Obituary: Roy Armstrong
Friday 22 October 1993
ROY ARMSTRONG devoted his life to the study of history and the encouragement of local communities. The foundation of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum to encourage the preservation of vanishing vernacular architecture in south-eastern England was his greatest single achievement.
The museum was established in 1970 through voluntary determination and effort, inspired by Armstrong's leadership, on a site provided by the Edward James Foundation on the West Dean estate, at Singleton, in Sussex. Influenced by the Scandinavian open-air museum movement, Armstrong founded the museum to awaken public interest through its collection of historic buildings which symbolise building traditions in the region.
Educated at Dulwich College, Armstrong went up to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1921 and graduated in modern history in 1925. His long association with the Workers Educational Association was a natural development of his early interest in education and progressive schools. In 1936 he was appointed as tutor organiser for the Extra-Mural Department of Southampton University, and eventually senior lecturer.
After the war his interests developed to encompass architecture, planning and reconstruction. Weekend schools and courses of lectures led to the formation of the Wealden Buildings Study Group in the early 1960s and to other research groups in the region. From these came the stimulus for the formation of several local museums, the most notable being the Arundel Museum and Heritage Centre. From contacts made during these years the Committee for the Promotion of an Open Air Museum for the Weald was formed, eventually leading to the foundation of the museum at Singleton.
The museum developed rapidly, promoting conservation of buildings in situ, and rescuing and reerecting on its 50-acre downland site, buildings which would otherwise have been destroyed including houses, cottages, farm buildings, a village school, a watermill, a market hall and a timber-framed privy. The museum has received many accolades, including the National Heritage Museum of the Year Award in 1975 and the Gateway Interpret Britain Award for the Bayleaf Medieval Farmstead.
The museum's aim of encouraging public interest in the region's architecture has been underpinned with research into traditional building. Its educational objectives extend to assisting the active preservation of building skills, and teaching building conservation under the auspices of Bournemouth University's Joint Centre for Heritage Conservation and Management, in which the museum is a partner.
In 1974 Armstrong's involvement with conservation issues expanded further with his work for the Sandgate Conservation Society, which he established in association with others. The aim was to preserve almost 1,000 acres of mixed landscape including sandy heath, near his house in Storrington, West Sussex. To assist in the creation of this public open space he donated part of his own beautifully landscaped garden. Among his publications were A History of Sussex (1961, revised and enlarged 1974) and Traditional Buildings Accessible to the Public (1979).
Last year Armstrong received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Sussex University. At his degree ceremony he said: 'The future of any form of democratic government will largely depend on the development of such voluntary, informed organisations. The key word is informed. Difference of interest and viewpoint can only be resolved by a willingness to reach consensus through informed discussion and compromise.'
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum founded by Roy Armstrong retains this ideal as central to its aim.
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