Snowshill Manor: the antique toy collection

Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

However much the importance of decluttering is foisted upon us, eccentric collections of stuff still hold a great fascination. For children, collecting toys, match cards, shells or leaves. As we grow up, try as we might to throw away every childhood trinket, it’s incredibly difficult. But can such keepsakes be turned into a collection?

Part of Snowshill's rich collection

Part of Snowshill's rich collection - Credit: Archant

“These toys grew up with us…lived with us so long it was impossible to think of parting with them,” Charles Paget Wade.


Charles Wade, the former owner of National Trust Snowshill Manor was passionate about collecting. Guided by the principles of colour, craftsmanship and design, Wade had a unique way of looking at objects. He saw the beauty, design and colour of each object he collected as well as an idea of how it would fit pictorially in his plans for Snowshill Manor, near Broadway. He saw the skills, the energy and the workmanship of those often uncelebrated individuals who created them.

A lifelong passion for collecting started for Wade at the age of seven when he went to stay with his grandmother in Great Yarmouth. He was allowed each Sunday the weekly thrill of a glimpse at the treasures inside Grannie Spencer’s cabinet. It was filled with old family heirlooms: a wax angel with golden wings for a Christmas tree, his great-grandfather’s pocket compass and much more.

At Snowshill he wanted to recreate a giant ‘grandmother’s cabinet’ of treasures. He collected over 22,000 objects during his lifetime. A visit is a delightful antedote to minimalism from the moment you see the coat of arms on the front door bearing the motto ‘nequid pereat’.

Charles Paget Wade

Charles Paget Wade - Credit: Archant


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Theme and vision

Collecting can become an addictive pastime, so a distinct theme and vision for any collection is essential. Even postcard collectors tend to focus on a specific type of postcard like a geographical area or a particular style. Victoria Swinglehurst, House Steward at Snowshill explains that Wade’s motivation was more complex but clear nonetheless.

“As an artist, craftsman and architect Wade was able to personally understand and appreciate the processes that individuals go through when creating an object. By saving the objects they made he felt he was also saving those people and their unique skills. His own artistic skill gave him an eye for real beauty and design and that really connected him to what he was collecting.”

When guests came to stay, Wade would open some of his beloved cabinets. He would then ceremonially hand a precious item to one of the guests so they could experience not just the sight but the feel of it.

“I set out to find things that would make an attractive series of rooms pictorially, not to form a museum” was Wade’s enigmatic vision. In its idyllic Cotswold hillside setting, Wade created a shrine to workmanship and design, filling the Manor and Garden with colour and intrigue to feed the curiosity and delight the senses.

The original grandmother's cabinet that started it all

The original grandmother's cabinet that started it all - Credit: Archant


A love of learning

There is always more to learn more about the items in a collection and their subtle differences. Wade was a great historian and spent time researching his own family and the owners of Snowshill Manor along with the many objects in his care.

He was intrigued by the histories and people associated with the items that he collected from street markets and dealers’ shops around the country.

He liked practical and scientific devices such as tools to measure the position of ships, atmospheric pressure or the distance of a target – many of which were significant developments at the time. He also collected pill making machines, bicycles and prams made in the days before mass production and enjoyed riding his penny farthing around the courtyard at Snowshill.


Penny farthing bicycle, Snowshill Manor

Penny farthing bicycle, Snowshill Manor - Credit: Archant

A creative outlet

Wade wrote: “Create something however small, / There lies the truest joy of all.” His collection is filled with beautiful objects that capture imaginations, bring back nostalgic memories and inspire creative outlets as they did for Wade himself.

He wrote: “Though each room of the house is filled with items of interest, each has a restful atmosphere. They are rooms to linger in - rooms one must return to - rooms where there is always something to discover - rooms which inspire a thousand fancies.”

With his friends he would use things from the collection to stage dramatic re-enactments of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wearing gowns, wigs, hats, bonnets and other accessories from the pre-sewing machine age, they performed by candle and firelight since Wade allowed no gas or electricity in the house. They used armour and weapons as props to act out plays, tell ghost stories and perform sword fights. Such was his dedication to his passion, he was once arrested in London’s Oxford Street for wearing a suit of armour because it was the only way he could carry it home.

Literary and artistic celebrities including J.B. Priestley, John Betjeman, Virginia Woolfe and Graham Green were among those who travelled to Gloucestershire to see Wade’s collection as its fame spread. One of Wade’s favourite parts of the collection was the toys and nursery furniture that for him represented ‘a kingdom beyond the ken of grown ups’. For Wade, seventh heaven was ‘childhood – before schools and schoolmasters have been able to destroy the greatest of all treasures, imagination.’


Dolls' house at Snowshill

Dolls' house at Snowshill - Credit: Archant

Celebrate your own collection

To encourage younger visitors and their families to celebrate and enjoy their own collections, the Snowshill team have put together an ‘apprentice collector’ trail. From Grannie Spencer’s cabinet itself to shadow puppets and a model village, there is plenty to discover both indoors and out.

For the rest of us, perhaps it’s time to dig out that old childhood collection and find a way to breathe new life into it.



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Samurai Armour

Samurai Armour - Credit: Archant


Toy soldier at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

Toy soldier at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

Toy train set, Snowshill

Toy train set, Snowshill - Credit: Archant