History Of The Museum

The award-winning Museum of East Dorset is located in the heart of the beautiful market town of Wimborne Minster.


Hilda Coles inherited the ironmonger’s business from her father, Tom Frank Coles, following his death in 1953. Seven years later, she took the decision to close the shop and fulfil his long-held wish to turn the building, known as the Priest’s House, into a museum.

Hilda worked with the Wimborne Historical Society to create galleries in three rooms on the ground floor of the building. The museum opened on 31 July 1962. Hilda Coles wanted it to be “a centre of education and culture… and appealing to children as well as adults”. This was an unusually advanced view for the early 1960s.

Some of the displays were based on objects that had belonged to a local doctor, Sir Ernest Kaye Le Fleming. He had given his collections to the Dorset County Museum, on the understanding that they would be returned to Wimborne when the time was right. Since then, the museum’s collections have expanded to cover the towns and rural villages of East Dorset.

Hilda ran the museum herself for 25 years, with a team of volunteers and support from the local community. Upon her death in 1987, the house and garden were left to the Governors of Wimborne Minster, a local charitable trust. It was Hilda’s wish that the building should be used as a museum for the town and district and she provided an endowment income.


Refurbishment and restoration


The Priest’s House Museum Trust, in partnership with the Governors of Wimborne Minster and East Dorset District Council, restored the building and extended the display area to 10 rooms. The Information Centre moves into its current home in the south wing of the building.

Between 1991 and 1995, a series of permanent displays were created within 10 rooms of the building, under the direction of successive curators. Some of these displays reflected the history of the building and its inhabitants, as well as the domestic and shop settings from different centuries.

2012 – 2014

Thanks to a fundraising campaign and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the museum expanded its facilities. The Garden Room was built. It included a Learning Centre for all, as well as storage facilities for the collections and a tea room.

In 2014, the Priest’s House Museum Trust took over the management of the Information Centre, ensuring this vital resource was kept for the community of East Dorset


Following a major fundraising campaign and a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the building has been restored and refurbished as the Museum of East Dorset. The historic building, its features and the stories of the people of East Dorset are revealed for all to enjoy.

The Museum of East Dorset will continue to celebrate the heritage of the area for many years to come.

To find out more about the refurbishment, click here to visit the Refurbishment page


The collections

The Museum of East Dorset showcases a wealth of social and local history materials dating from the 1700s through to the 2000s. Many of the 35,000 objects relate to the domestic life, childhood, trades and agriculture of the local area. The collections include rare archaeological artefacts, some of national significance, a photographic archive dating back to the 1850s, clothing and other items that tell the story of East Dorset.

Here are just a few of the highlights you can discover when you visit the museum:

  • Artefacts from the Romano-British villa at Tarrant Hinton, including one of only two Roman force pumps known in Britain
  • An Iron Age skeleton exhibiting unique evidence of tuberculosis – to date the earliest known case of TB in Britain
  • Locally produced pottery, dating from the medieval period to 1952, including our Verwood pottery collection – one of the most comprehensive in existence
  • 350 Victorian Valentine cards dating from 1830 to 1872, from the unused stock of William Low’s stationer’s shop . These include both traditional romantic Valentines and ‘Vinegar Valentines’ (rude cards that were sent anonymously to people you did not like!)
  • Unsold shop stock, furnishings, paperwork from T.G.Coles & Son ironmonger’s shop, owned by Hilda Coles’ grandfather and located in the same building the museum occupies today
  • Machinery patterns and products associated with Witchampton Paper Mill
  • Agriculture and country crafts, reflecting the changing way of life in rural East Dorset in the 1800s and 1900s
  • Many thousands of images of Wimborne Minster and the surrounding villages, including images of people, buildings, street scenes, working life, family life and local celebrations, dating from the 1850s onwards
  • Clothes and accessories dating from the early 1800s to more modern times, including a ‘time capsule’ of unsold stock from local clothier Harold Dacombe, who ran a travelling shop in East Dorset from the 1930s to the 1950s
  • A delightful toy collection, with items dating from the early 1800s to the present day, including an early Steiff ‘blank-button’ bear