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Quex House and the Powell-Cotton Museum

by Richard Crowhurst

Quex HouseBehind the small town of Birchington in Kent lies Quex House, home of a remarkable museum. Step through the entrance and you enter a Victorian world filled with a fascinating collection of zoological and anthropological artefacts.

The first house was built in the early 1400s, the estate passing through several families before the Powell-Cottons arrived towards the end of the 18th century. They built a large country mansion in the Regency style, replacing an earlier timber and stone building. In 1813 John Powell-Powell inherited the estate from his elder brother Arthur and rebuilt the mansion, adding a tower from which to watch ships navigating the north Kent coast. He also planted many trees and built the Waterloo bell tower.

Several rooms of the house are open to the public during summer afternoons, including the Oriental Drawing Room, which houses furniture collected by Major Powell-Cotton. As well as oriental pieces there are collections of English furniture, clocks, silverware and paintings. At the rear of the house John Powell-Powell's collection of cannon can be seen on the Veranda, and there are 10 acres of beautiful gardens to explore, including lawns, borders and restored glasshouses.

The Museum

The Museum was established by Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, who spent forty years exploring Africa and Asia and collecting in the UK. Once he'd run out of room in the house, he built a 'Pavilion' alongside. This was opened to family and friends around 1895, and today it is just one gallery in a museum that displays around 400 animal specimens. The overall collection is huge and the curator, Malcolm Harman, admits that the artefacts never been totalled up. He estimates that the ethnography section alone contains around 18,000 items.

Arguably the most famous galleries are those housing the taxidermy. Modern attitudes have, perhaps, distorted the scientific nature of the collection and although some sections may not be to everyone's taste, Powell-Cotton was a genuine conservationist. Many of the animals are displayed in such a convincing manner that you almost forget you're not on the African Savannah. As well as the stunning dioramas there are mounted heads and carefully preserved skins. The glass case housing a lion in mid-attack on a buffalo is one of my personal favourites. Irrespective of your moral stance on Percy Powell-Cotton's hunting exploits, nothing brings home the reality of the natural world better than this stunning example of the taxidermist's art.

Powell-Cotton Museum

The collection contains almost every African mammal (there are over 5,000 additional species behind the scenes), including some species that casual visitors would be forgiven for never hearing of, such as Mrs Gray's Lechwe and Hunter's Hartebeest. No animal in the collection is extinct. On the contrary, many species that were endangered in Powell-Cotton's time are now thriving as a result of his educational legacy. The museum is also proud of its primate collection. Many of these were traded from local people who routinely hunted the animals for food.

Other galleries display a wide range of African cultural artefacts, including jewellery, costumes, weapons and domestic utensils. The exhibition helps to put many of these into context, with background information and photographs of many of the ethnic groups that Powell-Cotton met during his travels. The collection bug was also passed on to two of the Major's daughters, who added several thousand objects, photographs and films from their own travels in Angola.

In one of the most exciting and diverse collections in private ownership, there are also displays of local archaeology, firearms and cutting weapons from around the world, Asian artefacts, Japanese Netsuke and porcelain. Many of these items were obtained by the Major from sale rooms and auctions. Much of the porcelain came from the collection of Mr Pope, a former Catholic missionary. Having purchased some of the items at auction, Major Powell-Cotton arranged to buy the rest privately. They consist of European and Chinese export pieces and some of the most prized items are those that were made exclusively for use by the Imperial Emperor in the Forbidden City. Most of this dates from the Quing and Minq Dynasties and includes examples of the highly prized and exclusive 'yellow' porcelain reserved for the Emperor's immediate family.

The Waterloo Tower

During opening hours visitors can also walk through the private parkland to the Waterloo tower, which was built in 1819 by John Powell-Powell. He was a keen bell-ringer and even developed his own technique named 'Steadman Triples.' For safety reasons it is not possible to climb the tower, but the Quex Park Society of Change Ringers still maintains the bells and practices twice a week. The spire is inspired by a church in the town of Faversham, but observers say it reminds them of the Eiffel Tower.

Powell-Cotton's Legacy Today

Major Powell-CottonModern sensibilities may have been overly harsh in their judgement of Major P. H. G. Powell-Cotton, but his legacy is now acknowledged as being invaluable in helping modern conservationists around the world. Students and researchers come from around the world. Recent visitors have included those from Africa, Canada, Australia, Norway and the USA, as well as closer to home and the museum regularly works alongside London's Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.

DNA from the collection has been used to help save the Giant Sable, which has been reduced to just 500 animals in its native Angola. DNA from the collection's Quagga confirmed its relationship to the more common Cape Mountain Zebra. This has enabled a breeding programme which, over the years, has produced two stable populations of Cape Mountain Zebra with an external appearance that strongly resembles the Quagga.

Major Powell-Cotton was meticulous in his recording and the collections are backed by detailed maps, diaries, films and photographs, all of which have provided an invaluable historic record for environmentalists, anthropologists and conservation workers.

Waterloo Tower

Getting There

The small town of Birchington is easily reached by car and the museum is located just under a mile from the town centre. Follow the signs before the mini-roundabout on the A28 road, opposite the church. The museum is also close to Kent International Airport

Opening times vary through the summer and although the museum is closed to the general public in the winter, groups and researchers are welcome year-round with an appointment. The house is only open in the afternoon and a 'garden only' ticket is also available. There is a quality restaurant and a gift shop. Full details of opening times can be found on the website. However, much of the museum's literature is currently being revised and so it may be advisable to call the museum +44 (0) 1843 842168 before a visit.

Other attractions in the area include the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial and Manston Museum at the nearby airport, and the coastal towns of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate.

More Information:

Powell-Cotton Museum

Quex Park and Powell-Cotton Museum

Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article © 2006 Richard Crowhurst
Photos © Quex Estate and Powell Cotton Museum.


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