Social history from the Vale – including a 17th century prison spyhole

Bucks County Museum’s social history expert Will Phillips gives the lowdown on five objects which were used by those living and working in the Vale in the past.

The pieces are currently on display at the museum’s Church Street base.

1920s Cubitt motor car, produced in Aylesbury

1920s Cubitt motor car, produced in Aylesbury


The star item in the museum’s collection is described as ‘rare as hen’s teeth’, as it is thought only six Cubitts are still in existence. The factory on Bicester Road produced 3,000 from 1919 until it went bust in 1925. This particular example was discovered in the Australian outback in 1973, after a vintage car enthusiast from Bucks was visiting and recognised the Aylesbury worksmanship.

He tried to buy it but was refused, before the owner had a change of heart and accepted the offer a few years later. He shipped it back and restored it before it was purchased by the museum in 2005 thanks to a lottery grant.


This ornate clay teapot was made as a gift especially for newlyweds Mr and Mrs Harris, who were married in Swanbourne in 1922. The vessel would have almost certainly been kept for use only on special occasions, and has a distinct miniature teapot on the lid. It is often referred to as ‘Measham ware’ because the pottery style was traced back the Leicestershire village of Measham.

Will said: “The reason I have chosen this is because I think the canal is a really important part of Aylesbury’s history, but it has been forgotten. It runs right through the centre of the town but if you were visiting, you’d never know it was there.” However, the term ‘bargeware’ is a little misleading as it wasn’t made specifically for canal folk. People passing through on canal boats would place an order for their personalised pottery on the outward journey, and collect it on the way back. Will said: “The words would have been stamped onto the wet clay using a printing set.”


This beautifully carved sign would have hung over the door of The Ship Inn in Grendon Underwood during the 1700s. It has Shakespearian connections as it is said the Bard himself frequently stopped off at the Elizabethan coaching inn on his journeys from Stratford-upon-Avon to London.

Will said: “It is not known which ship is depicted, but it is believed to be the work of itinerant painter Roger Mortimer.” The inn closed in the late 18th century and was turned into a farmhouse, where the sign was stored until the house was sold in 1822. It was bequeathed to the museum in 1918, and has been on display ever since.


The protective outgarment, most commonly worn by men working in the English countryside, saw its popularity peak in the mid 19th century. They were traditionally made and embroidered at home by farmers’ wives before the demand led to mass production.

Will said: “This smock is in rather good condition, and it’s said that it belonged to a farmer’s son who won it in a ploughing match in Great Horwood in the 1890s. By then, the smock was decreasing in popularity so he probably wouldn’t have worn it.” The garment is characterised by the simple pattern and smocking detail on the front, giving it its name.


Though it doesn’t look much, this macabre piece of metal work from the 1730s was used by wardens at the gaol – then located behind County Hall – to check on the prisoners in the condemned cells before they were hanged for their crimes. This grim performance took place on a specially-built platform on the Bicester Road until 1810, when the process was moved to the first floor balcony of County Hall – which provided a suitably long drop for the job.

The last person to be hung in public in Aylesbury in 1845 was John Tawell, who was found guilty of murdering his mistress, Sarah Hart, by acid poisoning. Back then, hangings were quite the spectacle and thousands turned out to watch Tawell’s grisly end. After that, hangings were carried out inside the gaol walls.