Gallery: Essex museum to exhibit part of Wisbech woman’s amazing collection

AN Essex museum curator’s round trip to the Fens has seen her return with an extraordinary collection of 500 swimsuits which took a Wisbech woman 50 years to collect.

Now some of the swimsuits are to go on show to the public in an exhibition entitled Life’s a Beach which opens at Southend Museum tomorrow (Saturday).

The collection was offered to the museum by 82 year-old Mavis Plume who began her collection after a day trip to Hunstanton soon after the last war.

Claire Fox, marketing and events officer for Southend Museums Service, said: “As you can imagine we were delighted to be offered such an amazing collection, especially being a famous seaside town.

“We have an extremely high reputation for our costume collection within the museum world and it was following a referral and recommendation by the Victoria and Albert Museum via Mrs Plume’s son that she decided to donate the costumes to us.”

Clare Hunt, keeper of art at Southend Museum, undertook the journey to Lincolnshire in her Volkswagen camper van to collect the swimwear.

“Once we got them we used a student, on work experience, to go through them and photograph them,” she said. “We were told there were about 200 but when we counted them the figure topped 500.”

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The museum had always prided itself on its collections acquiring, for instance, a large selection of Victorian dresses from Leigh on Sea but until now had only a dozen bathing suits.

“Because we are a seaside museum this seemed the natural home for them,” said Ms Hunt, who has prepared 25 of the costumes for the exhibition. Later exhibitions, perhaps focusing on different eras, are expected to follow.

“The Polaroid photos are mainly of Mrs Plume,” she said. “I think she won some bathing beauty contests, too, when she was younger.”

Mrs Plume’s fascination with swimwear began after she posed by a car at Hunstanton in her swimsuit and persuaded her husband Derrick, now 86, to photograph her.

Once she got back to Wisbech, Mrs Plume began her collection, occasionally even advertising in Swimming Times magazine to add to her rapidly growing assortment.

Later she built a small business hiring out items, sometimes for carnivals and occasionally for TV.

The collection came to light last year after the Plumes left Wisbech for Lincolnshire to be nearer to their son, David. He later persuaded his mum it was probably time for the collection to also find a new home and so he first approached the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Ms Hunt said: “The V and A tends to prefer haute couture and designer costumers so a curator from there phoned and asked if we would like it. We were really very pleased as it could easily have gone to another seaside town such as Brighton.”

• Life’s a Beach is at Southend Central Museum from August 7 to October 2, admission free. Tel: 01702 434449 or visit

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