Lockdown and the forced closure of our museums has given museum staff the opportunity to research some of our Sandwell stories in a little more depth than we are able to in more normal times (amongst other things). I’ve been particularly excited by the tales of John Turton (of the Oak House in West Bromwich) and his family, who played a very prominent (and all-but-forgotten) role in the English civil wars of the 1640s.
Our multi-talented and multi skilled museum staff have replicated the 17th century’s equivalent of the internet; leaflets and pamphlets, which were produced (both printed and hand-written) in great numbers and widely circulated. These in turn gave rise to the first regular newspapers.
Oak House staff have tried to imagine how John might have reported on the great events of the day, and on local news as well, through an anonymous pamphlet. So here’s the first one, published today (Easter Monday) the anniversary of the brutal battle of Birmingham in 1643, which saw . . .no – I’ll leave it to John (in the persona of Mercurius Querci, or Mercury of the Oaks) to tell you all about it.
Don’t expect unbiased reporting.
John and most of his family committed supporters of one side in the civil war. I don’t think you’ll have much problem in determining whether they were Cavaliers or Roundheads!
Frank Caldwell – Principal Officer, Museums, Arts and Heritage
We recently celebrated Bonfire Night, when we commemorate the failure of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament in 1605. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the story and many of you will be aware of the local connection (if you read our earlier blog), with fugitive plotters seeking refuge in farms and barns in Rowley Regis. If not, then here is a previous blog which will fill you in or a spooky story video, put out over Halloween week.
But we thought we would tell a different story with a slightly more tenuous local link, but one that will be of especial interest to those of us who as children attended Arts and Music courses at the Council’s residential Arts Centre, Ingestre Hall, in the depths of the Staffordshire Countryside.
Amongst the wonderful collection of portraits of (mainly) relatives and ancestors of the Chetwynd-Talbot family which were bought by West Bromwich Corporation along with the house in the early 1960s is the pair of wonderful early 17th century portraits by the Dutch court painter Cornelius Johnson, which you can see above.
The portraits are catalogued as being of John Talbot of Grafton and his second wife Margaret. The paintings were painted after both their deaths in about 1640 (John died circa 1611 and his second wife in 1620). They were probably painted after two of John’s sons had become, respectively, 9th and 10th earls of Shrewsbury and the wider family wanted some high quality portraits of their illustrious ancestors. But the catalogue is problematic as John’s second wife wasn’t Margaret but Anne but I’m going off-topic now: maybe I’ll return to this another time.
Anyway most people looking at the portraits would presume them to be of a couple of early 17th century Puritans: dour expressions, black clothing, white lace collars and cuffs, … but as we never tire of telling our visitors at Oak House, during the early 17th century black clothes were the very height of fashion and worn by only the very rich as the dyes were rare and very expensive. As indeed was the handmade lace!
In fact John Talbot of Grafton was a ‘notorious’ Catholic, who retained his faith to his dying day. He never hid his religion, spending many years in the Tower of London or confined in the houses of non-Catholic relatives. When freed in 1592 (20 years after losing his parliamentary seat, at Droitwich, as a consequence of his religion) he was obliged to pay fines of £20.00 per month until his death in 1611 (when an average daily workingman’s wage might be tuppence (and when there were 240, not 100, pennies to the pound).
His connection to the gunpowder plotters was straightforward. Thomas Wintour (the brother of Robert Wintour who was the plotter who found himself in Rowley Regis), who alongside Robert Catesby had originated the plot (unless as is increasingly thought by many historians it was all a government led plot to discredit the Catholics!). Thomas was John Talbot’s son-in-law. Thomas was asked to recruit John but declined, advising that although a Catholic he would never act against his king or parliament.
After Guy Fawkes’ arrest in the parliamentary cellars, where he was guarding 100 tons of gunpowder, many of the conspirators fled to Holbeche House in Worcestershire not far from John’s home at Albrighton. Asked to seek his father-in-law’s aid, Thomas declined, but his brother and another conspirator, Stephen Lyttleton, tried to gain John’s help. They were, to use modern parlance, ‘sent packing’ with John telling them that to treat with them ‘is more than my life is worth’.
Thomas was injured in the gunfight at Holbeche that followed the arrival of the Sherriff of Worcester with a posse of 200 local armed men on November 8th, and was taken to London where he was tried and executed.
Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttleton (a relative of the Lyttleton family of Lyttleton Hall in West Bromwich) spent November and December on the run hiding in barns and outbuildings across South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire until their capture in January 1606 at Hagley House. We’ll let you guess their fate! John Talbot was arrested and questioned at length, his house and personal papers ransacked, but no evidence involving him in the plot was ever found and he returned, quietly, to his very expensive Catholic retirement.
How do we protect our homes today? We have locks, alarms, cameras, lights, smoke detectors etc to protect our homes against fire and thieves. But what about in the 1600s? What were the residents of Oak House, Bromwich Hall, and Haden Old Hall concerned with protecting their homes against? Of course they feared thieves and certainly fire (in a world of wooden buildings, wooden furniture and open fires). However, a major fear for people 400 years ago (which we probably find difficult to understand today) was the fear of evil doing, spells, witchcraft, demons, spirits and generally bad luck. What can you do to protect your home from these things?
Apotropaic Marks (protective marks)
If you like looking around old buildings then look a little closer and you might discover some strange marks. The best places to look for these are around entrances, fireplaces, windows or doors (these are not to be mistaken for carpenter’s or mason’s marks used to help put buildings together or show who had built what).
But what were these strange marks for and why were they put there?
You might see a double V like the one above from Bromwich Hall. One theory is that the overlapping Vs represent the initials of the Virgin Mary. It is thought that these marks might be asking the Virgin Mary for protection. We know that even into the 1600s the family at Bromwich Hall had Catholic leanings so the Virgin Mary would have been important in their religious life.
You may see something that looks like a # called a mesh pattern. A famous example of this was found at Knole in Sussex in apartments used by King James I who was notoriously scared of witchcraft and spell casting. These mesh patterns may represent a net to catch the evil.
One of the most popular patterns is what is called a daisy wheel, which looks like the flower pattern you make with a compass. It is believed the circles turn away and confuse evil.
However the specific meanings attached to these marks are just theories as nothing was really written down about them at the time.
We have a number of these marks carved into the entrance at Bromwich Hall built in the 1500s. These include the double V and the mesh pattern but we’ve spotted other marks about the house too. The daisy wheel pattern has also been spotted on the belvedere (tower) at Oak House when works were being undertaken. There is a daisy wheel on a window frame too but this is probably dating from the 1800s (is this ‘fake’ or a continuation of a long tradition?).
There has been much debate as to the full meaning of marks like this and what specific marks mean. The same shaped marks do appear on different buildings across the country and although many seem to have been created between the 1400s and 1700s there are many older and many more recent examples too. In general terms these marks are for protection against witches, demons, spirits and evil generally placed near openings and entrances where evil or spells could get through into the building. These marks are also protection against bad luck more generally and to encourage good luck.
Another way that buildings and furniture were marked was by making taper marks. This is where the mark has been deliberately burnt into the wood. These used to be explained as accidental burn marks but it is now widely believed by experts that these marks are very deliberate and had a clear purpose to protect against bad luck, evil or even maybe, as is suggested at Lower Brockhampton in Herefordshire, to protect the building from fire.
A student studying protective marks came to look at our furniture at Oak House and found many examples of taper marks which are normally hidden from view. These are in places where it is impossible to see how they could be accidental burn marks.
The practice of filling bottles with objects such as nails, hair, pins, urine, small bones and thorns then concealing the bottle, started in the middle of the 1600s. Almost half of these bottles are found near or underneath a hearth and many others are found at a threshold, under the floor or hidden in the walls. Like the carved marks these protective bottles are often found near entrances or weak points where evil might get into the house. There have been around 250 examples recorded in England and they are usually known as ‘witch bottles’. It seems that these bottles were used as a counter-spell against witchcraft and evil doing.
In 2004, a complete witch bottle was found during excavations in Greenwich. It provided a rare opportunity for experts to explore its contents which had been placed in the bottle in the 1600s. When the bottle was opened, bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather heart, fingernail clippings, navel fluff and hair were found inside.
You may look back at our ancestors and think this a little strange or even silly. However, it must be remembered that they saw the world and how it worked very differently to how we do. It is very difficult for us to get into their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes. But this was a world where people really feared witches, demons and bad luck, a world where life was very precarious and many died young, where a failed harvest was devastating, a disease which killed your farm animals could mean starvation and where you could expect to bury several of your children. People explained many of these misfortunes and disasters on evil doing, so were desperate to find ways to protect themselves, their families and their homes. Of course prayer was extremely important to many but what practical measures could people take for themselves? For those in the 1600s it was protective marks, and counter spells.
How would you go about protecting yourself from spells, evil and bad luck today? Do you have any better ideas than our ancestors?
By its very nature the Roman Empire was a multicultural place. At its height its territory stretched from north-west Europe, to North Africa and into the Near East and after 43 CE (Christian Era) this began to include Britain. People from a wide variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds came under Roman rule. People also moved around the empire too through trade or military movements or people being relocated, sometimes against their will.
By the 200s CE there is evidence for people of African origins living in Roman Britain. The skeleton of a young woman was found at Beachy Head and modern archaeological techniques have been able to tell us a lot about who she was. The woman lived around 200-250 CE, was from a Roman area in the south-east of England, had died in her early twenties and had sub-Saharan African ancestry. Not only is she the first black Briton known to us, her discovery suggests that people from beyond the North African Roman border were also present in Britain at this time.
In 1901 a skeleton was discovered in York which would later be called the “Ivory Bangle Lady”. She was eventually dated to having lived in the second half of the 4th century CE. She was buried in a stone coffin and was found with ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants and other expensive possessions. This strongly suggests that she was a woman of wealth and status within Roman York. Analysis showed she had spent her early years in a warmer climate whilst her skull shape suggested she had North African ancestry.
The analysis of other Roman Britons has revealed other individuals with African ancestry too across Roman Britain. In a graveyard of 83 Romans 6 were discovered to be of African descent and two of them were born in Britain (how amazing is science being able to tell us all this!)
These examples help to illustrate a number of things; that black people were living and being born in Roman Britain, that there is some suggestion that they were of duel heritage, suggesting mixed relationships and that you can forget any assumption that black people were all slaves in the Roman world!
There were people from all over the empire in the Roman army too. There is an inscription from a fort along the western edge of Hadrian’s wall and a list of roman dignitaries which both refer to a unit of “Aurelian Moors”, soldiers from the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa, now Morocco, who had garrisoned the fort in the 3rd century. The unit was named after Emperor Marcus Aurelius (you may remember he was the old emperor depicted in the film Gladiator) and probably consisted of around 500 men. I bet they found it a bit nippy!
Talking about Hadrian’s wall, actually quite a lot of what you see today was rebuilt by the emperor Septimius Severus when he was in Britain trying to subdue those living in the north. He strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reoccupied the Antonine Wall (north of Hadrian’s Wall) and invaded Caledonia (Scotland). The war continued until 210 when Severus became ill and died in York in 211. Why are we suddenly talking about an emperor of Roman I hear you say. Well Severus was African, although we don’t know exactly what ethnicity he was or what skin colour he had but depictions of him suggest he wasn’t white. As I mentioned earlier people moved around the empire for a variety of reasons.
There are plenty of other sources which mention people from Africa in the Roman world. For example an ancient document says that at Cerne in the Mediterranean there were many Ethiopians, who traded in ivory, deer, leopards, wine, perfumes, Egyptian stones, and ceramics from Athens. The Roman often mention where people are from but less often talk about skin colour.
This does bring us to something that does seem to be interesting and unique about the Roman world. There is no doubt that slavery was extremely common in the Roman period. It is believed that 1 in 5 people in the Roman Empire were slaves and 1 in 3 in Italy itself. Slavery was an integral part of how Rome worked and slaves were used in all areas of life from agriculture, mines, industrial activities and producing goods, to household slaves and even government administrators, scribes and teachers. Some slaves could command influence and importance, but they were not free.
One thing that does not seem to impact on whether you might find yourself as a slave or not, is the colour of your skin. People may find themselves sold as slaves after being captured during conquest and war, they may have been traded or born into slavery. Your experience as a slave could vary greatly too, certainly some slaves had a comfortable life and others lived appalling brutal existences and died quickly, but the colour of your skin did not determine how likely you were to end up in slavery or your status as a slave.
It is possible that a slave belonging to the orator and politician Cicero was black. Marcus Tullius Tiro was given his freedom for good service. He was a friend to Cicero and his secretary, keeping Cicero’s notes he used the first form of shorthand.
When the BBC posted a video for school children about a Roman family and the father had dark skin, a storm on social media began as people accused the BBC of ‘blackwashing history’
Academic Mary Beard defended the video and argued that recent evidence suggests that Roman Britain was far more diverse than had previously been believed. She even provided a real-life person upon who the man could be based – Quietus Lollius Urbicus, from Africa was a governor of Roman Britain.
I wonder how many of those people from across the Roman world remained in Britain after Roman Britain ended. Some of them may have been in Britain for generations and therefore would have been born as Britons and lived here all their lives.
The story of black people in Britain is often seen from two perspectives – slavery and the British slave trade and the communities which made Britain their home from the 1950s onwards making the UK and Sandwell the diverse, colourful exciting place it is today.
However, were there people from across the world living in, or visiting England before the slave trade took hold? Could the residents of Bromwich Hall, such as the Frebody family in the 1400s or the Stanleys in the 1500s have ever met people of colour?
In the past either people assumed there weren’t any black people in England in the medieval and Tudor periods or historians just weren’t looking for their stories and studying them.
When historian Miranda Kauffman was asked why the existence of black people in medieval or Tudor times has been unknown, untold and untaught, she replied
“History isn’t a solid set of facts. It’s very much about what questions you ask of the past. If you ask different questions, you get different answers. People weren’t asking questions about diversity. Now they are.”
What she was saying was that researchers weren’t looking for the stories and lives of black people in medieval and Tudor times so any documentation about their lives was left on the shelf or ignored.
In places like London and other large cities and ports the presence of people from other parts of the world would have been reasonably noticable. Merchants and traders brought exotic spices, silks and other fabrics and goods, there were ambassadors, knights, soldiers, sailors, entertainers, cooks, servants and prostitutes and all sorts of people from beyond Western Europe who would have been found going about their lives in medieval and Tudor England (and indeed across Europe, not forgetting that there were Islamic kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula until the late 1400s). Certainly in England most of these were free people and not slaves.
This is a time before the British slave trade took off in the mid to later 1600s. So although there was, at times concerns about ‘the other’, people weren’t seeing different coloured skin in the same way that they did in subsequent centuries. In fact there is evidence for integration including mixed marriages and black people being baptised and buried in the same churches as their white neighbours.
This does not mean that life was easy for people who came from far off lands (or their ancestors had) although life was pretty hard for most people in Tudor England. People’s attitudes to foreigners was, and still is, complex. People of colour were often seen as different, exotic, strange and sometimes unwelcome but evidence suggests that largely they were not seen as inferior.
Towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign when concern for the number of Black people settling in London was raised (largely due to a large number of people being freed from Spanish ships) discussions took place as to whether people should be re-repatriated to their place of origin. Whether they were or not is not known but it was clear the authorities thought it was their duty to feed and house them before any action was taken. However, it is difficult to know the conditions the former slaves were kept in and this does illustrate that slavery was already becoming prevalent in other European countries.
There are three links below to further reading and more information, examples of specific early black Britons and people living in England and reproductions of some beautiful paintings. All these expand the story giving a greater insight than the short overview I’ve given above.
Here is an interesting article about Black people in London at the time of Elizabeth I.
So could the people living at Bromwich Hall have met a black person? Well probably not in the middle of the countryside but it is certainly possible and it is more likely they met people of colour during their lives if they travelled to larger towns and particular ports!
Finally and sadly inevitably, this leads us to ask, how did we get from a place of tolerance, integration and general acceptance to a place where humans were being traded as possessions and treated appallingly, justified because of the colour of their skin?
Here in Sandwell we particularly remember Thomas Telford as a great canal and bridge builder. His building of the new main line canal, described by a contemporary as a work of ‘stupendous magnificence’, between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the 1820s is recognised as an engineering feat that had no parallel at the time.
Telford however expected to be remembered for his road building and encouraged the informal use of the title ‘The Colossus of Roads’ which had been created by his friend and travelling companion, the Poet Laureate Robert Southey.
Of course (why else would I be writing this?) one of Telford’s greatest, but locally forgotten, achievements, was a new road right through the heart of the Black Country. One you have probably driven along on many occasions. But unlike his coach road through the heart of Snowdonia, with its tourism signs and listed infrastructure of gates, milestones toll houses and coaching inns, here in the Black Country we have forgotten his legacy almost entirely.
In 1800 The British and Irish Parliaments (Ireland was in fact legally a separate nation state at this time) both passed Acts of Union, which abolished the Irish Parliament, sent Irish elected members and Lords to Westminster instead, and incidentally required the creation of a new national flag, the union flag, more commonly referred to as the union jack, which we still fly today.
The journey from Dublin to London (and let’s not forget most Irish MPs had to travel from other parts of Ireland) consisted of a 50-mile sea crossing from a beach in Dublin to a rocky cove on Holyhead in Wales, which could take ten to 15 hours depending on winds and tides, followed by a 190-mile coach journey scheduled at 36 hours but which regularly took much longer. And that was without an overnight stop!
Telford was initially commissioned in 1811 (it took 10 years for the new United Kingdom Parliament to find the money) to improve the port infrastructure at both ends of the sea crossing and develop the road through North Wales to Shrewsbury.
Holyhead (the Welsh end of the sea crossing) had been described as an unprovided and comfortless place and the route through North Wales as through many nations and languages unknown to the civilised world . . . by Jonathon Swift after he took the journey in the mid 1700s. I don’t think there had been any significant improvements by the early 19th century so Telford’s scheme would have been a great relief.
Then in the late 1820s money was found to improve the London to Shrewsbury road. The traditional route had been along Watling Street, the old Roman Road to Chester (today known as the A5), which passes through Hinkley, Nuneaton Tamworth and Cannock. But Telford, who had been surveying in the Black Country in the 1820s for his new canal, re-routed the journey from Weeden in Northamptonshire to Oakengates now on the outskirts of Telford, through the developing industrial centres of Coventry, Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.
Telford’s route into West Bromwich (and out of it as well!) was along the recently improved turnpike road from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, now the A41. Telford’s improvements were principally concerned with widening the roadway so coaches could pass and overtake without running each other off the road, improving the surface and drainage, building and rebuilding bridges to replace fords or old narrow medieval structures, and most importantly levelling the route and reducing the gradients on the hills. In West Bromwich, the road runs along what has become West Bromwich High Street and turns north to Hill Top. We know that Telford engineered the removal of significant height from the top of Hill Top, as well as building an embankment on the slope down to the bridge (the Holloway – which historically would have been a steep, deep cutting in the hillside rather than a gentle slope!) over the river Tame.
Believe it or not, the Fountain Inn at the foot of Holloway Bank was a coaching Inn. Horses pulling the coaches were changed every three hours or so (that would be after 12- 15 miles depending on gradients) and at the very least a small inn provided refreshments at these stops. The earliest known licensee at the Fountain was a John Hall, (1818 – I wonder if it was built as a consequence of the increased traffic on the new road?) but the buildings we see today (unfortunately it is no longer a pub) only dates from the mid 1930s when the ageing Georgian Inn and stables were demolished.
Perhaps we should have some brown tourist signs along our stretch as well? Can anyone translate one into Black Country dialect?
Sandwell Museums looks after around 20,000 objects and 6 historic buildings, including a medieval manor house, 17th century yeoman farmer’s house, a canal pumping station…well see for yourself https://www.discoversandwell.co.uk/museums-arts/
Sandwell itself only came into being in the early 1970s, before that, the different towns of the borough had their own councils and museums, which now form our museum service today. Some of those museums were opened in the 1890s so there is 130 years of collecting which has gone on and 130 years of different approaches to collecting. Sometimes the approach was just the whim of curator at the time! Today we have a strict collections policy which tells us what is appropriate to collect, such as things which tell stories about the history of Sandwell or our buildings or that are good set dressing for our historic houses even if they aren’t local items, or items which we need for specific projects or exhibitions. Any proposed additions to the collection are discussed by the museums team and a joint decision is made if the item should be kept.
Anyway I’ve picked 10 things which I think represents some of the stories our collections tell and the types of objects we have…and are also some of my favourites.
So in no particular order…
” The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” John Ruskin
Ruskin Pottery was made in Smethwick between 1898 and 1935. Its fabulous bright colours and beautiful varied glazes make it stand out against other pottery being made in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At Sandwell Museums we have (we think) the largest public collection in the world (or near enough).
What is also lovely about the Ruskin story is the story of the factory workers, their trips out to Clent and how they were well looked after.
I have picked this particular vase from our collection as I love the colours and the shape. My favourites are those from the early 1900s with a bit of an Art Nouveau flavour.
2. Christmas card envelopes sent to George Alfred Haden Haden Best.
We don’t have many items belonging to the family who lived at Haden Hill House museum between 1879 and 1921 so the few items we have are very precious. These are my particular favourites – hand drawn envelopes sent to George Alfred Haden Haden Best in the first 10 years of the 20th century. I am intrigued and fascinated by them – who sent them?
3. The Mummy’s Head
This rather grim item is the unwrapped mummy’s head of, we believe, a surgeon from Thebes from the very late Ptolemaic period (that’s Cleopatra and her dynasty). The Ptolemaic period lasted for 275 years, from 305 BC to 30 BC.
So how did this ancient Egyptian end up in the Black Country – well he was brought back by Victorian lady traveller Helen Caddick along with hundreds of other objects, pieces of arts and crafts, jewellery and costume from all over the world. Helen travelled far and wide from West Bromwich in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Helen was also instrumental in setting up Oak House as a museum in 1898 and when it opened it was full of her collection as well as natural history specimens, before it was turned into an historic house museum in the 1950s.
Today although this old gentleman isn’t on display he is used as part of our schools programme and has been taken out to schools across the Black Country for children to meet who are studying the Egyptians. The children are usually amazed, interested and repulsed in equal measure.
Many things we look after are furnishings and furniture as we have 4 historic houses. Some of the furniture is just set dressing and not that interesting really but we do have some interesting pieces too. These 17th century chairs have long been a favourite with me! They were purchased in 1951 at a cost of £25 each.
5. Mr Kilvert’s sword and medals
John Ashley Kilvert became an Alderman and Mayor of Wednesbury later in his life, but as a younger man he had been present at the famous Charge of the Light Brigade. He dined out on the story of the battle for the rest of his life as did many of the other survivors. We have in our collection Kilvert’s sword, his medals and his bible. However, the medals did disappear for decades but resurfaced again around 10 years ago when we were alerted to the medals being sold at auction. The auction house had realised there were museum accession numbers on the items and managed to track their origins. So the medals were returned and we could tell Kilvert’s story again.
In 1743 John Wesley, the leader of the new Methodist movement came to speak in Wednesbury. He also spoke at Oak House twice in his time too. However during his time in Wednesbury unrest ensued because of anti-Methodist feelings. However Methodism was becoming more popular with working people and there is some suggestion that certain parts of the establishment took it upon themselves to ensure Wesley was not made welcome and make it look like the crowd disapproved.
Wesley wrote ‘Thursday 20th Oct, 1743 – ‘I rode to Wednesbury. At twelve I preached in a ground near the middle of the town, to a far larger congregation than was expected, on, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.
I believe everyone present felt the power of God…and we held our peace. I was writing at Francis Ward’s in the afternoon, when the cry arose, that the mob had beset the house.
We prayed that God would disperse them; and it was so. One went this way, and another that; so that in half an hour not a man was left.’
But the few troublemakers who had drifted off before weren’t finished, and a larger number soon returned.
‘Before five the mob surrounded the house again, in greater numbers than ever. The cry of one and all was, ‘Bring out the Minister! We will have the Minister!’
John Wesley’s Journal, Vol 1, p.436-7, Baker Edition
Further unrest ensued and Wesley’s coat was torn and his hair pulled.
This object is a horse vertebrae carved into what is thought to be Wesley as an anti-Wesley symbol. However another museum have something similar and believe it is a pro-Wesley symbol as came out in the recent #Curatorbattle on twitter. What do you think?
6. A French farmhouse
I have picked this small unassuming oil painting on display at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery as one of the objects in this list. This is not because it is big or massively art historically important but it represents our collection of Victorian paintings which we have recently re-displayed. We have chosen paintings to rehang in the new display that can inspire our community painting groups, craft activities with our family activities and creative writing with school groups and just paintings which make you stop and look….and there is something rather lovely about this little painting.
7. The jardinieres
I both love and hate these in equal measure – what do you think?
As i’ve mentioned previously we have a lot of items from all over the world which were brought back to what is now Sandwell by intrepid Victorian travellers. Of course we aren’t experts, we are generalists and sometimes the descriptions put on these items decades ago are questioned and we must then do some research to discover the truth.
I talked earlier about how our collection has grown over the last 130 years and in that time our social values have changed. In Victorian times museums were there to edify the masses and create awe and wonder and stop the working classes indulging in less favourable pastimes. Today we want to collect things important to local people and local stories and we want to collect the every day items people used or made in Sandwell. Chance glass was a large glass manufacturer in Smethwick and Malvern for over 100 years making lighthouse lenses, optical and medical glasses, lenses, cathode tubes for radar during World War II and decorative everyday household glass (we have quite a lot of their 60s and 70s household glass in our collection and people remember it fondly).
For a while they also dabbled in stained glass windows. This beautiful catalogue from 1847 has recently come into our collection and like Ruskin Pottery showcases how it wasn’t just heavy industrial activities that were being produced in the Black Country.
10. Nostalgia Rooms
This one is a bit of a cheat really as none of these items are officially in our collection, but they are items we have and look after and shows how we collect objects for specific displays. This gallery ‘the Nostalgia Rooms’ we put together several years ago to get people talking, to inspire inter-generational conversations and projects and to work with dementia groups. It is now one of our most popular galleries at Wednesbury Museum.
I bet if you’re old enough you say…
‘we had one of those’
‘my nan had some of those’
‘I remember that wallpaper’
So there is just a flavour of some of the types of objects we look after at Sandwell Museums and how they came to be in the Black Country.
Hello Museum People! It’s me again, your friendly neighbourhood Collections Officer, inviting you back into the world of pests and paperwork. This blog, unlike the last, will address how the collection is constantly changing and being re-interpreted, keeping myself and the staff at Sandwell Museums Service on our toes.
Re-interpreting what we have
Sandwell Museums Service has a collection of thousands of objects and artefacts from all around the world, collected at different times for different reasons. Due to this, some of the information we have on objects might be out of date, or in some instances just plain wrong. Recently we had a commenter on another site call into question the information provided for one of our artefacts. This one in particular:
Due to the fact neither myself, nor anyone else in the service is an expert on Buddhist deities, we listed this particular artefact as just that; ‘A Buddhist Deity, possibly the Goddess Cundi’. Whilst some research has previously been undertaken to aid in the listing of objects, as I have said before, no one here is an expert we are generalists with a wide range of skills. So when we were contacted by ArtUK (a website that lists all sculpture and oil paintings in public ownership) after someone had mentioned the possibility that our listing wasn’t as accurate as it could be, we paid attention.
The commenter himself had said that whilst the information we had provided was technically correct, he believed that the artefact was more specifically a ‘bodhisattva’. A term which can be difficult for people unfamiliar with Buddhism (including me) to understand, as the interpretation is slightly different depending on which branch of the faith you follow. For example, in Theravada Buddhism an interpretation is that a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has made a resolution to become a Buddha and has also received a prediction from a living Buddha that they will achieve it. Whereas in Mahayana Buddhism an interpretation is; a bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana, but doesn’t through a desire to help those in need.
Ultimately, the larger, if more vague interpretation we can make is that a Bodhisattva is a ‘Buddha-to-be’, and when researched the imagery surrounding the bodhisattva Cundi and our artefact are almost identical. Therefore, the description now says that our artefact is a bodhisattva, potentially representing the goddess Cundi.
Hopefully this highlights how, despite having an object in the collection for years (this one in particular being acquired in the 19th century), the interpretation and information surrounding them is constantly changing and being updated.
Our collection is constantly growing to absorb more objects which we here at the Museums service feel will help us tell Sandwell’s story. Recently, we made an acquisition of a Chance Glass Catalogue from 1847, making it the oldest Chance Glass Catalogue that we are currently aware exists!
Here’s a taste of the technicolour wonder that can be found within its pages. Hopefully, one day, we might be able to upload the pictures and allow you fine, upstanding citizens to peruse its pages from the comfort of your own homes.
It was essentially used in the same way we use modern catalogues (do people still use catalogues these days?) Essentially, a purveyor of stained glass would flip through the catalogue to pick the design he wanted in the same way you’d flip through the Argos catalogue looking for a new iron -if that’s still a thing.
Currently, it resides with our esteemed colleague Ian, Sandwell’s very own Archivist, though we hope once the pestilence is out of the way we can use it alongside our current collection of Chance Glass to provide insights into the company and their many amazing products for our visitors.
Making things last
As we all know, all insect life is evil. Especially insect life which tries to eat objects in my collection. If anyone has read my previous blog relating to these devourers of worlds you’ll likely have noticed the rather lengthy section on woodworm. Clearly this offended them as recently I received word that we may have a few monching away at our stocks which used to stand in West Bromwich. Cue me, all panicky, heading to Oak House Museum to assess the damage, at first, it looked pretty bad, however, after further examination, some of the damage appears to have been historical infestations.
Thus began the quest to purge the little blighters from our historic stocks, (although a fresh infestation still hasn’t been 100% confirmed). Becky, the VSO of Oak House and I spent the day basically basting the stocks with conservation-friendly pesticides which will have no effect on the wood, but will make the woodworm very dead.
Whilst it remains too early to tell whether the treatment has been effective currently, we are pretty confident. The different parts of the stocks have been sealed in airtight bags which should ensure that the pesticide stays in, and the woodworm will end up deprived of air.
The stocks themselves, once they’ve been given the all-clear will be being displayed in the Oak house barns for visitors to come and see once we are back up and running.
We are almost at the end of summer and autumn is just around the corner (yay!). Due to Covid 19 many people have chosen to take a break in the UK this year, so you might have recently taken a trip to the British seaside. So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the family seaside holidays which were taken by the family who lived at Haden Hill House.
As a wealthy family at the turn of the 20th century George Alfred Haden Haden Best, his two adopted daughters Alice and Emmie (also known as Emily) and their friends and companions spent much time travelling around the country.
They would catch a train from just a stone’s throw from Haden Hill House which could then take them for long holidays across Britain. Their wealth meant they could spend weeks at a time on holiday. Although by the end of the Victorian people even working people were taking a trip to the seaside, for them it might be a day trip or if they were lucky a few days.
Alice Cockin and Bertha Emma Bryant (Emmie) were never formally adopted by George Alfred, and they continued to visit their families in Old Hill. It seems that Emmie came to live at Haden Hill in 1886 when her own father died, and she later called Mr Best ‘dad’. It is likely that Alice came around the same time when the girls were around 16. Mr Haden Best never married and he found little boys rather boisterous, so the company of genteel young ladies probably suited him. It seems they were a close nit new family and spent a lot of time together.
Emmie and Alice weren’t plucked from destitution by Mr Haden Best; their relatives were respectable lower middle class families from the local area. However, by moving into Haden Hill House their lives were completely changed. Lower middle class young ladies would have normally expected to have become teachers or worked in a shop maybe until they married. As the ‘daughters’ of a gentleman Emmie and Alice were now able to spend their time pursuing interests like painting, writing letters, drawing, photography, reading and crafts and of course extensive travelling.
We have a fabulous amount of detail about some of their trips through Emmie’s diaries as she describes in detail the day to day activities which they got up to on their travels.
We are also lucky enough to have a few (sadly not very many) photographs of some of these trips, possibly taken by Alice who was a very keen photographer and her own family owned a photograph studio in Old Hill.
We know from Emmie’s diaries that from 1998 to 1900 they travelled to north and south Wales several times, Devon, Northumberland, Yorkshire and Great Marlow and stayed for several weeks each time.
In 2015 Sandwell Museums, together with community artist/ curator Jo Loki undertook a project called Best’s Angels (a name given to the girls’ Sunday school which Mr Best supported and which Emmie and Alice attended). The Heritage Lottery Funded project, involved a number of community engagement projects with community groups and schools but it also involved transcribing some of Emmie’s diaries.
Many of these extracts showcased their trips day by day. They are a fascinating insight into what a wealthy young lady might do on her holidays at the turn of the 20th century.
Click the links below to read extracts from Emmie’s diaries.
A trip to Saundersfoot in South Wales – Here Emmie describes some lovely details about an idyllic few weeks in Wales by the sea in 1899
I think most of us are well acquainted with the story of the Tipton Slasher, William Perry, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of Great Britain in the 1850s, and commemorated by a statue in Tipton’s Coronation Gardens. So I’m not going to tell it again. Instead, how about the story of another local man who fought (not as successfully as William Perry though) for the Heavyweight title, who seems much less well known. Surprisingly, much of this story can be put together from the correspondence and order books of Matthew Boulton’s and James Watt’s Soho manufactury, birthplace of mass production and the efficient steam engine.
The Boulton and Watt archives at Birmingham library give a wonderful insight into the professional and personal lives of Boulton, Watt and many of their workers, including how they managed their business and their relationships with their customers. I was particularly taken by a few references to Isaac Perrins – in fact to two Isaac Perrins, father and son, who both worked for Boulton and Watt in the late 1700s.
Isaac Perrins senior was not, I think, a local man, but his son was born in Smethwick. The father, a skilled steam engine erector, died in 1781 and his son was working for Boulton and Watt by the next year. By 1787 Isaac junior was travelling the country, installing, maintaining and repairing steam engines as far afield as Manchester, Cornwall and Glasgow. In 1793 Isaac bought a pub in Manchester, but continued to work around the North West for Boulton and Watt.
Those of you who know the William Perry story might recall that when he retired from boxing, his fans took up a collection and bought him a pub (not as a lot of people think, the Fountain in Tipton, but the Bricklayer’s Arms in Wolverhampton). This was often the case for retired boxers, and indeed was the case for Isaac Perrins as well, who as well as repairing steam engines, had failed in his attempt to win the British Heavyweight Boxing Crown (or more properly belt!) in 1789.
Isaac is one of the few employees of Boulton and Watt of whom we have a portrait. There is a famous print of the start of his title bout against the reigning champion, Tom Johnson, in 1798, and Boullton and Watt issued a pair of commemorative medals, commemorating the fight, with portraits of the two boxers on them.
Isaac Perrins first came to the boxing fans’ attention in October 1782, when he knocked Jemmy Sergeant down 12 times in 6 minutes. Sergeant didn’t get up to be knocked down a 13th! In fact Perrins was so skilful and so strong (winning most of his boughts inside 5 minutes when the typical fight could last an hour or more) that he increasingly struggled to find local opponents.
His championship fight took place against Londoner Tom Johnson on 22nd October 1789 at Banbury. Johnson , 5″ shorter than Perrins and nearly a stone lighter, adopted novel tactics and danced around the arena trying to avoid being hit and hoping to tire Perrins out. Not one blow was struck for the first 5 minutes of the contest, with Perrins swinging widely in increasing desperation, and Johnson adroitly dodging out of the way.
One hour and 15 minutes later, with his nose broken and with a face that “had scarcely the traces left of a human being” Perrins retired and Johnson retained the championship.
Perrins continued to fight for another 3 years, but retired in 1792, his supporters helping him buy a city-centre public house. Perrins had set up his own engineering company in the city and was frequently contracted by Matthew Boulton to repair Boulton and Watt engines in the North West, as well as to check to ensure that no engines manufactured by other companies were infringing on Boulton and Watt’s patents. The correspondence books make it clear that Perrins was known to write to Matthew Boulton with information on novel innovations he saw on other manufacturer’s engines!
In 1799 Isaac Perrins was appointed conductor of firemen and inspector of engines by the Manchester Improvement Commissioners, who were able by virtue of the 1785 Act for Cleansing and Lighting the Streets, Lanes and Passages, within the Towns of Manchester and Salford, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, and for Providing Fire Engines and Fire Men to set up one of the first municipal fire brigades. Perrins renamed his pub ‘The Fire Engine’ shortly after this appointment. It seems likely that much of the pumping and valve gear on the Manchester engines was designed and manufactured by Perrins. I have looked to see if Boulton and Watt had any involvement but I’ve yet to come across any reference to them building fire engines!
Isaac Perrins died on January 6th, 1801, having been seriously injured whilst fighting a major fire in Manchester on December 10th the previous year.