Alumna Tamsin Wimhurst discovers The David Parr House

by Kate Coghlan on 20 February 2017


Alumna, Tamsin Wimhurst (MSt History, 2005, pictured right) stumbled across an incredible local history project, which quickly started to take over her life. In this blog, she described what makes an ordinary terraced house in Cambridge so special and the work involved now in fundraising to restore it and open it to the public.

The David Parr House, by Tamsin Wimhurst

Lucy Cavendish College helped me to change direction by not only giving me the chance to go back to education but also by walking into a hallway, surrounded by paintings not of eminent men but eminent women, that inspired me to want to uncover more of women’s history and the role they played in our past.

At the time I was teaching in central London at a school with a very inspiring head who encouraged us to take our classes out on trips as often as we wanted to.  From the school, we could walk to many of our great national galleries and museums and from my experiences of teaching my classes in these spaces I began to think about moving my career towards museum education.  When both my children happily settled in school I had an opportunity to embarked on a MSt in Local History at Lucy Cavendish, whilst also working part time at the Museum of Cambridge.  I fell in love with the subject, the research especially, spending many enjoyable hours sifting through documents in record offices and embedding myself in the minute details of the history of Cambridge.  But, the main reason I found it so fulfilling is that you can uncover a history where women play a very active role in shaping their social and political environment around them.  My MSt looked at a group called ‘The Cambridge Branch of the National Union of Women Workers’ and I followed a group of women who started off wanting to be called ‘ladies’ but by the end of their lives were proud to be called ‘women workers’. At the same time, I also fell in love with the world of independent museums.  These are not the celebrates of the museum world but they hold quirky and fascinating collections of our everyday history.  They never have any money and rely on a small and enthusiastic workforce and volunteers to keep them going.  They demand a lot but they can give you a lot back.  I not only developed educational programs but also had the opportunity to curate exhibitions, and it was through one of these, ‘A Space of Our Own’ that I was to come across a space that was to take my working life in a whole new direction. 

The message on my desk was just a phone number and a name.  My colleague told me that someone had rung the museum to say that I should go and visit Mrs Palmer and please call them back.  This was how I found myself, knocking on the door of what seemed from the outside like a very typical Cambridge terrace house, anticipating why I had been summoned to such an ordinary place.  I soon understood why when the door was opened by a lovely elderly lady who showed me into the front room of what I very quickly realised was certainly not ‘ordinary’.

The room was covered from ceiling to floor in pattern – a heady mixture of designs that seemed, to a modern eye, to jar together, awkward in their positioning next to each other.  The words, ‘What? Why? How? Who?’, flooded into my mind and as I talked to Mrs Palmer an amazing story unfolded (Mrs Palmer pictured left).

Her grandfather, David Parr, a Victorian decorator moved into the house in 1887 and during his 40 year occupancy of the property lavished all the painting and decorating skills he usually applied professionally to churches, colleges and stately homes to his own humble walls.  In his day job Parr worked for the Cambridge firm F R Leach & Sons.  This firm undertook many commissions for the great designers of the day such as William Morris and George Bodley decorating such places as Queens College Old Hall, Jesus College Chapel and All Saints’ Church in Cambridge and St James Palace, London.

Remarkably this working class man recreated the same awe and wonder in his own home.  Throughout the house the walls have been decorated in dark, luscious Neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts designs.  He hand-painted the walls, picture rails, friezes, dados, doors and ceilings of every room by candlelight in his spare time; mixing his own paint colours, stencilling and ‘pouncing’ on canvas and paper backings; creatively applying reclaimed Anaglypta flowers and Abyssinian gold leaf to woodwork, and Lincrusta as pseudo-linenfold whenever he had the opportunity and materials to hand.  In a Victorian example of poor man’s ‘upcycling’, he made creative hay with the leftover paints, paper and wallcoverings from his various jobs.

He was also meticulous in noting down, in a small brown notebook, all that he did to the house from the moment he walked in – an amazing document to have, along with the survival of so much of his decorative scheme.  In it he tells us the time it takes him to paint his designs, the colours he uses and the cost.  One entry says how he ‘paints the bedroom during the painters strike of 1919’.

Mrs Palmer moved out of the house in 2013 and died shortly afterwards. I knew that she wanted it preserved so I worked with the family, set up a charity and purchased the house before setting about the task of working out how to open it up to the public and make it financially sustainable at the same time. 

A lot of thinking, listening, discussing and planning has gone on in the last two years.  At the beginning of this year we heard that we had won a £625,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help conserve and restore the house so that the public can see what took my breath away 7 years ago.   None of it has been easy and as someone said to me early on in the project, ‘You have all the issues of a stately home but on a much smaller scale and that does not make it any easier’, and it does not.  But apart from the curation and conservation of the house we also need to constantly raise money for its long term survival and recruit volunteers to help us open it up and keep it open.  The conservation project is expected to take two and a half years so we will be opening up to the public in 2019 but there will be some open days during this time so that the public can see ‘work in progress’.  I have fallen in love with this house and its amazing narratives - I hope that all who visit it will do so to. 

To find out more about the project and to offer any assistance, please visit http://www.davidparrhouse.org/

Photos taken by Howard Rice and Alex Murphy. Below, the front room (left) and a portrait of David Parr's family (right).