parents to blow!

“It’s one of the oldest exhibits in the Brighton Toy Museum and we feel immensely privileged that they have lent it to us, as with the very ancient cradle from Horsham Museum which still looks so strong and as if many generations of babies have been rocked in it.”

Among the photos in the exhibition is one of local girl Lily Fox, who was marrying her soldier at Holy Trinity Church in 1917.

A close look reveals that the guard of honour as they leave the church is made up of wounded servicemen holding up their crutches to form an arch – surely a prime example of optimism in very dark times.

Another photo from around the time of the First World War is of a morale-boosting Cuckfield Baby Show – 13 proud mothers posing with their babies, all dressed in their best.

The Reasons To Be Cheerful exhibition will run until September.

Cuckfield Museum is open from 10am-12.30pm, Wednesday-Friday, 10am-3pm Saturday, or by appointment. It is based in Queens Hall, High Street RH17. The team can be contacted on 01444 473630 or via info@cuckfieldmuseum.org .

To find out more about the museum, log on to cuckfieldmuseum.org .