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History of the Museum – Part 3

Preparing for the opening of the museum

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the earliest years of Saffron Walden Museum and the society that established it. In this post, we examine the society’s preparations for the opening of Saffron Walden Museum. With thanks to Len Pole, who has been instrumental in studying the earliest available records and helping to compile a history of the museum.

Saffron Walden Natural History Society had been collecting specimens for almost two years before the museum opened in 1835. The saga of acquiring a number of animal skins and skeletons from Robert Dunn (see blog post two) took place when there was no physical museum site and the society most likely stored these specimens at the home of Jabez Gibson, the chairman. As well as hundreds of specimens, the society was also collecting display cases and other pieces of equipment long before the opening of a museum building, meaning Gibson’s home must have been very crowded!

While Gibson’s house was a temporary home for specimens and cases, plans were in motion for a museum building. Initially the trustees proposed the museum be set up within the ruins of Walden Castle but it was then decided that a new building would be built on Bury Hill, between St Mary’s Church and the castle. This land belonged to Lord Braybrooke of Audley End, who leased it to the trustees and the new museum building was erected in 1835. Part of the building was to be used as an Agricultural Hall for the Walden Agricultural Society and the rest as the museum.

In a meeting on the 8 April 1835, the division of curatorial duties was agreed:

Jabez Gibson: geology, mineralogy, zoology (not in cases)

Jabez Gibson and John Player: Conchology [the study of shells]

John Player: Entomology [the study of insects], comparative anatomy

Spurgin: British Ornithology [the study of birds]

Joseph Clarke and Mr Salmon: Foreign Ornithology

Joshua Clarke: Botany, Oology [the study of birds’ eggs], general zoology (in cases)

Joshua Clarke: Antiquities, illustrations of different departments of art, Francis Gibson.


The museum opened to the trustees and subscribers on 12 May 1835 and to the general public three days later. 51 paid for admission, including Nathan Maynard, the father of George Nathan Maynard who went on to be the first paid curator of the museum. He described his visit:

“Stuffed birds and animals – shells, bird’s eggs, nests, skeletons and several bones of the mammoth – a beautiful rhinoceros, stuffed, which stands in the centre of the room, Indian curiosities, insects, casts of heads, medals, minerals, petrifactions, etc., etc., head of an elephant, of a hippopotamus, horse, cow, etc. ”

The museum thus opened to the public, beginning its story as one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the country. It opened during the summer months, every Tuesday, between 10am and 3pm. The museum was known for its displays of natural specimens, especially the double-horned rhinoceros and the African elephant.

The museum c.1890. George Nathan Maynard and his wife stand outside the building.

History of the Museum – Part Two

The Dunn Deal

This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring the earliest years of Saffron Walden Museum and the society that established it. In this post, we explores the collecting of objects before the opening of the museum, including many animal skins and skeletons. With thanks to Len Pole, who has been instrumental in studying the earliest available records and helping to compile a history of the museum.

During the early 1830s, Saffron Walden Natural History Society began collecting objects that would be displayed in their new museum, once it was opened. One of the most significant early acquisitions came from Robert Dunn, who sent a huge volume of items to the museum from Algoa Bay, South Africa.

The first mention of communication with Robert Dunn in the society’s minutes appears in a meeting on 3 January 1834, when it was reported that Jabez Gibson (chairman) had received a letter from Hannibal Dunn. This letter informed the society that his brother, Robert Dunn, had acquired specimens for the museum at a cost of £400. However, it seems that he had done so without any authority or permission from the society so they decided that he would not be paid!

This could have put an end to the entire affair. However, a few months later, on 13 May 1834, it was recorded that “the consignment from Algoa Bay (had been) brought to Walden and inspected”. It was also recorded that the specimens would be taken by the society “to the amount of one hundred and fifty pounds”. The society appears to have changed its mind rather rapidly, deciding in just a few months that they were indeed willing to pay Dunn for his specimens.

The first Accession Register, compiled retrospectively by George Nathan Maynard in the 1880s, does not make it clear exactly what specimens came from Dunn, but we know that they included the skeleton and skin of a large African Elephant, a Hippopotamus, a Rhinoceros, a Gnu, and an Ant-Eater. The abridged catalogue for the museum, published in 1845, states that the society had received:

“the African Elephant, the Coudu, the double-horned rhinoceros, and many other of the South African animals. These were obtained through a gentleman then residing at Algoa Bay, who in consequence of a communication from this Society, explored in company with a hunting party, a considerable extent of that portion of the African Continent, and succeeded in procuring a great number of Specimens, most of which are now deposited in this Museum.”

This account of the acquisition of specimens from Dunn is very different from the views previously recorded in meetings of the society, in which the trustees had been reluctant to pay him for the collection!

Robert Dunn’s specimens for the museum formed a large basis of the early museum collection, and many of the large animals and skeletons were put on display in the Great Hall to awe the Victorian audiences. Many of the animals were such staples of the museum display that they remained on show until their removal from the museum in the 1950s. The acquisition of the collection was clearly a confusing time for the society, which had not been prepared for such a collection. Indeed, at the time of the specimen’s arrival in Saffron Walden, there was not even a museum site for the collection to be stored in, meaning they were stored in Jabez Gibson’s home for a year. For more information on this, and the creation and opening of the museum, read the next part of this series.

A Day in the Life of the Museum

For Mass Observation Day on 12 May 2017, museum staff kept a diary of what they got up to on a “typical day” in the museum. 12 May just happened to be the museum’s 182nd birthday! The diary will be submitted to the Mass Observation Archive and added to the museum’s archive.  Here’s what we got up to…

Natural Sciences Schools Loan

09:00     Staff arrive for work. Security & Premises Officer Stefan unlocks the building and makes sure we’re ready for opening at 10am. 

09:00     Natural Sciences Officer Sarah responds to an enquiry from a local school about the loans boxes we have available. The museum loans out boxes of original and replica objects to schools for use in the classroom. 

09:30     Collections Officer Leah researches and writes up information about June’s Object of the Month, a print of an engraving of Easton Lodge near Dunmow. The print will be displayed in the museum throughout June and shared on the museum’s website and social media.

10:00     Security & Premises Officer Stefan checks the temperature and humidity levels in the galleries. Levels in both the galleries and the stores are monitored on a weekly basis so that staff can respond quickly to any problems.  

Repacking project in the world cultures store

10:00     Volunteer Jill arrives for her shift on the welcome desk. The museum’s welcome desk is managed entirely by volunteers, who welcome visitors, sell tickets and souvenirs, and provide information to visitors

10:30     Collections Officer Leah checks the work of two of her collections volunteers, who spent the previous day auditing and repacking the museum’s world cultures collection.  She updates the locations of the objects packed on the museum’s collections management system, Modes.

10:45     A member of the public brings in a piece of pottery to be identified by Curator Carolyn. The museum offers a free identification service.

11:00     IT Officer Ian updates staff computers following an upgrade to the council’s system. The museum is run by Uttlesford District Council, which provides invaluable support for IT, Human Resources, Communications and many other areas.

11:00     Collections Officer Leah takes in a donation of six Woman’s Christian Temperance Union plates. The plates were found in the Friends’ Meeting House in Saffron Walden, where the WCTU set up a Reading Room for soldiers during World War I. They will be accessioned into the museum’s social history collection.

12:00     Collections Officer Leah provides information about George Nathan Maynard and his son Guy Maynard, the first two curators of the museum, to two visitors. Our curatorial staff carry out research into the museum’s collections and history, and are always happy to respond to enquiries from the public.

12:30     Volunteer Ann arrives for her shift on the welcome desk.

Volunteer Jill

12:30     Curator Carolyn works on updates to the museum’s Service Plan for the following year. The Service Plan outlines the main goals and objectives for the museum and enables staff to plan their work and set targets.

13:30     Volunteer Jill arrives back in the museum after lunch to begin her second volunteering shift of the day. As well as volunteering on the welcome desk, Jill volunteers behind-the-scenes helping us to catalogue the museum’s local history document archive.

14:00     Collections Officer Leah creates a ‘Frightful Facts’ tour around the museum for our upcoming Museums at Night event on 19 May. We open up the museum at night, turn off all the lights and challenge visitors to complete our trail by torchlight!

14:00     Natural Sciences Officer Sarah and Museum Assistant Fiona create resources for our upcoming half-term family activities. The museum will be running Nature Explorer activities and trails on 31 May and 1 June.

Example of Hawaiian barkcloth

14:30     Volunteer Christine arrives for her shift on the welcome desk.

14:45     Curator Carolyn and Collections Officer Leah inspect a piece of Hawaiian barkcloth in the museum’s world cultures collection. A German museum has requested to loan the barkcloth for an exhibition and staff need to ensure it is in a stable enough condition to be transported and displayed.

15:00     Natural Sciences Officer Sarah and Museum Assistant Fiona look after the live Malaysian sticks insects that live in the museum’s Discovery Centre. The stick insects need spraying with fresh water every day. They eat bramble, which is changed once a week.

Sheet music offered to the collection

15:15     Collections Officer Leah takes in a donation of a book of sheet music, including a song called ‘Walden Market’, written in the old Essex dialect. She will check the existing collection to see if the museum already has a copy and, if not, the sheet music will be accessioned into the social history collection.

15:30     Staff and volunteers enjoy tea and chocolate cake to celebrate the museum’s birthday!

16:00     Curator Carolyn contacts a textile specialist about a recent acquisition to the archaeology collection: a medieval bronze brooch with a piece of well-preserved textile attached. The museum needs specialist advice to help date and conserve the textile.

16:30     Curator Carolyn prepares a loan box of Anglo-Saxon replicas and objects requested for educational use next week at a village school.

16:50     Volunteer Christine cashes up the till and makes sure everything is ready for the start of the Saturday shift. Our final visitors leave the museum and staff start the process of shutting down and locking up.

If you want to find out more about the work of the museum, follow the links in the diary entries or contact us

Hoard of coins found in piano

The following press release has been released by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, regarding a hoard of gold coins found in a piano that began its life in Saffron Walden. Anyone with information about the hoard should contact the Portable Antiquities Scheme on the details below. The museum is unable to answer any queries about this matter. 

On 16 March 2017, an inquest was resumed by H.M. Senior Coroner, Mr. John Ellery at Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court, in relation to a substantial find of potential Treasure recently discovered within a piano in South West Shropshire. The inquest was originally opened on 12 January 2017 and adjourned awaiting further investigation.  The find was swiftly reported by the current owners of the piano and was deposited at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre / Shropshire Museums before Christmas. The coroner commends all parties who have to date provided him with valuable information and co-operation in this case.

The hoard is less than 300 years old and to qualify as Treasure under the terms defined by the Treasure Act (1996) it must be substantially made of gold or silver; deliberately concealed by the owner with a view to later recovery; and the owner, or his or her present heirs or successors, must be unknown.

On the 12 January Mr. Ellery asked the public for information regarding the hoards original owners and their heirs or successors. He is very grateful to the media for the publicity they gave the story and for all the members of the public who have come forward with information or with potential claims.

On 16 March, Mr Ellery heard about the nature of the find. The hoard is formed of gold sovereigns and half sovereigns dating from the reigns of Victoria, Edward VII and George V. The oldest coin within the group was made in 1847 and the youngest in 1915. This suggests that the coins were deliberately hidden after this date. He also heard that the history of the piano had been securely traced after 1983. He is still
seeking information about the ownership of the piano between 1906 and 1983. We know that the piano was originally sold to Messrs Beavan and Mothersole of Saffron Walden, Essex in 1906 and was acquired through private sale again in Saffron Walden in 1983.

The Coroner has therefore deferred the conclusion of the inquest to allow for more time for anyone to come forward with information about the piano from the North Essex / Saffron Walden area. The inquest will resume and conclude on 20 April 2017.

Anyone with information about the previous owners of the piano, their heirs or successors, or the extent of the hoard, should provide this in writing to Mr. Ellery at the Coroner’s Office for Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin at the Shirehall, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, SY2 6ND. The Coroner will require evidence about the extent of the find (i.e. what it comprises); how, when, where and why the find was concealed; and evidence upon which they can be sure of the ownership by any potential claimant.

All other enquiries regarding the case should be made in the first instance to Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for Shropshire and Herefordshire, British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. c/o Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, 7-9 Parkway, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 2PG; Tel: 01743 25 4748; Email:


John Betjeman’s favourite!

Our attention was recently drawn to a recording of a BBC radio programme, in which the English poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) gave a very favourable mention to Saffron Walden Museum.

The radio programme featured some letters of Betjeman to various acquaintances, including one written on 15 July 1937 to Mary Adams, the first female television producer at the BBC. The letter reveals that Mary Adams had asked Betjeman to make a television programme, entitled ‘How to Make a Guidebook’. Betjeman thought this topic to be unimportant, not least because he “loaths museums” – that is, except for a select few! He states in the letter:

“The museums…I simply loath, except the Soane [Sir John Soane’s Museum, London], Saffron Walden, Dulwich Art Gallery and minor provincial collections”.

Museum’s centenary celebrations

Betjeman must have visited the museum sometime in the 1930s. At this time, lack of space and lack of money were causing problems for the museum’s trustees. However, visitor numbers were not declining and, as is clear from Betjeman’s letter, visitors seemed to appreciate the museum. In 1932, there was cause for celebration when the museum celebrated the centenary of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society, who established the museum.

We were delighted to hear this high praise for our museum from such a well-respected national figure!