Our Collections

The Museum was started in 1967 and the collection grew through the generous donations of local people. Now the museum looks after around 50,000 items including photographs, costume and textile, farming, tools and trades and domestic life. There is also a supporting archive of paper ephemera. Please contact us if you would like to see anything in our reserve collection.  

Object of the month

Each month we delve into our archives to bring you our object of the month. Take a look our past objects.

The Merlin Self Propelling Chair

The Merlin Self Propelling Chair

This self-propelling chair came to the museum in 1994 from a family in Aislaby. There had been previous chairs on wheels but they relied on an assistant to push. This was the first time the occupant could be independent and get about on their own using the large front wheels. The name ‘Merlin’ comes from John Joseph Merlin the inventor of the self-propelling chair. Born in Belgium in 1735, he moved to England in 1760. He was a talented man and worked with James Cox on his clocks and automata including the Silver Swan now at Bowes Castle Museum. He invented many things including the self-propelling chair and roller skates! He was known by his contemporaries as ‘Mr Merlin , the Mechanic’. It has a directional castor wheel at the back and two large front wheels with rubber tyres and an inner handrail for the occupant to be able to control the movement of the chair. There are folding handles at the back for an assistant to be able to push. There are also metal brackets on the side of the seat frame that poles could be inserted through and the chair could be lifted off the base and the occupant be carried, useful if the terrain was not good for wheels or there were stairs to climb. Unfortunately, the poles and sliding footrest are missing. There is no maker’s mark on the chair but this page from a catalogue by a firm called Humphry & Sons Ltd is in the collection at Leeds Museums and looks remarkably like our chair.

Image Credit Leeds Museums and Galleries

Photographic Collections

The museum is very fortunate in holding the collections of two local photographers Sydney Smith, active between c1905 and 1950, and Peter Harris, active between 1968 and c1995. There are also a number of smaller collections.

The photographs cover Pickering and the surrounding villages from c1900 to c.2000. There is also an extensive camera equipment collection.

Sydney Smith Collection

Sydney Smith (1884-1958) was the youngest son of a Pickering builder. He became interested in photography at a young age, opening a photographic business in Pickering around 1910 before moving it to 13 Market Place in 1914. Sydney married Maud Thompson, they lived above the shop for nearly 40 years, bringing up two children.

The Photographer

From 1914 to 1947, he produced many portraits and postcards. These were to become a unique record of this rural community, from carnivals through to visits of important people to the town to the occasional disastrous floods! Sydney had an artistic eye for a good photograph. He had infinite patience and could wait hours for the sunlight and shadows to be just right. He often entered national photography competitions with good results.

The Legacy

In the late 1960s Maud donated about 2000 images and glass plate negatives to the museum. They had been stored in a garage since the shop closed in 1956.      Since then the museum has actively collected postcards and photographs by Sydney Smith and researched the people and places on them. A wonderful collection has now been built up, offering a unique glimpse in to life in this market town many decades ago.

Peter Harris Collection

Peter Harris

Peter Harris

Peter Harris was a freelance photographer for the local newspaper The Mercury for many years. He also had a shop and studio on Castlegate. When he retired he became a trustee at the museum and donated his photographic negatives relating to life in and around Pickering from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. During this time he photographed local fetes, shows, school achievements, club presentations, sports teams and much more. Currently some of these photographs are on display in the ‘1970s Remembered’ exhibition.



The archives consist of local business receipts dating back to the late 19th century, records and letters from some of the prominent local people, almanacs and business directories and a small library of reference books. The archive is available to researchers by appointment.