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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;

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;

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.

Senory Seekers and Senory Avoiders

Autism in Museum: Accessibility for All

As April is National Autism Month and the 2nd April was world Autism Day, we thought this would be a great time to inform all our visitors and users about some of the amazing things we are trying to achieve for when we are officially open to the public once again.

Haden Hill House and Old Hall

Wherever possible Sandwell Museums have tried to offer an inclusive accessible offer to all our visitors who have a wide range of needs or disabilities.  However, due to the conservation, protection and preservation of our listed buildings and the nature of those buildings (wobbly staircases. low lighting, small spaces etc) and the nature of our resources and capacity we have found that sometimes this can be challenging, and difficult to achieve as well or comprehensively as we would like.  We are unable to install a lift in the Oak House due to its size and importance or into Bromwich Hall at the moment.  

Bromwich Hall

Oak House

We have, however, adapted how we run some of our brilliant events, by hosting them on ground level, developing pathways for visitors to move around the grounds and buildings and where possible we offer ramps to help visitors access at least some of the building and virtual tours of upper floors or less accessible spaces so visitors can see as much as possible. We do however ,want to do more, where we are able.

One of the many projects that Sandwell Museum and Art Service is working on right now is to make our main museum sites more accessible to those with invisible disabilities. We all know many of the things needed in terms of accessibility for physical disabilities: lifts and ramps for wheelchairs, hearing aid loops, staff awareness. However, there’s far more that can be done for those who have invisible disabilities.  Our focus for the start of this project is to work on accessibility for those with Autism or Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC).   In October 2019, two members of staff attended the official “Welcoming Families and Young People with Autism Training” at the Jewish Museum in London.

Locally and nationally, museums and other heritage sites are recognising that people with ASC and their families need unique circumstances and support to be able to enjoy, access and engage with these places in the same way as others. This is confirmed by the National Autistic Society who have found that 70% of families who have a child with ASC feel socially isolated and that 28% of similar families have been asked to leave a public place because of their child. The last statistic shows that there’s still quite a lot that people don’t understand about Autism or ASC. 

At the beginning of the year all of Sandwell Museum staff who deal with the public attended Autism Awareness training provided by Autism West Midlands.  Staff found the training useful and thought provoking, and went away thinking about how they can develop or change certain things to make the buildings they work in, accessible for those with autism and their families!

Autism can best be summarised through three issues: difficulties with social communication and interaction, restrictive and repetitive patterns of behaviour and limited flexibility of thought. There are many misconceptions around Autism and in general those with ASC.

 Those who are sensory seekers may love that the Richard’s Gallery at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery it is a wide-open space with lots of different colours. However, sensory avoiders may be completely put-off by even the hint of an echo. That’s why we are creating special resources for the project; it’s not about making the museums the perfect environment but doing as much as we can to allow someone with ASC or their family to decide whether a trip to one of our buildings would be suitable or not.

With the help of a graduate trainee we are in the process of completing several aids and guides that would help us support visitors who have autism and their families.  These include developing sensory maps, visual journey videos and adapting our events to introduce a quiet hour.

Please keep an eye on our social media for announcements and details of our developments and information concerning our Invisible Disability programme.

Alex, Arts and Projects Officer

For Art’s Sake

Perhaps this blog should actually be called ‘for people’s sake’ as what has become clear over the years we have been running our community art groups is that it is as much about the social interaction, experiences, developing skills, building confidence and meeting new people as it is about painting. Catherine, our art group leader showcases what the groups get up to and some of the things that happen in museums that you might not know about!

Some of the groups’ work on display

Sandwell Museums Community Art Groups.

How our lives have changed the last few weeks. Everything is different for most of us; routines, social life, daily habits, seeing family and friends, and a big one for a lot of us, WORK. Everyone is struggling in their own way and what I’m missing most, after my family, is my day to day routine which revolves around running painting groups quietly behind the scenes at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery. Actually thinking about it, it can be quite raucous at times! So what’s it all about?

some of the painters work on display

This is how it goes. Sandwell Museums run oil painting sessions over three days with a different group participating on each day. The groups are open to anyone and interested participants are kept on a waiting list until an available space becomes available. You don’t need to have any experience or have painted before and anyone can join. Most members are retired, ‘persons of leisure’, or for whatever reason can’t work at the moment or perhaps the session falls on their day off. The sessions are informal, cost £5.35 which includes all the materials ,tea, coffee, the odd biscuit or cake (hence my waistline!) and we’ve even been known to have hot buttered toast! What a bargain you may say. And why oil paint? Isn’t that REALLY difficult?

The group was started by an now retired colleague who was, and still is, a talented amateur oil painter. He suggested starting the group after chatting with visitors at our Galton Valley Heritage site where sometimes he would sit and paint industrial scenes to engage with visitors. There are many watercolour classes running but not many oil painting groups. Most people will use water colours or acrylics at home because they are cleaner and easier to use and dry quickly. So ‘hey!’ learn how to use oil paint with us, make a mess and leave it for us to clear up! The group started with one session and, when we vacated the larger premises and moved the visitors centre into Galton valley pumping station, the group was moved to Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery where there was more space and sessions increased to three days. After all his hard work our ‘founder’ retired and that was where I took over nearly ten years ago after working for the museum service on a casual basis for nine years. And for those who know me, yes I know I can’t be that old but thank you all the same!  And why me? Well many moons ago I completed a fine art degree specialising in painting and had mentioned it, although I hadn’t painted for years, (other than the sitting room wall!! ) so I took up the challenge and applied for the job.

So what happens in the ‘day in the life’ of the painting group? The sessions run from 10am-2.30pm but people can come anytime between those hours. Some do the whole session and bring their lunch. Some come early and leave early. And some come late …. yes you know who you are!… and stay till the end. It’s very informal and there can be as much chatting as painting. But that’s ok. That’s what it’s about.

I’m not a trained teacher and it isn’t a taught lesson, but I can ‘facilitate’ our members to start painting, show them how to use oil paint, mix colours, use different brushes and pallet knives, show them different techniques and styles. We have painters who love landscapes, seascapes, abstract and figurative work, animals, trains, boats and planes! Starting to sound like a song! The most important thing is it’s about the individual painter and everyone is unique. Everyone helps each other if they are struggling and, not wanting to sound too ‘arty’, I have always thought that the most important part of painting is the process and act of ‘doing’ it not the end result. I really feel anyone can paint because of this and that’s what we promote in the group.

Our members all have different reasons to join. A life long  talent or interest which was left a long time ago to get a ‘proper’ job and revisited in older age. The learning of a new skill and the social aspect of being part of the group. A way to invest in some ‘me’ time and have a break from the responsibilities of normal life. A way of coping with illness, bereavement and other personal issues. Painting allows you to be you and unique and have a weight lifted off your shoulders and ‘loose’ yourself for a few hours. I think we can all see the good in that.

A project the group got involved with exploring textures which they could later introduce into their work. The project was delivered by a university student studying art.

practising with and exploring using textures
A finished experimental piece

Now we know why people love to be part of the group and why we offer the sessions but what else do we get involved in? Over the years our members have sold their work to raise money for charity. One of our talented members has raised nearly £1000 for the Multiply Sclerosis charities and much more outside of the group. We have a collection at Christmas and donate to a different cause every year. We have drawing classes and we’ve even had life drawing sessions which was a new experience for many of our painters. Workshops and projects in photography, printing, large scale painting of murals on the gallery walls which was great fun!

Gallery take over exhibition, where the group created a Parisian scene on the walls of the gallery.
the group created a Parisian cafe in the gallery and enjoyed a Parisian style event in the space.

Trips to galleries, university art departments and even a barge trip on the canal. That trip was my favourite. Blessed with a sunny day, wildlife, photography, a bit of local history, lots of tea and biscuits and plenty of chat. Some of us even had a go at steering the barge . And the best bit was it was accessible for all our painters including one in a wheelchair who thought they would never be able to go on a barge trip. We have regular exhibitions of the groups work which some of our visitors may have seen over the years.

A trip out to see sculpture before undertaking a sculpture project.
A trip on the canal followed by stopping to sketch.

Students and professional artists have joined us for one off projects or for a few weeks as we’re such a friendly bunch. We’ve had parties, meals out and many of the painters have made life long friends through the group and socialise outside of the sessions. I’m finding it hard to stop ‘going on’ about the painting groups as they’ve all achieved such a lot over the years. But I will stop now.

Art group showcase at Wednesbury Museum

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this insight into one of the many activities Sandwell Museum and Art Service run. The reason why I’ve popped up on our Blog page is because during current conditions the groups are cancelled until it is safe for normality to be resumed and our sites open to the public again. While we are waiting for this to happen reach for a scrap of paper, a pen, a pencil, and have a little go at some art yourself, There’s no rules, no right or wrong. Just like music everyone has there own taste and it doesn’t matter what you do, how you do it or what it looks like. Paint on your fence if you have a garden. Yes one of members is doing this and it looks great! Do some colouring, make something, do something creative. The painting group have found their little haven for a few hours a week so find yours in music, nature, TV and film or give art a go. These are the things that will help us cope and ‘get through’ this strange time. Do one of the challenges on our Facebook page and share it with us. I will if you will. And don’t forget, stay safe. 

Catherine – Art Group Leader and Visitor Services Assistant

An art group exhibition going onto the community wall at Wednesbury Museum

Being a Museum Apprentice

A study visit during the January closed season to Dudley Museums’ Glass Cone

A bit of a different blog today as Alex our museums business administration apprentice reflects on what she has been doing, learning and what skills she’s been developing while working at Sandwell Museums.

Alex is the first admin apprentice we have had – in fact she is the first specifically administration person we’ve had at all within the museums! However when you think of administration work you may think of all sorts of clerical tasks which Alex does, but there is so much more she’s been doing too!

An apprenticeship with Sandwell Museums gives apprentices a lot of skills and the opportunity to develop in lots of ways. So far we’ve sent 5 apprentices back into the world with lots of new skills and experiences and it has been brilliant to watch them grow and gain confidence. We’ve also hosted university and teaching student placements, work experiences and other placements through other projects and programmes.

Showing off some of our shop stock – makes great presents.

Here is Alex’s story in her own words

Being a big history fan, museums and historical sites have always been interesting to me. I have been lucky to visit many castles, palaces and galleries around the world. Having the opportunity to work in these museums and heritage sites has been brilliant and I have really enjoyed getting to know the history and the way they work. Although my role is based in admin, I have had a go at many different things while working with the service, which has been fantastic and challenging equally. These opportunities have hopefully given me a variety of stories and skills for the future.

I have had a go at a few everyday tasks at the museums, which has helped me have a better idea of how each site is run. This has included testing fire alarms, banking processes, serving refreshments, cleaning and helping with routine building checks. This has helped me with being able to multi- task as you have to be able to do many things at once! It has been interesting to see how there is a lot of work that goes into making sure the buildings are maintained to be able to serve the public.

helping to organise and deliver family craft activities is all part of the job!

The admin work I have completed has included a few lengthy data entry tasks. For example, I had to create spreadsheets and obtain data from visitor figures across the sites to income trackers allowing the service to look at which areas they are doing well in and how they can effectively use their resources in the future. These tasks are important as they help with future planning and allow a retrospective look at how things were done and how the budgets could be used in the next year. It is interesting to note trends and give feedback on this, as discovering why certain sites do well with some activities or events.

I have been involved in helping with museum collections (looking after the objects) as well, which has been interesting. This has involved looking at the objects, cross referencing the items on the database and making notes of where the accession numbers may need to be updated. I have helped find objects for exhibitions and handle them when putting them out on display, which I feel privileged to have done. From spears to jewellery and personal artefacts- the collection is diverse, and it is fascinating to see these objects up close. Helping to display and observe paintings and other artefacts has made me realise how essential conservation and documentation work is.

Helping with collection and object documentation and paperwork is also part of a museum admin apprentice job!

A lot of the work the museum service carries out is related to the programme of events and activities that happen throughout the year. This requires a lot of preparation on the run up to them, from initial planning of what events are happening and where (trying to make sure there are no clashes) to booking suppliers, organising activities, risk assessments, then finally setting up the event on the day. I have taken minutes of meetings for multiple purposes as well, but my favourite being events planning meetings.  It is an interesting skill to learn, as it involves keeping up with what everyone is saying and making sure you have got it all down! I have also helped to make posters and quizzes for events, such as Halloween quizzes and signs to direct visitors to events. We also have a lot of leaflets to organise and drop off to schools and other community groups and buildings to let them know about what the service does – hopefully I will get the hang of the photocopier eventually!

Setting up the events requires a full team effort- moving around lots of chairs and tables, up and down stairs, and setting up activities, which can be tiring but rewarding when it is finally complete. These can be for anything from meetings, family events, paranormal evenings and weddings. It has been interesting to see how versatile these places can be, and how it can serve lots of different communities. My favourite events have included the Halloween ones, as the old buildings definitely make the events atmospheric. It makes you think about all the people and stories of the past, and how lucky we are to be standing in the same place hundreds of years later.

During the events, it can get incredibly busy – meaning that you can get involved in everything. This includes everything from answering the phone, giving out tickets, working the tills and greeting visitors- sometimes all at once! It is great being able to engage with the people who come and visit the sites and find out if they are new or regular visitors, and why they enjoy visiting. The families often get the chance to come and look around the sites, have a go at a craft activity and follow a trail around the grounds. I like how there is something for everyone.

Community event at the Oak House which apprentices help to set up and deliver

You have to be prepared to dress up on occasion – with all sorts of weird and wonderful activities. I have worn a purple wig, face paint, hats and capes which was hilarious! The Halloween and Christmas events are particularly busy but enjoyable – it has been a highlight to decorate the sites ready for these events- cobwebs for Halloween and decorating the Christmas trees, and they look so brilliant when they are done. (It’s interesting when we have to pack it all back up again- a real sketch show in the making!) Helping the Living History team (education delivery team) has also been fun, as the children really enjoy being able to dress up in a historic house and get involved with activities, encouraging them to use their imagination.

One of our previous apprentices Zoe talks about her apprenticeship.

I’ve also had the opportunity to go on a few study visits around the country and get involved with conferences. This has opened my eyes to how other museums and historical sites work and in turn how it can improve our own offering. One of the other best things about this has been the people I work with. They have been the most lovely and supportive people you could hope to work with- which has made my experience even better. They have allowed me to have a go at things, help me if needed and always valued my opinion which is great- so thank you! 😊

Delivering activities at the Halloween event.

Send in the Clowns

In our last circus and fairground blog “Keeping the Flag Flying”, I promised to bring you instalments about the birth of the British circus, and the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.  These snippets are intended to tease and provoke curiosity in the hope that you would visit one of our museums when we all open to see this fantastic exhibition.  This post will look at one of the most famous sights in the circus, both nationally and internationally; the clown.

Now I know that, to some people, clowns are “scary” and “creepy”, and I understand that they do not have a great image – with the likes of “Pennywise” “Captain Spalding” and “The Joker and Harley Quinn” or IT causing chaos and fear.  But don’t let these characters put you off!  What we intend to do is highlight the clown’s origin, how they became a face of the circus, their make-up and costume and finally their acts and performances.

Stupid fools and scurrilous morons

Comedy has always been a major part of the circus, and before the clown entered the ring it was presented with comic horse riding and equestrian acts.  The clown that we know today is linked closely with the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and the pantomime Harleyquinade (you’ve seen the characters associated with the Venice Carnivale like Harlequin, Columbine and Punchinella; Punch and Judy and pantomime has its origins in this too). 

Right through ancient history there have always been men and women who have had the ability to make people laugh.  Ancient clowns did exist, although they were not known as clowns – the word clown not coming into use until the 16th Century.  The word clown (referring to that of the circus) originated from the Icelandic word “klunni” meaning a clumsy person.

5000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians used to keep African Pygmies known as Dangas to amuse the royal family and Pharaohs.  They used to dress in leopard skins and masks, telling tales of the gods.  Ancient Greece had clown-like characters that wore short tunics, which were padded out at the front and the rear and were accompanied by an exaggerated artificial phallus strapped around the loins.  Greek clowns would act out the great myths and stories of the time.

Ancient Rome had several types of clown or fool. The most famous were the Sannio, who were popular mimes. Then there was the Stupidus – from which our word stupid originated (from the Latin word meaning mimic fool). These clowns usually mimicked the more serious actor in the troupe, and often wore a mask. Another was Scurra (scurrilous), with his physical oddities, who often performed on the streets for passing members of the public.  Finally, there was Moriones (moron), who often had disabilities and were usually uneducated- their main skill was clumsy, slapstick humour.

You probably know of the court jester.  His job was to entertain the court, with songs, riddles, stories and physical comedy routines.  Mary Queen of Scots had a female fool at her court. The very last jester in employment in England was Dickie Pierce, a fool to the Earl of Suffolk, who died at 63in 1728. 

 Clowning around

Portrait of Joseph Grimaldi as Scaramouch

Clowns today look back and associate Joseph Grimaldi as being the start of the modern clown tradition in circuses today.  He was an English actor-clown of the early 1800s whose father was involved with Hughes Royal Circus in London.  As a boy, Joseph appeared as a monkey on a chain in his father’s act in the circus, it was when his father died that his own career started. 

Grimaldi became a performer in theatres across London. Mainly, he performed in pantomimes as a variety of different characters such as Scaramouch from Don Juan (performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre).  It was these pantomime costumes and performances that inspired the stereotypical ideas of a clown’s costume and make up.  The exaggerated outfits, rotund trousers, large shoes and geometrical make up, are thanks to aspects of the many characters, including Harlequin, who Grimaldi often played.  Joseph died at the age of 30 in 1832.

Jack Fossett’s Clown shoes – On display at Haden Hill House loaned from The National Fairground and Circus Archive

Clowning was, at first, one of the all-round skills of circus performers. Along with tumbling and riding, clowning has been applied to almost all kinds of circus act – either part of it or a parody of it.  They were performed in between the feature acts of the circus. So, as the clowns were performing, the crew or “circus hands’ would set up the next act behind them.  Much of the comedy of the clowns was verbal and directed to the audience.

Victorian Clown – Image from the National Circus and Fairground Archive

Smell of the grease paint

The white-faced clown is what most people think of when they hear the word clown.  The ‘white-faced clown’ is the most intelligent of all the clowns and is typically at the top of the pecking order.  Usually the ringleader, he orders the other clowns around, but soon has his own “clownishness” revealed, either by his own stupidity or by his “under-clowns”. 

White-face Clown, with acrobat clown troupe – image courtesy of The National Circus and Fairground Archive

“Under-Clowns” often donned simplified make up

There are two styles of white faced clown and the difference is down to the make-up.  The first, detailed above, consists of a white base and subtle make-up to define the eyes and mouth.  The second is a bit crazier.  Still a white base, but the additional make-up is meant to exaggerate the face and nature of the clown.  Both styles may be seen with a bald cap, with wild hair, or with partial hair. The clown takes his or her natural facial features and exaggerates them, either subtly or outrageously, so that they are more defined for the audience.

Every professional clown has their own make-up design, and there is an unwritten rule that no clown should copy another style.  The world’s oldest clown society “Clowns International” keep records of clown’s faces, which have been painted on ceramic eggs.  This tradition started in 1946 when Stan Bult began painting famous clowns faces on hen’s eggs as a hobby.  Clowns applied for clown eggs, and after Clowns International screened the applicant, a professional artist would paint the faces on ceramic eggs. Only those working clowns with developed visual identities can have their faces painted on eggs. New clowns, young children, and non-performers do not make the cut!

Clown Face Eggs

Why not have ago at decorating your own egg, and show us your creation?

Silly shoes and baggy trousers

Traditionally, the white face clown would wear a one-piece outfit, decorated either snazzily or outlandishly, depending on the clown’s character. Today, this is no longer the case. The white face clown can wear virtually anything that fits in with his character.  Likewise, with make-up, costumes were used to add emphasis and exaggeration, as well as aid the comic performance or routine they were performing.  There are number of costumes on display at Haden Hill House museum for you to enjoy once we open again, including Billy smarts great granddaughter’s costume, and trapeze performer Rebecca Truman’s stilt and aerialist outfits. 

A selection of clown images on display at Haden Hill House for you to enjoy when we are open again.

Images on loan from the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

The tears of a clown

“To run away with the circus is to enter a close-knit world where traditions, skills, language and superstitions have been passed down for generations”

Douglas McPherson – Circus Mania

It can be a hard life in the circus.  Every member of the troupe, joins in with promoting the show, building the tent, setting the seating, fixing and repairing costumes etc. They also perform a number of times a day, and sometimes twice in the evening, which can often take its toll. After a gruelling couple of days, circus life can make the happiest of clowns a little miserable and sad.  As promised, here is a bunch of the saddest looking clowns you have ever seen.  This troupe, according to the archive, were part of a German circus, and this was photo was taken after a solid week of sell out performances.

In the next circus blog, we will be looking at the wild side of the circus – performing tigers, trampolining lions, sea lion brass bands and fortune telling pigs. 

Stay tuned for the next instalment, and stay safe everyone.

Alex- Arts and Projects Officer

Keeping the Flag Flying!

Following on from the successful “All The Fun Of The Fair” Arts Trail last year, Sandwell Museum and Arts Service have recently been working on a big exhibition that we were going to launch in April of this year.  We had formed partners with the National Circus and Fairground Archive and Pat Collin’s Funfairs, who kindly loaned us several original, unique and some unseen items that we could showcase to the communities of Sandwell.

The exhibition unfortunately has had to be postponed due to the current Covid-19 pandemic and we have sadly closed our buildings until further notice.  The exhibition was going to be hosted across Sandwell Museums buildings, with each building exploring a different aspect of the fairground and circus.

But fear not!  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we aim to bring you little snippets, facts and blogs about our exhibition, for your entertainment and interest. To borrow the Collin’s family motto we intend “to keep the flag flying”.

The main attraction….

Pat Collin’s Funfairs at the Nottingham Goose Fair – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Fairs originally started off as hiring fairs (to hire workers) or “Mops”, which can be traced to the fourteenth century with the Statue of Labourers being passed by Edward III.  These “Mops”, as they were referred to in the Midlands, continued until the end of the 19th century.

Mop fairs were the original “Jobs Fair”.  Labourers, farm workers, servants and craftsmen would usually take yearly contracts with their employers, from October to October. At the end of the employment contract, the workers would attend the Mop Fair to find a new employment carrying an item signifying their trade.  A servant with no skill would carry a mop head!

These fairs ran alongside the Royal Charter Fairs.  During the 12th century, English towns applied to the crown to hold an annual fair that would last two or three days.  A Charter Fair was a street fair or market and gave the chance for businesses to sell and trade with the community of the town. Livestock, food, cloth and tools were common items sold.

The fair, as we know it, evolved from the Charter Fairs.  Showmen brought rides and entertainment to encourage more visitors to the fair, which increased the footfall of people buying goods. It is believed that the first fairground rides appeared in the 1700s.  These rides were small, made from wood and physically powered by the children of the travelling families. 

Restored 1890s dobby roundabout, Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

In “Seventy Years a Showman” Lord George Sanger describes how his father manufactured his own “dobby” early in his career. Crude in construction, the horses ‘were enlarged examples of the rough penny toys … their legs were simply round sticks. Their bodies were lumps of deal rounded on one side. Their heads were roughly cut from half-inch deal boards and inserted in a groove in their bodies, while the tails and manes were made of strips of rabbit-skin’.

Dobbies were the first merry-go-rounds, but without the gilding and ornate carving as we are used to seeing.  Frederick Savage was one of the country’s first people to begin the transition from manufacturing agricultural equipment to commercial fairground rides.  His early fairground equipment included dobby horse roundabouts with simple hanging animals, that were operated by a couple of workers pushing the roundabout when patrons had taken their seats.  Savage then developed the crank system, which meant one person could operate the ride, freeing up other workers to attend to the other rides.  The invention of steam powered rides, turned the simple crude dobby into the classic galloper we know today.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret) – British gallopers have all their animals face left and travel in a clockwise direction.  Mainland Europe and American Carousels have their animals facing right, and travel in an anti-clockwise direction.

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Black Country Showman Pat Collin’s inherited his father’s dobby and swing boat yacht, which would hold around 20 people.  His father John was a horse dealer and his rides were a side line business at the time, which he used to take to horse trading fairs.  Pat and his brothers would hold a rope on either end of the yacht and pull and release it making the yacht swing back and forth. 

Who’s that fresh faced young thing? Swingboats 2010 by Alex Howell.

When he took over the yacht, Pat came up with an idea to get local children from the town or village he was working in, to do the hard work. Instead of offering payment, he would give them a free go on the rides, when other children lined up to have a go on the ride they took over, from the children already powering the rides.  Soon the dobby and swing boat yacht were accompanied by swinging gondolas (which is where the name of the Pat Collins’ Ltd yard Gondola Works came from).

He also had a velocipede, which was a bicycle powered merry-go-round, where “punters” paid to cycle on a round-about, powering their own ride.  The faster you pedalled, the faster the ride.

Bicycle Round-about, velocipede. – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Originally, a fair would have several market stalls and traders, selling various items from farm produce and objects of curiosity to international spices and medicines.  They also presented small theatrical performances and peep shows. Paying audiences would watch tales of Greek myths, bible stories and historical events brought to life, or on the darker side of the fair, “beautiful, enchanting women from around the world”.  George Sanger writes a lot about his early life travelling the fairs with his father, who created his own peep show. 

“This was nothing more than a large box carried on the back, containing some moveable and very gaudy pictures, and having six peep-holes fitted with fairly strong lenses.  When a pitch was made, the box was placed on a folding trestle and the public were invited to walk up and see the show.

My father was an excellent talker.  He could ‘patter’ in the most approved style, especially about the Battle of Trafalgar, scenes of which formed one of the staple features of his little show”

Seventy Years A Showman by Lord George Sanger (The Fitzroy edition)

Peepshows soon became a popular sight at fairs, especially travelling fairs.  Not only did they continue to tell classic tales of old, they also were used to display exciting and “up to date” news and bring the highly illustrated penny dreadfuls to remote communities.  James Sanger (George Sanger’s father) capitalised on notorious murders and spun tales to attract paying customers to approach and see the murder unfold.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- Travelling funfairs went from town to town, coast to coast, with some taking permanent residency on piers at local sea side towns.  Peepshows were still incredibly popular and developed in the “What The Butler Saw” machines, which became a fixed and incredibly popular amusements (especially with the gents visiting the sea side).  A reel of erotic film depicted a woman partially undressing in her bedroom, as if a voyeuristic butler was watching through a key hole.

As the fair became even more popular over time, they naturally got bigger and bigger- presenting new acts, rides and exhibitions to attract swarms of people to come along.  Theatrical booths, waxworks “freak or wonders of nature” shows, wild beast shows all started to join the fairs, promising audience’s thrills, excitement and fun. 

The fairground shows of the early to mid-nineteenth century are perhaps the most documented of all the amusements that appeared on the fairground until the introduction of steam powered roundabouts. The first fifty years of the 1800s showed how popular the fair was, with menageries, circuses, ghost shows, exhibitions and waxworks all on display and shaping the showgrounds.

These fairgrounds brought the likes of Lord George Sanger, Tom Norman and Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, household name fame.

Fairground shows and attractions such as the boxing booths, parading booths, ghost shows, and exhibitions, led the way for the modern fun houses, ghost trains and other rides we see now.

The Boxing Ring

Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Boxing rings used to be a common feature at fairgrounds.  Showmen would invite members of the public to enter the ring and challenge one another, or the fair strong man.  The fairground boxing show was a common sight in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries even up to the late 1960s. The last boxing booth open on the fairgrounds in the UK was Ron Taylor’s, following the retirement of Mrs Esther McEwon in the West Country. The decline of the boxing booths on the fairground is linked to the decision by the Boxing Board of Control in 1947, to make fairground boxing booths out of bounds to all licensed members of the Board.

Pat Collins Funfairs Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service by Ned Williams
Cockerel – Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- some fairgrounds had several secretly advertised events and attractions, which brought in punters after closing.  You had to look around the fair during the day to find these adverts.  It is said that if you spotted a cockerel figure on a galloper, it was an advert for a cock fighting ring in the evening and cock fighter trainers, would turn up and make some money through the illegal fights.  This also made a little extra income for the fair as the showmen charged entry.

In the next instalment we will be looking at the birth of the circus, so keep your eyes open for lions, tigers, bears, trapeze and possibly the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.

Alex – Arts and Projects Officer, Sandwell Museums and Arts.

Shutt Up! – Quarantine and preventing plague in the 1600s.

self isolating at the Oak House.

Firstly if you are alive today (which you are as you are reading this blog) it is possible that you have some resistance to the plague as your ancestors were those that survived it when it decimated the population in the past. As such none of the measures mentioned below are necessary and Sandwell Museums strongly suggests you don’t try this at home!

Quarantine and isolation was perhaps the only effective solution to infection in the 1600s. Isolation had been used since the 1100s for leprosy in particular, and the Venetians introduced a 40 day quarantine (from quarantenaria literally 40 days) years before the English did.

The wealthy could as always follow the old medical advice ‘cito longe tarde’ (fly quickly go far return slowly) – not an option available for the poor, but one that helped immensely in ensuring the widest possible spread of disease, as the rich took infection out into the countryside with them.

The plague outbreak in 1635-6 was mainly confined to a number of ports and to London – as far as we are aware the West Midlands was not badly affected – but it was the first time that quarantine as an official, government, policy was implemented. It was a requirement of the parish to carry out the measures, with the local constables principally responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations. There was some flexibility in enforcing the rules; if an infected person was discovered other members of the household not exhibiting symptoms might be allowed to move out, or sometimes an infected individual would be moved to a communal ‘Pesthouse’, with other infected people. People not showing signs of infection could be quarantined in their home.

At other times an entire household would be quarantined, leaving empty houses when everyone had died! Particularly when, as was often the case, the Pesthouses were full to bursting.

Bring out your dead

Constables were required to board up the doors, paint a big red cross on the front and the message’ Lord have mercy on us’. A watchman would be employed to stop anyone entering and leaving – and the quarantine started again if anyone else died. Any breaches of the quarantine rules resulted in those breaching the rules, and often their families, being placed in quarantine, even if they showed no sign of illness.

People quarantined ceased to be economically active. The parish identified chargeable, partially chargeable and not chargeable households. Chargeable households , those that could not support themselves, were granted 4d per day per person from the parish to support themselves. Many people were subsequently required to pay back some, if not all, of this parish support.

The rules required that ‘the master of euery house assoone as any one in his house complaineth, either of Blotch, or Purple, or Swelling, shall giue knowledge thereof to the Examiner of health within two houres after the said signe shall appeare’.

An Oak House plague victim in Master Turton’s best bed

Court records demonstrate frequent attempts to conceal plague and causes of death, and particularly cases of bribery where attempts were made to bribe parish officers to hide the truth and thereby prevent quarantine. Shopkeepers in particular were anxious not to have their building quarantined, as this would result in a total closure of their business and often for grocers etc. a total loss of perishable stock.

There was also considerable religious opposition. Many preachers preached that the plague was God’s punishment on a Godless and sinful people, and attempts to mitigate the impact was an attempt to thwart God’s will. Plague, they argued, should be allowed to run its course. That was the godly way.

Don’t try this at home!

In the 17th century there was a great and morbid fear of the plague, spread by infected rat fleas and in suspension in cough and sneeze droplets. So given the lack of any current vaccine or cure for the Corona virus we thought we would take a look in one of our favourite books, Gervase Markham’s ‘An English Housewife’ and see what advice he might have on self-medication.

A virtuous, patient 17th century housewife of stout courage with her familiar – I mean pet rat!

His introduction on the necessary virtues of the housewife (she should be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent . . .etc) was not particularly helpful or useful, but on page 2 he launches into a whole series of concoctions for various forms of fever.  He doesn’t touch on Corona virus, but there are a variety of potions for various fevers as well as bubonic plague.

The ingredients for his plague prevention concoctions were all those that a middling sort of housewife (such as Elizabeth Turton of the Oak House) would have in her store cupboard or be able to pick herself in her garden or local woods and fields.  

The preservative starts with a quart (1.13 litres) of old ale, which should be heated until it foams, and then any solid matter or scum skimmed off. 

To this is added half a handful of angelica (the herb was used to flavour some liqueurs), celandine (also known as pilewort – I’ll let you work out what that was used for!) and aristolochia longa, one of the pipevine family. Although pipevines have been used in medicine since Roman times, they can cause kidney damage so I’m going off this recipe already!

After boiling this all up together and filtering off the vegetable matter you should next add a dram (3.697ml) of mithridate.  Now this is difficult to get hold of today but it was a key ingredient in many medicines in the 1600s, named after Mithridate King of Pontus who live around 100BC and is said to have taken a small amount of poison every day to build up his resistance to it.  We don’t advise you try this at home!

There were as many different recipes for it as there were 17th century apothecaries (the equivalent of our modern pharmacists – well apart from the lack of modern medical knowledge and training).

This plague prevention version is difficult and expensive to make at home, requiring between 30 and 60 different ingredients, including many expensive perfumes such as frankincense and myrrh, a dash of opium and maybe some fly agaric mushroom (known to cause hallucinations and organ failure – not ideal).  As well as some lizard scales and the wonderfully named ‘troches of squills’ (dried lily stems if you didn’t know). 

Now add a dram of powdered ivory (that’s illegal to buy now!) and six spoonfulls of dragon water, which isn’t nearly as exotic as it sounds, being a thickening agent made from the goats thorn bush.

This should, if you’ve done it properly, give you a runny jelly. 

Take five spoonfulls of this per day, then chew on a dried root of angelica. Sorted. 

Other well known plague preventative measures included hanging pomanders around your person or around the house (these were sweet smelling and consisted of dried fruit, herbs and spices) to make the air smell sweet. People believed as disease smelt awful then sweet smells would keep disease away. Smoke would also be used to ‘purify’ the air or you could shove sponge or cloth soaked in vinegar up your nose to prevent the disease getting in. People placed pots of blood around the house which they hoped fleas would jump into to try and keep their house flea free (not that people really realised that fleas were helping to spread the disease). Putting up red curtains could also help if you got the disease.

Fly Agaric Mushrooms at Oak House

Perhaps you don’t need any preventative measures against plague – as we mentioned earlier if you are alive today it is very likely that you’ve inherited a high level of resistance to bubonic plague from your ancestors in the 1300s and 1600s who were among the 33-50% of people who didn’t die from it!

I’m not sure just how useful some of Markham’s actual treatments for plague sufferers would be against corona virus as he focuses on treating the buboes which gives bubonic plague its name. These are swellings usually on the neck, under the armpits and between the legs and could be fairly purple/black and unpleasant. Thankfully this doesn’t appear to be a symptom of our current infection.

If anyone is suffering from purple pus-filled golf-ball sized swellings in your armpits, on your face, neck or arms – that’s not corona virus! Get yourself a live chicken or half a a wood pigeon and contact Sandwell Museums for instructions as to what you need to do with it!

A plague doctor wore a mask with a long beak with sweet smelling herbs and flowers in it. This would prevent him for getting plague as because disease smelt awful then anything smelling nice would keep disease away – or so they thought!


Did the idea for the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries' start in Sandwell Valley?

Hilary Mantel’s new novel, The Mirror and the Light, her third about Thomas Cromwell, is about to be published, all 970 pages of it, and I’ve got my copy ordered (you may have seen the recent TV adaptation- Wolf Hall)

Thomas Cromwell, for those of you who don’t know or need reminding, was Henry VIII’s chief fixer, the man who drove through the English reformation, the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, who revolutionised how English government worked and who in his spare time also served as matchmaker to the king.

Bromwich Hall – the Manor House – nothing really to do with the story but it is pretty and one of our museum buildings. It was however around when Cromwell visited and one of the best houses in the area so maybe Cromwell stayed there?

I was however disappointed that neither of the earlier novels featured what may have been some of Thomas Cromwell’s most memorable journeys. I refer of course to his two visits to Sandwell, in 1524 and 1530. 

In 1524 Cromwell was working for Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, chancellor of England, who had been granted permission by Henry VIII to build a grand new college, to be known as Cardinal College, at Oxford University. Wolsey had also been granted permission by the pope to close a score of small English monasteries to provide a foundation endowment for his new college. Sandwell Priory, at that time home to just two monks, was one of the religious establishments selected for closure. It was to arrange the closure, move the monks and set up a new management regime for the land that brought Cromwell to Sandwell in 1524. This visit is 10 years before the famous ‘dissolution of the monasteries’. Sandwell Priory was effectively closed by the Pope, not King Henry. 

The Priory owned most of the land we now see as Sandwell Valley Park, and had a few farming tenants and various other sources of income. The surplus had been the Prior’s to spend, but following the closure of the Priory an annual income of around £30.00 was delivered to Cardinal College every year. This at a time when an unskilled labourer might earn 2d (2 pence) per day. (This is old money with 240 pennies, not 100, to the pound!). Thomas was back in West Bromwich in 1530, this time working for king Henry. Wolsey had fallen from favour (he’d not been able to sort out Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon) and died, and Henry had decided to close Cardinal College and liquidate all of its assets for himself and his favourites. Over the course of 5 days, Cromwell arranged the sale of goods and chattels for £21.00, the priory bells for £31.00, and arranged for the lease of the priory estates to Lucy Clifford. He then left, and as far as I can tell, he was never to return.

Click the link to see a portrait of Thomas Cromwell

Sadly for Cromwell, like many at the court of Henry VIII he eventually fell out of favour and was executed – rather brutally it seems as the executioner kept missing his neck! Although evidence suggests Henry later regretted the loss of his minister.

Frank – Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage