Category Archives: Human History

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.

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.

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.