Today I went wandering around the current exhibition in Milton Keynes Central Library, Newport Pagnell – Cromwell’s Garrison Town. It was an interesting exhibition which was very old skool in terms of how it was presented and to be honest could have been a bit dull if it hadn’t pressed some particular interest buttons for me.
The exhibition primarily focuses on the history of Newport Pagnell and role it played in the English Civil War(s), but it also touches upon the history of Stony Stratford too. Pictures of Sealed Knot visits to both are included amongst the exhibits. The exhibition illustrates how these two small towns, which are now viewed by some – but not the locals – as being part of Milton Keynes were on opposing sides during the civil war. Stony was held by the Royalists and for most of the time Newport Pagnell was held by the Parliamentarians. Thus, as the exhibition makes clear this area was the front line between Oxford and East Anglia.
I found this borderland idea interesting as it is something which continues into the modern day. MK is hard to categorise in terms of where it lies regionally. We are on the edge of several regions and our life here reflects that. TV wise I get Look East, police coverage is provided by the Thames Valley Force, the main “local” railway company is London Midland.
There was some important non-conformist dissenter history within the exhibition, aswell as literary treasures. There was a chunk of wood which was part of a pulpit Bunyan had preached from and some documentation relating to Rev. John Gibbs who was one of the 17th century dissenters who left the CofE and formed an independent church which is now the URC. This history page on the Newport Pagnell Baptist Church site outlines the way in which other local dissenting congregations can be seen to trace their heritage back to Gibbs and within the exhibition is an article from the Baptist Quarterly dating back to the 1920’s.
I find the whole subject of non-conformist history absolutely fascinating and important, it is an important part of my religious heritage.
In terms of how radical political non-conformity and dissent has always been viewed as dangerous one line in a time line in the exhibition is very telling. In 1649 Levellers were chased through Newport Pagnell and their leaders shot.
One thing I am very aware of is that it is easy to romanticise the situation of the time, particularly as non-conformists who still have that Puritan DNA in us. That would be a mistake, but I do worry that this exhibition focused too much on bland information without going into much depth about what the reality would have been. For example when it says volunteers to go to Ireland were told they weren’t needed – such as simple sentence, but so much more than is immediately obvious is held within it.
As I say an interesting exhibition if you are in to that sort of thing, but possibly not if you’re not a social history/ non-conformity buff. I know space was obviously an issue for this exhibition and I would have liked to see it presented in a larger space. I think that would have made a difference.