The Melton Constable Hall Model

4 Gressenhall cased

This is Melton Constable Hall Model (NWHCM : 1971.386).  It was originally built as an architectural model in the 1660s. Later it was used as a dolls’ house and passed through generations of the Astley family. It is on display at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in the Museum of Norfolk Life gallery. The model is currently being promoted at Norwich Castle, along with other fine examples of dolls’ houses across the county’s museums, within the V&A Museum of Childhood’s exhibition Small Stories at Home in a Dolls’ House.

In this blog Lauren Ephithite, Assistant Curator shares her thoughts about the model.


P1060679My first encounter with the Melton Constable Hall Model was in 2009 when I started working at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse as part of the Visitor Services Team. The model was on display in a huge case in the main hall. To be honest, I didn’t think very much of it. Yes, it was old and quite an impressive model to have survived so long, but I thought it was boring and took up a lot of room! It was on display to illustrate the big houses and estates in Norfolk.


Later when I returned to Gressenhall to work as Assistant Curator, one of my first jobs was to research some of the objects regarded as being most significant in the museum’s collection. To my surprise one of them was the Melton Constable Hall Model, so I did a little research…

The model was built in the 1660s to show Sir Jacob Astley and his family what their new house would look like. Melton Constable Hall is a grade 1 listed building which isn’t open to the public. It is famous as the location of the 1971 film ‘The Go-Between’ which is a film I’ve never seen!

The architect for Melton Constable Hall is not definitely known but we think it was probably Astley himself. At this time it was common for ‘gentlemen-amateurs’ to work alongside a specialist craftsman to design buildings. For his new home it is likely that Astley worked with a designer or architect to create this model. During the seventeenth century, models such as this one, were considered very important when developing architectural designs. No drawings of Melton Constable Hall survive, therefore this model is the only surviving visual document to show the development of the hall’s design.

The model is made up of five layers which stack up to create the house. In these layers there are details of the inside of the hall like dividing walls, staircases and fireplaces. It is the oldest surviving model to include these features and that makes it extra special.

I also found out that that this model had featured in exhibitions all over the world, including Paris, Italy and Washington! All of a sudden I had a great deal more admiration and affection for this wooden model sitting in Norfolk’s Rural Life Museum.

When we started the Voices from the Workhouse project, redisplaying the workhouse and rural life galleries, I was determined that this model would be displayed and interpreted so that we could all appreciate it. It is now displayed in ‘exploded’ form so that you can see inside the layers, revealing the intricate detail.

Before the model was donated to the Museum Service it had been passed through generations of the Astley family. It had been used as a dolls’ house. They must have been very careful when playing with it, as is in excellent condition at 350 years old! The front does not lift off, as in a traditional dolls’ house, so each layer must have been played with separately. We have included some dolls’ house furniture in the case and inside the bottom layer of the model to show that it was used as a dolls house.

What do you think of the model? Do you like how it is displayed now?


Small Stories: the Conservation of the Norwich Baby House


Alice Forkes, NMS Conservator, reports…..

 ‘Baby Houses’ are miniature buildings which were commissioned by wealthy adults in the 1700s and early 1800s to entertain and amuse.   They are substantial objects, beautifully constructed, with their realistic architectural details and sumptuous interiors based on fashionable building styles of the day.

outside baby house smallBaby houses are quite rare, so Strangers’ Hall Museum is fortunate to have one in its collections, known as the  Norwich Baby House, believed to date from around 1720.  Knowing that the V&A Museum of Childhood’s exhibition Small Stories – at Home in a Dolls’ House was booked to tour to Norwich Castle in Spring 2017 provided the impetus to get our own house in order and plan to make the most of the Strangers’ Hall  own collections.  In view of its early date and important, the Baby House was the front-runner for conservation work and more sympathetic display. So the house and its contents, which are mostly nineteenth century additions, were brought to the Norfolk Museums Service conservation department for the work to take place in preparation for the Small Stories at Strangers’ exhibition, which runs concurrently with the main show.

The house had suffered some wear and tear over the years. The painted wallpaper had lifted away in some places and the inside of the house was particularly dirty, obscuring the vibrant wallpaper and limiting the view through the glass windows to the front of the house.  After detailed assessment and documentation, the house underwent conservation cleaning. Cleaning an object such as this requires a great deal of consideration and often a variety of techniques. For example, the dirty windows were wet cleaned using cotton wool swabs, the walls, ceilings and floors were all cleaned using a museum vacuum cleaner and soft brushes, and the painted and patterned wallpaper was gently cleaned using a natural rubber sponge. Small repairs were undertaken, to secure the lifting wallpaper. These were all documented and carried out using reversible conservation grade adhesives.

Other than the addition of fluorescent lights in the 60’s, it appeared that the house had been virtually untouched since coming into the collection in the early 1950’s. The curator at Strangers’ Hall had asked me to play detective and pay particular attention to the variety of surfaces and features that would only be visible under close inspection. How was the house constructed? How many layers of wallpaper and paint were visible? What was underneath the wallpaper, which was most certainly a more recent addition? And so the investigation began.

Intriguingly, in areas where the wallpaper had lifted, around the edges and corners of the rooms, a blue painted surface and a white painted skirting board could be seen, there was also evidence of a painted picture rail. In the kitchen, the walls, floor and ceiling appeared to have been white-washed at some point. Faded black lines, painted to mimic large floor tiles were also visible. When propping up the dresser in the corner of the kitchen, an earlier creamy beige surface with the same style of painted black lines could be seen. Such a large object, constructed from multiple materials, requires careful observation of every nook and cranny to uncover the story of how it was constructed, what changes had been made and how fashions in interior design affected its appearance.

baby-house-ceramicsThe contents of the house were also in need of conservation treatment. These included a complete Staffordshire ceramic dinner set, tiny watercolour pictures, a long case clock, a glass chandelier and even a pet spaniel. The only doll we know to be an original occupant of the Baby House, is the smartly-dressed butler. The painted surface on his papier mache head needed particular attention as it was damaged, vulnerable, flaking and at risk of further losses. Each individual flake of paint was carefully softened using controlled humidification so that it could be adhered back in place. This allowed the painted surface of the butler to be safely cleaned using tiny cotton wool swabs. After careful cleaning and numerous repairs, all the Baby houses’ furniture could be reinstated and reunited with some larger textile pieces, including the bed with its bolster cushion, blue velvet chaise and the early animal print wing chair that the Butler now resides in.

The conservation process did not end after treatment in the conservation lab. The installation of the Baby House in the Strangers’ Hall Toy Room and the addition of new LED lighting required conservation supervision and input. Both the lighting and new audio interpretative stories now really bring the house to life. Minute paint samples were also collected during the conservation process, which will help us to identify the numerous paint layers. These will be sent for analysis, which will hopefully enable us to discern the stratigraphy of the paint layers, and even which pigments were used.

Alice 3



It has been a privilege to work on a house with such a long history. I often found myself thinking about all the different people who have enjoyed and admired it over the years.

Good housekeeping!

Making a thorough record of every item is essential when working with museum dolls’ house collections, as the tiny objects are so easy to lose or confuse with each other.

Here, University of East Anglia MA Intern Taryn Dennis describes her role carrying out the all-important documentation process that precedes the selection of museum objects for display.


Jan Roberts and Taryn Dennis select dolls’ house kitchen items for photography

From October 2015 until July 2016 I was lucky enough to work as an intern for the dolls’ house project at Strangers’ Hall. As an MA Museum Studies student at UEA, there were several options for the placement element of our course, but as soon as I heard about the opportunity to work with the Strangers’ Hall team in preparation for the V&A Small Stories exhibition, I knew that this was the project for me!

Although I had only a very limited knowledge of dolls’ houses, I was keen to gain further experience within the areas of collections and conservation and so, together with a love of social history and nostalgia for my own childhood collection, the dolls’ house project ticked a lot of boxes. Primarily, the project focused around the documentation of Strangers’ Hall’s vast collection of dolls’ house-related objects and involved photographing, measuring and documenting each item individually onto the collections database MODES. The furniture had been chosen as a very nice example of a large collection donated by Miss Bensley in the 1930s which had not hitherto been recorded in a detail.

In working so closely with items such as miniature sheet music and pianos; a menagerie of ceramic and glass animals; and beautifully preserved furniture, it really felt each week like I was unearthing a lost treasure! Many of the items were awe-inspiring, not only in terms of their size and attention to detail but the skill of their creators.

The sheer scale of the collection meant that the documentation task was not always straight forward! However, despite facing initial challenges associated with the documentation of any collection – missing accession numbers and incomplete information, for example – myself and my course colleague, Holly, were soon able to get into a steady documentation routine. With many of the items either missing accession numbers, or else including historic and now defunct accession numbers, the project involved a lot of fact finding but with the guidance of the Strangers’ Hall team, together with the Conservation and Collections teams from the Norfolk Museums Service, we were able to take small but significant steps in documenting the collection.

One of my favourite aspects of the project was learning about the individual histories of the objects and what they represented about the periods they portrayed, particularly in relation to the domestic sphere and the social pressures faced by women. As a guide to these histories, the dolls’ house expert Jan Roberts was always on hand to illustrate the importance of the collection at Strangers’ Hall and helped us to embed accuracy within the documentation process. Therefore, in working with Jan, Holly, the Strangers’ Hall team and the Collections and Conservation teams from the Norfolk Museums Service, I gained not only valuable professional skills, but a keen interest in dolls’ houses and an appreciation of their fascinating small stories.






Tiny houses in which miniature people dwell.


by Cathy Terry, Senior Curator, Social History, Norwich Museums

So, what is it about dolls’ houses then? Why are so many people, once hooked, forever captivated by their tiny charms?   

For me the pleasure of this enticing world is two-fold.  Seeing small versions of everyday things really delights me! But there is something more. Dolls’ houses and dolls’ house furniture somehow speak to us across the generations. The tiny doll glimsped through the window  invites us to wonder who she belonged to, how she su


Looking through the window into the  kitchen of the Norwich Baby House 

rvived generations of family play without getting lost or broken, whether she had a name, who stitched her tiny gown….. and just thinking about the phenomenon of miniature houses and how they have evolved over a few hundred years, helps me ponder on changing times and reflect on what is important to us now.  To elaborate a little…..

Looking back

Dolls’ houses have been viewed and appreciated from many perspectives over time: the earliest surviving examples demonstrate show their former owner’s wealth and status. Dutch cabinet houses consist of exquisite collections of finest craftmanship  whilst early German ‘baby houses’ helped young girls to acquire a grasp of household management to prepare them for their future adult roles. In the mid-twentieth century particularly, they were the pinnacle of a young girls’s aspiration. As home ownership became more possible for adults so ‘a dolls’ house of your very own’ signified a certain status. Dolls’ houses have featured in numerous children’s books, for example those of E.S. Nesbitt and Rumer Godden. The context is  generally a positive one : that of allowing children to achieve a measure of control and  order in the creation of their own idealised miniature world. By contrast in adult literature, the dolls’ house is frequently used as a metaphor for a constrained and inward-looking lifestyles, and plays with the ‘strange’ness of dolls and juxtapositions of scale to suggest creepiness or heighten a sense of fear.

Contemporary perspectives

Dolls’ houses are no less fascinating to present generations. Artists have employed dolls’ house references in their work, sometimes to unsettle or challenge mainstream readings or arrangements.  Studies of children’s play have explored the role of the dolls’ house in the development of gender identity, and psychologists and therapists use doll’s houses as a tool in exploring aspects of family life and relationships and therapeutic play. In collecting terms, antique doll’s houses were little sought after until the 1950s, but with impetus given by collecting pioneers such as Constance  E. King and Vivien Greene, serious interest and connoisseurship developed and has continued unabated.  Organisations such as the Dolls’ House Society provide scholarly debate on dolls’ house history. As the traditional dolls’ house  wanes a little as an object of desire for children so the craft of miniaturisation flourishes, as the demand from today’s adult owners /collectors continues to expand. There are currently an astonishing 450 or so British businesses involved in the dolls’ house trade and countless miniaturist fairs taking place up and down the country.

Another avenue of investigation is the manufacture of dolls’ houses, their interiors and furnishings, as products of crafts people, manufacture or family creativity. Who made the houses themselves, and were they modelled on particular buildings or generic building forms? Were they, as we often read, made by estate carpenters?   The making of objects specifically for dolls’ houses starts with individual crafts such as pewterers making miniatures their vessels to produce exquisite tiny versions of life-sized pieces that formed their usual stock in trade.strangers-dolls-low-res34

As their popularity grew, so particular regions began to cater for the demand, such Thuringian woodcarvers and their families who specialised in making thousands of sets of tiny turned wooden tableware or tiny jointed dolls. Such goods in turn made their way via the European trade routes eventually into the grand London arcades, where they were sold by specialist toy-men.  A century later large companies were making dolls’ houses and furniture on a more industrial scale, using transfer decoration rather than hand-finishing on their goods. In the late 19th and early twentieth century an increasing affluence brought top-of-the-range toys like dolls’ houses within the reach of middle-class families. Those with wood-working skills but less money to spend on a ready-made could also aspire to make their own versions for their children, using patterns published in the popular hobby magazines.

Playing house

The twenty-first century has seen a rapid expansion of toy types, technology and availability. The idea of the play house has morphed a little but is still massively popular.  Play embraces both construction of a home and playing house. Early construction sets such as those developed by Metamek enabled would be builders to make their own mini buildings, and with the launch of the Lego brick in 1958, one didn’t need too much technical skill to achieve the satisfaction of creating a reasonably presentable building. The traditional popularity of dolls was augmented by the new fashion and character dolls  and Sindy,  Barbie and Action Man required homes, furniture and possessions . The concepts of designing, arranging, setting out a  home remains a mainstay of toy manufacturer, whether the home  be intended for a Sylvanian animal family, a My Little Pony, or a Playmobile pirate gang.  To this we can now add the digital creation of homes and living spaces, which forms an integral part, though not a main aim, of games such as The Sims and Animal Crossing. In 2016 Lego figures were the UK’s number 1 best selling toy: a spectacularly successful idea combining combining miniaturisation, affordability and surprise. An army of them have somehow found their way into my home!

So, to summarise, whether as  a focus for imaginative play or a means of creating order and having control over your very own world, there are few children today who have not enjoyed playing with mini house or home.

Behind the scenes at the museum

So what of a museum’s collection of dolls’ houses? Who gave them to the museum? What are their stories?  What happens to them in the museum? What can looking at them contribute to the discussion?


These are some of the themes we’ll be exploring in this blog over the coming months. We’ll be sharing the work we’ve been carrying out in order to prepare for Small Stories at Strangers’, the roles of our Documentation, Conservation and Display teams and of course the story of our much-loved Norwich Baby House. The dolls who live inside are getting ready to move in and want to tell you their stories. You’ll hear from a variety of contributors, from those of us lucky enough to work with museum collections on a daily basis to people who just love dolls’ houses and want to share their creations. We will be inviting guest posts and gradually adding resources for avid makers, as well as building a picture of our own tiny collections as we discover more about them.

Please do follow us to continue the story.