King of Showmen – Pat Collins and the Black Country

Pat Collins

“Storm clouds gathered over the Irish sea, a small boat tossed on the restless waves; and among the passengers, one man looked back towards Ireland, and the home he had left to escape political unrest.  The storm overtook the boat, and off the coast of England it was wrecked.  Only two men survived.  One of them, John Collins, found his way to Chester and joined the world of horse-dealing, a trade that was already known to him.”

Pat Collins account given by Pat Collins himself to C.H.Lea, the Birmingham Correspondent of World’s Fair in 1936.

Collins then went on to describe how his mother Norah, left him and his two brothers in search of their father.  She had chased him around the country to finally catch up with him in Kidderminster.  Having decided on their future together she returned to Ireland to pick up her children, so that they could settle in Cheshire.  “By the age of nine one of the sons, Patrick, was managing a roundabout for his father, and by the time he was 21 he had helped his father earn up to £20,000.  Patrick was eager to start on his own, but his father, John, was not in favour and objected to his family splitting up.  Pat had to borrow the money to go his own way.”

The showman Pat Collins was born in Chester on 12 May 1859 and enjoyed telling a good a tale and bending the truth.  Most of this story is fiction.  Pat seemed to enjoy embellishing the facts, particularly concerning his mother leaving him and his brothers in Ireland, when the truth be told they were all born on this side of the Irish Channel.

He was born in a small house at Boughton Heath, his father was John Collins who married Norah McDermott.

John and Norah Collins had 5 children: John, Patrick, Michael (who died young after being kicked by a horse), Margaret and Johanna.  Pat’s earlier life often suggests that he came from nothing and started with nothing.  Pat did nothing to contradict it, however he did have a humble background.  He was educated and attended St. Wedburgh’s school and his mother encouraged him to learn to write and read, however this was difficult with the family travelling around the country. 

At the age of 10 years old, Pat left school and was travelling the fairs of Cheshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, and North Staffordshire with his father and brother.  His father’s yacht ride was big enough to hold twenty people at a time, and had to be hauled from town to town by two horses.  Accompanying this was a new children’s hand-turned roundabout.  When the yacht was built it was swung by Pat and his brother, John, by pulling ropes alternately. 

<<Insert video link>>

Pat married Flora MacDonald Ross on the 20 July 1880, when he turned 21 years of age, in the Parish Church of Liverpool and they moved to Walsall in 1882.

During Pat’s first decade in Walsall, he leased land at Shaw’s Leasow (or Shaw’s Leisure) where he ‘rested’ his van, his horse and the children’s roundabout, in these first couple of years he established himself as an accomplished Showman and by 7th March 1886, had earned the right to attend the Walsall and Bloxwich Wake simply by turning up and letting his reputation do the rest.

However, this was all to change in 1890 when the Walsall Corporation Act gave new powers to the local council, including one which concerned the licensing of “fairs”.  The new act empowered magistrates to close a fair if “Great rowdiness and immorality was taking place.” Which was often a common sight at the earlier fairs, as hard-working individuals were on days off from work to “let off some steam on a religious or Bank holidays”.  Pat now had to apply to the local council for a licence.  The individual who won the licence to run the fair was called the “Lessee”.   The Lessee would then display their own rides and amusements and rent out pitches to other showman for a small price, allowing them to set up their attractions.

Walsall Corporation put the lease for the September Fair (one which Pat always attended and ran) up for tender.  Pat tendered £10 for the lease, but was outbid by a Mr Williams of Putney, who was expected to hold the fair on land at Midland Road. This didn’t stop Pat, he had been running the fair for several years and decided to proceed without the licence and hold his fair on the ground of Shaw’s Leisure.  He provided his own attractions and persuaded others to join, offering rent free pitches for his unofficial fair, and leaving Mr Williams with no tenants, as they had a free pitch with Collins. When the fair finally came to a close, Pat Collins was charged with ‘unlawfully holding a fair, and violating clause 126 of the Walsall Corporation Act 1890’.

John Cooper the Town Clerk, asked two policemen to go to the “unofficial” fair and collect evidence of what was going on, as well as attending himself.  They found the largest fair they had ever seen in Walsall, with crowds of people turning up to enjoy the festivities. 

Pat was summoned to attend court and hear the charges made against him and the unofficial fair.  A great amount of time was spent arguing over the definition of the word “fair”.  Pat Collins’ defence argued that a “fair”, according to the act, was about trading and not providing amusement or pleasure.  The prosecution argued that it did relate to pleasure fairs and that no trading had taken place, hence why it was an illegal fair.  Collins’ defence then asked the two policemen to come forward to give evidence.  The police had indeed bought items from the fair (one ice cream and one ginger snap) so trade did happen and therefore the fair was perfectly legal.

The prosecution then argued that Pat Collins had collected rent from the tenants, and when the tenants were called to give evidence, they stated that Pat Collins hadn’t charged or accepted any money from them for being there. Nevertheless, Pat Collins was found guilty and fined £5 plus expenses.  An appeal was lodged, and the case was reviewed by the Queen’s Bench. 

Pat established himself remarkably quickly and within a decade was the leading showman in the Midlands, owning several steam-driven fairground rides. In 1889 he was one of a group of showmen who met at Manchester to form what became known as the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain.

In 1908 he was elected the president of the Showmen’s Guild and, in partnership with its first general secretary, the Reverend Thomas Horne, he played an important role in developing the organisation into an influential national body. By this time, it was generally acknowledged that he had few equals, if any, in the travelling funfair business. He ran fairs across the whole of the Midlands and occupied positions at the most important fairs, such as Nottingham Goose Fair. His travels were not limited to the Midlands, however and he made annual appearances at fairs in Lancashire and Yorkshire

Nottingham Goose Fair

Due to the attention of his court case in April 1918, he decided to run for local councillor of Birchill’s Ward after the previous councillor, William Halford, moved to the position of alderman.  Pat won his seat and was councillor for 5 years.  Pat’s personality played a great deal in his political years.  He was a well-known local celebrity, and commended for being hard working, and for his generosity and concern for the under-privileged.

After his time as a Liberal Councillor in 1930, Pat was still attending many council committee meetings, and eventually asked to become chairman due to his experience, dedication and knowledge.  On June 16 Pat became Alderman of the borough of Walsall.  3 years later pat’s wife Flora was taken ill and died on April 8 1933.  6 years later, Pat finally retired from his council duties and being Alderman at the age of 80 – just before world War II began.  Pat felt he hadn’t the energy to “ride out the storm” and returned to managing his fairs.

Pat and Nora

Keep the Flag Flying

Pat Collins died just before the end of 1943.  Many people wondered about the size of the Pat Collin’s estate and what was to become of it now that he passed away.  The estate was left to several people who became trustees.  Clara Collins (Pat’s second wife and business secretary whom he married in 1934), John Cotterell, Harry Coad and James Cooper.  Cotterell and Coad were solicitors that that had worked for Pat for many years.  Clara found herself managing the travelling fun fairs for the trustees, and ‘keeping the flag flying’ until she died in 1962.

Elias Harris (the original rider of the Wall Of Death attraction at Pat Collins Funfairs) married Pats granddaughter Margaret.  In 1934, Margaret sadly died, and Elias decided to leave the Collin’s Fairs. Some years later, just as the war finished, he met and married Evelyn Baker and returned back to show land with his Wall Of Death, and back to Pat Collin’s Funfairs.

Anthony Harris the son of the late Elias and Evelyn Harris, was born 22nd April 1940. While living with his parents, at a young age Anthony Harris learned what it took to be a showman from his father. By trying his skills as a Wall of Death rider, Anthony amazed all by picking up the art so easily.

Anthony took control of the Lightning Skid, the Octopus and Jets (all rides owned by his parents).  Anthony showed all the traits of a fine showman.  With his father and mother as mentors Anthony and his family were sure to go far. From 1976 – 1983 Anthony Harris jointly owned Collin’s Funfairs with Pat’s grandson Patrick Collins.  Anthony’s rides included a second Lighting Skid, Twist, Supreme Waltzer and Para-Glider rides.  In the summer of 1983, at Rowley Regis, Anthony took full control and sole ownership of Pat Collins Funfairs. Along with his sons, he has kept the flag flying to this day.

Pat Collins Black Country Fairs

Tipton

There were three fairs in Tipton, one at the beginning of the season and one at the end.  These were the Tipton Wakes.  The third happened when the Tipton Carnival happened, and John Collins (Pat’s Brother) provided the fair.

West Bromwich

A wake was held here almost at the end of the season, usually at the beginning of November.  The equipment and amusements would stand at West Bromwich before moving to Tipton and then “home” to the yard at Bloxwich.

Wednesbury

Pat Collin’s fair was usually held on the ground by Mounts Road and was on at the start of May.  It included a lion show, and boxing booth.

Bloxwich

The Bloxwich wake was held on the “Third Monday in August”.  By 1898 the Bloxwich Wake was fighting for its life, with opposition to the wake stronger than ever and was finally abolished.  However, in commemoration of Bloxwich Wakes, Pat created the “Collins Grand fete and Gala”. It hosted a fair, menageries, a circus and several other performances and acts.    It was held in the middle of August every year.

Walsall

Fairs in Walsall have a history dating back to the charters in 1220 and were established as trading fairs in June and September.  In 1627, by Royal Charter, the dates changed to February and an Onion Fair in September. With a third appearing at Easter.

Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton had three major fairs a year.  Christmas/New Year, Easter and Whitsun.  Pat was the lessee of these fairs by the 1890s and was joint lessee with his brother john for the Easter Fair.

Willenhall

Pat acquired his own ground in Willenhall alongside the Walsall Road overlooked by St Giles Church.  There were two annual fairs here, the Wake itself in September and a spring fair before Easter. 

Blackheath

Blackheath celebrated its annual fair in September and was number 2 on the circuit after Brierley Hill.    It took up residency in the Market Place.

Dudley

The autumn fair in Dudley often coincided with Blackheath, but the town also enjoyed a spring fair.

Cradley Heath

The fairground took resident in Porters Field and appeared just after the Dudley fair in the autumn.

Darlaston

The Darlaston Wakes took pace directly after the Bloxwich wakes and occupied the August Bank Holiday weekend, with many attractions just moving directly to Darlaston from Bloxwich.

Oldbury

Oldbury Wake was at the end of August/early September and the fairground was in-between Cuxson Gerrard Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and the foundry and engineering works of hunt brothers Ltd.

Our new circus and funfair exhibition at Wednesbury Museum with smaller displays at our other sites will be ready for you to visit when we are open again!

Alex – Arts and Projects Officer.

The digger-uppers

Mystery Object

Here’s a tricky one: it’s been taken apart and laid in pieces on the floor.  But what is it and what was  it used for?

Most people in West Bromwich know of Providence Place, the new office and hotel development next to the old Cronehills colliery site and close to the new Tescos.  But not many people, including many who work there now, know the origin of the name.

In 1810 a Baptist chapel was built on the site, which opened in 1812 and was know as Providence Chapel.  In the early 19th century West Bromwich had no corporation cemetery (it didn’t yet have a corporation!) and so all burials were done in churchyards.  Anglican churches would not normally accept non-conformists, so alongside the chapel a burial ground was established. Although the 19th and early 20th street layout has disappeared, there’s a small quiet green space behind the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on High St,  which is of course the burial ground for this chapel, which was built in 1835 (and demolished and a new chapel built, the one that you can see today, in 1974). The Baptists left Providence Chapel in 1850, but the chapel remained in use, used by a succession of non-conformists and independent churches until the 1940s.  It was demolished in the 1950s.  I’ve never seen any photographs of it.

When development of the area around the old chapel was proposed in the 2010s, research quickly identified the location of the burial ground, and it was agreed that a major archaeological excavation should take place, to identify and remove any human remains that could be disturbed by the proposed building works, as well as to  record the archaeology of the chapel remains (if there were any!).  It was during these excavations that we found the object.  Any ideas yet?

We need to take a quick trip into Birmingham to continue the mystery object story.  Medical schools had been established in Birmingham in the 1760s (only the third place in Britain after Edinburgh and London) and the teaching of anatomy required a regular supply of fresh corpses (remember this is before the era of refrigeration).  The legal supply of corpses for ‘dissection’ was limited to bodies of those executed for capital crimes – and the number of bodies available fell far short of the number required in the anatomy schools.  It didn’t take long for entrepreneurial individuals now normally referred to as ‘body-snatchers’ but in the West Midlands more usually referred to as ‘digger-uppers’) to realise that they could dig up the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them, no questions asked, to the Birmingham anatomy schools.  It became very clear that burials in the Providence Place burial ground had been carried out with a variety of preventative methods being used to make the removal of the body from the grave much more difficult.

The object in question is a mort safe.  This is a generic term for a metal frame or box which was placed over or around a coffin to stop the ‘digger-upper’ digging up the body.  It is the only one we found in the Providence Place burial ground, although there was also a brick-built coffin, a burial under a coffin rather than in it, and frequent occurrences of planks of timber and piles of brushwood being placed in the grave on top of the coffin.  It was also interesting that we discovered a number of coffins filled with waste iron – presumably these corpses had been sold prior to the burial and the iron used to fake the weight of an occupied coffin.

it is in situ.

In all the remains of over 100 people were removed and reburied in Health Lane Cemetery.  We carried out a pathological examination of the body protected by the mort safe, and found it was that of a young woman, perhaps 20 years old, who had suffered from a disfiguring skin disease that resulted in lesions and infections over much of her body.  We know that the anatomists paid a premium for young people’s bodies and for those of people who died from ‘interesting’ illnesses.  We’ve surmised that her family and perhaps the local community clubbed together to buy the mort safe, knowing that her age and illness would have made her a tempting target for the ‘digger-uppers’. 

Body snatching had ceased by the 1830s, as national legislation made available to the medical schools the bodies of all who died in a workhouse or were unable to afford a burial. This was seen even at the time as a massively discriminatory against the poorest and most vulnerable, when taboos about disturbing the dead, and a common religious belief that a physical resurrection at the end of days would be impacted by post-mortem dissection, were very widely held.  But that is another story.

It’s the stuff of life.

Large community events are usually part of the Sandwell Museums & Arts calendar

To say it has been a strange year so far is clearly a massive understatement. By the end of March we had seen fire, flood and pestilence, so it will be interesting to see what history says about this period in future. On a more personal level we’ve all seen our lives disrupted and restricted (for our own good) and we’ve just not been able to take part in all the activities or go to the places we would normally enjoy.

A exploration of using textures for our community painting groups.

For us in museums we haven’t been able to offer our usual mix of community painting groups, gardening and knitting groups, family activities, arts, crafts and cultural projects, creative learning sessions for schools and other educational groups, larger community events, theatre performances and live music and of course access to our building, grounds and collections.

A school art project inspired by Haden Old Hall
Delivering activities to schools and educational groups across the curriculum.

We have been keeping in touch with our users and visitors as much as possible through social media platforms such as facebook, twitter, instagram and of course this blog. We’ve been providing activities for all ages to get involved with including the annual arts trail and Monday challenges, (what would have been) school holidays fun and some home schooling activities, we’ve been doing little mini-vids and longer vids about all sorts of subjects, as well as writing blogs and information about the things we do, our objects and interesting historical information about our sites and life in the past. For our volunteer groups such as our Friends and gardeners and our community painting groups we’ve been phoning up members for a chat and to ensure they’re safe and well and the painting groups have their own private facebook page and whatsapp to keep in touch.

The Oak House gardening group, who work hard volunteering in our grounds.
Bromwich Hall friends who support us in all sorts of ways
The Haden Hill Estate Friends who support us by helping out and raising money as well as helping to look after the Old Hall.

This has been a rather steep learning curve too as we’ve learned to create and edit videos and provide new activities online and think of new ways of engaging with all of you out there. I hope you’ve been enjoying what we’ve been doing and I hope we can continue some of this once our sites are open again. We are still developing some of these ideas and so we’ll be bringing you new things in the future too – it is very exciting! It has made us look at the ways we can communicate with people differently and in new ways.

Not the usual Bromwich Hall visitor….she usually works at Oak house!
Sadly our annual Fabulous 40s event at Haden Hill was cancelled this year.

However this no substitute for the social interaction and the hands on activities which taking part together involves. By talking to our visitors and users (in more normal times) and by undertaking lots of surveying and by trying things out, you have told us that what you like to do is to get involved, to have a go, to create things and enjoy new experiences, and events and activities of all different types. We know people most visit our sites when we put something on rather than just to look around and all of this we are currently missing and you’ve told us you are missing it too. Black Country people, it seems, are naturally ‘hands on’ and like to have a go themselves and create – it must be the centuries of making stuff, it is just in the blood!

We have had all this in mind as we plan for the recovery and re-opening of our services and how we might develop and transform our services going into the future, while at the same time ensuring that safety and social distancing is paramount in the short and medium term. We’ve been working on new ideas for how we might develop and enhance the visitor experience when you can come along once again and look around our buildings and so we’re getting to grips with some new technologies in order to tell our stories in new, exciting ways.

I think that one thing this period in isolation and lockdown has shown is how much we as humans need ‘other stuff’ to be healthy and happy, and not just our basic needs met.

Of course for some out there they don’t have enough food and a home and their basic needs aren’t met and of course this is the biggest priority. Also it was essential to ensure people did not catch and spread this terrible virus for us all to retreat to our homes and experience life through screens for a while and of course there are those that have had a really difficult time in all sorts of ways and I wouldn’t want to detract from the importance of these.

However in the long-term for most of us we need more than food and shelter, and the last few months have shown us that we need a change of scenery and green spaces, we need experiences and social and cultural interaction (I realise culture is a difficult word but I mean everything from live music to craft activities with the children at one of our museums to story time at the library, craft groups, enjoying an exhibition, painting, large community events and everything in between an beyond) – essentially we need to do stuff to ensure our wellbeing!

Our community group members have told us how much they miss, not just coming along to to get involved and create, to paint, knit or garden but the environment and surroundings of our buildings and their grounds and most importantly they have missed the interaction with others, the working together that these activities bring. Other people have told us they have missed our school holiday activities and larger events and even miss just visiting and looking around.

I think what I’m trying to say is that a lot of the stuff we’ve missed including what goes on in our museums, libraries, parks and at park farm, as well as activities delivered by other organisations is not an add on to life but it is the stuff of life, it is what makes us feel good, boosts our self esteem, gives us experiences and memories and develops us as humans and we look forward to welcoming you all back to our sites soon, although things will look different for a while at least.

We are currently planning and assessing how we can begin to provide our services again, so look out for more information soon. In the meantime enjoy our online activities and information on facebook, twitter and instagram @sandwellmuseums and follow #discoversandwell to keep up to date with all our colleagues across cultural services including libraries, archives, Lightwoods House, Sandwell Valley and Park Farm and our parks and follow Discover Sandwell on facebook, twitter and instagram for online events and activities and lots of information.

Children’s crafts activities have now gone online!
Getting ready for a gig
Ladies from a temple group taking being shown around and enjoying our Asian arts and crafts exhibition with the artist
A fantastic theatre performance in partnership with Black Country Touring in 2019 where the audience’s toys became the stars of the show!

Jane – Sandwell Museums and Arts Service

Blood letting and Burdock

Whose face is not worth sunburning . . .

Over two weeks of almost constant sunshine is not usual for May – what is expected after so much sunshine is the lobster impressions delivered by so many of the great British public who every year forget just how hot and intense the spring sunshine can be.

Today’s sunscreens work either by absorbing the damaging ultra-violet light and converting it into heat, or by reflecting this light and scattering it away from the body. Of course there is always the option of a wide brimmed hat, long sleeves and leaving the shorts in the cupboard. With today’s sun protection reliant on modern chemical understanding, I wondered for example how the 17th century occupants of Oak House might have coped with prolonged periods of sunshine in the 1600s.

It is actually not all that easy to find recipes for sun screen in the various herbals and commonplace books where I have discovered various plague ‘cures’ and ‘preventatives’ which I’ve written about recently, as well as such delights as a baldness cure made from bee ash (yes – that is ash made from ground up burnt bees), mouse droppings and rose water (well you’d want it to smell nice wouldn’t you!). The idea of a ‘healthy tan’ is a twentieth century invention, emerging from Coco Chanel’s famed comment in 1929, “a girl simply has to be tanned”. Before this a tanned face and arms (everything else was kept covered up as a matter of decency!) were associated with outdoor work. A nice pale face and skin was associated with the leisured middle and upper classes who didn’t have to toil in the fields. So if you had to go out in the sun, and you weren’t working, as well as a high necked dress, parasol and gloves…

Take Deer’s Marrow, put it in a sufficient quantity of water with Wheat-flour, and let them settle; then take some ounces of what subsides to the bottom and mix it well with a sufficient quantity of the whites of eggs. Plaister your face with the said Paiste when you go to bed at Night, and wash yourself the next morning with warm water. This method is excellent to prevent sunburn (Le Camus: The Art of preserving Beauty, 1775).

Oak House museum sunset

The paler the skin (contrasting if possible with rose coloured cheeks), was the aim, and all sorts of concoctions and devices were used, from ceruse (a lead-oxide and vinegar paste) as a face paint (it would also act as a rather effective sun-block!) which was usually removed with a mercury facewash, to anti-sun masks referenced by Shakespeare in his ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’:

But since she did neglect her looking-glass

And threw her sun-expressing mask away

The air hath starved the roses in her cheeks

And pinched the lily-tincture of her face . . .

Randle Holme, in his Acadamie of Armourie (1688) described one of these masks:

This is a thing that in former times gentlewomen used to put over their faces when they travel to keep them from sun burning. It covered only the brow nose and eyes, through the holes they saw their way; the rest of the face was covered with a chin-cloth. Of these masks they used them either square with a flat and even top, or else the top cut with an half round; they were generally made of black velvet. The second form of mask is the Visard Mask, which covers the whole face, having holes for the Eyes, a case for the nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside over against the mouth.

Drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar : Hollar drew English women of different classes in the middle of the 1600s showcasing their clothes and fashions.

But if you did catch the sun, then home made remedies were the norm. These were very often the same of very similar to the cures used for all manner of skin disorders and burns and scalds. I suspect most outdoor workers were well tanned and kept reasonably covered up – this as well as the lack of interest perhaps amongst middle class apothecaries and doctors in treating the poorer classes results in only a limited number of cures compared with more widespread illnesses. If you were sunburned and could afford a visit to the surgeon, the usual response was as with any burn, alongside cooling salves made from mint, aloe vera or tormentil, mixed in butter, oil or egg white, a prolonged session of blood-letting! Burdock leaves in vinegar appear to have been used in colonial America but I’ve not come across any references to this use in England in the 17th century.

It looks like the best of the weather is gone for the moment so I don’t suppose anyone will have need of my ‘advice’. But hang on to it – I’m sure the sun will be back before the autumn!

ps don’t try this at home

Frank- Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage.

We couldn’t do it without you

Hello everyone and welcome to another Museums Musings blog! Last week was National Volunteering Week and Sandwell Museums has been thanking its wonderful volunteers and Friend’s groups from all our sites. Often behind the scenes, it is important that we take a little look into what our friends and volunteers do for us, and of course thanking them along the way because we couldn’t do it without them!  

The oldest evacuee in town – at the annual Fabulous 40s event at Haden Hill House.

Meetings and ideas.

As you can imagine over our different sites our friends and volunteers do various jobs and some are unique to each site or each volunteer. From garden maintenance, historical research, dressing as a character (including Santa), helping with reception or crafts, painting and flower arranging to making the perfect cup of tea, there is a job for everyone! Our friends groups meet regularly and discuss any events they would like to run or what support we need for events and anything they feel would benefit the site and just have a general catch up with a cuppa. It is a huge help to staff to have a larger group of local people to bounce ideas off and their input is invaluable!

Dressing the part.

Helping out with St George’s day activities at Oak House

Staff and volunteers alike are no stranger to wearing a costume or two! At all our sites it is a common theme that you will end up dressing up as something, and our friends and volunteer groups are always open to dressing up as whatever we require, whether it be Frankenstein’s bride, Medieval dress or 1940s’ attire, they are always open and willing to participate! Obviously, this is a huge part of creating an authentic and welcoming feel to our museums and we thank them all for their participation no matter how ridiculous it may be; everyone is always willing to give it their best go!

Spooking the visitors at Halloween in Bromwich Hall

Tea, cake and events.

Personally, I think this is a big factor in being a friend or volunteer! Can you make a good cuppa? Whether at Bromwich Hall, Oak House, Galton Valley or Haden Hill House, this a skill that will be needed! Our amazing volunteers and friends run our tea rooms at events making many a cup of tea for our visitors (and serving cake of course) always with a smile! It can get very busy at times, but they always do a fantastic job! This, to staff members is a huge help because it frees us up to do other jobs on event days and deal with any issues that arise. At Bromwich Hall I have even heard one member of the public say it’s the best cuppa they have ever had which is praise indeed!

fantastic cakes

At all our sites our friends’ groups run their own events, which are planned and run by them or support and help out at our events . These activities are varied and provide a different experience for our visitors. At Haden Hill House the friends group open Haden Old Hall on event days and open days along with manning the tea room, they also, deliver a Victorian Evening which is offered to local community groups. They have in the past hosted, along with the team from Haden Hill House Museum, a “Victorian afternoon tea” experience for the Employee recognition award scheme that SMBC ran. They have also worked on a joint Black Country Museums project, funded by HLF & The Arts council, to promote joining volunteer groups, what they can offer and how it could help older or retired people come to terms with social isolation, meet new people and get involved.

Bromwich Hall friends also run events organised by them including, paranormal investigations and psychic evenings which always prove very popular! There are also friends who are very interested in the history of Bromwich Hall and help to research the building and the surrounding area. Another interesting fact about our friends is that we have one member who is trained in herbal medicines so can give fantastic talks about herbs used in medicine which is a great addition to Bromwich Hall.

getting into the Christmas spirit with festive refreshments at Oak House

Green fingers and wildlife

As you can imagine our sites take a lot of maintaining, especially our outside spaces! Our most established gardening group is at Oak House who over the past five years, have completely transformed the Oak House grounds. The group have cleared overgrown areas, removed inappropriate planting and created new pathways for the public to enjoy, implemented an herb garden, a knot garden, planted fruit trees and a wild flower area to compliment the 17th century property and its stories. The gardening group have also been nominated for and won several Britain in Bloom awards for the gardens over the past few years and were runners up in the West Midlands Museum Development Volunteer awards last year. The group also plant and garden for wildlife and have fitted bird boxes and bat boxes in the grounds and have planted bee and insect friendly plants in the wildlife area. Quite an achievement and we thank them for all their hard work and support!

The Oak House Gardening group having stripped out the old lavender bed and ready to plant some new lavender.

Bromwich Hall would also like to thank its gardening maintenance group, having only been a museum for the last ten years, Bromwich Hall has seen a lot of changes, but in the past year our garden maintenance group have worked hard to maintain our site which has involved a lot of weeding and clearing up. We also want to thank them for their input at friends meeting when discussing what we could do next with our green spaces, their ideas as their input is invaluable, and we can’t thank them enough for their help and support.

Opening up

A HUGE thank you must also be given to the Friends of Galton Valley Pumping Station, one of our smaller museums. They are a small but very dedicated group of volunteers and as we have no dedicated member of staff at the Pumping Station (we run it from Wednesbury Museum) we just couldn’t open or run the building without them. The group have also adopted the area of the canal around the museum as part of a Canals and Rivers Trust initiative and they litter pick, garden and tidy the area. Like many of our volunteers they are also very knowledgeable about the building they help support and its history.

What our friends and volunteers really mean to us as a service

I would like to finish off this blog by saying what our friends and volunteers really mean to us at all our sites. There aren’t enough words we could say to thank them, we are so fortunate to have such a lovely bunch of people always willing to help us. I think it is important currently to say how much we value everything you do! We usually spend a lot of time with our volunteer and friends’ groups, but due to social distancing we haven’t seen them in a while (although we keep in touch) and we miss them all very much. So, from every member of staff at Sandwell Museums thank you, for every day dressed up, cup of tea made, and event planned, we couldn’t have done it without you and we can’t wait to see you all back in our museums. The cups of teas will be on us this time!

Catherine – Visitor services Assistant, Bromwich Hall.

(Thank you to staff at Haden Hill and Oak House Museums for helping with this blog)

Looking after our objects

Hello everyone! As this week is all about the objects and artefacts we have here at the museum service we thought a blog about conservation and the threats to the objects in our collection might be an interesting topic for you to read about. So without further ado, here are the threats we face, and how we tackle them:

Light

(measured in ‘Lux’ -used to measure the intensity of light hitting a surface)

I’m sure we have all seen something in our lives that has been bleached by the sun, whether that’s garden furniture or curtains near a window or a wall where a picture has been. This phenomenon, unsurprisingly, can do a tremendous amount of damage to museum artefacts. The best way to combat the effects of light on museum objects is to reduce the amount of natural light directed onto them. At Sandwell Museums we use blinds to block out the sun, use solar control film, which has a tinting effect which filters out the harmful amount of light but leaves enough for people to see. Plus of course, keeping the most light-sensitive objects away from windows. These are some examples of materials most affected by light:

– Costumes and other textiles (which is why we keep the blinds down in the bedrooms at Oak House and Haden Hill House.

– Fur and feathers

– Dyed leather

– Prints

– Drawings

– Watercolours

 

Here we see how light has bleached a tapestry, reducing how vivid the colours should be. (blog.hrp.org.uk)

Temperature

(measured in degrees Celsius)

Temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius are what we aim for, as anything less is too cold for visitors, and anything higher is both a bit too warm for staff and visitors and can also speed up the deterioration of some museum objects. Museum stores can be colder than ten degrees as they don’t tend to see many visitors aside from staff. It’s also very important to ensure that temperatures don’t change from hot to cold and back again too quickly. As this can have a freeze-thaw effect on artefacts, whereby the heat makes the material expand, and the cold makes it contract, leading to cracking and shattering. Thermometers are the tried and tested method of measuring temperatures, if an area is discovered to be too cold, heaters (or central heating if applicable) can be used as long as they are set to a low temperature. Fortunately, being in the UK, rooms being too hot are a fairly rare occurrence, however, when this happens ventilation, if possible, is the preferred option though in some cases artificial fans and air coolers can be used.

Here we see the freeze thaw effect on rock, whilst the interior of museums never get cold enough for ice to form, heat and cold causes similar damage. Objects expand in heat and contract in cold. (twinkl.co.uk)

Humidity

(measured in ‘RH’ – ‘relative humidity’)

Humidity (the amount of moisture in the air) can have a very serious impact on museum artefacts, if there is too little in the air, artefacts can become dry and brittle, which can do permanent damage, even if humidity is returned to acceptable levels within a short time frame. Relative humidity should not drop below 40% or rise above roughly 70%, as too much moisture in the air encourages fungal growth. When that happens, even if the fungus is removed the stains left can be permanent. To measure relative humidity we use devices called hygrometers, which act in a similar way to thermometers. To combat the effects of too much humidity we have a number of dehumidifiers, and in areas with too little humidity we have humidifiers. (Visitors to Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery may have seen a pair in the Richards gallery).

Here we can see evidence of mould staining some wooden furniture. (environix.com)

Pests

Pests probably constitute the biggest threat to our collections as they’re rather good at sneaking in and setting up shop without anyone realising. I have included some pictures of the main culprits, which are carpet beetles, clothes moths and woodworm.

Carpet beetles, as their name implies, tend to infest carpets. However, they will also eat any other items composed of wool, fur, felt, silk, feathers, skins, and leather. Such materials contain keratin, a fibrous animal protein which their larvae are able to digest. Cotton and synthetic material like polyester and rayon are rarely attacked unless blended with wool, or contain food stains or other natural materials.

A Varied Carpet Beetle. (inoculandpestcontrol.co.uk)

This is an example of the type of damage they do to carpets. (thesuffolkpestcontrolcompany.co.uk)

Clothes moths, behave in a very similar way to carpet beetles, they destroy fabric and other materials. They feed exclusively on animal fibre, especially wool, fur, silk, feathers, felt, and leather, as these materials contain keratin, a fibrous protein that the worm-like larvae of the clothes moth can digest. In nature, the larvae feed on the nesting materials or carcasses of birds and mammals. Which means that when museums have birds nesting in the roof, or any rodents on site, it is actually a very serious problem! Serious infestations of clothes moths can develop  completely undetected until it’s too late, causing permanent damage to vulnerable artefacts.

This picture shows a clothes moth and the damage they can do to textiles. (countryliving.com)

The common furniture beetle or woodworm, is believed to be the main cause of damage to timber in the UK over the last 100 years! During the last 50 years, insecticidal treatments have been widely used to treat timbers in buildings thought to be at risk. The worry of woodworm infestation has become so integral to the culture of property management and building repair in the UK that most buildings which are more than 50 years old have been treated at least once, and many have been treated repeatedly on each change of ownership!

This floorboard showed absolutely no evidence of infestation by woodworm until sanding and polishing revealed tunnelling beneath the surface. (buildingconservation.com)

This is what woodworm actually looks like when munching through wood. (rentokil.co.uk)

To tackle the issue of insect pests all museums will use pest traps to monitor what creepy crawlies are visiting the site, with having 6 of the same type of pest warranting an infestation. Of course not all insects and spiders are a problem, we have to look carefully for the critters we’re concerned about. It is the job of staff on site to periodically check the pest traps and report their findings – this isn’t their favourite task! If an infestation is detected measures must be taken to isolate and remove the infestation. This will sometimes involve literally removing an object from the collection and putting it in isolation, to prevent the infestation spreading. To actually kill the insects, depends on what material is currently suffering from infestation. Some examples of treatments are:

Low temperature treatment, whereby an object is placed inside a specially designed freezer which kills the insects without damaging the object.

High temperature treatment, similar to the above method, however this time the temperature is raised. A short exposure of no more than 55 degrees Celsius.

Controlled Atmosphere Treatment, in this example, an object is placed inside an air-tight container and carbon dioxide is slowly pumped inside. The lack of oxygen leads to increased respiration, which eventually leads to dehydration of pests.

A full pest trap

We hope you enjoyed this small glimpse of the monitoring work that goes into ensuring historic artefacts remain in as pristine condition as possible here at Sandwell Museums Service.

Not the sort of poster everyone has on their office walls but we have! What to look out for and what is harmless.

Jack – Collections Officer

Seaven cowes and heifers – Oak House farm in the 1600s

Today when you come across the Oak House for the first time it can be quite a shock. It can seem a bit like an alien space ship has landed in amongst the more modern 1900s terrace and 1930s semi-detached urban housing. To see a large, old timber framed building sitting where it does in the landscape, in the middle of West Bromwich is quite a surprise. Of course, you then remember that this fantastic old house was there for around 300 years before any of the other houses appeared. In the 1600s the view from the Oak House would have been very different from what you might see now.

picture thanks to Cass Tsdrone find on instagram at cass_tsdrone

Today Oak House has two acres of grounds which include the gardens where we tell the story of what was going on in the landscape outside Oak House in the 1600s, our barns visitor centre, event space and classroom for our school visits and other visitor facilities like a playground and picnic area. But what would have been here if you had visited Oak House 400 years ago?

picture thanks to Cass Tsdrone find on instagram at cass_tsdrone

When the Turton family bought a large portion of land in West Bromwich including the area where Oak House sits, some time before 1616, it was already a working farm.  At this period in history the presence of more and more landowners meant that the old medieval open field system, where each farmer had strips to farm in a variety of fields, was decreasing. The reasonably wealthy ‘middling sort’ like the Turtons were able to buy up land and have their own farm, employing people to work the land for them.

In 1634 Oak House and a considerable amount of land was purchased by John Turton from his father (John Turton Senior). The Turtons had been described as yeoman or wealthy farmers but they were moving up the social scale and were soon to be calling themselves gentlemen.

The land around West Bromwich was not the best farming land so the Turtons, like others in the area were also industrialists. The Turton family owned a number of water mills where they finished blades and made nails. We are also fairly certain the Turtons were involved in brick making and a brick kiln was found in the areas where the playground at Oak House is today. As well as farming, metal working and other industrial activities were a big part of the local economy well before the industrial revolution began in the middle of the 1700s. However, this story is for another blog!

An area where we are telling the story of the orchard where wildflowers would grow and bring in the pollinators who would pollinate the fruit

We have two really good sources which give us an insight into the farm at Oak House in the late 1600s and very early 1700s. These documents are inventories (lists of property usually taken when someone died) produced in 1682 and 1705.

The 1682 inventory tell us that there was ‘corne about the Oak Ground. Cattle about the Oak Ground Seaven cowes and heifers. Eight calves. Horses. Three colts. In the Garden belonging to the Oake House One beestand & one garden roll. Poultrey about the house.’

Where the inventory mentions corn, this could mean any grains which were being grown, such as wheat, barley, oats or rye.  Many farmers refer to their grain crop as ‘corn’ so it was usually whatever they were growing most of that was called corn. The inventory references wheat and oats so it is possible in this case, corn refers to barley which is being grown by the Turtons. We know that there was a lot of beer being brewed at Oak House, probably in the basement, so growing barley themselves would certainly be useful for keeping the beer flowing!

In the 1600s farms were mixed farms growing crops as well as keeping animals. We can see that the Turtons had a number of cows which would be used primarily for producing milk. This milk would then be processed in the dairy by the dairy maids who would make butter and cheese. The ‘waste’ products from these processes certainly wasn’t thrown away. Buttermilk might be drank by the servants and given to the poor as it was very rich (a bit like condensed milk) and while the curds made the cheese, the whey may also be drank at breakfast by the farm hands or servants or fed to the animals.

Young male calves were not required for dairy farming, apart from the ones chosen to become bulls. The calf meat was eaten and rennet from the stomach was used to separate the curds and whey in the cheese making process.

This is a simple form of beehive, known as a skep, and made of straw. This is a woodcut from a book by the English naturalist and physician Thomas Muffet (1553-1604). The book was titled Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), and was published in London in 1634. You will find a few similar skeps at Oak House – but we use ours as bug hotels.

Chickens were kept mainly for eggs, rather than being eaten; not a huge amount of chicken was eaten in the 1600s. Other poultry may have been kept too such as ducks and geese for eggs and meat. Feathers from poultry would also have been important and would have been useful for making feather mattresses and pillows.

You would also have found bees at the Oak House, which were kept for honey to sweeten food as sugar was very expensive (although I’m sure this is something the Turtons did splash out on) but also for beeswax for better quality candles.

Close to the house you would have found the kitchen gardens full of vegetables and fruit to eat and herbs to flavour food, create medicines and to use in other household activities, like cleaning and keeping away insects.

Some of the Turtons surveying their grounds.

Horses would have been kept for farm work as well as for transportation to get the Turtons from one place to another. In fact, the old timber framed barn at Oak House was built by John Turton in the 1650s to house his horses. He seems to have been buying fairly expensive horses at this time which certainly weren’t being used to pull ploughs in his Bromwich fields.

In the 1705 inventory pigs are also mentioned, which would have been kept for their meat as there was a growing demand for pork at this time. Pigs and poultry would have been fed on some of the waste products from farming activities as well as scraps and peelings from the kitchen.

Oak House kitchen – the fireplace would have been much larger in the 1600s.

Farming implements are listed in the 1705 inventory including two ploughs and two harrows (a harrow is an implement for breaking up and smoothing out the surface of the soil or removing weeds), an iron crow (crowbar), forks, spade, troughs and a wheelbarrow.

A medieval farmer ploughing but the process would be the same.

Hay is also on the list of goods and would have been kept for feed and bedding for animals. Hay would be made from the grasses and wildflower meadows towards the end of the season and then dried to use over winter.

The smaller scale activity such as raising chickens, cows, pigs and bees and looking after the fruit, vegetables and herb garden would have been generally found close to the house and would have largely been the responsibility of the women of the household.

herbs drying in the kitchen

The ideal farm in the 1600s was self-contained and sustainable. Fields would have been used to graze animals and grow crops with ploughs being pulled by horses or oxen, which were fed with crops which had been grown on the farm.  The manure from the animals was spread on the fields and added to the soil to improve it. Farms practised crop rotation which meant that one year out of three a field might be left uncultivated to allow nutrients to regenerate. This meant that a third of all fields were left uncultivated each year.

Farming techniques were, however, developing in the 1600s as ideas were brought to England from Holland, clover and turnips became popular crops to grow. Growing clover or turnips meant you no longer had to leave a field fallow as clover adds nutrients into the soil and turnips have very deep roots which take nutrients from a different level to grain crops. An old technique of liming and marling the soil, which had been popular in medieval times was revived to improve the soil further. Records show that new farming equipment was being developed in the early 1600s such as draining machines in 1628, ploughs in 1623-27 and 1634, and mechanical sewing machines between 1634 and 1639. Unfortunately, we don’t know if any of these new developments or machinery were taken on board by the Turtons at Oak House.

Fuel was cut and collected from hedges, copses and rough pastureland and in Bromwich where there were few trees coal was being used for fuel too as it was in abundance and near the surface in some places.

The Oak House dairy

It seems that amongst those that worked directly with the animals they saw them as an extension of themselves and their family, after all they relied on their animals for their livelihood and food. One late 17th century observer put it: ‘farmers and poor people’ made ‘very little difference between themselves and their beasts’. They went out with them in the fields in the morning, toiled with them all day and returned home with them in the evening. Their very language expressed their sense of affinity between them and their animals, for many descriptive terms applied equally to either. Children were kids, cubs or urchins, a boy apprentice was a colt. A woman expecting a baby was said to have got upon the nest, her husband would address her affectionately as duck or hen, less affectionately as cow, shrew or vixen. When she grew old she would be a crone, that is a ewe who has lost her teeth.’

The front of the Oak House may be a timber framed farmhouse but this rear elevation was added in the 1650s by John Turton as the family wealth and status grew. This side of the house looked out over the area and would have been visible from some distance. In front of this side of the house John also moved any farming or industrial activity and created some formal gardens.

So next time you’re at Oak House or when you drive or walk along Oak Road, take a moment to travel back 400 years in your mind’s eye and imagine the busy farm at Oak House with cows, pigs, horses, chickens and other poultry being tended to by servants and the vegetables, fruit trees and herbs growing near to the house, and the fields stretching down to Bromford lane filled with animals grazing and crops growing and workers going about their daily tasks.

Watch our video about making cheese and butter in the Oak House dairy and follow as the new dairy maid Alice is shown what her duties are.
Some of our brilliant volunteers who help us look after our grounds.
Churning butter in the dairy – this young wench had gotten above herself and seems to be wearing the Mistress Turton’s lace chemise!

Not to reason why . . .

Sandwell and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

We first posted this blog around international nursing day (12th May). It is more pertinent than most years for most of us given what nurses (and the rest of the NHS) are currently battling with. May 12th was chosen as it was Florence Nightingale’s birthday, and if she was alive today she would be 200!

But we are posting it again as part of Armed Forces Day celebrations, showing support for those serving or have recently served. We have other military objects in our collection but it seems appropriate that any museum objects showcased here should have a clear story of one individual’s experience attached to them. So, we are taking the opportunity to tell the story of one notable Wednesbury citizen who had a close encounter with Florence Nightingale and dined out on the story for many years – a story that also included an account of his close encounter with a Russian cannonball the day before!

Balaclava by, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler; 1863. She took the testimonies of survivors to ensure accuracy. Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/balaclava-204619

John Ashley Kilvert was born in 1833, the son of a Shropshire farmer. Initially apprenticed into the wine trade, by 1850 he had joined the 11th Hussars, a light cavalry regiment of the British Army nicknamed the ‘Cherrypickers’ on account of their tight scarlet trousers. In 1843 his regiment was sent to the Crimea, as part of an allied British French and Turkish army fighting the Russians.

Kilvert’s Sword – This is the 1853 pattern cavalry sword which is brand new latest army kit at the time of the Crimean war. In fact not all regiments had it at this point. These swords were typically made in Birmingham as this was a big industry in Birmingham at that time. It wasn’t typical for soldiers that weren’t officers to keep their swords as this was army property. However, it is possible that as those that survived the charge were held in high esteem and were almost celebrities, that they were given their swords- we know the bugler kept his bugle!

On October 25th a Russian army attacked the main British supply base, the small port of Balaclava. A series of engagements took place, culminating in the disastrous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ Shortly after 11.00am local time, confusion over orders led Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, to mistakenly attack a large force of Russian cavalry and artillery, with disastrous results. The ensuing battle was described by a survivor of the charge, Kilvert’s sergeant – major Loy Smith.

As we moved off the Russians opened fire from all their batteries, the round shot passed through us and amongst us, causing great havoc. The first man of my troop to be struck was Private Young, a cannon ball taking off his right arm, I being close in his right rear fancied I felt the wind from it as it passed me, I afterwards found I was bespattered with his flesh.

Kilvert in his uniform wearing his medals

Of the 143 men of the regiment who charged, only 63 returned to camp that night. Kilvert was not among them, although he had reached the Russian position and returned. He described what happened himself to a local newspaper many years later:

As to my injuries, I was shot by a musket ball through my right leg, and also received a slight cut on the head. My horse was shot under me, but although frightfully injured, bore me back to safety.

Kilvert was treated on the battlefield, but as there were no ambulances available to evacuate the wounded,

I lay in a ditch waiting to be removed . . . and had practically given up hope of ever being attended to, as darkness was setting in and I was nearly frozen. However by and by I heard an ambulance coming and, as the boys say, I hollered with all my might and very thankfully, I was picked up.

Kilvert was evacuated, first to Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari in Istanbul, (he relates seeing her in the wards on a number of occasions) and then to Malta, returning to England in 1855. He was lucky to not have had his wounded leg amputated as this was often the case. He was promoted to sergeant and served in a recruiting office in Bath until he was invalided out of the army in 1857.

John Ashley Kilvert in his civic robes; Sandwell Museums Service Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/alderman-john-ashley-kilvert-jp-18331920-20642

He moved to Wednesbury where he opened a pawn broker’s shop. In 1886 he stood for, and was elected to, the Wednesbury borough Council, remaining a councillor and subsequently Alderman until he retired in 1902, the year after he served as mayor. He died in 1920, bequeathing his medals and his sword to Wednesbury Museum.

Oh – and Private Young survived the battle as well. He last attended a survivors’ reunion dinner in London in 1890.

Kilvert’s medals. The medal on the top left is the Turkish Crimea medal as the original mission was to defend Turkey against Russian aggression. The medal on the top right is the Crimea medal, noting the battled he was present at. The smaller medals are for evening wear.

A reflection on the end of the war.

I thought, as we remember and commemorate Victory in Europe Day on May 8th, to look at what was actually happening in the last days of the war in Europe, and what ordinary people, especially those at home, knew about what was going on.

During April more and more German troops began to surrender, as the Soviet armies marched through Vienna and 1.4 million soldiers launched an attack on Berlin on April 20th. Mussolini (the Italian ruler) had been killed by Italian partisans on April 25th, and Hitler committed suicide on 30th April. Admiral Donitz, whom Hitler nominated as his successor in his will, announced Hitler’s death on 2nd May and newspapers were quick to publish the news. With reports of fighting having stopped in Berlin that same day and that over 1.5 million German soldiers had surrendered to the allied forces in the west in April, it was obvious to most people that the war in Europe was almost over. But not quite . . .

The German army in The Netherlands, Denmark and North-East Germany surrendered to British Field Marshall Montgomery in the early hours of May 4th. The rest of the German armies surrendered to the American General Eisenhower only on May 7th. Late in the evening of May 7th a BBC newsflash announced that May 8th would be a public holiday, to be called Victory in Europe Day, and that Winston Churchill would make a broadcast at 3.00 that afternoon. It was transmitted live on the BBC.

memories of our Fabulous 40s events at Haden Hill House in previous years.

The announcement was not unexpected and celebrations, which in many places had been prepared, started immediately. Bonfires were lit, pubs were crowded, there was dancing in the streets and bunting hung from lampposts, and church bells began ringing (although this was still strictly speaking illegal). I remember the late jazz musician and Grenadier Guards officer Humphrey Lyttelton telling of his early morning impromptu concert in a wheelbarrow in Trafalgar Square, which was later discovered on an archive BBC news recording!

I’m afraid that with the Corona lock-down I’ve not been able to scour the local newspapers for details of Sandwell and wider Black Country festivities. Perhaps anyone with memories could add them here. But we know there were street parties, bonfires, crowds in town centres . . .and a measurable peak in the birth-rate in February 1946! Churchill worried that there were not enough beer supplies in London to last the day, and red white and blue cloth was taken off ration for the day so people could make their own bunting and flags. Many churches were packed out, running end to end services, with St Paul’s in London doing 10 non-stop, to capacity congregations which I doubt would meet modern heath and safety standards!

Not everyone celebrated with such abandon. The war against Japan would continue, with ferocious fighting, until August (I’ll come back to that) and too many families had lost too many loved ones for the joy to be widespread. For many people there was just a profound sense of relief, while for others a deep sense of sadness. A brief walk around All Saints graveyard in West Bromwich brings this home – one gravestone commemorates 20 year old Pilot Officer Kenneth Usher, who died on 4th April 1945 after his Lancaster bomber crashed on a mission over Germany, and not far away is the grave of 18 year old Private G M Smith, of the North Staffordshire Regiment, like Ken Usher born in West Bromwich, who died of injuries in a Black Country hospital on June 6th that year. Across Sandwell’s graveyards and burial grounds you can find memorials tended today by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to men who lived to see the end of the war, but whose injuries prevented them from enjoying the peace. At All Saints there’s also the grace to a member of the Czech air force who died in West Bromwich, an exile who never made it home, and a reminder that it wasn’t just Britons who made the ultimate sacrifice and helped win the victory, but men (and women) from across the British Empire, and across the world.

So although today seems to many like an excuse for a party (a bit of a sombre one with lock-down restrictions not lifted) I’m not sure how much we should be celebrating. For many, it was the right thing to do in 1945, but 75 years on, perhaps we should, alongside a toast to those who sacrificed so much to help build today’s Europe, reflect on just what humanity is capable of – the history of World War II may show us the very best of us, but also the very very worse.

Frank – Museums, Arts and Heritage Business Manager.

The spirit of the wild wood and the Green Man.

From Ancient Folklore to Modern Ecological Symbol

Green Man Community Fun Day at Oak House 2019

Two millennia old or older, the Green Man is the vibrant spirit of the wild wood, of vegetation in leaf or bud, of spring, pool and river, earth and sky, indeed the totality of nature. His voice is the hiss of the high wind in ash and oak. And his profundity those sudden silences of a forest when all Nature seems to hold her breath. When we hear or feel him no more mankind will have run its course.  Ronald Millar.

celebrating spring at the Green Man Community Fun Day at Oak House

To commemorate what would have been our fourth annual Green Man community event at Oak House Museum this year (with the usual, performers, dancers, live music, bouncy castle, historic characters, stalls and children’s entertainment, crafts, trails and more) we thought we would delve into the history and folklore surrounding the Green Man and see how the image has meaning in modern culture today. Until recently the closest Green Man festival to the West Midlands was held at Clun in Shropshire, so our Green Man celebration had become a wonderful way for us Black Country folk to celebrate spring and welcome in the summer in the old way.

Since we are unable to hold our event this year we thought it would be nice for this celebration to happen virtually, so if you have seen a modern or ancient Green Man anywhere let us know, send us a photo, or if you feel inspired to do so, share your Green Man artwork with us. We would be very interested to see what you come up with and how you’ve been celebrating spring.

Our Oak House talking Green Man projection from May 2019

So what or who is the Green Man? The long and the short of it is that no one really knows. He’s a bit of a mystery.  However, the fact that there are so many pictures and carvings of him known around the world would suggest that he was an important image or representation to many people. To pin down what the Green Man actually signifies is quite complicated. He is known from ancient carvings and sometimes referred to as foliate head (heads made of foliage or leaves), grotesques or even gargoyles. These were dotted around hundreds of old buildings, churches and cathedrals of England but he is also a figure from folklore, a wild man of the wood, Robin Hood, the Jack in the Green and a symbol of regrowth that returns each year.

The Green Man started appearing on churches in England from the late 11th century onward, not long after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The oldest known survivor is carved near the doorway of the church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

Kilpeck Herefordshire – an early rather unrealistic Green Man photo taken 2006


There are several types of Green Man images from the 1200s: the “foliate head”, a mask-like face covered in leaves, the “disgorging head” with leaves and branches coming from its mouth and the “bloodsucker head” which sprouts vegetation from its mouth, eyes and ears and “the peeper” who peers from behind another carving. The meaning of this enduring image is unclear; however leafy heads featured in Roman art from around the first century A.D. Therefore making nature into a human form is possibly an idea that is thousands of years old.  These early forms of ‘Green Men’ are usually pictured with acanthus leaves sprouting around their faces and are sometimes described as a male medusa (medusa was an ancient mythical creature with snakes for her hair) or linked to a Bacchus cult celebrating Dionysus (an ancient god, associated with drinking, vines and ivy).

Disgorging Head from a misericord in Ludlow photo 2017 (a misericord is the underside of a flip up seat in a church which gives a slight ledge for those having to stand for long periods to rest their bottoms on)

The move towards true-to-life sculpture in the 1200s was due to a new interest in science with universities at that time encouraging studies of the natural world. Manuscripts and documents from the time show pictures of realistic looking birds and images of real and imaginary beasts known as bestiaries were being produced throughout Western Europe. 

Green Man Community fun day at Oak House

As previously mentioned the origins of the foliate head, or “Green Man”, had its roots in mythology long before Christianity came to Britain. Despite his pagan origins he evolved as an image within the church in the 13th century and became part of the symbols and pictures which people would have understood at the time, even if we don’t understand them fully now.

Peeper from Southwell Minster, peeping from behind his leaves and branches – photo 2015

It is generally agreed that the Green Man represents rebirth, and the cycle of growth, being reborn each spring as the spring flowers and leaves begin to grow and young animals are born. There is also an idea that most of the Green Man carvings are near large areas of natural ancient woodland such as Southwell in Nottinghamshire which would have been right next to Sherwood Forest in the past, therefore daily life of the people living there would have been linked to nature and the changing seasons. Many of the trees and plants carved at Southwell would have been used for either crops or building materials and all were essential to life.  Another possibility is that if the Green Man was a symbol for rebirth and new life used in the church to represent the resurrection of Christ at Easter.

Celebrating spring with Sedgley Morris at the Green Man Fun Day

The Green Man today is now shown in lots of ways, perhaps reflecting our ever-changing relationship to the natural world. He can be found in literature, film and television, sometimes seen as a symbol of ecological awareness, a modern icon connecting us to our ancient past, our wild other half, a nature spirit, and back in the 70s and 80s a gimmick to encourage us to eat more sweetcorn!

His association to May Day celebrations appears to be linked to the ‘Jack in the Green’ figure which was first recorded in the 1700s. It had been a tradition since at least the seventeenth century for milk-maids to decorate their pails with flowers and dance through the streets followed by fiddlers. This type of May Day celebration was written about by Samuel Pepys and possibly dated back many centuries beforehand. Of course, such celebrations were banned after the Civil War under Puritan parliaments in the 1650s but were quickly reinstated by Charles II in 1660, when the crown was restored. It is in the following centuries that May Day folk customs were recorded and by this time they included Jack in the Green. Jack in the Green was a person dressed in a conical wicker frame decorated with foliage and the Green Man’s association with the coming of summer and the May Queen began. May Day parades and celebrations died out in the early twentieth century but were later revived alongside other folk and pagan movements and the Green Man soon became a very relevant character from our past to be reintroduced.

Green Man Figure from Tewkesbury 2019

In the recent Netflix series, The Chilling adventures of Sabrina, the Green Man was portrayed as an old pagan god who would bring about the end of humanity, once he had received enough bloody sacrifices. This version of the Green Man is linked to destruction and reclaiming the earth through force to return it back to nature and to restore the natural balance. This darker side of the Green Man lurks in the 1973 film The Wicker Man, and you cannot fail to see the resemblance between the overwhelming and all consuming power of nature and the giant structure in which Edward Woodward is caged and burnt as a sacrifice. The mere sight of the giant wicker man at the end of the film sends a shiver down your spine, a primeval reaction you cannot quite put your finger on, but if you have ever visited the Custard Factory in Birmingham you might get a similar sensation when you gaze up at the sculpture Toin Adams created in 2002. At 12m in height this is the largest free-standing sculpture of the Green Man in the world and by the stern look on his face he does not seem impressed with the world he sees below. The sculpture was unveiled by Druids on a summer solstice night. A nod of respect perhaps to some of those old gods on the fringes of our ancient memory.

The modern interpretation of the Green Man is usually much more kindly and literally good-natured, he has a softer and more nurturing side. Last year saw Worzel Gummidge resurrected from a weird 1970s corner of children’s television. Mackenzie Crook played a very different magical scarecrow to the one Jon Pertwee had portrayed some years before. In this incarnation Sir Michael Palin is the Green Man and he is the all-knowing guardian of the land with a very clear environmental message. The Green Man is the creator of all scarecrows and brings a paternal feeling of calm and order to the world. He is the father of nature and therefore if we do as he says there is no need to worry.

It is possibly that the well documented destruction of the planet has redefined the Green Man we know today. The climate emergency has changed our view in recent years and given a new urgency to characters such as the Ents from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The trees rise up to fight the age-old battle of good vs evil, the preservation of the natural world over the destruction of it. This changing awareness and power of the Green Man has crept into our subconscious, we see him now, not from the ,corners of ancient church walls, but looking back at us from t-shirts, candle holders, mugs, or pub signs, many of which in days gone by would have depicted the Green Man as a woodsman about his business, axe in hand ready to chop down the nearest tree, but these days more often than not the sign will show a grinning face, with vegetation coming from his nose and mouth, a subtle reminder of the power of nature and where the air that you breathe comes from. 

Jim, our Oak House Green Man

Deb and Lesley – Visitor Services Assistants – Oak House Museum.

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