HE award-winning Magic Attic in Swadlincote is a hidden gem which was born out of one man’s passion for preserving local history. As it continues to flourish and unlock tales from the past NIGEL POWLSON went to meet the man behind it all.
GRAHAM Nutt never quite believed the grisly tale of Mexican Joe, told in hushed tones by his grandmother each Christmas, until he discovered the truth in a fading newspaper.
But it was this insight into the power of local history that fostered a passion in Graham that has grown into a unique archive which is preserving the heritage of Burton and South Derbyshire.
The Magic Attic is now a flourishing home to a vast collection of old newspapers, photographs and records run by a dedicated staff of unpaid volunteers and used by schools, researchers or just people wanting to reminisce.
Based at Sharpe’s Pottery Museum, in West Street, Swadlincote, the Magic Attic is a treasure house of local information which has just won an award from The British Association for Local History.
For Graham, the Attic is a source of great pride and testament to his vision in rescuing a collection of old newspapers and storing them in a room above a snooker hall. Since then it has snowballed beyond his wildest dreams.
Today, more than 500 people use the archive each month, with more seeing mobile exhibitions, reading books published by the Attic or hearing talks given by staff.
People come from far and wide to dip into this treasure trove and the Attic gets inquiries from all around the world. Many wish they had such a facility on their doorstep.
“We don’t say we are unique – but others do,” says Graham.
Graham was born and brought up in South Derbyshire and, when he was a boy, his grandmother lived up against Gresley Common.
“We would go and see her at Christmas and it was the one time we would be allowed in the parlour,” he says. “She would tell a tale about a murder down Coppice Side involving an itinerant conjuror known a Mexican Joe, who was knifed and killed in the early 1900s.”
Graham thought this might be an old wife’s tale but, years later, when he was flicking through the Burton Mail archives, he came across a story that grabbed him.
“The headline was ‘The death of Mexican Joe’,” he says. “I traced it back to when it started and when it finished. I took some notes and wrote up a story that was published in the Burton Mail over five weeks. Basically that sparked it all off.”
When those same old newspapers needed a new home, another local historian, Joe Storer, helped Graham find a space above a snooker club in Swadlincote and, on April 3, 1987, the seeds of the Magic Attic were sown.
“We moved all the papers to the snooker hall and were told to put them around the edges because the bar and the lounge were underneath!” says Graham. “We opened up to the public two nights a week and people began to come. One night a guy turned up and said ‘this is the Magic Attic’ and we liked that and took it.”
There were no computers or copying equipment back then but right from the start people starting bringing things in.
“Things they had found in sheds … photos, maps all kinds of documents,” says Graham.
In the late 1990s, when Sharpe’s Pottery Museum was established, the district council approached Graham and asked if he wanted to move in.
The Magic Attic had a new home and took the opportunity to become a registered charity.
“We had no money but were given a year’s grace before we started paying rent,” says Graham. “We begged, stole and borrowed things like chairs. But lots of people helped and volunteered and some had the skills to apply for grants; so what you see in here now – computer, projectors and so on – all came that way. It takes a lot of money to keep it going but we do and we remain independent.”
Graham believes the timing was just right as there had been an explosion of interest in local history inspired by TV programmes and a change in attitude in schools.
He says: “There has been a surge of interest in wanting to know about your locality.
“I wasn’t interested in history in school. I didn’t want to know about Abyssinia and anything else on the curriculum back then. If they had told me about Bonnie Prince Charlie coming as far as Swarkestone Bridge or the roundheads going down to Bretby Hall in the Civil War, then a bit of local blood and thunder like that when I was a kid would have done the trick.
“And I can tell you that in the old newspapers we have in the Attic there are stories that are better than fiction.”
Graham, now 69, started out in the motor trade and later spent 15 years working with special needs children. His local history passion was always a sideline which has now grown to take over 25-30 hours of his week.
The Attic has 32 trustees and volunteers who help Graham keep it ticking over.
“It’s not a library, or a record office,” says Graham. “There’s a social side to it. I always say there’s a cup of tea waiting and biscuits handed out.”
There’s no charge to use the facilities, except for things like photocopying, although donations are welcome.
Everyone’s welcome and newcomers often arrive with a nugget of local history in their hands.
Graham says: “Someone came in the other day and left a booklet about Spanish refugee children who had been housed at Burnaston Hall during the Spanish Civil War. We had never heard of it. What a wonderful story.
“There are still things like that which surprise me and there really are some real treasures in here.”
More information about the Magic Attic is available by visiting www.magicattic.org.uk or calling 01283 819020.