The Museum and Art Gallery on Bath Road, Old Town, is so small that it can only show a fraction of the amazing collections that Swindon owns. As a result, the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Trust is now bidding to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a contribution towards a landmark new building in the town centre. In the meantime, experts at the museum are lifting the lid on just some of the objects that tell us the long and colourful story of Swindon and how it shaped the community we are today

IF you’re a regular reader of this feature you’ll already know that Swindon’s history is studded with people whose talent and curiosity knew no bounds. The owner of this mechanical musical box, which is part of a large collection of musical instruments he donated to the museum, was no exception.

Frederick Winslow, who was born in 1876, was quite the polymath. A successful tailor, who had a store on Swindon’s Commercial Road, he was also a house furnisher – but despite what must have been a busy working week he still found time for his passion for music.

Winslow didn’t just enjoy music. He also made it. And he made the instruments that he played it on.

And he collected it, eventually amassing a range of sitars, drums, mandolins, lutes and musical boxes – one of which is pictured here - from all around the world.

Winslow’s first love seems to have been the mandolin.

He played it well enough to take his place on the national stage, and formed his own mandolin orchestra which played frequently on BBC Radio. The Radio Times of 21 May 1935 points out in its listing of the 8pm performance by Fred Winslow’s Serenaders Mandolin Orchestra “it is rare for all the instruments in an orchestra to be made by one man, but every mandolin and guitar used in his orchestra has been made by Fred Winslow”. A 13-strong ensemble, The Serenaders were regular broadcasters on the BBC until they disbanded at the outbreak of World War II.

However, it seems that anything that was capable of producing music – whether with the help of a musician or through the technical ingenuity of a craftsman – was irresistible to Winslow.

Take the musical box, for example. The first musical boxes were developed from tiny snuff boxes that gentlemen could carry in their waistcoat pockets – perhaps in the hope that the mechanically produced music might polite company from the explosive sneezing that often accompanied the nasal inhalation of ground up tobacco leaves.

But they didn’t remain small for long. The Swiss watchmakers who had built up an international reputation for designing and producing clockwork-powered instruments set their sights high, and soon musical boxes were large enough to grace a sideboard or even be considered a piece of furniture in their own right.

This particular musical box, which was produced in Switzerland, dates back to the second half of the 19th century.

Turn the handle, and the box plays one of eight airs, or tunes, accompanied by the ringing of small bells. In an age where there was no radio or television, and the mass production of gramophone records was still many decades hence, boxes like this became hugely popular.

Eventually, like many collectors, Winslow may have found that his collection of historic musical instruments had started to outgrow its home. Whatever the reason, he donated his collection to the museum and art gallery some time during the 1920s.

During the 1980s, parts of the collection were sent out to local schools and colleges as part of a Schools Loans Service, and unsurprisingly in the circumstances some instruments experienced small amounts of damage, with strings and pegs lost. However, the majority of objects remain in a good or fair condition, and in 2016 the collection was assessed and cleaned by the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre’s Conservation Service.

You can see the Swindon collection online at Minim, the UK’s largest online collection of historical musical instruments – But even better, call into the museum and art gallery on Bath Road to see the free current exhibition, Face the Music: the Winslow Collection of Instruments between 10am and 5pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, until March 3.