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, 

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.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Drawing Pontefract

We are very pleased to share this special guest blog post by graphic designer, Georgina Westley about her recent exciting commission for Pontefract Museum.

Back in 2019 I was commissioned to create a piece of travel poster art for the town of Pontefract. This artwork was to be part of an exhibition celebrating the local artist Charles Pears, who hailed from Pontefract. Charles (born 1873) was a British painter, illustrator and poster artist, who during his illustrious career created artwork for London Underground and British Railways.

Charles Pears’ artwork of Paignton features in one of the books I use for inspiration and education.

The exhibition was planned to start in May 2020 but due to the Covid19 pandemic this exhibition has been postponed and the museum hope it will now take place in May 2021 (tbc). So to fill a little gap, those curating the show thought it might be interesting to give you a bit of an insight into who I am, why I was commissioned and how I go about creating this style of artwork.

My name is Georgina Westley (born 1976) and I have been working as a graphic designer for many years, but it was about 7 years ago that I created my first travel poster. At the time I had been enjoying playing about with linocuts (mostly aeroplanes) and my sister-in-law Beth asked if I could create her some artwork of Emley Moor mast. I felt that a linocut print would look too heavy and I’d always admired the travel poster artwork of the 1920s/30s era so I decided to give it a go.

My sister-in-law Beth with her framed artwork. What started as a quiet gift can now be found in many homes around the country.

Beth was really happy with it and passed on lots of positive feedback from her friends, who wanted to know if they could buy one. Around that time, my husband was made redundant, which - whilst horrid at the time - was the push I needed to get my artwork out there, seek new places to draw and begin selling online. I now have over 80 prints in my collection and an inexhaustible list of places and hobbies to get started on.

I love my job, so I was really honoured when Pontefract Museum got in touch to commission me to create a modern day travel poster to commemorate Charles Pears. My brother and his family live in Yorkshire - in fact they used to live in Pontefract - so even though I’m a *whispers* southerner, I am familiar with many of the beautiful towns and villages of Yorkshire.

The museum staff went on a recce for me and took a great selection of photos of the main square and I chose the photo below to form the basis of the artwork.

Great photo to work from but those empty market stalls will have to go.

I think it’s good to be able to see the original photo as it helps you see what I have left out, what I have put in, the colours I have changed, the exaggerated shadows, and where I have forced the perspective to make it as dynamic as possible. You will also notice the big fluffy cloud that I drew to lead the eye and mimic the angle of the church. However, my brother commented that due to the cooling towers at Ferrybridge there was often a big white cloud framing the town, so that was a nice bit of serendipity.

The finished artwork

Working with Pontefract Museum was thoroughly enjoyable. They gave me such a good brief in the first place, I was able to pretty much hit the mark on the first proof. The only changes made after this stage was a lightening up of the cobbles to make it feel more positive, a few pesky pigeons and the addition of flags to introduce a bit of colour. I hope at least some of you noticed the liquorice colours I chose for those flags.

Framed and ready to hang

I am looking forward to visiting the Charles Pears exhibition when it hopefully resumes and am hoping to come and give a little talk as part of the event so keep an eye out for that if you fancy hearing more. But for now, let me leave you with a few other pieces of artwork from Yorkshire - I’ve cropped them to make it a little harder.

The shapes and shades of Yorkshire. Do you know where these are?

For more information on my work, to buy prints or to contact me please visit:

Many thanks to Georgina for her post and the wonderful poster design. If you would like to find out more about Charles Pears and see some examples of his work, check out our online exhibition on Art UK Curations - we've brought together some of our favourite pieces from collections around the UK.