Author Archives: Museum Administrator

Listening Bench

A set of eight listening benches are being installed by the Essex Record Office across Essex this summer, including this one at Saffron Walden Museum. These benches tell stories and play recordings of local history past and present, through in-built speakers.

The benches are part of You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Essex Heritage Trust and the Friends of Historic Essex. You Are Hear is a three-year project to digitise, catalogue, and make available many of the historically significant sound and video recordings in the ERO’s Essex Sound and Video Archive.

The project has worked with community groups in villages and towns throughout Essex, helping them to reflect upon where they live by engaging with the recordings. Each group created a montage of clips about their community from recordings in the Archive, which will be played on the sound benches.

At our bench, you can hear memories of life on Castle Street and in the town centre in Saffron Walden, back when the town still had a Corn Exchange, livestock markets, the Rose & Crown hotel and Victorian swimming baths.

Other benches are located in Basildon, Castle Hedingham, Colchester, Great Dunmow, Great Waltham, Harwich and Kelvedon, with two more sound benches touring the county, starting at Stansted Airport and Belhus Woods Country Park.

The bench at the museum was unveiled on Thursday 30 June, at a ceremony attended by representatives of Essex Record Office, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Saffron Walden Town Initiative and Saffron Walden Museum, as well as some of the individuals who shared their stories.


Why not take a minute to sit in our beautiful museum grounds, with a view of the 12th century Walden Castle, and listen to memories of Saffron Walden in times gone by?

National Insect Week

It’s National Insect Week! Celebrated from the 20 June to the 26 June 2016, National Insect Week, organised by the Royal Entomological Society, encourages people of all ages to learn more about insects.

There are over 24,000 species of insects in the United Kingdom, with hundreds of species to be found in almost every garden and green space. They can be pollinators, predators, pests, parasites and prey and their study is an important part of conservation, food production, medicine and ecology.

Saffron Walden Museum has collected insect specimens since its establishment in 1835. Our 1845 catalogue lists both British and Foreign Insects in the collection. The museum’s British Insects included butterflies, wasps and moths and the Foreign Insects included locusts and more than 350 butterflies from China, Brazil, North and South America and the Himalayas.

Female leopard moth

Female leopard moth

Nowadays, we continue to collect insects that have been found dead in the local area. This beautiful female leopard moth was found dead in a house in Elsenham and donated to the museum in 2012.

You can get up close and personal with some of the insects in our collection by looking at them under the microscope in our Discovery Centre. Whilst you’re there, you can say hello to our resident Malaysian stick insects – we now have five females and a male!

Male stag beetle

We try to encourage as much wildlife in the museum grounds as possible. Sections of the grounds have been left to grow wild to encourage biodiversity and we have recently built a loggery next to Walden Castle, to create a home for stag beetles.

Object of the Month – June 2016

June’s Object of the Month is a framed sample of the material used to make Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation dress. Elizabeth’s coronation took place on 2 June 1953 at Westminster Abbey in London.

The sample was a gift from Norman Hartnell, the designer of the dress, to Miss Grizelle Fowler. Miss Fowler bequeathed it to the museum in 2016. The sample was chosen as Object of the Month by Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History), to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s official 90th birthday in June 2016.

The coronation dress

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown, on display in an exhibition at Buckingham Palace

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown, on display in an exhibition at Buckingham Palace

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation dress was designed by Norman Hartnell, who also designed her wedding dress. Elizabeth ordered the dress in October 1952 and it took eight months of research, design and workmanship to create it. Hartnell put forward eight different designs and Elizabeth chose her favourite. It then took at least three dressmakers, six embroiderers and the Royal School of Needlework to create the detailed embroidery.

The dress is made from satin. It has an embroidered design, featuring some of the national flowers and plants of Britain and the countries of the Commonwealth. These include the English Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh leek, the Irish shamrock, the Canadian maple leaf and the New Zealand silver fern. Hartnell secretly added in an extra four-leaf shamrock on the left-hand side of her dress as a symbol of good luck. The design is completed in seed pearls, crystals, coloured silks and gold and silver thread.

The coronation

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, following her coronation.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, following her coronation.

Elizabeth ascended to the throne, aged 25, when her father George VI died on 6 February 1952. Her coronation took place more than a year later because it was seen to be inappropriate to celebrate a coronation during a period of mourning.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the first coronation to be shown on television. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was against the idea but Elizabeth refused his advice and insisted that the event be televised. Sales of television sets soared in the weeks leading up to the coronation.

Around 8000 guests from across the Commonwealth countries were invited to the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Before the ceremony, the guests passed through the streets of London in a procession, in front of about three million spectators. More than 20 million more people watched on television.

Elizabeth arrived at Westminster Abbey at 11am. During the ceremony, she swore the Coronation Oath, promising to govern each of her countries according to their laws and customs, to carry out law and justice with mercy, to uphold Protestantism in the United Kingdom and to protect the Church of England. Following this, there was a communion service, before each of the bishops and peers of the United Kingdom swore allegiance to the new Queen. When the last baron had done this, the assembly shouted:

“God save Queen Elizabeth. Long live Queen Elizabeth.
May the Queen live forever”

Queen Elizabeth was then transported back to Buckingham Palace in the Gold State Coach, with an escort of thousands of military personnel from around the Commonwealth. She appeared on the balcony of the Palace in front of the crowds, as a flypast went overhead.

You can see the sample on display in the museum until 30 June 2016.

Object of the Month – May 2016

“Strange Stone Object”

In 1903, some men digging gravel on the south side of the village of Wendens Ambo, near Saffron Walden, made a remarkable discovery. Between about 3000 and 4000 years ago, Bronze Age people had used that area to bury their dead, cremating the bodies and burying the ashes in large hand-made pots or ‘cremation urns’. The diggers had unearthed pieces of an urn, together with this implement of shaped and grooved sandstone, approximately 19 cm long.

The pottery urn that the gravel-diggers found was not unusual, as many similar urns have been found across Britain. The stone object, however, was unlike anything archaeologists had ever seen. It was shown to many leading archaeologists of the day and fully published in 1916 by a noted scholar, Miller Christy, but no one could come up with a convincing explanation. Over 100 years later, it continues to baffle everyone.

Some ‘mystery stone object’ facts

  • It is shaped like a cylinder and tapers a little towards the ends
  • There are five grooves along its length, spaced equally around it
  • The grooves could have been cut with either a stone or a metal tool
  • It measures 189 mm (nearly 19 cm) long and about 63 mm diameter
  • It weighs 1165 grams and is made of gritty red sandstone
Drawing of the stone object from 'A Guide to the Departments of Archaeology and Ethnology in the Saffron Walden Museum', published in 1916.

Drawing of the stone object from ‘A Guide to the Departments of Archaeology and Ethnology in the Saffron Walden Museum‘, published in 1916.

 What Was It For?

These are some of the suggestions made:

A pounder or a pestle?

Probably not, as the ends show no signs of the wear that would be expected.


Again, probably not, as the sides show no signs of wear and why would they be grooved?


The grooves do not show the wear that would result from this and there are better ways of sharpening arrow heads or smoothing arrow-shafts.

Is it the head of a club, do the grooves allow it to be lashed to a handle?

That would have been an awkward way of mounting a club-head!

Is it a roller for breaking or ‘braying’ flax or other vegetable fibres?

Possibly – we know that Bronze Age people spun and wove flax and wool but we need more practical evidence.

Does it have a ‘religious’ or ‘ceremonial’ use, now lost to us?

Possibly, though such explanations are often given by archaeologists when they don’t really know! However, there are other Bronze Age burials that contain apparently ‘ritual’ objects, such as small decorated chalk cylinders. We do not know how our Bronze Age ancestors regarded these objects.

Is it a more recent object, which had somehow got buried near the urn?

The stone object was found actually touching the urn in the burial pit and there was no sign of later disturbance or animal burrows. Also, no historical or modern objects like this are known.

What do you think? Is it a practical tool, a ‘sacred’ object or a ‘stone loofah’?

Why not let us know what you think it is by tweeting us @SW_Museum or leaving a comment on our Facebook page.

You can see the object on display in the museum until 31 May 2016.

Object of the Month – April 2016

Coggeshall lace mat

 lace_1    lace_2

April’s Object of the Month is a table mat made from Coggeshall lace. It dates from the late 1800s. The mat is part of a small collection of Coggeshall lace in the museum’s collections, which includes table mats, a shawl and two chemisettes.

Coggeshall lace is a type of tambour lace, which is made by stretching a net over a frame and creating a line of chain stitches with a fine hook. The outline of the design on this mat is created using a chain stitch and the areas inside have been created using decorative ‘filling stitches’, such as honeycomb, bold smuggler and eyelet.

lace_3 lace_4 lace_5

Diagrams taken from Creating Coggeshall Lace by J. Dudding (1979)

Coggeshall lace

lace_6In about 1812, a French man named Drago and his two daughters moved to Coggeshall, a village in Essex, and began to teach women and children how to make tambour lace. Throughout the 1800s, tamboured net lace was made in tambour rooms and cottages in Coggeshall and the surrounding villages.

Lace manufacturers and dealers obtained orders from London and elsewhere and co-ordinated the Coggeshall lace workers. Among other stores,
Liberty & Co., the famous London department store, was supplied with Coggeshall lace.

Shortly after 1900, there was a great improvement in the quality of Coggeshall lace, thanks to the activities of two ladies called Miss Spurge. They were the chief employers in the district and together with their brother William, an art teacher, they improved the standard of design.

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent

Unfortunately, the invention of chain stitch sewing machines and machine-made laces led to a decline in the production of Coggeshall lace in the early 1900s and this was made worse by the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

However, in the 1930s, there was an effort to revive the production of Coggeshall lace. Three lace handkerchiefs were made for Princess Marina for her marriage to the Duke of Kent and Coggeshall lace was also made into dresses for Queen Elizabeth II (when she was a princess), Princess Margaret and Princess Alexandra. Queen Mary also owned Coggeshall lace dresses and a teacloth. Nevertheless, despite this royal patronage, the financial return was not great enough and the production of Coggeshall lace died out after World War II.

Today, Coggeshall lace is made by some members of the Lacemakers Guild and it is taught as part of a City and Guilds course.

You can see the table mat on display in the museum until 30 April.

Object of the Month – March 2016

Reform Flask

March’s Object of the Month is a flask or bottle made from salt-glazed stoneware. It is shaped in the form of Henry Peter Brougham, who was Lord Chancellor of Britain between 1830 and 1834. The inscription on the front of the flask reads:

“The Second Magna Charta
Brougham’s Reform Cordial”

The flask was made by Belper and Denby Bournes Potteries, Derbyshire, in 1832 and it is marked on the back with their maker’s mark.

The flask was donated to the museum in 1897 by Edward Taylor of Saffron Walden.

Henry Peter Brougham

Hnery BroughamHenry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron of Brougham and Vaux, was a British politician and statesman. He was born in 1778 and died in 1868.

Brougham began his career as a lawyer in Scotland, before entering the House of Commons in London in 1810. He was appointed as one of the chief advisors of Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the future George IV, in 1812 and he became her Attorney-General in 1820.

Brougham was a Member of Parliament for Winchelsea from 1816 until 1830, when he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Britain by Prime Minister Charles Grey. He held this post for four years. During this time, he helped to pass the 1832 Reform Act and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. He was devoted to the anti-slavery cause throughout his life.

The 1832 Reform Act

The bottle commemorates Brougham’s role in helping to pass the 1832 Reform Act.

The Representation of the People Act 1832 (known informally as the 1832 Reform Act), was an act of Parliament that introduced changes to the voting system in England and Wales.

The Act was proposed by the Whigs, a political party led by the Prime Minister Charles Grey. It was heavily opposed by the Pittite factions of the Conservative party but the Act was eventually passed, mainly because of widespread public pressure and unrest.
Traditionally, Members of Parliament represented boroughs and the choice of members was often controlled by one wealthy and powerful patron. For example, Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled 11 boroughs. The number of voters in each borough varied widely, as did the criteria for voting. Boroughs with a small number of voters that were controlled by a wealthy patron were known as “rotten boroughs”.

Reform Act

Extract from the manuscript of the Act

The 1832 Reform Act removed seats from these “rotten boroughs” and created 67 new constituencies, many in the large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution. It also broadened the criteria for voting, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. This increased the electorate to about one in five adult males.

The 1832 Reform Act did little to appease the working classes or women, who were still unable to vote. However, it did prove that change was possible and over the next decades, the call for further parliamentary reform continued.

You can see the flask on display in the museum until 31 March 2016.


Cipriani paintings to move home

This week, four of the museum’s paintings by the celebrated Tuscan artist, Giovanni Battista Cipriani, will move to a new home at Audley End House.

Cipriani panel

The four paintings are part of a six-part frieze painted by Cipriani in 1770-1. The paintings were commissioned for the Library at Audley End House, which was remodelled as part of Robert Adam’s renovations for Sir John Griffin Griffin. The museum holds a copy of the receipt given to Griffin by Cipriani, which reads:

“December 31st 1771 / Received of Sir John P. Griffin, hundred and / ten pounds been the remainder of three / hundred and fifteen, which makes the full / price agreed for six frizes that I have / painted by his order for his library / at Audley End / by G. B. Cipriani”

The 1797 inventory for Audley End House mentions the frieze, describing each part as follows:

  • A Sacrifice to Jupiter, showing a priest throwing water on the sacred fire, the Sacrificer with the ram intended to be sacrificed, a boy holding a box of incense, another with the musical instrument and several attendants carrying various offerings. This is intended to represent religion.
  • Urania with the other Muses asking protection of Minerva. This represents Arts, Sciences and Learning.
  • Apollo in his chariot followed by the Hours and preceded by Aurora and Lucifer, an old man Somnus sleeping on the side of Morphus. This is intended to represent Day, Night and Air
  • Vulcan with the Cyclops, showing the arms of Aeneas to Venus accompanied by Cupid and the Three Graces. This is intended to represent Fire.
  • The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite, with Sea Horses, Tritons and Nymphs. This is intended to represent Water.

Cybile accompanied by the Four Seasons, Spring represented by Flora, Summer by Ceres, Autumn by Bacchus and Winter by Saturn, with their proper attributes Centaurs and Satyrs. This is intended to represent Earth.

Cipriani panel detailThe frieze was donated to Saffron Walden Museum by Jane, Lady Braybrooke of Audley End House in 1839, after the library had been dismantled and subdivided into a bedroom suite. The books from the library were moved to a newly-designed room on the first floor. In 1997, two of the paintings were loaned to English Heritage for display at Audley End House. Last year it was agreed by the trustees of Saffron Walden Museum Society that the remaining four paintings, which have been on display in the museum’s Ceramics gallery, should also be loaned to English Heritage for display in their original home. They will be redisplayed close to their original locations, in the rooms which formed the Library in the eighteenth century. They will be available to view soon after Audley End House reopens to the public.

Please note that whilst the paintings are being removed from the museum, the Ceramics gallery and the Worlds of Man gallery will be closed for the duration of Thursday 3 March and Friday 4 March 2016. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Object of the Month – February 2016

Improved Magneto-Electric Machine

February’s Object of the Month is The Improved Magneto-Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History).

Magneto-Electric Machine

The machine dates from about 1880. It was donated to the museum in 1968.

In the 1800s, many people were fascinated by electricity and the possibility of using it in their own homes for medicinal or therapeutic purposes. ‘Electrotherapy’, or the use of mild electric shocks, became a popular treatment for a range of diseases and ailments, especially those associated with the nerves. Thousands of machines, including this one made by S. Maw, Son & Thompson, were made and sold between about 1850 and 1900.

The machine generated an electric current from two rotating magnets. The operator of the machine would place the two handles in the patient’s hands, or elsewhere on the patient’s body, and then turn the crank to deliver an electric current. The faster the crank was turned, the stronger the current.

Patients would feel electric shocks running through their body and they were left with a buzzing sensation, which some said relieved their symptoms. The makers of the machine claimed that using the machine could relieve pain and cure a number of diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, gangrene, heart disease, tetanus and spinal deformities.

The use of electricity in medicine

The use of electricity to treat physical ailments dates back to the ancient Greeks, who used live electric fish to numb pain.

However, it wasn’t until the 1700s that the idea of electricity as a form of medicine really took hold. Benjamin Franklin, the American physicist and statesmen, used an electrostatic generator and a Leyden jar (a glass jar that could store electric charges) to deliver shocks to patients. This process became known as Franklinism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was known to practise Franklinism to cure such things as blindness, deafness, gout, headache, rheumatism and even toothache. In the 1780s, Luigi Galvani discovered that electricity could also be used to cause muscle contractions, which could treat muscular and nervous conditions.

Magneto-Electric Machine_PICTUREDuring the 1800s, the use of electricity for medicinal purposes became very widespread. People were especially keen to use electricity to treat conditions and encourage good health at home. A range of devices became available, including electric corsets, electric belts and magneto-electric machines. They were especially popular among the upper classes and they remained popular until the early 1900s.

From the 1850s onwards, electricity was used to treat mental illness, especially in women. This form of treatment, now known as ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy’, is still used today as a last method of intervention for major depressive disorders, mania and catatonia.

Object of the Month – January 2016

January’s Object of the Month is a gold Viking finger-ring. This ring was selected for Object of the Month by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator.

The ring was found by a metal-detectorist near Thaxted in 2013 and reported under the Treasure Act (1996) . It was purchased in 2015 for the museum’s archaeology collections by Saffron Walden Museum Society Ltd, with the assistance of the Arts Council England / Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Headley Trust.

V & A logoThe ring is made in a style associated with Viking jewellery and dates from the tenth to twelfth centuries (around AD 900 – 1200). It was made by twisting two strands of gold wire, and then twisting these withHeadley Trust logo two tapering gold rods, and forming a hoop. The thin ends of the rods and wires were joined at the back of the hoop by beating them together into a flat, diamond-shaped plate. The plate is decorated with tiny punched circles.

The size and weight of the ring suggest that it was most likely worn by a man. It weighs over 32 grams and the metal is over 95% gold, the rest being silver and copper.This was established by X-ray fluorescence analysis at the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. The ring measures a maximum of 35mm across in its current state.
Viking Rings

This style of ring, made by twisting or plaiting gold wires and rods together, is associated with the Vikings. ‘Vikings’ is the collective name given to people from Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) who raided, traded and settled across northern Europe and beyond from the ninth to twelfth centuries.

Many such rings have been found across the Viking world. Illustrated here are two different types of Viking gold ring, both from Essex and both in the collections of the British Museum.

 Plain gold ring, a form also known as ‘ring money’, Thaxted  Gold ring formed from twisted rods and wires, West Bergholt, nr. Colchester
Plain gold ring, a form also known as ‘ring money’, Thaxted
Photo: British Museum
Gold ring formed from twisted rods and wires, West Bergholt, nr. Colchester
Photo: British Museum


Sometimes detail can be important. The diamond-shaped plate on the back of our Thaxted ring is thought to be a Scandinavian feature, because it is also found on rings from the Viking homelands. In other words, it was probably made by a Viking goldsmith in Denmark, Norway or southern Sweden, rather than an Anglo-Saxon smith working for Vikings in eastern England.

We cannot tell who lost the ring, or why. Such objects could easily be traded or passed from one person to another. To the Vikings, such jewellery acted as portable currency and a sign of status. Arm-rings and neck-rings made of gold and silver in the same style are also known.

You can see the ring on display in our Treasure case, in the Ages of Man gallery.

Object of the Month – December 2015

Lotus shoe

Object of the Month – December

December’s Object of the Month is two lotus shoes. The shoes were chosen as Object of the Month by Hayley Wilson, our Administrative Assistant. They were donated to the museum in 1839.

Lotus shoes

Lotus shoes were worn by women in China who had their feet bound. The ancient practice of foot-binding consisted of tightly wrapping the feet of young girls in order to bend and break the smaller toes and raise the arch of the foot. This would create a tiny and misshapen foot, which was considered by some people to be beautiful.

The practice is believed to have originated in the tenth or eleventh century and it is said to have been inspired by a court dancer named Yao Niang. She bound her feet in the shape of a new moon and entranced Emperor Li Yu by dancing on her toes inside a six-foot golden lotus.

Lotus shoes_girlsIt was believed that girls who had their feet bound would be able to attract better marriage offers because the tiny feet, and the way that the women walked as a result, were considered to be beautiful. In wealthy families, the feet of all the daughters would have been bound but in poorer families, the practice might only have been carried out on only the eldest child.

Foot-binding was carried out on girls, sometimes as young as four years old, because young bones were softer and easier to manipulate. Grandmothers often carried out the process because they were more willing than the child’s mother to inflict the pain required for successful results. All the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. The arch of the foot was strained as the foot was bent double and the feet were bound in place using a silk strip.

Lotus shoes_footSometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. The girls were often forced to walk long distances to speed up the process of breaking their arches. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes became smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After two years the process was complete.

Foot-binding was widespread in China until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was banned by the new Republic of China government in 1912. Local warlords and regional government also enforced the ban. Although the campaign against foot-binding was very successful in some regions, the practice lingered on in others. A census taken in 1928 in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet, while in some remote rural areas such as Yunnan Province foot-binding continued to be practiced until the 1950s. In most parts of China, however, the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949. In 1999, the last shoe factory making lotus shoes closed.

You can see the lotus shoes on display in the museum until 5 January 2016.