Author Archives: Museum Administrator

On this Day……7th April 1914…….The Great Fire at Little Chesterford

On the 7th April 1914, a fire broke out at Bordeaux farm in the parish of Littlebury.  Newspaper reports at the time suggested that in high winds, sparks from a traction engine caught light to some dry thatch.  The flames ran along the river path to Little Chesterford and then spread rapidly across the village.  Many of the timber framed thatched properties were burnt to the ground whilst the ones built using clunch (chalk bedded in rammed powered chalk) fared better.      

The fire also highlighted the lack of effective fire-fighting equipment and poor communication that existed between local fire fighters at that time.  Littlebury had no fire pump, whilst Little Chesterford had only a small portable one for estate purposes.  The closest fire engine was based at the Mill in Great Chesterford, but it took over half an hour to attend once the alarm had been raised.  The Saffron Walden brigade was hampered in its efforts to attend, as they reportedly “lost their coal on the journey to the fire.”  Eventually additional brigades from Hinxton, Audley End estate and Sawston attended as well as the police, but the response had sadly come too late to save many of the properties.    

Within 30 minutes of the fire starting it had already destroyed 2 farms, 2 pubs (The Crown and The Bushel & Strike) and 9 houses, leaving 43 out of 100 villagers homeless. The fire had taken everyone by surprise and spread so quickly that the alarm had been raised too late to make a difference.   The town’s labourers working in the fields saw the fire spreading at huge speed, they returned home to find their wives and children making frantic efforts to save themselves and their belongings.

Newspaper reports from the time tell the dramatic story of 100 year old Mrs Law who was rescued from her burning first floor room by Stacey Dyer and her son, who lifted her into a wheelbarrow and got her quickly to safety. Stacey Dyer was reportedly scarred on his face for the rest of his life following his heroism.  It must have been pandemonium as villagers and their animals ran from the flames.  One baby was missing for 2 hours before it was found safe.      

Photographs show the village roads strewn with salvaged furniture and crowds gathering shocked by the scale of the fire and how quickly it had spread. The landlady of the Bushel and Strike (Pampisford Brewery) hastily prepared a shed so that they could continue to serve drinks to their shell-shocked customers.  A fire relief committee was established and the village reading room was used as a shelter for the homeless and store for their surviving belongings.  A fundraising campaign was advertised in the Daily Mail Newspaper. However, not everyone appreciated outside help, with Reverend John Stewart, vicar of both Chesterfords quoted in a subsequent edition of the newspaper as saying:

“We’re a proud people and like to help ourselves. Tell all the kind people who want to send money that we thank them, but do not need their help.”

Cheques from the Daily Mail campaign were reportedly returned to their senders! Archive material suggests local gentry stepped in and helped with the rebuilding work and financial loss.  Lessons were learnt following the fire, as all the local brigades vowed to work on better communication and to pool resources.

Object of the Month : April 2021

April’s Object of the Month has been chosen by Jenny Oxley, Collections Officer (Human History) and is not strictly one object but a collection, in this case, items made from barkcloth, which form part of the museum’s world cultures collections.

The museum holds around 80 barkcloth items, originating from all around the world, but largely from the Pacific region. Over the last year the museum has been involved in an international project: “A Living Tradition: Expanding engagement with Pacific barkcloth” being led by Glasgow University, which has provided us a great opportunity to shed more light on the cultural traditions surrounding their production, design and use. 

Barkcloth is made from the inner bark of paper mulberry, breadfruit or banyan trees, which is soaked and stretched, then naturally dyed and hand-painted, printed or stencilled, to create often highly decorative barkcloths (sometimes referred to as Tapa).  It is believed there are over 90 different pattern variations in existence.  The barkcloths are used for utilitarian items as well as for ceremonial purposes. 

In addition to large textile rolls and flat sections of barkcloth, the museum also holds clothing made from barkcloth. Notable examples include a barkcloth poncho believed to have originated from Samoa, as well as a lace-bark dress and matching bonnet from Jamaica, which were donated to the museum in 1833 by the Marchioness Cornwallis.

“The Dig” on Netflix & it’s Saffron Walden Museum connections

Have you been watching “The Dig” on Netflix, which explores the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo (1939), based on John Preston’s novel.

Many of the characters depicted are inspired by real people, including one connected to Saffron Walden Museum.

Guy Maynard (1877-1968) was the museum’s Curator between 1904 and 1920, having initially been a mechanical engineer in the gun trade. Guy succeeded the 1st paid Curator, his father, George Nathan Maynard (b. 1828, Curator 1880-1904).

In 1920 Guy left Saffron Walden to become Curator of Ipswich Museum (1920-1932). He also became secretary and editor of the Prehistoric Society (1921–1936).

In 1937 as curator of Ipswich Museum, he was invited to visit the Sutton Hoo estate by its owner Edith Pretty and Vincent Redstone, a local historian. The wheels were then set in motion to explore the site. Little did they know then, that what they would unearth would completely transform our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. The site began to be excavated in 1938, by a team which included Maynard. The archaeological finds from the site were placed on display at Ipswich Museum and Maynard published a number of articles about them. He liaised with the British Museum about the excavation project.  

However, as the true archaeological significance of the site was revealed, tensions began to rise between Maynard & the Ipswich Museum team on one side and Charles Phillips, the new site archaeologist on the other. Maynard was angry that the finds were now being sent straight to the British Museum. There were increasingly arguments about physical access to the site and who should brief the press. Later Maynard gave evidence at the inquest which gifted the excavated finds back to the landowner Edith Pretty in Suffolk, but she ultimately gifted them back to the nation. Sadly, Guy Maynard and Charles Phillips never did resolve their issues and decided to avoid each other until Maynard retired from Ipswich Museum in 1952.

Photo Description: Guy Maynard wearing a flat cap and plus fours stood at the entrance to Saffron Walden Museum in 1912.

Object of the Month – January 2021

These Snowdrops from Littlebury in Essex are January’s ‘Object of the Month’. The snowdrops were collected by George Stacey Gibson in a meadow at Littlebury in March 1864, so these preserved plants are 156 years old.

George Stacey Gibson of Saffron Walden published the first Flora of Essex in 1862. This is an illustration of Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, from volume five of the Museum’s copy of his flora.

Herbarium

Specimens of these snowdrops are preserved in Saffron Walden Museum’s herbarium collection of dried plants. The herbarium contains plant specimens collected by botanists in Essex and it is now more accessible at the new museum store. The collection is an invaluable record of the plants found in this region and has been used to produce Floras for Essex and Cambridgeshire.

To preserve the plants they were pressed, dried and mounted on a paper herbarium sheet. The plant name, the location where it was found, the name of the collector and the date were written on the sheet, or a label which is fixed to the sheet. Each herbarium sheet represents a biological record of where a plant species was found at a particular time.

Flora

A Flora is a book that describes the plants that grow in a geographical area and records where they are found at a certain time. Research using the Museum herbarium has plotted how the number of plant species and the distribution of plants have changed over time because of habitat loss, changes in management of the countryside and pollution. The Museum’s copy of the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862, includes so many beautiful coloured illustrations of plants from English Botany  by James Sowerby (1757-1822) that it has expanded to six volumes which are each bound in green leather.

The snowdrops were chosen by Sarah Kenyon, one of the Natural Sciences Officers at the Museum. These beautiful little plants produce their white flowers from January to March and they signify that spring is on its way. Snowdrops grow at the entrance to the Museum on Museum Street. We look forward to welcoming you back to Saffron Walden Museum later in 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images (top to bottom, left to right):

A herbarium sheet of snowdrop plants collected at Littlebury in 1864.

Snowdrop Gibson Flora. An illustration of snowdrop in the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862.

The historic label for the herbarium sheet.

Special Museum Re-Opening

We are delighted to announce that Saffron Walden will be re-opening exclusively to our Season Ticket Holders, Museum Society members and Museum Volunteers from Thursday 10th December, to offer our friends and supporters a preview before full re-opening to the public in 2021.

Pre-booking is essential and you will be able to book your timed visit online through Art Tickets from Friday 4th December onwards:

https://saffron-walden-museum.arttickets.org.uk/saffron-walden-museum/2020-12-10-friends-and-members-museum-entry

From the Museum’s Art Tickets page, simply follow the instructions on screen.  Here’s a quick summary: 

  • Click Green Book Tickets button
  • Click Green Book General Admission Tickets button

Hourly timed slots with be available to book on:

Thursday 10th December, 11am-4.30pm Thursday 17th December, 11am-4.30pm
Friday 11th December, 11am-4.30pm Friday 18th December, 11am-4.30pm
Saturday 12th December, 11am-4.30pm Saturday 19th December, 11am-4.30pm
Sunday 13th December, 2.30-4.30pm Sunday 20th December, 2.30-4.30pm

 

  • On the Calendar click the date you wish to book, click Green Continue button
  • Select the Hour time slot you require & then click the Green Continue button
  • Click the drop down menu and select the number of tickets required & then click the Green Continue button
  • Then follow the remaining instruction on screen which will prompt you to enter your contact details and clicking the continue buttons highlighted in green after each stage.

*You may be asked to show proof of eligibility to hold this ticket type to enter the Museum –i.e. Museum Society membership card, Annual Season Ticket card, etc.

For any booking queries please contact the Museum on (01799 510333) during office opening hours (9am-5pm Tues-Fri)

** Covid secure procedures are in place, see our website for more details of how we are complying with the current regulations. At busy times queuing outside social distanced may be required.  Please come prepared and dress suitably for inclement weather. 

We will announce our re-opening to the general public just as soon as the situation becomes clear regarding Covid tiers and restrictions , most likely after the 17th May.

Visiting Saffron Walden Museum

Wallace says “Please enjoy your visit in safety by following our simple procedures”

Hands              there is sanitiser for your paws on entry, and all round the Museum

Face                please wear a face covering (unless exempt by government guidance)

Space              Wallace’s paw marks every 2m will help you keep a safe distance

Temperature Check on entry for all visitors

Contact & Trace details must be provided for every visitor or group of visitors. You can either scan the QR code displayed in the foyer with your mobile, or give your contact details to the member of staff on duty at the entrance.

Entry to the Museum will be by the ramp at the side of the porch, and exit will be down the steps (special arrangements for wheelchairs and buggies). Please be prepared to queue for a few minutes outside if necessary, to help us manage visitor flow safely.

WCs in the Museum will be available, but only one person or household group at a time can enter the Ladies or Gents. There is a simple procedure to show whether WCs are free or occupied, and to prevent queuing for the WCs.

A member of the Museum team will be on duty at the entrance to assist and direct visitors, and maintain Covid safety measures. Staff will be patrolling the galleries at intervals to monitor Covid safety and do extra cleaning.

When the museum re-opens to the public we will accept payment by debit and credit card at the Welcome Desk, as well as online booking via Art Tickets. 

The Museum reserves the right to refuse entry to anyone who refuses to comply.

We hope you enjoy your visit and welcome feedback on your experience to museum@uttlesford.gov.uk

 

Object of the Month – December 2020

Karl Wesche (1925-2005), Sculpture: Deutschland 1946

Despite the museum having been physically closed to the public because of Covid-19 lockdowns for many months, we have thankfully continued to receive many interesting research enquiries. Maybe in lockdown, some academic researchers had fewer competing distractions!  For us working behind the scenes, the constant flow of research enquiries, was a godsend and ensured the collections have still been utilised.

One of the researchers who contacted us is working on his PhD, the first ever in-depth academic study into the life and work of the famous artist Karl Weschke. The museum holds a very evocative sculpture by Weschke of a weeping mother and child, titled ‘Deutschland 1946’ which he produced using clay he dug up at the Radwinter POW Rehabilitation camp when he was interred there.  Some have claimed it may even be the artist’s earliest known work.   

Weschke was born in central Germany near Gera in 1925 and became a member of the Hitler Youth, volunteering for parachute training in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In 1945, he was described as “insolent” when he was captured and ended up in a camp for hard-line prisoners in Caithness.  His mother petitioned for him to be freed in a prisoner exchange, but it fell through.  It was eventually decided that he was young and didn’t really pose any real threat, so he was moved to a more lenient student’s POW camp at Radwinter.    

Radwinter North camp had been established in the grounds of the requisitioned Radwinter Rectory, now known as Radwinter Manor. The camp was the brainchild of Charles Stambrook, a Jewish refugee from Vienna.  It was intended to be a way to reach out to those it was felt could be “re-educated.”

The German POWs regularly visited local families, as it was felt that this would help “rehabilitate” and integrate them better into the local community. Weschke regularly visited Bessie Midgeley at Larchmount on London Road, Saffron Walden with other POWS and she encouraged his artistic talents.  He painted scenery for the POW’s theatrical performances.  He became an art student at Cambridge using their studios to work on his sculpture and carvings.  He later went to St. Martins, before abandoning sculpture for painting and found acclaim as a leading artist of the Cornish School, having moved there in 1955.  He achieved national and international recognition relatively late in his career. A one-man show at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, in 1980, prompted the Tate to start acquiring examples of his paintings and Tate St Ives held an exhibition of Weschke’s work in 2004.  His obituary from February 2005 makes fascinating reading about his life and work. 

The sculpture we hold is believed to have been given by Weschke as a leaving present to Kelvin Osborn, who was then the YMCA Welfare Officer at the Radwinter camp. Decades later, Osborn donated the sculpture (by which time Weschke was now a famous artist!) for fundraising to the Friend’s School, Saffron Walden for an overseas development project they were undertaking.  It was purchased by Jean Strachan for £20 in the 1960s and it was later used again in the 1980s for fundraising for one of the school’s other overseas development projects, a water scheme in Bolivia.  The item remained unsold, so the family put in the donation money themselves and retained the sculpture.  The sculpture isn’t something which would naturally be displayed in a family home as it is quite raw.  The family eventually donated the sculpture to the Museum in 1984.

Object of the Month – November 2020

Late Iron Age Butt Beaker

Our Object of the Month for November has been chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator. It is a late Iron Age beaker, imported from Gaul (France) and buried with its owner around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43.

Beakers like this were the fashionable drinking vessels of the day for wine or beer. This beaker is 26 cms tall and is 20 cms across at its widest point. Its capacity is roughly 4 litres or 7 pints. Vessels like this may have been passed round at a feast or ceremony, so that does not necessarily represent one person’s intake of drink!

Discovery of an Iron Age Community

 In 1992, archaeologists discovered traces of an Iron Age settlement to the east of Bishop’s Stortford, in Birchanger parish. Excavations took place before the area was developed as Woodside Industrial Park. They found sherds of pottery, animal bones and features in the soil which showed that a small community was living there in the early and mid Iron Age, from around 700 BC to 100 BC.

There then seems to have been a break in occupation for at least a hundred years, until the early 1st century AD, shortly before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Around that time, an important member of the local Iron Age community died and was cremated. Their burial with pottery and other grave goods was the outstanding find of the excavation.

Occupation of the site lasted into the early Roman period until about AD 150.

The Burial

To prepare for the burial, the Iron Age community dug a large circular pit, a little over a metre in diameter. In this they placed eight pottery vessels (including this beaker), four bronze brooches, a leg of pork and a pig’s head, cut in two length-ways. It is likely that some of the pots held other food and drink to complete the feast for the afterlife. The ashes of the dead may have been placed in a cloth bag or wooden container which did not survive. Analysis of the cremated bone remains indicated that one individual, probably an adult, was buried.

The bronze brooches were all common types used to fasten clothes in the late Iron Age and early Roman period. They were in poor and incomplete condition so cannot be displayed, but the illustrations below are of similar brooches.

Posh Pottery imported from Gaul

The pottery can tell us much about the status of the person buried. The number of pots in the burial (eight) suggests that this was a fairly wealthy person. Also, they owned fine pottery imported from abroad and probably only available to higher-ranking people in Iron Age society.

This beaker is of fine white sandy clay and was made in north Gaul (France). The burial also included another beaker, red in colour, from Gaul. There were strong links between the late Iron Age peoples of Gaul and south-east Britain, as attested by many archaeological finds such as pottery and coins, and by Roman writers. The pots also included a platter and a cup, both made locally but copying the style of imported wares from Gaul.

The other four pots on the burial – a flagon, a cup, a second platter and a small jar – were all types of local pot known from the Essex – Hertfordshire region.

Pigs and Burials

The Birchanger Iron Age burial shares similarities with other Iron Age sites excavated at Stansted Airport and at Strood Hall in Little Canfield parish which lies near the former Roman Road Stane Street (now B 1256, formerly A120). Two late Iron Age cremation burials at the Duckend Farm Site, Stansted Airport also contained pigs’ heads. Pigs or wild boar were significant animals in Iron Age culture and myth, so perhaps the pig remains were more than just food offerings.

Want to know more?

See the full report of the excavation at Birchanger “Iron Age and Roman material from Birchanger, near Bishop’s Stortford; excavations at Woodside Industrial Park, 1992” by Maria Medlycott, published in Essex Archaeology and History volume 25 (1994), pages 28 – 45.

The finds and records from this site are held by Saffron Walden Museum and can be studied by appointment (access subject to Covid 19 regulations).

The Gibson Library (formerly Saffron Walden Town Library) is an excellent resource for local history and archaeology publications. For information on how to use the Gibson Library visit their website https://gibsonlibrary.org.uk

The History of Saffron Walden Castle

Saffron Walden Castle is situated on a promontory at the junction of two streams, the Madgate Slade and the King’s Slade, in a position which would have commanded the valley westwards to the River Cam.

Only the flint core of the basement remains of the once 3-storey keep. Inside are traces of a circular staircase, a well shaft and a fireplace.  Unlike some castles, this one didn’t have a motte (mound) but was a tower keep, built on the ground where the solid chalk bedrock could take the weight of the masonry.  An earth mound was raised around the basement level of the keep, but it wore down over time once the castle went of use and the walls were robbed.

The layout of the surrounding streets reflects the original line of the inner bailey.Castle Street, Museum Street and Church Street on the west, whilst on the east side it would have followed the old road, a little to the east of the present Common Hill.

There is no direct evidence about who built the castle at Saffron Walden, but it is likely to have been between 1125 and 1141. Geoffrey had recently been created Earl of Essex and it is highly likely that he built the castle around that time.  The first reference to it is contained in Empress Maud’s first charter in 1141 when Geoffrey de Mandeville II was given permission to move the market from the neighbouring village of Newport to his castle at Walden. Geoffrey de Mandeville changed his allegiance more than once during the civil war and in 1143 he was forced to surrender the newly built castle to King Stephen.  It was restored to Geoffrey de Mandeville III in 1156.  Around 1158, after the civil war, the castle was partially destroyed by order of Henry II.  The castle later passed to Maud, the wife of Henry de Bohun, Earl of Essex and Hereford.  On her death in 1236 it passed to her son, Humphrey, who became the 7th Earl of Essex.

In 1346, Humphrey VII de Bohun, Earl of Essex was given a licence to crenellate the castle, adding battlements to it. The de Bohuns opposed Edward III and in 1362 the castle was confiscated and endowed to the Duchy of Lancaster.  It later passed into the hands of Henry IV and remained a royal manor until the reign of Henry VIII.  The manor was given to Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor in 1538.  It then passed by marriage to the Howard family. 

Little is known of its later occupation, but much of the stone was removed before or during the 18th century. The turret on top of the keep was added in 1796 by Lord Howard de Walden. In 1797, it passed to Richard Aldworth Neville and remained in his family until 1979 when the ownership of the castle passed to Uttlesford District Council.

Excavations carried out in 1911-1913 confirmed the location of the castle ditch surrounding the bailey. More recent excavations, in 1973 and 1975, located the northern extent of the bailey, along Castle Street and the extent of the bailey eastwards to Castle Hill House. There have been more recent evaluations and watching briefs by archaeologists as dictated by essential works in the grounds and the recent conservation scheme for the keep, and a geophysical survey in 2012. 

Black History Month (October) – Slavery Abolition Reticule

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This silk reticule (bag) was made in the 1820s to support the campaign to abolish slavery. It was donated to the museum in 1927.

The reticule is a beautiful and very delicate object.  It is made from unlined pale pink silk with a drawstring at the top. On one side, the image of a seated enslaved man with his two children has been painted in black. On the reverse, there is a poem entitled ‘The Slaves’ Address to British Ladies’, which reads:

‘Mothers of the fair and brave
Heavy is the debt you owe
For the sufferings of the slave
Thro’ an age of pain and woe.

Shall your sons with freedom blest
Be the oppressors of our race
As I plead, each noble breast
Kindles at the foul disgrace.

Torn from Afric’s sunny plains
By your fathers’ cruelty
We have groaned in heavy chains
We have pined in misery.

But a brighter day is near
Blessings by your justice given
Faithful wives & children dear
And the hope of Joy in Heaven.

We shall bless your holy zeal
In our lisping girls & boys
For we have a heart to feel
All a parent’s anxious joys.

We shall see the harvests wave
And the sweets of science know
Freemen – at the name of Slave
Shall our souls indignant glow.

The reticule was made in the 1820s by a female campaign group, to raise funds and awareness for the anti-slavery movement. Although Britain officially ended its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery continued in the British Empire and in 1823, William Wilberforce formed the Anti-Slavery Society to campaign for the end of slavery in the colonies. Whilst women were allowed to join the society, they could not form part of its leadership, so a group of women in West Bromwich formed their own group, which was then referred to as the Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later called the Female Society for Birmingham). Other groups formed across the country shortly after and by 1831, there were 73 female organisations campaigning for the immediate and full abolition of slavery.

Many of these groups produced objects such as bags, jewellery, prints and pin cushions, decorated with abolitionist emblems, images and text. These items were sold or distributed as part of their campaigns. Silk bags and reticules like the one in our collection were filled with campaign pamphlets and newspaper cuttings and distributed to prominent people, including King George IV and Princess Victoria, as well as to other women’s anti-slavery societies.

It is very likely that this reticule was made by the Female Society for Birmingham. It is similar to reticules made by the society in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington DC. However, we have yet to find another example matching this particular design.

Conservation of the reticule

In 2017, the museum acquired funding to carry out conservation work on the reticule. The reticule was in very poor condition – the silk had faded and was stained, large areas of the silk had badly shattered and were coming loose, and the reticule could not be handled or displayed without causing further damage.    

With funding from the Daphne Bullard Award, the Saffron Walden Quaker Meeting and individuals in our local community, the museum was able to pay Poppy Singer, a textiles conservator, to carry out vital conservation work. Poppy cleaned and reshaped the reticule to its original shape, made an internal support bag and pad, adhered the fragmentary silk, and added very fine netting over the top to prevent future damage. Thanks to Poppy’s work, the reticule can now be carefully handled and displayed in the museum for short periods of time.