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Woodstock military museum campaigners are still soldiering on
Tim May, who served with the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and is now vice chairman of Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, takes a look in his former regiment’s archival boxes. Picture: OX59989 Simon Williams
SOMEWHAT fitting for a testament to war, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, in Woodstock, has fought several battles of its own.
The new £3m building is due to open next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, but its supporters could be forgiven for feeling unwanted.
Construction started in the grounds of the Oxfordshire Museum in September but by February residents blocked workmen from putting up scaffolding in Brown’s Lane.
They said they had not been properly consulted and said the building was too dominant for its surroundings, but eventually relented in their protest.
Before that, however, a listed wall inside the grounds presented a logistical nightmare for workmen consigned to work on it after they discovered they couldn’t knock it down or make any changes to it. It now remains untouched, but will form part of a display gallery.
And before that, the museum had to fight to have a home at all.
The staff, almost all unpaid volunteers, were bruised by criticism from Woodstock residents, but have rallied.
Vice chairman and trustee Tim May said it made them more determined to create something that Woodstock, and Oxfordshire, could be proud of.
Mr May, a veteran of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, said: “We did have problems with members of the public complaining about
the scaffolding, and there was a bit of disquiet.
“Of course it hurts you because we want to do something good for the community.
“The scaffolding has started to pale back now and fade away, and hopefully people will see that what is in place will be of huge interest and benefit to the local community. It is something that happens everywhere, but we hope it will fade into the background.
“We’re at the stage now where it is starting to take shape, it’s very exciting.”
A recent campaign to find prisoner of war (POW) stories, championed by the Oxford Mail, resulted in a deluge of responses.
Their stories of capture will make up one of the displays at the museum’s opening.
Mr May said that their mission was “to do something different”.
He said: “Recently what we believe to be the first ever soldier of Oxfordshire was found: Lucius Valerius Geminus – a veteran of the Roman 2nd Augustan Legion. That is the kind of thing we want to celebrate.”
The tombstone of Geminus was uncovered in a field, in the Iron Age town of Alchester, near Bicester.
A memorial to commemorate the find will be placed near a flower-bed at the new museum entrance. It will serve as a place for thought and reflection for visitors.
The museum’s roots date back to 1997 when it began life as a loosely collected display of uniform and artefacts tied in to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Representatives from the regiment got together with Mr May to discuss a more permanent memoriam.
He said: “We knew that if we were going to do this, create a military museum to serve the whole of Oxfordshire, we would have to do it together.
“There are many military museums around the country, some cities have five or six.
“A lot of them fail for the reason they are aimed at military buffs who want to come and see what buttons people were wearing.
“It took us a long time to find somewhere to site it, we looked at locations including Upper Heyford and, naturally, Oxford Castle.
“But rents would have been too high for what we could afford.”
In 2006 the answer arrived from Oxfordshire County Council.
“We got talking to the county council and they said why not put it next to the Oxfordshire Museum, in its grounds? There are already things like a cafe and toilets on site. Everything a museum needs is there; it would just be a case of building a new display area and a research part.
“It was perfect.”
Campaigners brought in Ursula Corcoran to oversee the crucial stages of development. Previously a heritage lecturer, she had been involved in the creation of two other museums.
She said: “This is about telling stories and opening it far and wide.
“We want to provide a comprehensive history of the military in Oxfordshire, but we also want it to be the kind of place parents drag their kids on a wet weekend, knowing they will be entertained.
“We have to be as open, and colourful, as possible, and are looking to start a lecture programme for schoolchildren.”
Once the building work has started, it will begin to fill with 3,500 objects and a history that starts with the Hill Forts of Oxfordshire.
It will have two large gallery spaces to house its museum’s collection and will welcome visiting exhibitions, artists, museum trails and lectures.
See sofo.org for more information.
Colonel May’s personal mission
AS A boy in 1940s Oxford, Tim May watched German bombers fly overhead and felt the terrors of war first hand.
He was 10 at the time, but the experience strengthened his resolve to protect and preserve.
And he grew to dedicate his life to the military, still listed as active in 1992 aged 62.
More than most he knows the value of a museum built to honour those who lost their lives defending their country.
Mr May, 82, attended the Dragon School in Oxford as a child and was called up for National Service in 1949.
He was a gunner in the Royal Artillery and served as an officer in Egypt.
“I was sent to Oxfordshire Yeomanry as a gunner,” he said. “I found I enjoyed it, to be quite honest, and despite times over the years where I thought I would leave, I never have.”
After his time away, he married Ella and the pair started a family. Colonel May moved to the Oxfordshire Battery of 299 Regiment before it was disbanded.
From 1969 onwards he spent time in the higher echelons of the Ministry of Defence with Territorial Army strategy.
“Why did I carry on so long? It was part of the nuclear balance, and I felt I had a duty to that. It was important during the Cold War that we kept our defences up. The tension was racked up and I had to make sure we were ready for battle.”
Colonel May has made it his mission to see the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum project come to fruition.
The museum will open in parts with a grand opening next year, the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
Colonel May said: “That date has huge significance. The Great War changed society. Before that, Britain – England – I believe, was more outgoing. We lost an entire generation of men, leaders, and it changed us forever.
“A whole generation was wiped out. Dead. We must not forget that.”
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