Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Black History Month: Charles Waterton and slavery

Charles Waterton, the pioneering naturalist, explorer and conservationist of Walton Hall near Wakefield, also spent seven years as a manager of sugar plantations and enslaved people in Guiana in South America.

In 2019 Wakefield Museums & Castles began a research project to learn more about Waterton’s involvement with the practice of slavery. This final post in our Black History Month series outlines what we know so far and our plans for further research and changes to our galleries.

Charles Waterton by Charles Willson Peale in 1824. By this time Waterton had stopped working on plantations and returned to Europe, never to return to South America.

In the 1790s, Britain took over the control of Guiana from the Dutch. The land in the new colony was perfect for growing sugar and so had the potential to make lots of money for British investors. The Waterton family were among the many British people who rushed to buy land there, from wealthy merchants to poorer families. These sugar plantations exploited enslaved people to maximise profits.

The Waterton family and slavery

Waterton’s father and uncle each owned a plantation in Guiana:

              La Jalousie & Fellowship bought by Charles’ uncle, Christopher in 1797. In 1835 it had 292 enslaved persons.

              Walton Hall plantation bought by Charles’ father in 1805. It was sold in 1817 with 287 enslaved persons.

In his book, Essays on Natural History, Charles Waterton writes about how his family became involved in sugar and slavery:

Our family found its way to the New World in the following manner: - My father's sister [Anne] was remarkably handsome. As she was one day walking in the streets of Wakefield, a gentleman, by name [Michael] Daly, from Demerara, met her accidentally, and fell desperately in love with her: they were married in due course of time, although the family was very much averse to the match. Soon after this, my father's younger brother [Christopher], who had no hopes at home on account of the penal laws, followed his sister to Demerara, and settled there.

Source: Waterton, Charles; Natural History Essays

The penal laws restricted Catholic involvement in government and business. Waterton and his family were Catholics. Despite his aristocratic home and heritage, Waterton was unable to use his title as a Lord. He also couldn’t work as a judge, officer in the army, or become an MP.

Charles Waterton’s involvement with slavery

Aged 22, Waterton was sent to administer the plantations and the enslaved workforce on behalf of his family. He did this job for seven years (1805 – 1812). He might have received a salary for this work, but it is likely he was sent out in order to avoid paying someone outside of the family.

Charles’ father died in 1805, shortly after his arrival in Guiana, and Christopher died in 1809. Waterton then managed the plantations on behalf of his brothers and cousins. He didn’t actually own the plantations, which went to his brother after their father and uncle’s deaths. Instead, Charles inherited the family home, Walton Hall in Wakefield.

Walton Hall near Wakefield in 1830. Waterton’s father remodelled the house in the 1760s, long before he invested in slavery and sugar.

In 1833 Waterton was challenged over his family’s involvement with slavery. He wrote: 

I never possessed a slave in my life, or any part of a plantation. From 1807 to 1812, at intervals, I administered the estate of an uncle, and others; during the period, the yellow fever and tertian ague kept giving me frequent hints that there was not much pleasure to be expected from being ‘surrounded by slaves and attendants’

Waterton, Charles; Mag of Nat Hist.  July 7 1833. P.394

 Waterton finished working as a planation manager in 1812 and began his first ‘wandering’ in South America:

In the month of April, 1812, my father (Thomas) and uncle (Christopher) being dead, I delivered over the estates to those concerned in them, and never more put foot upon them. In my subsequent visits to Guiana, having no other object in view than that of natural history, I merely stayed a day or two in the town of Stabroek (now called George Town), to procure what necessaries I wanted; and then I hastened up into the forest of the interior, as the Wanderings will show.

Waterton riding a caiman out of the Essequibo River in Demerara by Captain Edwin Jones, 1820s. Daddy Quashi, a formerly enslaved man, can be seen pulling on the baited rope with members of an Amerindian tribe.

Waterton on slavery

Waterton never campaigned to end slavery but he did speak out against it. In his book, Wanderings in South America, he writes against the practice but defends the treatment of enslaved people by plantation managers:

slavery can never be defended; he whose heart is not of iron can never wish to be able to defend it: while he heaves a sigh for the poor negro in captivity, he wishes from his soul that the traffic had been stifled in its birth; but unfortunately, the governments of Europe nourished it, and now that they are exerting themselves to do away with the evil, and ensure liberty to the sons of Africa, the situation of the plantation slaves is depicted as truly deplorable, and their condition wretched. It is not so. A Briton’s heart, proverbially kind and generous, is not changed by climate, or its streams of compassion dried up by the scorching heat of a Demerara sun; he cheers his Negroes in labour, comforts them in sickness. Is kind to them in old age, never forgets that they are fellow creatures.

Source: Waterton, Charles; Wanderings in South America

In 1807 the transportation of enslaved people from Africa was abolished in the British Empire after a nationwide campaign. However, it did not end the practice of slavery in the colonies and the anti-slavery campaign focused on the treatment of slaves within the plantations. Waterton did not like this argument and wrote of kind treatment towards enslaved people. However, we do not know what conditions were actually like on the plantations he managed.

We do know that he taught taxidermy to John Edmonstone, who was enslaved to Charles Edmonstone, Waterton’s friend and future father in law, and that some formerly enslaved people accompanied Waterton on his famous expeditions in the rainforest.

When Britain finally abolished slavery in 1833, those that owned enslaved people received compensation from the government. The loan needed to pay the compensation was so big it was only paid off in 2015. As Waterton himself had not owned a plantation or any shares in enslaved people, he did not receive compensation, but some family members on his uncle’s side did.

Slavery and Wakefield Museum

Wakefield Museum does discuss anti-slavery and anti-racism campaigns in the Wakefield Stories gallery but does not currently explore Waterton’s relationship with the practice of slavery.

We believe that this aspect of Waterton’s life should be discussed within Wakefield Museum. We will be presenting the known facts about Waterton and slavery on a display panel and will be adding ‘Plantation Manager’ to the list of descriptive words to describe Waterton.

Wakefield Museums & Castles are now speaking to academics at the University of Leeds in order to try and verify our understanding of Waterton’s involvement with slavery and conduct further research, particularly into the conditions for the enslaved people on the Waterton family plantations. We hope to address these topics and start a deeper conversation in more detail in 2021.

This is the last post in our Black History Month 2020 series, although we continue to work towards researching and interpreting Wakefield’s links to slavery and its legacy.

Previous posts

John Edmonstone

Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone

Sugar nippers not shackles:slavery in local history collections

Monday, October 26, 2020

Black History Month: Sugar nippers not shackles

For Black History Month 2020, Wakefield Museums & Castles are exploring four stories related to British slave ownership in the early 1800s. This week, we are focusing on our collections and how we can reveal hidden stories from objects that at first glance seem to be unrelated.

The story of the British slave trade and slave ownership is part of every town and city in Britain. Local history museums can tell the story too. Although most local museums do not have the shackles or whips used to subjugate those who were enslaved, we can show how the products and profits of enslavement reached every home in Britain, including Wakefield. 

It can be surprising how many different and diverse stories museum objects can tell.

The Triangle of Trade

Banknote of the Wakefield Bank, Ingram, Kennett and Ingram, 1800

Captain Francis Ingram of Wakefield used the profits from trading in enslaved people to start Wakefield’s first bank. In the 1770s and 1780s he was a major figure in the slave trade, involved in 105 voyages, which took away close to 34,000 slaves from Africa. It is estimated that these ships delivered just over 29,000 people to the Americas, meaning that around 5,000 died making the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Ingram’s business was part of the so called Triangle of Trade. British merchants like Ingram sailed from ports such as Liverpool and traded goods for enslaved black people from African merchants in ports along the West African coast. 

The enslaved people were tightly packed into ships, which then travelled across the Atlantic to the British colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean. Many enslaved men, women and children died in the crossing. The ships were unsanitary and overcrowded.

The industrial revolution in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s relied on the exploitation of enslaved people in the British colonies. The merchants traded the enslaved to plantation owners in return for the goods they would be put to work to grow and harvest. The key products were cotton, coffee, rum, sugar, and tobacco. These goods were then shipped back to Europe and made their way to wardrobes, kitchens, dining tables and pockets in Britain. Some would then complete the cycle and be shipped to Africa to be traded for more enslaved workers.

The products of slavery

The use of slave labour enabled mass production, meaning that expensive commodities became more affordable to less wealthy families and began to appear in homes across the country. The household objects associated with these luxury goods eventually arrived in our museum collections.

Coffee pot, Newhall, 1820s

Sugar nippers, early 1800s

Sugar arrived at a household in a cone or ‘loaf’. It was broken up with a sugar axe or hammer and then nippers like these were used to cut off smaller chunks.

Sugar bowl, D. Dunderdale and Co., Castleford, 1790 – 1821

Bottle labelled ‘Jamaica rum’ from a travel chest ‘cellarette’, late 1700s

Tobacco box, late 1700s

Shamefully, the lives of most enslaved people from the early 1800s are absent from history. But their stories and suffering are often hidden in plain sight in our collections and displays, and the social and industrial history of the nation. 

This is the third article in our Black History Month series looking at Wakefield’s links to slavery. The final post next week will consider how the Waterton family were entangled with the practice of slavery in the late 1700s and early 1800s and what Wakefield Museum is doing to address it.

Previous posts

Monday, October 19, 2020

Black History Month: Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone

For Black History Month 2020, Wakefield Museums & Castles are exploring four stories related to British slave ownership in the early 1800s. In the second post of the series, we are looking at the extraordinary lives of three mixed race sisters.

Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone were born (1807, 1812 and 1813) into the messy mix of colonialism, violence and indigenous tribes of British Guiana, and later married into the family of an eccentric Wakefield naturalist. Their story begins in the world of slavery and ends in environmental activism and the creation of the world’s first nature reserve.

The Edmonstone sisters must have made quite an impression when they came to Wakefield in the late 1820s. They were described as tall, dark and beautiful maidens but the darkness of their skin also marked them as outsiders. On a visit in 1845, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin described them as ‘Mulatresses’, his only comment on them (an abhorrent racial slur today) forged purely by their skin colour and their mixed race heritage.

Early life in colonial South America

Eliza, Anne and Helen were born in hot, humid and remote British Guiana in South America, three of four sisters and two brothers. Their Scottish father was a wood merchant named Charles Edmonstone and their mother was descended from Amazonian royalty, ‘Princess’ Minda, the daughter of an Arawak chief from a powerful indigenous tribe.

Their home, Warrow’s Point on the Mibiri Creek, was an 11 day trek up the Demerara River from the coast line plantations, the ports and markets, and the decadence of the capital Georgetown. The Edmonstones’ domestic life was a curious set up. Two families of freed slaves lived in the garden (one of whom was John Edmonstone) and they were taught how to read and write by a Scotsman called Old Glen, a former sailor, soldier, plantation owner and preacher who lived in a hut at the end of the garden. The family regularly entertained military generals, politicians, tribal leaders and even enslaved people. It was here that their father became close friends with Anne’s future husband, Charles Waterton of Walton Hall. 

Mr Edmonstone’s Wood Cutting Establishment

Mibiri Creek, Demerara River

Thomas Staunton St Clair, sketched around 1808

A Residence in the West Indies and America (London 1834, Vol 2)

Copyright unknown

This multi-cultural home put the family at the centre of many tensions within colonial life. Charles Edmonstone’s family connections to the indigenous tribes put him in a unique position. He was employed by the British Government to track down enslaved people, who often made camps within the rainforest. This role brought violence and former slaves were sometimes killed by the hunters. The idea of hunting down those that had escaped their bondage is repugnant but was very common throughout the British colonies.

Despite his role as hunter, Edmonstone also insisted that all recaptured enslaved people be pardoned and never returned to their ‘owners’. Instead they were exiled to neighbouring islands. Edmonstone had the title of Burgher – captain and Protector of the Indians during his time in Guiana and was vocal in his belief that the indigenous people should have better treatment and protection.

A Scottish proposal

In 1817 the family left the colour, chaos and colonialism of Guiana for cold and grey Scotland. They were now wealthy and, having bought back the ancestral home, Cardross Park near Glasgow, attempting to insert themselves into Scottish high society. It must have been a huge culture shock for the children and their mother.

Ten years later, Charles Waterton, who had now completed four adventures in the Americas and been busily creating a museum in his house and the world’s first nature park in his grounds, came to Cardross Park to visit his old friend with a proposal to marry Anne. He had written the previous month stating that he had not ‘the courage enough to look for a wife’.

He would have found the Edmonstones in a poor state. The whole family struggled with the British climate - the sisters suffered from back aches, leg aches and headaches; their father’s health was deteriorating; and their mother was painfully thin and reliant on laudanum. Waterton’s proposal may have come as a relief to the mounting debts and uncertainty, for within two years the sisters were orphans.

To Bruges

Waterton’s family were strict Catholics so Eliza and Anne were sent to the English Convent in Bruges to be converted to Catholicism. They regularly wrote to their younger sister, Helen, in Scotland during their two year regimented stay in Bruges. Wakefield Museums and Castles holds several of their letters. They write with affection for their new surroundings:

‘It is just, my dearest Helen, that I should now answer the many letters you have written to me and endeavour at the same time to give you an account of the Many happy days I have spent in this Dear Convent .’ 

Anne Edmonstone to Helen, October 1827

As the wedding day grew closer, Anne expressed her nervousness and fear for marrying. Although she states she is ‘confident of his love’, in the month before her wedding she writes:

‘The time of my marriage approaches very quickly. I tremble when I think of it. One happiness is that it will be very private’

Anne Edmonstone to Eliza, 20 April 1829

Wakefield Museums & Castles collection

The couple married at 5:30am on 18th May 1829 at the convent. She was only 17 and Waterton was 47. There is a plaque commemorating the marriage at the convent today.

A tragic loss

Whilst the newlyweds departed for a honeymoon across Belgium, France and Italy, Eliza travelled to Walton Hall to meet Charles Waterton’s sister, Helen Carr.

‘I found Walton Lake beyond description and Mr and Mrs Carr a charming couple (to use our dear Father’s expression) lay aside your fears Annie Dear. I am certain you will like her at first sight. She spoke in the kindest manner and she longed very much for you arrival in England.

Eliza Edmonstone to Anne Waterton, nee Edmonstone, 23 June 1829

Eliza  and Helen soon settled into the surroundings of Walton Hall.

Walton Hall as it looked when Eliza and Helen arrived in 1831. Drawn by Waterton’s friend Captain Jones.

By the autumn of 1829 Helen was at the English Convent, Eliza had returned to Scotland, and Anne had settled into life at Walton Hall and entered a pregnancy that would end in tragedy. She gave birth to a boy, Edmund, on 19 April 1830. Anne died on 27 April. She was 18, a wife for less than a year, a mother for eight days.

‘Her Dear baby, “Edmund Waterton” is alive and well –she requested that you might be informed that she died – ‘most happy’ She had a deep seated conviction that she should die and this did not at all dis-compose her.’

J.G.Morris to Sister Marian Nyren at the English Convent, Bruges, 27th April, 1830

Family life at Walton Hall and beyond

Waterton requested to be made responsible for Eliza and Helen and within a few months had formed a new family unit of two sisters, a brother and a son, which would endure for the next 35 years.

I feel a great comfort in thinking that you are with him, that you will soothe his grief by your Sisterly and affectionate conduct.

Marian Nyren to Eliza Edmonstone, June 25th Bruges, 1830

 They were extremely close and rarely separated:

My sisters and I keep Spanish hours. We breakfast at eight, dine at one, and take tea and coffee at six….we are so close we are like three branches on a single stem’

Charles Waterton to Norman Moore, 1864


Eliza and Helen with baby Edmund

Extract from The Extraordinary Life of Charles Waterton, A comicbook adventure, Part Three, The Defence of Nature, 2015

Drawn by Richard Bell

Being the older sister, Eliza was in a position of responsibility - she managed the house and supervised Edmund’s education until he went away for school. She wrote the letters to Charles when he was away, with a note added by Helen. When Charles took a local polluting soap making business to court for pollution, it was a property owned by Eliza that settled the argument.

Both sisters suffered from ill health, possibly from the climate. Eliza had bad knees and lungs, Helen had kidney problems, and both suffered debilitating headaches. Waterton took them on European tours in search of cures, to various French and German spa towns and warmer climates. As with most journeys with Waterton, they had to endure mishaps like getting shipwrecked off the coast of Italy.

Lost to history

In his later years, Waterton obviously trusted his sisters with his legacy much more than he did his own son. Edmund was resentful, particularly of Eliza’s position in the family. Waterton changed his will late in his life to give Walton Hall and its contents to Eliza and Helen. When Waterton died in 1865, Edmund took the sisters to court. They avoided a confrontation by agreeing to leave Walton Hall for a house in Scarborough but they never settled in one place. Eliza died in Ostend in 1870 aged 63 and Helen died in 1879 in Bruges aged 66. Neither sister married.

As Charles Darwin’s comments show, the colour of Eliza and Helen’s skin marked them out at the time as exotic outsiders. Another visitor to Walton Hall compared the sisters to the Native Americans he had seen in Canada. An unspecified incident occurred with Eliza in 1854, which nearly led to the two sisters leaving Walton Hall for good. Could the distress caused have been related to her mixed race heritage?

These few descriptions of the sisters is all that we have. They did have their portraits painted but they are lost, as are the meticulous diaries they kept. We are forced instead to rely on their relationship with Waterton for an understanding of their lives.

Over the next fortnight, we will be sharing two further articles focusing on the connections between Charles Waterton of Walton Hall and the practice of slavery in the early 1800s.

Previous post

Friday, October 9, 2020

Black History Month: John Edmonstone

For Black History Month 2020, Wakefield Museums & Castles are exploring four stories related to British slave ownership in the early 1800s. This week, we are focusing on the life of John Edmonstone (179? - 1833?): Taxidermist, teacher, slave.

The lives of individual enslaved people are difficult to learn about - their stories are underrepresented in schools and in society as a whole. Documented stories of individuals are also few and far between. They were treated as property, used for the service and profit of others. John Edmonstone, named by the man who enslaved him, is a rare story. His life began in enslavement in South America and ended as a respected teacher and skilled taxidermist in Edinburgh.

The first known reference to John is in ‘Wanderings in South America,’ a famous book written in 1825 by Charles Waterton of Walton Hall near Wakefield. During a third expedition to Demerara in British Guiana in 1820, he returned to Mibiri Creek, ‘the former habitation of my worthy friend Mr Edmonstone’. His ‘worthy friend’ was Charles Edmonstone, a close friend and future father in law. Charles Edmonstone owned a wood cutting business that used an enslaved workforce, including John Edmonstone.

Mr Edmonstone’s Wood Cutting Establishment

Mibiri Creek, Demerara River

Thomas Staunton St Clair, sketched around 1808

A Residence in the West Indies and America (London 1834, Vol 2)

Copyright unknown

Waterton was highly skilled at preserving birds for display in his museum in Wakefield. The skins he acquired had to be preserved very quickly in the heat of South America and he needed help to do it. He writes:

"It was upon this hill in former days that I first tried to teach John, the black slave of my friend Mr. Edmonstone, the proper way to do birds. But John had poor abilities, and it required much time and patience to drive anything into him. Some years after this his master took him to Scotland, where, becoming free, John left him, and got employed in the Glasgow, and then the Edinburgh Museum.”

Waterton, Charles, Wanderings in South America, the north-west of the United States, and the Antilles in the years 1812, 1816, 1820 and 1824, London, 1825, pp 153 - 154

Waterton was a difficult man, known to have a quick temper, was very argumentative and rarely praised people  - John was no exception. Although Waterton described him as having ‘poor abilities,’ it’s very likely that John accompanied him on numerous expeditions into the rainforests of Guiana and learned valuable taxidermy skills.

Waterton stated that, once freed, John began an independent life in Scotland. The Edinburgh Post Office Directory for 1824 – 1825 lists John Edmonston (missing an ‘e’) as a bird-stuffer, living at 37, Lothian Street. This address is close to Edinburgh University and he had found employment teaching students how to preserve birds. One of his students would become one of the world’s greatest naturalists – Charles Darwin.

Darwin and his brother lodged a few doors away. In his autobiography he confirms Edmonstone’s connections with Waterton:

'a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.’

Darwin, Francis, Editor, The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter, 3 vols. London, 1887, Vol 1, p.40.

Edmonstone’s lessons cost Darwin ‘one guinea, for an hour every day for two months’. For that bargain price he learned skills that would last him a lifetime. It’s possible those 40 or so sessions inspired the impressionable young student to quit medicine and become a naturalist. Five years later, in 1831, Darwin undertook his historic voyage on board the HMS Beagle, on which he first began to form his theory on natural selection. The Gal├ípagos finches, used to support his theory on the transmutation of species, were preserved using the techniques that Edmonstone had taught him.

Artist impression of John Edmonston teaching a teenage Charles Darwin in Edinburgh, 1825

Copyright unknown

Edmonstone was a celebrated taxidermist in his day; along with teaching, some his work was bought by Edinburgh’s zoolological museum. The museum register shows the acquisition of a 15ft skin of a boa constrictor in 1822 – 23, presented by a Mr Edmonston. In October 1823 the weekly report books state that two swallows, one water ouzel and one chaffinch were bought from John Edmonston, and fishes in 1825.

Waterton’s boa constrictor on display at Wakefield Museum

Was the boa preserved by John Edmonstone similar?

Very little more is known about him. The Edinburgh Post Office Directory lists him living in 1832-33 at 6, South St David’s Street, Edinburgh. It is shameful that most stories of enslaved people are only known through the writing of those in a position of white privilege. We do not have John’s point of view of his enslavement or even whether he had any choice in joining Waterton on his expeditions. All we know is that after he gained his freedom, he became a highly respected teacher and craftsman in the art of taxidermy (soon to become a Victorian obsession) and a mentor to one of the most important thinkers of the 1800s.

Today he is regarded as one of the '100 Great Black Britons'.

Throughout October we will be sharing three further articles focusing on the connections between Charles Waterton of Walton Hall and the practice of slavery in the early 1800s. 

Find out more:






Thursday, September 10, 2020

Heritage Open Days: St Thomas of Pontefract

Did you know? Pontefract was the site of reputed miracles in the 14th century.


This is just one of the fascinating stories featured in a talk from the Wakefield Museums & Castles programme about the folklore surrounding Pontefract Castle.  For Heritage Open Days, we're sharing a taster of the talk, which aims to establish which castle myths are fact and which are fiction, with this tale of Thomas of Lancaster.

Thomas of Lancaster with St George
Unknown author / Public domain

Thomas inherited the Earldom of Lancaster in 1296, when he was just 18.  He had married Alice de Lacy two years earlier and, by agreement of the marriage contract, he went on to inherit her father's titles and lands at Lincoln and Pontefract, which he retained even after he and Alice divorced in 1318.

Family feud

Lancaster was involved in a long running feud with his cousin, King Edward II.  It centred around Lancaster and a number of other barons’ intense dislike of two royal favourites: Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser.  His dislike for the two was rooted in his jealousy at how closely they seemed to control Edward, and in the closeness of their relationship, which was seen to be unnatural.

Lancaster acted as “judge” in the trial and subsequent execution of Gaveston in 1312.  He went on to lead a rebellion against Despenser in 1321.  This time, however, he was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, where he was captured, taken to Pontefract Castle and tried.  Incidentally, he was tried in the Royal Apartments at the castle, having been held in “Thomas’s Tower” (now known as the Constable Tower), which ironically had supposedly been constructed for the sole purpose of holding Despenser!  The King, who by this point had developed an intense dislike for Lancaster, sat on the tribunal himself alongside two members of the Despenser family. 

Foreground: The Royal Apartments, scene of Thomas’s Trial

Back right: The Constable Tower, site of the Thomas’s Tower.

Lancaster was not able to give evidence in his defence, and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and beheaded. This was later commuted to a simple beheading owing to his royal blood.  The act was to be carried out on a hill behind the castle on 22nd March 1322.

Miracle man

Lancaster's rebellion against an unpopular king won him popularity with the people.  His objection to the King's controversial close relationship with a single advisor saw him gain support from his men and other barons.

Thus, when miracles were reported at the site of his execution - including that of a cleric curing his blindness by rubbing sand from the spot into his eyes - people were quick to call for Thomas' canonisation. One of his knights even financed a chapel on what is now known as St Thomas' Hill. He was venerated locally until the Reformation in the 16th century.

1888 map of Pontefract, showing St Thomas’s Hill, St Thomas’s Mill, and the site of St Thomas’s Chapel

Long forgotten

Despite a petition from the Commons to Edward III calling for his canonisation, Thomas was never granted official sainthood. Today, Pontefract’s 'saint', who was celebrated for acts that would now be considered hate crimes or treason, is largely forgotten. There are now houses on the site of the former chapel and even the tower that Thomas built was later remodelled and renamed.  But if ever you are looking for an unusual fact about Pontefract, you can say it was the site of supposed miracles in the 14th century and claimed its own saint.

Visit our Heritage Open Days: Hidden Histories of Wakefield Museums & Castles page for more from our weird and wonderful collections and sites.

Heritage Open Days: Behind the scenes at the museum store

The Wakefield Museums & Castles collection contains more than 111,000 objects that tell the story of our district from the distant past to the present day. Today, we can only display a small proportion of the collection at any one time. But even if they're not on show, all the objects are kept safe for future use. To celebrate Heritage Open Days 2020, we thought we'd give you a sneak peek behind the scenes at the museum store, sharing some highlights of the collection and how we care for them.

A century of collecting

Our collection has been in development for over a century and continues to grow today. The first museum in Pontefract was established by volunteers at Pontefract Castle in the 19th century. In Wakefield, Holmfield House in Clarence Park opened its doors as the city's first museum and art gallery in 1923. And by the 1930s, objects were also being collected in Castleford, originally by the local library. 

Pontefract's first museum opened at the castle on 29th April 1892 with 256 objects.

Visitors enjoying an exhibition at Holmfield House, 1930s

In 2020, our social history and archaeology collections are a treasure trove of fascinating stories that form the basis of our main museum galleries, our special exhibitions, and many displays in our communities across the district. We regularly update our displays to showcase as many different objects as possible. Those that are not currently on display are looked after at the museum store.

From the very small...

This tiny pig shaped Stanhope viewer contains six early 20th century images of Castleford and measures just 16 x 21 x 10mm!

... to the very large! 

Dennis Big Four fire engine

The engine was used by the City of Wakefield fire bridge, 1935-1954, before being acquired by the museum in 1968.

And the very old...

Ancient Egyptian clay mould for jewellery manufacture, c. 1200-1400 BC

... to the very new.
Child's Peppa Pig set, 2018

All shapes and sizes

In the collections store, we organise objects according to a variety of criteria, including size, shape, material or theme. This makes the best use of our space, allows us to meet the varied conservation needs of different kinds of objects, and helps us to find things more easily. Our objects are packed using inert materials that won't cause their condition to deteriorate and will help protect them from dust and dirt, changes to the environment, or damage by movement and vibration.

Here's a whistle stop tour!

These archive boxes contain our photographic and ephemera (paper based) collections, organised by theme.

Ephemera is kept flat in conservation grade polyester sleeves and supported by acid free cardboard.

A selection of typewriters in one of our small social history aisles

Most small social history objects are wrapped in acid free tissue and boxed.

These drawers contain some of our large plastics collection. Plastic requires specialised care and, unlike other objects, these need air circulation and so are not stored in sealed boxes. We store plastics according to their type (e.g. PVC) and they are supported on inert Plastazote. 

Storing suitable objects on wall mounted wire mesh allows us to save shelf space for bulkier items.

More than you can shake a walking stick at

The right tool for the job

Our large social history racking includes our furniture collection.

Our archaeology aisles contain many thousands of finds from local excavations.

Larger archaeology such as stonework is kept on wooden pallets on stronger shelving, which can support heavy objects. 

Like these cannon balls!

Hive of activity

As well as our weird and wonderful objects, there's often a few members of the collections team to be found at the store - our natural habitat! This is where we add new objects to the collection and prepare for exhibitions, amongst many other tasks.

Every object is given a unique identification number on our collections database. After a new acquisition has been accepted into the collection, we create a record that tells us what it is and what it looks like, how and when we acquired it, and what's special or interesting about it. During the object's lifetime in the collection, its record is updated to document when it is exhibited or used, any change in its condition or any conservation work, or if we find out any new information about it. 

Once we have catalogued the object, it will be marked with its unique number. We use materials that won't damage the object and write the label somewhere where we can find it but that won't be visible on display. All labelling is semi-permanent - we don't want the number to come off so that we can't match it to its record but we also don't want to permanently change the object's appearance.

Cataloguing kit

After labelling, the object goes for photography. Good images help us to identify objects in future and keep a track of their condition. It also means that we can share our collections online - whether in our searchable databases, on our social media, or here on this blog!

A new acquisition ready for its close up!

Finally, the object is carefully packed and put away, making sure to record the location on its catalogue record so that we can find it in future, for example if we want to include it in an exhibition.

When we're choosing objects for exhibitions, we need to check their condition to make sure that it won't cause them any damage. Sometimes, we need to send items for conservation before we can display them. 

We often use the space at store to practise our exhibition layouts and test what will fit in our cases and which arrangements look best. 

We hope you've enjoyed this special Heritage Open Days glimpse into our store. For more behind the scenes content and collections stories, stay tuned to the blog and our social media. 

And if this has whet your appetite, you'll find some of our collections available to browse online.

Visit our Heritage Open Days: Hidden Histories of Wakefield Museums & Castles page for more from our weird and wonderful collections and sites.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

If you're hoping for some sunshine and planning on heading to the coast this bank holiday weekend, you're following in the footsteps of a long line of Brits. By the mid 20th century, more day trippers and holiday makers than ever before were flocking to Britain's beaches. The provision of public holidays and paid annual leave meant more people could treat themselves to a break. 

We've been looking through our collections for some inspiration for a bank holiday adventure.

Where to go

First things first, deciding where you want to visit! During the heyday of the great British seaside holiday in the mid 20th century, most people travelled by public transport. Employers and community groups often organised special excursions, whilst rail companies offered summer timetables with extra services to ferry workers to the coast. Tourist boards at seaside resorts often worked with the rail companies, running joint publicity campaigns to tempt travellers onto trains to the beach. They produced travel guides with information on train times, attractions and accommodation. 

Resorts and hotels on the Yorkshire coast feature in this brochure by British Rail.

Holmes Printers produced this poster advertising a train trip to the seaside from Pontefract.

Local amateur photographer, Jack Hulme captured this shot of buses taking Fryston miners' families to the beach.

The travel poster was the rail companies' primary marketing tool. They appointed top artists to produce eye-catching designs that showed off the seaside in all its splendour as a fun family day out. Their works are now considered iconic. Pontefract-born Charles Pears was one of the famous artists commissioned to paint packed piers and bustling beaches. 

1934 poster design by Charles Pears
© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk 

You can see more poster designs by Charles Pears in our Art UK Curation - we celebrate his career by bringing together some of our favourite works from collections across the UK.

In honour of Pontefract's famous son, we commissioned graphic designer, Georgina Westley, to produce a modern travel poster for the town inspired by Charles Pears. See the poster and read about the design process in Georgina's recent guest blog post, Drawing Pontefract.

What to pack

So you've picked your preferred resort and booked your train tickets. It's time to pack those holiday essentials. You'll need your beachwear - perhaps inspired by the fashionable bathing belles adorning Pears' posters. By the 1950s, beach censors no longer policed the length of bathing suits. The modesty protecting skirts and long sleeves of the previous century had been replaced by halter fastenings, sweetheart necklines, dropped waists and figure flattering ruching.

Swim and beach wear, 1950s-1970s

Once you've selected your attire, don't forget your bucket and spade- and you'll want your camera for snapshots of your sandcastles!

Rubber seaside buckets, 1980s

Brownie 127 camera, Kodak, 1950s

On the beach

Hopefully you can claim yourself a prime spot on the sand to lay out the picnic blanket and set up camp for the day, like the Gill family at Bridlington in the 1930s.

Or perhaps you'd prefer to sunbathe on a deckchair like these 1950s holiday makers.

Later on, you might go for a walk along the seashore...

... or even be brave enough to have a paddle!

You should have plenty to write about in your postcards home.

Before you leave

Make sure you take home a reminder of your trip with a souvenir or two from the seaside gift shops. 

In the mid 20th century, many tourists making their way back to the Five Towns from a trip to the coast may have had purchases in their suitcases that were closer to home than they realised. These mementos of Bridlington were actually made by Bagley and Co Ltd at their Knottingley glassworks.

Bagley's made similar souvenirs for several resorts, including this nautical novelty for Great Yarmouth. The floral design was hand painted. Why not have a go yourself with our latest Colour our Collections sheet?

Click here to download your colouring sheet

Let us know if you're going in search of the sea air over the long weekend. We'd love to know what you get up to- especially if you're inspired by any of our collections! 

Or if you're staying at home this bank holiday, why not pass the time with our digital jigsaw and enjoy Georgina's beautiful poster design.