In honour of Catherine Wilson OBE

Heather Hughes (Vice-Chair, LHF)

Catherine Wilson has a lot of letters after her name: OBE, FSA, FMA, FRGS.  The Lincolnshire Heritage Forum is not in a position to add any more – instead, at its 2022 conference in November, the Forum honoured her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. We wanted to thank Catherine for her dedication to preserving and promoting the county’s heritage, both in her professional career and as a committed volunteer.

Catherine grew up close to Windsor Castle, where the sights and sounds of royal pageantry made a deep imprint on her. When she was in sixth form, a curator from the Coin Department at the British Museum gave a talk at her school. He invited Catherine to visit and to have a look behind the scenes and from that moment, she was hooked. Although she had a university place lined up, she sent an advert to the journal of the Museums Association, along the lines of ‘Young woman seeks a career in museums.’  To her surprise, it was published and perhaps to her even greater surprise, she received a single response. It was from Lincoln! Thus did her association with the county – and heritage – begin, when Tom Baker, Director of Libraries, Museum and Art Gallery in the City Council, hired her as a new ‘apprentice’ in 1964.

Catherine (right) as member of the first all-female crew of a traction engine in the East Midlands, c.1975. Newark Advertiser. 

She rapidly acquired knowledge of a range of collections: geology, archaeology, natural history and art (her job included the Usher Gallery).  Hilary Healey fondly remembered how Catherine and her colleagues

“always had a stand at the Woodhall and County Shows in the marquee run by the then Lincolnshire Local History Society. In addition to artefact displays they had a set of six inch to one mile maps of the whole county. People soon got to know the tent and would make a beeline for the Museum stand to show their latest discoveries and have them identified and put on the map.”[1]

This recollection perfectly sums up Catherine’s whole approach: professional dedication combined with outreach and willingness to engage with anyone who showed an interest.

She soon rose in seniority, becoming Curator of the recently established Museum of Lincolnshire Life. Here she worked closely with Ethel Rudkin and other notable ‘hoarders’ to develop the collection. She had a very clear sense of how important it was to collect locally manufactured agricultural machinery and other farming artefacts (‘life’ in Lincolnshire being largely a story of rural life). The 1950s and 60s were a time of profound shifts in technological development, sweeping away many pre-war farming practices, and Catherine was acutely aware that the tangible objects associated with such practices and way of life would also disappear unless a concerted effort were made to preserve them. She was thus a key player in a broader, national preservation movement. As she wrote of this period:

“There was a great swell of popular support for the new museums and I feel privileged to have counted as friends some of the last generation of horsemen and steam ploughmen.” [2]

Catherine collecting Humphrey from 10 Downing Street. Alamy.

In 1974, the newly formed Lincolnshire County Council took over the ownership and funding of the MLL from the founding body, the Lincolnshire Association for the Arts and Heritage; Catherine oversaw all the resulting changes to the way the MLL was run. She also hosted, and featured in, the first-ever outside broadcast of BBC Radio Lincolnshire. Another enjoyable experience was to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s childhood teddy bear, Humphrey, from 10 Downing Street for a teddy bear exhibition at the Museum, in 1982. Catherine remembers that

“We had a picnic (of course) with prizes for best dressed teddy. It was great fun. It’s the only time I have seen a queue of people waiting to get in that stretched round the corner and as far as the back gates.”[3]

As further promotion beckoned, Catherine’s role changed from hands-on collections management (and teddy bear picnics) to administration and advocacy. As Assistant Director of Recreational Services in the Lincolnshire County Council, responsible for museums, galleries, archaeology and windmills, she played a vital role in securing the future of the many and various heritage sites that came under the Council’s control, and promoted dialogue and knowledge-sharing with the independent museums sector. Among her notable achievements at the Council, she secured Karl Wood’s significant collection of paintings and drawings for the Usher Gallery and led the effort to raise £2 million for the Usher to acquire Benjamin West’s portrait of Joseph Banks.

For her next career move, she hopped across the border to a post as Director of the Norfolk Museums Service. The more integrated approach, of county and district councils working closely together, appealed to her and she strengthened the support structures that this arrangement allowed. Of course she enjoyed having Gressenhall Farm Museum in her care – and retains a soft spot for the Suffolk Punch horses!

Catherine with Alan Bloom, Norfolk nurseryman and steam enthusiast. Eastern Daily Press.

Among Catherine’s many other roles was a six-year stint on the East Midlands Committee of the then Heritage Lottery Fund (now National Lottery Heritage Fund).  She helped to found the Association of Independent Museums – again, connecting public and independent provision, to strengthen heritage across both – and is a life member. Her national influence in the sector was confirmed when she was appointed to the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) and the National Museum Directors’ Council – the only local government officer to sit on those bodies. She served the MGC as chair of the Registration Scheme, forerunner of the Museum Accreditation scheme.

Luckily for us, Catherine retired back to Lincolnshire. For a time, she was a sought-after consultant. Among the projects she took on was to define what a distributed national collection of agricultural heritage might look like, for the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.

In both work and retirement, Catherine has been extremely active as mentor and friend to many, as well as a tireless volunteer. She has served, or continues to serve, as a trustee (for example, on the board of the Dogdyke Pumping Station Preservation Trust) and as a patron (Louth Naturalists’ Antiquarian and Literary Society, or Ants and Nats for short). Among other leading positions, she served as President of the Society for Folk Life Studies, Chair of the Rural Life Museums Action Group, Chair of the Museums Group, East Midlands and President of the Society for Lincolnshire Heritage and Archaeology. She has even been a judge – of our own LHF Heritage Awards.

Catherine has also published several works, ranging from monographs and reports to articles in scholarly journals.

Thank you, Catherine, for being an inspiration to so many, and for your continuing support for heritage in Lincolnshire – and indeed everywhere.

Publications by Catherine Wilson

From small beginnings – the story of the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. In A Prospect of Lincolnshire edited by Naomi Field and Andrew White. Lincoln, published by the editors, 1984, pp 138-139.

The Man Who Ate his Boots: The Remarkable Story of Sir John Franklin, 1786-1847. Lincoln, Lincolnshire County Council, 1994.

Christopher Turnor (1809-1886) and his buildings. In Lincolnshire People and Places. Essays in Memory of Terence T. Leach (1937-1994) edited by Christopher Sturman. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1996, pp 121-130.

Foreword to Farming, Countryside and Museums by Rob Shorland-Ball. Museums and Galleries Commission, London, 2000.

‘I’ve got a brand new combine harvester … but who should have the key?’ Some thoughts on rural life museums and agricultural preservation in Eastern England. [Presidential Address to the Society for Folklife Studies.] Journal of Ethnological Studies 41, 1, 2002, pp 7-23.

James Coultas of Grantham: prize drill maker. In Ploughs, Chaff cutters and Steam engines, Lincolnshire’s Agricultural Implement Makers edited by Ken Redmore. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2007, pp 36-46.

(With Peter Wilson) Linwood Warren: a journey of discovery. In All Things Lincolnshire. A Collection of Papers and Tributes to Celebrate the 80th Birthday of David N. Robinson OBE MSc edited by Jean Howard and David Start. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2007, pp 211-240.

(With David Viner) Sorting the wheat from the chaff: establishing the methodology towards a distributed national collection of agricultural heritage. Journal of Ethnological Studies 47, 1, 2009, pp 1-19.

Digging deep: Report on the Results of the Plough Survey. Rural Museums Network, 2011.

(Edited with Stewart Squires) Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011.

Growing the traditional way. In Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato edited by Catherine Wilson and Stewart Squires. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011, pp 21-22.

Into the freezer. In Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato edited by Catherine Wilson and Stewart Squires. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011, pp 85-88.

Potato storage. In Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato edited by Catherine Wilson and Stewart Squires. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011, pp 104-106.

Growing and selling potatoes 1960-2010. In Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato edited by Catherine Wilson and Stewart Squires. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011, pp 107-120.

(Compiled with Stewart Squires) Some recipes for a versatile food. In Growing Better: Lincolnshire and the Potato edited by Catherine Wilson and Stewart Squires. Lincoln, Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2011, pp 121-128.

(With Sue and Alan Stennett) Lincolnshire’s Farm Animals: A Brief History. Lincoln, History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012.


[1] Hilary Healey, ‘Recollections of the City and County Museum’, Lincolnshire Past and Present 61, 2005, p. 14.

[2] Catherine Wilson’s foreword to Farming, Countryside and Museums by Rob Shorland-Ball (a Museums and Galleries Commission report), cited in Veronica Sekules, Cultures of the Countryside: Art, Museum, Heritage and Environment 1970-2015. Taylor and Francis.

[3] Personal communication, 28 October 2022.

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