Category Archives: Collections

Object of the Month – February 2018

 

February’s Object of the Month is a model great auk egg. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This plaster cast of a great auk egg was made in 1856. It is a copy of an egg that belonged to John Hancock, whose collection founded the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. The egg, and the mould from which it was made, were given to Saffron Walden Museum by Mr William Murray Tuke of Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1896. The inscription on the model egg reads: ‘Copy of J. Hancock’s Great Auk’s Egg Made Dec 1856’.

Making the Egg
A mould of John Hancock’s great auk egg was made first. The mould was then used to make a copy of the egg for Mr Tuke. The model egg was cast in plaster and two inscriptions engraved into the surface. Finally, the colour and markings were painted on to the model egg.

Great Auks
The great auk, Pinguinus impennis, was a flightless seabird that lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It was also called the gare fowl or garefowl. The black and white bird was about 75 centimetres long. Its wings were used for swimming under water, as they were only 15 centimetres long.

Great auks bred in colonies on rocky islands around the coasts of the north Atlantic Ocean, such as St. Kilda, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Funk Island off Newfoundland. Each breeding pair mated for life. They laid a single egg on bare rock. It was about 12.5 centimetres long. Sailors and island people hunted the defenceless birds for their meat, feathers, fat, oil and eggs. When the last birds were killed in 1844 on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland, the great auk became extinct.

Mounted specimens of the birds, their bones and eggs are preserved in museums. Saffron Walden Museum has a plaster copy of a skull in the Hessisches Landesmuseum at Darmstadt, Germany and copies of great auk eggs in the collections of Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan of Wallington Hall, Northumberland and Mr Troughton of Coventry.

You can see the model egg on display in the museum until 28 February 2018, and discover more about the mould from which the egg was made and John Hancock, the famous taxidermist.

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. 

A to Z of Saffron Walden Museum

Our #AtoZ series focused on sharing sides to the museum that some people may not have been aware of before. We went through the alphabet, using a letter a week, and shared something about the museum on Twitter – from our stores, our history, and our present.

We’ve put together a gallery of all the items we shared over the course of the 26 weeks below, so you can look back through and see just some of the things that makes up Saffron Walden Museum.

If you want to stay up to date with what’s going on at the museum, and get an insight into some behind-the-scenes action, why not follow the museum on Twitter?

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. 

Object of the Month – December 2017

 

December’s Object of the Month is a pair of robins. The birds were chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This adult female robin has the familiar red face and breast feathers. It is a mounted, or stuffed, bird specimen that was given to the museum during the 1800s. Male and female adult robins look identical. On display with her is the preserved skin of a young male robin whose feathers are brown with pale spots. Juvenile robins grow red feathers after their first moult. This young robin was found dead at Saffron Walden, Essex in August 2000. Study skins prepared like this are used for research in museums.

Robins
The European robin, Erithacus rubecula, is a member of the thrush family, so it is related to the blackbird and the nightingale. They live in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens. Robins from northern Europe may visit Britain during winter. These small song birds only live for a couple of years. Robins eat worms, snails, insects, spiders and seeds, berries and fruits.
Robins are often pictured in snowy scenes on Christmas cards. However, a robin can use up 10% of its body weight during a cold night. Unless a bird is able to feed well every day a prolonged cold spell can be fatal. Putting out food on bird tables can help robins to survive. They eat mealworms, scraps of meat, fat, cheese, cake and biscuit crumbs, dried fruit and crushed peanuts.

Territory
The robin is one of the few birds that hold a territory all year round for breeding and feeding. In summer a territory is defended by a male and female breeding pair. During winter each robin will hold an individual territory. Robins will always defend their territories from other robins. They sometimes fight to the death.

Song
Robins sing all year round because they need to defend their territories. They will also sing at night, usually under artificial street lighting, and are often mistaken for nightingales. The song is a rippling stream of crystal-clear notes with changes of speed and volume. An alarm call is a sharp “tic”, or repeated ticking “tic-ic-ic…”.

Breeding and Nesting
Robins normally start breeding in March. Males and females only pair up for a season. They nest on, or near, the ground in sites such as hollow in a bank or tree root, in climbing plants or in sheds. British robins prefer open-fronted nest boxes. A female builds a cup-shaped nest from moss and dead leaves, and then lines it with hair.
The female lays and incubates four to six eggs. The young leave the nest, called fledging, at 14 days old. Their parents look after them for up to three weeks. Most pairs of robins will try to raise three broods of chicks a year.

You can see the robins on display in the museum until 1 January 2018.

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.

Object in Focus – Medieval Seal Matrix

 

We are preparing to re-display our special ‘treasure’ case in the archaeology gallery, to include some new finds we have just acquired under the Treasure Act. These include a small silver medieval seal matrix, a metal stamp with a design to press into sealing wax and make a seal. Curator Carolyn Wingfield has been doing a little research into medieval seal matrices as part of the preparation for the display.

Document with seal (Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the Middle Ages, anyone with property or money would probably need to seal official documents, or send letters in the course of managing personal and family business. Royalty, nobility and the Church had large and impressive official seals attached to their documents. People of lesser rank, such as clerics, merchants or farmers, would use small seal matrices made of lead or copper alloy to imprint a wax seal only 1-2cms across. Silver seal matrices are rarer and so we can imagine someone of some wealth and social status owned our silver seal matrix.

These small, common seal matrices were suspended by a cord from a belt or carried in a purse and so frequently got lost. As a result, metal detectorists find lots of seal matrices. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over 4,000 seal matrices on its database – 139 of them are from Essex.

Impression of the medieval seal matrix recently acquired by the museum

Seal matrices show a wonderful variety of inscriptions and designs, though there are certain themes which were popular. Many give us the names of their owners, ordinary people such as ‘Richard son of Ralph’ or ‘Annais the wife of William Dun’. Religious symbols and portraits of favourite saints occur as well as comic ones, such as a sleeping lion with the inscription ‘Wake Me No Man’. Other inscriptions include an instruction in Latin ‘Frange. Lege.Tege’ meaning ‘Break [the seal]. Read [the letter]. Conceal [the contents]’. Carolyn’s personal favourite was a seal matrix shown to her by a local metal-detectorist several years ago. It was engraved with a comical medieval ‘cartoon’ character which had a large two-faced head, running along on two little legs. The Latin inscription translated as ‘The Seal of Nonesuch’. Clearly some of our ancestors enjoyed a joke!

You can see some of the museum’s collection of Treasure on display in the Great Hall or have a look at our Treasure20 campaign

Object of the Month – November 2017

 

November’s Object of the Month is this tiny razor, called the Laurel Ladies Boudoir Safety Razor. It was made in Sheffield between 1935 and 1940 by a company called G H Lawrence Ltd. The razor was donated to the museum last month and belonged to the donor’s mother. It is only 4cm in length and the blade is just 2cm wide.

Inside the tin, there is a label which reads:
The “LAUREL” LADIES BOUDOIR SAFETY RAZOR has been designed with a view to making it THE SAFEST OF ALL SAFETY RAZORS.

The Slotted Guard is of Bakelite material properly shaped to secure the correct shaving angle, and also protects the corners of the Blade. It has no comb serrations or teeth to irritate the skin. The Registered LAUREL LADIES BOUDOIR BLADES are an integral part of the Razor.

Can be obtained everywhere in
CARTONS CONTAINING 6 BLADES FOR 6d

SHAVE WITH A “LAUREL”

Female beauty in the twentieth century

The early twentieth century saw a new emphasis on personal grooming and beauty products for women. It has been suggested that this was a result of the shortage of marriageable men following World War I – women felt they needed to look good to secure a husband. But it was also partly a result of the new fashions. In contrast to Victorian and Edwardian women who had covered up with long sleeves and full skirts, women were now showing more skin.

One of the companies that benefitted from this change was Gillette, who produced the first razor for women in 1916, called the Milady Décolleté. By the 1920s, tiny boxed razors were to be found in almost every bathroom cabinet, along with hair-removal creams and powders.

Magazines in the 1920s were full of adverts for products claiming to make skin beautiful, such as creams, treatments and razors. These adverts can tell us a lot about how women were perceived at the time. In 1922 an advert in the magazine Harper’s Bazaar focused on body hair as an embarrassment, encouraging women to “have immaculate underarms if she is not to be embarrassed”.  In 1924 an advert for Veet hair removal cream stated that “nothing is so repellent and disillusioning as hair growth on the arms of a woman”.

During the 1920s, most women covered their legs with stockings and by the 1930s, hemlines had dropped back down to the ankle or floor, so shaving and hair removal was focused on the underarms. However, during World War II, the shortage of nylon meant many women were forced to go bare-legged and as a result, more and more hair removal products were sold and shaving your legs became an expected norm.

Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, companies continued to market hair removal products at women, appealing to their desire to be feminine or attempting to make them feel ashamed of their body hair. By the 1970s, shaving had become widely accepted so companies focused on a closer or faster shave. In the 1980s, advertisers returned to the theme of women making themselves attractive to men, as seen in this advertisement, showing a man’s shadow across a woman and the phrase “If you want to get someone’s attention, just Whistle”.

Today, there is more conversation about the personal choice not to remove body hair, but adverts still aim to convince women that hair removal is an important way to look and feel glamorous and to be sexually appealing.

You can see the razor on display in the museum until 30 November 2017. 

Objects in Focus – Halloween Special

To celebrate Halloween, we’re delving back into the collections to see what ominous objects we can find! All of these objects have a connection with witches and witchcraft…

Witch bottle

Witch bottles were used to protect houses from evil spirits or to counteract spells cast by witches. They were often placed at entrance points to houses, such as fireplaces, doors and windows to stop evil spirits entering. 

Many witch bottles were made using bellarmine bottles, like this one, which was donated to the museum sometime between 1835 and 1900. They were filled with rosemary, needles and pins, red wine and sometimes hair or nail clippings. It was believed that the bottle would capture the evil spirit by impaling it on the pins and needles, drowning it with the wine, and sending it away with the rosemary.

 
Concealed shoe

Shoes were also concealed in houses to protect them from evil spirits. They were hidden under floors, in roofs, around doors or windows, or in fireplaces. This shoe is one of a pair of children’s shoes found concealed behind the fireplace at 21 High Street, Saffron Walden.

The earliest recording of a concealed shoe was from 1308. Many of the recordings come from the 1800s and the practice appears to have died out sometimes in the twentieth century. Lots of the shoes hidden belonged to children.

 
Witch mark

This is a close-up of a fireplace on display in the museum’s Local History Gallery. The fireplace stood in the Harvey family home in Market Street, Saffron Walden, and is believed to have been designed by the Tudor author Gabriel Harvey, for his father John.

Visible in this photograph is a carved mark, similar to a letter ‘W’. It is, in fact, two ‘V’s written over one another. The letters stand for ‘Virgin of Virgins’ and refer to the Virgin Mary. The mark was made to summon the protection of the Virgin Mary over the house. It has been carved on the fireplace to protect the house from evil spirits that might enter down the chimney.

Historic England have done a survey of witch marks in historic buildings, which you can find out more about here