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  • Published in October issue of Devon Life

Inside Bygones Musuem, Torquay

Kate Haskell goes back in time as she steps through the door of a unique Torquay building

I have a little habit, quirk if you like, that when wandering around stately homes or historical places I like to touch the door handles as a way of reconnecting with the past and the people that might have touched that very handle hundreds of years ago. I used to think it was just me that had this rather peculiar routine but I have met my match in Richard Cumings. Within minutes of meeting we both realised we shared this ritual but Richard has upped his part of the game as he runs Bygones museum in Torquay; a building which holds hundreds of thousands of items that have been touched by those of a previous life and what a treasure trove it is.

Opened in 1987 by Richard’s parents with a just a few collectables, this three-storey building, with a life-size Victorian Street and even a steam engine crammed in, is now overflowing with memorabilia spanning from the Victorian era through to the 1970s and ’80s. Over the years this has become a major attraction in the Torbay area, not least, thanks to our British summers, because it is all indoors! Richard’s parents had the foresight to see that such a business had potential in the area, something Richard is very thankful for: “I’m very proud of my parents for taking such a massive risk.

“As a family we already had a post office business and a couple of retail shops and to leave that and set up this attraction could have been disastrous; it was a massive learning curve. However, as a family we have taken it forward and today even though my sister and I run the business my parents still take a keen interest and offer advice, even though we may not always take it!”

From outside the museum it doesn’t seem possible that the building holds a life-sized Victorian street with shops containing all original items but Richard tells me this is the most popular part of the attraction: “People love that there are no replicas; this is as it was back in Victorian times and there are things on display that their grandparents or great grandparents would’ve gone into a shop and bought.

“We can get so disconnected in the modern world with throw away items such as washing machines that often have a life cycle of little more than five years. But in the past there were household items that would have been used by several generations and it’s this that excites people.”

All the memorabilia arrives here either from auctions or dealers and sometimes donations as well with Richard’s particular favourite being the military items: “The whole family have always been collectors but my specialism is military. Sometimes it may only be a bit of metal with a photograph but behind that may be an incredible life story or career; something they did very specifically and every single item has been touched hundreds of times from people of the past and that intrigues me.”

The building is overflowing with memorabilia spanning from the Victorian era through to the 1970s and 80s

We may live in a disposable world but history is moving forward all the time and Richard is now finding that the 1960s through to the ’80s are becoming a source of fascination and so new displays are being added all the time: “We are constantly looking at what needs to be done to develop and improve and we’re making it more interactive to help keep all ages interested. We never thought we would fill this building but we have so maybe we’ll have to think of a second location one day!”

For now though Torbay is where Richard’s bit of history will stay: “I love the pace and quality of life here and now the South Devon link road is open we are able to promote ourselves outside of the area. So, why be anywhere else?”

Some historical facts

Bygones is much larger than it looks from the outside as it used to be an old cinema.

The building is overflowing with memorabilia spanning from the Victorian era through to the 1970s and ’80s

When you wander around see if you can spot the Boer War 1900 Christmas pudding still with original contents!

Everything you see is original and smells have been added in certain locations to make your experience even more realistic.

The smallest artefact is a miniature Victorian lady’s brooch; the largest a full size steam tank engine.

The Victorian cell door on display originally came from Dartmoor prison: it would be interesting to imagine which convicts were incarcerated behind it!

The building is overflowing with memorabilia spanning from the Victorian era through to the 1970s and 80s

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