Where you are: Local History - Snippets - Mr Straw's House
    And so to bed... by Tricia Hill


I am sure we all enjoy visiting historic places and properties, but we don't always realise the amount of work undertaken to maintain and care for the property and artefacts. A few years ago, having completed my first open season as a volunteer guide at Mr Straw's House, the National Trust property in Worksop, I was delighted to be encouraged to continue volunteering through the closed winter season which involved 'putting the house to bed' and the winter clean.

With the expert help of the custodian, housekeeper and visiting conservators, I was taught how to handle and clean various materials and at the same time realised the planning, work and challenges this can entail, particularly being restricted for space at Mr Straw's. Those who have visited Mr Straw's House will know it is not a huge mansion but a semi-detached Edwardian house (the right hand house in the illustration), however, it contains some 50,000 artefacts, from individual envelopes to large pieces of furniture and all need to be cared for.

'Putting the house to bed' entails dusting and vacuuming objects on display then covering the furniture with custom-made dust covers in special conservation grade cloth. Smaller items have acid-free tissue covers made to fit them and some are boxed over winter. Then each room is thoroughly cleaned. Furniture is moved to allow cleaning behind and beneath. All the picture rails are cleaned and the curtains taken down and laid flat to 'rest'. All the drawers and cupboards are full and the contents are checked for condition, particularly watching out for moths, carpet beetles and mould. Anything found has to be dealt with immediately and this can sometimes hold up the progress of the winter clean.

Various items of equipment are needed to clean the different materials - wood, metal, ceramics, textiles, paper and books - including a variety of brushes from hogs' hair and badger hair to pony hair, a specialist small vacuum cleaner with adjustable suction, gauze sheets, dusters, chamois leather, cotton wool and not forgetting gloves for handling items. Textiles are cleaned using a sheet of netting or gauze to cover the item and then the flat head attachment of the small waist-held vacuum cleaner is moved over it, the suction is manually adjusted depending on the textile being cleaned and the gauze prevents damage to the fibres. Ceramics are very carefully handled, never held by handles or spouts and never immersed in water, but gently wiped with cotton wool dampened in a very diluted solution of washing up liquid, then rinsed by wiping with cotton wool dampened with clean water and then left to air dry. Gentle brushing and the vacuum cleaner are used for metal, wood and paper items. There are hundreds of books at Mr Straw's and the cleaning of these is a very interesting task - possibly more time is spent reading than cleaning! Again brushes and the vacuum are used, with a careful check for insect damage; special rests or cushions are used to support the book.

Heat, light, moisture, dust and insects can all affect the items and deterioration is continually monitored and assessed by various specialist monitors: a U.V. monitor measures the amount of light; blunder traps are used to catch and monitor the activity of pests such as moths and carpet beetles; the hygrometer measures the amount of moisture in the air and light sensitive strips monitor sunlight damage to fabrics. Items are wrapped in acid-free tissue for protection and the costume and archive stores contain various sizes of acid-free cardboard boxes for storage. There is also specialist paper for protection of photographs in storage. The house can be very cold in winter as temperatures still have to be monitored and kept relatively low, we quickly learn that thermals and a few layers of clothing are needed! Winter is also a time when restoration work can be carried out and surveys undertaken by the specialist conservators.

Amazingly the open season soon comes round again and it is all hands on deck to uncover the house and prepare for visitors - a change of role back to room guide. Over the years I have found it a great privilege to work alongside the experts and to help care for such an interesting and wonderful house and to tell its story. Finally, if you have time to spare, love our heritage and share an interest in history, then why not become a volunteer, I can thoroughly recommend it! The contact number of Mr Straw's House is 01909 482380 or alternatively contact Rachel, the Community Engagement Officer, on her direct line 01909 530505. You will be warmly welcomed.

[If you would like to view almost 12,000 items in the collection at Mr Straw's House which volunteers help to care for see website <> and use the search facility for collections/Mr Straw's House.]

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