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Elizabethan House open for self-guided tours in newly restored immersive experience

When Plymouth’s Elizabethan House first closed down for restoration, there was a fear that it may never re-open but nothing could be further from the truth. After an epic £1.7million restoration as part of Plymouth Mayflower 400 commemorations, the immersive museum at No.32 New Street the Barbican is better than ever before.

Plus, instead of only viewing the house by organised tour, visitors can now view this ancient building self-guided, inspired with clever lighting, visual and sound effects. In fact, the effects could be quite disconcerting if you didn’t know that they had been purposefully placed!

The property is one of Plymouth’s oldest buildings and dates from the late 1500s. It survived the slums of the early 1900s, Plymouth Blitz and the hands of those who wanted to see it demolished. Its recent restoration was led by a team from Destination Plymouth and Plymouth City Council, who worked with specialist heritage architects Dittrich Hudson Vasetti and a team of historians from The Box.

Built as a letting house with rooms for rent, it has been home to hundreds of people including merchants, shopkeepers, fishermen and washerwomen. In fact research suggests that up to 58 people were living in the property at one time which is astonishing to imagine when you visit the ancient little building.

The conservation project took the approach of creating an extension to the rear of the house to add toilet facilities as well as a riser that allowed the distribution of miles of data cable throughout the old house with the minimal impact on historic fabric. It also acted as a buttress to support the failing rear wall.It was this that has allowed the rooms to be presented authentically, as the spaces themselves remain unchanged for 400 years.

The house was in use right up until 1926, when it was due to be demolished by the local authority as part of slum clearances. It was saved, restored and opened up as a museum.
The Elizabethan House, as it was christened, depicted a typical “merchants house”. It suggested a comfortable family home full of dark wood furniture including a box bed, four poster bed and large desk, as at the time, historians had not discovered the building’s original purpose. But following deeper research into census material the museum was newly created to give a real sense of the people who lived in or owned the House. 

For example, Mary Ann Sturges. Born in 1816 in Kingsand, just over the water in Cornwall appeared on the house’s census between 1841 and 1861, living with her father James, a tailor, and four older siblings, all following in the family business.

By 1861 Mary Ann had a child, Elizabeth Palmer, seemingly out of wedlock. There was a Palmer family living in the house at this time, so it is likely that one of the men fathered Elizabeth. After this, Mary Ann and Elizabeth moved from New Street to High Street where they continued in the family business as dressmakers. However, Mary Ann now referred to herself as a widowed Mrs Palmer, despite no evidence of a wedding having taken place.

In research, it was definitely the female stories that stood out. The women spent most of their lives inside the small rooms of the house, whereas the men had opportunity to step away, working at sea or on the harbour. It was the women who raised the children, took on extra work and supported each other.

Hannah Pooley, City Interpretation Officer at The Box, Plymouth, said: “We ended up selecting Elizabeth Frude, whose husband, a fisherman, was lost at sea whilst she was pregnant with their third child. Her in-laws also lived in another room of the house, and her parents a stone’s throw away in Pin Lane. The Frude name still endures in the area. One of our longest residents was Amelia Cooksley, born in 1844 on Lambhay Hill, just behind the Elizabethan House, where she lived for over 30 years. Her story follows that of her mother, Amelia Hooper (nee Sheldon) who was widowed and left with five children. She worked as a fish seller to support the family. Her daughter Amelia went on to marry Thomas Cooksley, a seaman. He died in 1878 and left her with five children, after which she became a charwoman.”

She added: “We hope that the Elizabethan House gives a snapshot into the lives of these real people. We have used audio and projection to bring their stories to life for today’s generation.”

If you’re on the Barbican and have some time, don’t miss the opportunity to visit this museum – it really is well worth the time.

Elizabethan House is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday. You can book here, pay on the door or get tickets at the Plymouth Tourist Information Centre.

After an epic £1.7million restoration as part of Plymouth Mayflower 400 commemorations, the immersive museum at No.32 New Street the Barbican is better than ever before.
After an epic £1.7million restoration as part of Plymouth Mayflower 400 commemorations, the immersive museum at No.32 New Street the Barbican is better than ever before.

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