Category Archives: Human History

Request for help with research project

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Barry a PhD student from Bristol University is researching ‘The Materiality, Memories & Material Culture” of Princess Mary’s 1914 (WW1) Christmas Gift to Soldiers & Sailors. Let him know if you are still in possession of your relatives embossed brass ‘Mary Tin’.  He would like to interview relatives by phone or virtually via Zoom.  Contact mb12582@bristol.ac.uk

The Shape of Women: Female Fashion Silhouette – Part 2 (c. 1900-Present Day)

Our Collections Officer (Human History), Jenny Oxley has a real passion for vintage fashion, check out Part 2 of her blog charting the changes in the female fashion silhouette, this time covering the period between 1900 and the present day – illustrated through the museum’s collections.

Follow this link for the PDF version The Shape of Women – Part 2: 1900=Present or see the flipbook version below

“The Shape of Women” : Corsets & Crinolines

Our Collections Officer (Human History), Jenny Oxley has a real passion for vintage fashion, check out her latest blog, charting the changes in the female fashion silhouette between 1790 and 1900 – Corsets and Crinolines – illustrated through the museum’s collections.

Follow this link for the PDF version The Shape of Women – Part 1: 1790=1900 or see the flipbook version below

 

Object of the Month – June 2018

 

June’s Object of the Month is a silk reticule or bag, made in the 1820s to support the campaign to abolish slavery. The reticule was chosen as Object of the Month by Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History). We featured the reticule on our blog last year, when we were raising money to fund vital conservation work. You can read all about the history of the reticule here

Our previous Collections Officer (Human History), Leah Mellors, acquired funding to carry out conservation work on the reticule, which was in very poor condition. The silk had faded and was badly stained, large sections of the silk had 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 a textiles conservator, Poppy Singer to carry out conservation work on the reticule. 

Poppy discovered that the bag had been folded over at the top and sewn down to cover some old damage, so she undid the stitching, cleaned and reshaped the reticule to its original shape. She made an internal support bag and pad to support the new shape of the reticule, 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.  

Reticule before conservation

Reticule after conservation

You can see the reticule on display in the museum throughout June.

Object of the Month – March 2018

 

March’s Object of the Month is a Holloway brooch. Holloway brooches were given to women who were imprisoned for their involvement in the women’s suffrage movement during the early twentieth century. The brooch was chosen as Object of the Month by Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History) to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Holloway brooches
The Holloway brooch was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, a campaigner for women’s suffrage. The design is symbolic of the suffragette’s fight for voting rights. The brooch is in the shape of a portcullis and chains, which is the symbol of the House of Commons. In the centre, there is a broad arrow, which was a recognised symbol of government property that was used on prison uniforms. The broad arrow is in the three colours of the suffragette movement: green (symbolising hope), white (symbolising purity) and violet (symbolising dignity).

Sylvia Pankhurst, wearing a Holloway brooch on her collar

The brooches were given to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who had been imprisoned in Holloway prison and other prisons. Some brooches were inscribed with the dates of imprisonment. They were first awarded at a mass demonstration by the WSPU in the Albert Hall on 29 April 1909, which was held to coincide with the meeting of the International Suffrage Alliance. In an issue of the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, of 16 April 1909 the brooch was described as the ‘Victoria Cross of the Union’. When WSPU prisoners began to use hunger strikes, the WSPU instituted the hunger strike medal, the first of which was presented four months after the first Holloway brooch.

Women’s Suffrage Movement
6 February 2018 marked 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over the age of 30, who held £5 of property, to vote in parliamentary and local government elections.

The Representation of the People Act was the result of a decades-long campaign by men and women for women’s suffrage. This campaign began peacefully in the late 1800s. In 1897, Millicent Fawcett set up the National Union of Women’s Suffrage, which campaigned for women’s suffrage through peaceful protest and logical argument. Unfortunately, Millicent’s progress was slow and this was not enough for some women, who wanted faster and more direct results. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. In contrast to the peaceful protests of the suffragists, the members of the WSPU, known as suffragettes, were prepared to use militant and violent methods to draw attention to the cause. These militant methods included breaking shop windows, raiding the Houses of Parliament, burning down churches, attacking politicians and even protesting at the gates of Buckingham Palace.

Imprisonment of suffragettes
As a result of the violent acts committed by suffragettes, many were imprisoned, in Holloway prison in London and other prisons around the country. 
The treatment of suffragettes who were imprisoned was often brutal. Many went on hunger strike. A report in The Suffragette on 11 April 1913, stated that Emmeline Pankhurst had collapsed in prison after being on hunger strike for eight days. The hunger strikes concerned the government, who did not want the movement to have martyrs, so prisons guards were ordered to force-feed those on hunger strike.

There was public outcry at the force-feeding of mostly educated women, so the government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act. This Act stated that any suffragette who went on hunger strike whilst in prison should not be force-fed but instead should be allowed to get weaker and weaker, at which point she would be released from prison. She would then either die, or be too weak to take part in the suffragette movement. Once she had regained her strength, she would be rearrested for a trivial reason and the process would start again. In response to the Cat and Mouse Act, the suffragettes became even more extreme, with some blowing up part of David Lloyd George’s house. It is likely that they would have continued with this extreme behaviour but in August 1914, World War I broke out and Emmeline Pankhurst ordered her followers to stop their campaign and support the war effort.

The suffragette movement in north-west Essex
The first suffrage society in north-west Essex was formed in 1906, when Miss Mitchell, of Saffron Walden Training College, became honorary secretary of a Saffron Walden branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. By 1909, two federations of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been formed in the area – one covering north and east Essex and the other covering most of East Anglia.  By the end of 1911, a NUWSS society was formed in north-west Essex to cover Dunmow and the surrounding district.

Flyer for a public meeting of the Saffron Walden & District Women’s Suffrage Society

In 1912, a second suffrage society in Saffron Walden was formed, known as the Saffron Walden and District Women’s Suffrage Society. Flyers and programmes in Saffron Walden Museum’s collections reveal that the society held regular events between 1912 and 1914 to raise funds and awareness for the suffrage cause. These included talks by well-known speakers, suffrage plays and musical entertainments.

The President of Saffron Walden and District Women’s Suffrage Society was Gertrude Baillie-Weaver. Gertrude and her husband Harold, who lived in Newport, were both prominent members of the suffrage movement: Harold was an active member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and Gertrude was an early member of the Women’s Freedom League. Under the name Gertrude Colmore, Gertrude wrote many literary pieces on the suffrage movement, including the suffrage novel Suffragette Sally (1911), The Life of Emily Davison (1913) and fictional stories for Votes for Women and The Suffragette. She also regularly spoke at WSPU meetings. 

You can see the Holloway brooch on display in the museum, alongside other items in our collection relating to the suffragettes, until 31 March 2018.

Help us bring the Piano Hoard home

 

In 2017, a hoard of hundreds of coins was found inside a piano in Shropshire. Investigations showed that the coins were hidden by a Saffron Walden resident in the early 20th century.

The coins date from between 1847 and 1915. They were deliberately hidden inside a Broadway upright piano by a Saffron Walden resident sometime in or after 1926. We know this because the piano has a plaque reading ‘Supplied by Beavan & Mothersole, 27 West Road, Saffron Walden’. Beavan and Mothersole were piano suppliers, tuners and music professors.

The coins were placed into small packages and pouches, carefully made from cardboard and covered with fabric. One of the pouches was made from a cereal box and the branding on the box helps us to date it to between 1926 and 1946.

We don’t know why the owner of the piano hid the coins or why they were never retrieved. Perhaps they simply considered it a safe place to hide their family’s wealth. Perhaps the coins were hidden during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The questions surrounding this hoard only add to its intrigue and appeal.

The coins remained hidden until the piano was moved to Shropshire and donated to a local school. A piano tuner discovered the coins and reported it to the local Finds Liaison Officer.

Because of the value of the coins and the fact that they were deliberately hidden, they have been classed as Treasure under the Treasure Act of 1996. The museum would like to acquire a selection of the coins and the piano, so that we can display them in the museum and create education sessions for local schools.

But we need to raise about £3000 to do so. Can you help us bring these coins home to Saffron Walden, where they belong? So far, we have raised £530 so we still have a way to go! Any donations would be gratefully received.    

Cash donations can be made in person in the museum
Cheques can be made payable to ‘Saffron Walden Museum Society’ and sent to Leah Mellors at the museum
Online donations can be made on our crowdfunding page  

For more information, please contact Leah.

History of the Museum – Part One

The foundation of Saffron Walden Natural History Society

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the earliest years of Saffron Walden Museum and the society that established it. In this post, we delve into the earliest recorded meetings of the founders of the museum, including the creation of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society and the committee’s gathering of objects. With thanks to Len Pole, who has been instrumental in studying the earliest available records and helping to compile a history of the museum.

Jabez Gibson

Saffron Walden Museum was established in the 1830s by Saffron Walden Natural History Society. The earliest recorded meeting of the society took place on the 22 November 1832, in the home of Jabez Gibson in King Street, Saffron Walden. In this meeting, a statement of the society’s Rules and Regulations was written and the committee of the society was decided upon. The people placed onto the committee were Jabez Gibson (chairman), John Player, Thomas Spurgin, Joshua Clarke and William Ward. 

Much of the early workings of the society are shrouded in mystery, as information has been lost over time. It is not clearly stated who the founders of the society were, though it seems likely that the founders were these five men, and it is even less clear how other people joined the society. The society had a group of ‘Friends and Supporters’ – anyone subscribing or donating a certain amount of money – but it is not clear whether these ‘Friends and Supporters’ became members of the society. The main purpose of the society was to establish a museum but it is interesting to note just how tentative they were in doing so. They were so cautious that they did not settle on the name ‘Saffron Walden Natural History Society’ until a meeting in 1834, 18 months after the first recorded meeting!

Establishing the museum

As was common with museums in the nineteenth century, the founders focused their collecting on Natural History. The first rule of the Rules and Regulations states “That a Museum be formed to include Specimens in the several Departments of Natural History, with Antiquarian remains, and other such Articles as may be of local or general interest”. The term ‘local or general interest’ is somewhat ambiguous, and suggests that the founders intended to collect whatever they found personally interesting!

It seems that between the first meeting in November 1832 and January 1833, the committee focused on collecting specimens for display and writing letters to various well-known figures of the period, such as botanists and professors, many of whom donated to the collection. Rule 10 of the original Rules and Regulations stated that the secretaries Mr. Spurgin and Mr. Clarke were “requested to enter into a Book the Several Donations (made to the collection) in order that it might be handed down as a Register of this Institution”. However, either Mr Spurgin and Mr Clarke ignored this request or the book was never handed on. The first paid curator of the museum, George Nathan Maynard, moaned about the lack of such a register when he was faced with the task of retrospectively creating one in the 1880s, working from committee minutes and presumably the recollections of surviving members of the society. The earliest recorded addition to the museum collection in Maynard’s retrospective register was from the Zoological Society, consisting of ‘30 birds and a deer’.

The first page of Maynard’s replacement register

The first entrance in Maynard’s register

And so, the museum had a foundation: a set of Rules of Regulations and the beginnings of a collection. The focus on natural history  and specimens from fields such as zoology and botany was upheld by the museum curators, and the lasting influence of the early values of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society can still be seen in the museum and its collections today.

Object of the Month – January 2018

 

January’s Object of the Month is a metal box, said to have held salt. This curious metal box, decorated with two little mice, has been in the museum’s collections since 1898.  It was probably made in the middle of the 19th century (about 1850-1870). We are not completely sure what the box was used for so Carolyn Wingfield, Curator, and Stefan Shambrook, Security & Premises Officer, investigated…

Entry in the accession register

The accession register entry
The first place to check for information is the museum’s accession registers. The box is described in the register as “A small metal box with two mice represented as climbing the same”. It was given to the museum in 1898 by a Mr C Haggar of Saffron Walden. The register entry adds: “Probably used as a salt box for table use.”

Examining its construction
Next, Carolyn and Stefan looked at the construction of the box to see if that held any clues. The metal from which the box is made is spelter, an alloy of zinc with a little lead. Spelter was cheaper than pewter and was widely used from around 1860 onwards to make cheap, cast domestic items and ornaments. The box was made in several stages. The sides and bottom were cast as separate pieces which were soldered together by hand. The lid was then fitted. 

The geometric decoration on the box is quite crude but the mice are quite finely made by comparison, and could have been the work of another craftsman. The mice were cast separately and then skilfully soldered onto the box. The decoration only appears on three sides and the back of the box is plain, which suggests it was made to hang or stand against a wall. The box appears to be a one-off, whimsical piece and not a mass-produced object.

Historic Salt Containers
The accession register suggests that the box was a salt box so can looking at other historic salt containers confirm this? Throughout history, salt has been an important and valuable substance for preserving and flavouring food. From medieval times onwards, special containers have been used for keeping salt and for putting it on the table.

Wooden salt box in the collections of Leeds Museums & Galleries

Salts and Salt Cellars were small containers for salt on the dining table. These could range from simple miniature pottery dishes to elaborate pewter or silver pieces. Wealthy households would have a highly-decorated salt on their table. Salts and salt cellars were designed for display and to be seen from all sides. 

Salt Boxes were usually larger, more humble and practical, for use in the kitchen. They were commonly made of wood, and also of pottery or pewter. Many were plain and some were decorated, but all had a tall back projecting above the lid, with a hole at the top for hanging on a hook or nail. Salt boxes were hung on the wall by the stove or fireplace, where the salt granules would be kept dry. This stopped the salt from forming into lumps. Salt boxes were typically around 15 – 20 cms wide, considerably larger than our small box, which is just under 5cms wide.If you look closely at the Museum’s box, the top edge of the back plate behind the lid is uneven and looks as though it has broken. It may have been designed for hanging on a wall originally, before it was damaged.

Our conclusions
The box may well have been made as a miniature salt box for hanging on a wall. The patterns on the sides and lid are similar to simple designs engraved on some traditional wooden salt boxes, so maybe the maker was copying an older model.

However, the small size and fanciful addition of the mice suggest that our box was probably never intended for serious, practical use. It might have been a personal gift or just made for fun. After the back plate broke, it could have been used as a salt cellar standing on the table, as the accession register suggests. Alternatively, the box could have held small quantities of other substances such as spices, or small trinkets.

If you have seen any other boxes like this, or have any other suggestions or comments, we’d love to hear from you! Email us, or comment on our Facebook or Twitter pages. You can see our box on display in the museum until 31 January. 

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

Saffron

 

Saffron is famous for being the world’s most expensive spice, with its distinctive aroma, rich honey-like flavour and trademark yellow hue. The history of Saffron is particularly relevant to Saffron Walden, which took its name from the spice.

The spice

Saffron comes from the flower of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus), and its name comes from the Arabic word for yellow. The spice, the three stigma found in the flower of the crocus, is harvested between September and October, and the stigma are then dried. It is this process which gives the spice its hefty price tag, as the stigma must be hand-picked, and it can take thousands of flowers to produce a few ounces of dried saffron. Saffron is often referred to as ‘red gold’, as it is so expensive.

Today saffron is grown mostly in Iran, as well as in Greece, Spain, Australia, India and China. It can sell for anywhere between £5 and £75 a gram – good quality Afghan saffron sells for around £14 a gram. Because of saffron’s price tag, cheap substitutes are often passed off as authentic saffron – from the unrelated safflower to (in extreme cases) shredded paper or even horsehair being sold as cheap saffron.

The spice’s main use today is in cooking, famously flavouring and colouring a variety of dishes, from Swedish saffron buns to paella. It’s use is varied, and can today be found in cosmetics, such as skin cream and shampoo, or food products like coffee or salt.

Uses in history

Crocus bulbs, preserved since 1886.

Saffron can be found throughout history. Cleopatra reportedly used it to infuse her bathwater, as well as to improve her complexion. Roman physicians recommended the rubbing of a saffron paste onto the heads of the mad, and Alexander the Great bathed his battle wounds with saffron and drank saffron tea.  Saffron was very popular during medieval times, used by cooks, physicians, dyers and even monks who sometimes used it to illuminate their manuscripts. Fashionable Venetian women used it to dye their hair during the 1500s, covering it with saffron, honey, egg yolk and sulphur and sitting in the sunshine until their desired colour was achieved. It was also traditionally used in medicine, as a treatment for various illnesses including menstrual problems, depression and asthma.

Saffron Walden

Saffron was grown around Saffron Walden for many centuries, and it was said that the soil from the area gave the saffron a distinctive flavour. William Harrison (1534 – 1593) said of the Saffron Walden saffron: “As the saffron of England…is the most excellent of all other…[the saffron] that growth about Saffron Walden in the edge of Essex surmounteth all the rest, and therefore beareth worthily the higher price”.

Not only was saffron grown around the town of Saffron Walden, it was also processed and sold here. The spice was sold at market in Newport and Saffron Walden in October and November. The trade brought prosperity to the town, and the name of the town changed, from Chepyng Walden to Saffron Walden, as a result. The earliest reference to the new town name is in a deed of 1582, which refers to ‘saffornewalden’.

The crocus flowers can be seen on the left side of this town charter, which is on display in the museum’s Local History gallery.

A key industry surrounding saffron was its use as a dye, and Saffron Walden became well-known for its dying with saffron. The earliest reference to a dyeworks in Saffron Walden is dated to 1359. Saffron has been used as a dye since ancient times, but it was particularly popular as a yellow dye in the medieval cloth industry.

The saffron trade in Saffron Walden reached its peak in the 1500s. In 1514, Henry VIII granted the town a charter, which was decorated with the saffron crocus, showing how important the plant was to the town. It became a custom to present visiting dignitaries and monarchs with saffron. When William III visited Audley End in 1689, he was presented with a silver plate which cost £4 6s. 6d and fourteen ounces of saffron which cost £3 11s. 8d. After its peak in the1500s, the growing of saffron around Saffron Walden gradually declined due to the hugely labour intensive process required to harvest the plant, and saffron ceased to be grown at all in Saffron Walden in the 1700s.

Today

The Saffron Walden coat of arms. The crocus flower is central, surrounded by the walls of the castle (saffron, walled in)

The lasting impact of saffron on Saffron Walden is undeniable. Images of the crocus and saffron can be seen decorating buildings in the town, both historical and modern, including the parish church. The crocus is still on the town’s coat of arms, and of course the town’s name remains as a reminder of how important the crocus plant was to the prosperity and growth of this market town.

Recently, saffron growers have begun to return to the area. Authentic Essex-grown saffron is in demand for its historical reputation, and it can sell for £75 a gram in top London establishments – three times the price of gold.

You can learn more about saffron in the museum’s Local History gallery

Featured image: A sketch by Nathan Maynard of the crocus harvest around Saffron Walden.