Monday, January 25, 2021

Rachel List: We're All In This Together

At the end of 2020, we were privileged to install a new exhibition at Pontefract Museum, the first ever solo show by local lockdown artist, Rachel List. Sadly, Covid restrictions mean we haven’t yet been able to welcome visitors to the exhibition in person so we thought we’d bring Rachel’s colourful and poignant work to you online instead.

When lockdown began, like many of us, Pontefract artist, Rachel could no longer go out to work. She normally spends her days painting murals in people’s homes, which was not allowed under the restrictions. But even though she was unable to do her day job, Rachel still had an urge to make art.

‘For me work is not just work, I’ve got that drive to create.' 

Rachel List

So she took her brushes with her on her daily exercise and started painting her murals outside instead, livening up walls around Pontefract while most of us were still sleeping. Her bright, colourful works brilliantly capture the spirit of that first lockdown when we clapped for the NHS.

‘A lot of us had been furloughed and were sitting at home feeling pretty useless … and it just seemed important to show support.’

As a museum service we also want to collect objects that capture and tell the stories of Covid and lockdown in our communities. But of course we can't collect a huge mural on a pub wall. So we are immensely grateful to Rachel for recreating some of her work in a more manageable format for the exhibition. These paintings will also become a permanent part of the museum collection, preserved to tell the story of Pontefract’s lockdown for future generations.

‘It’s all about how something good can come out of a bad thing. There will be a rainbow after the storm.’
Rachel List

Film produced by Voices and Video -

To see Rachel's murals in their original locations and enjoy more of her work, why not explore our StoryMap:

Have you enjoyed Rachel’s work on your lockdown walks? We’d love to see your photographs. Join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #RachelList:

Twitter @WFMuseums, @Rachellist9
Facebook @PontefractMuseum 
Instagram @wakefieldmuseums, @rachthepachel

Digital Engagement Consultancy Opportunity

Wakefield Museums & Castles is looking to appoint a freelance digital consultant to develop a digital engagement strategy and action plan for the next three years. We want to review our current position, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the heritage sector, and develop an ambitious yet realistic strategy that will enable us to engage people with our collections in new and innovative ways.

In 2018, Wakefield Museums & Castles became a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funded by Arts Council England, to help them deliver their goal of ‘great art and culture for everyone’. Our current funding is in place until March 2023. One of the key aims of our NPO Business Plan is “to build a strong and diverse digital offer to raise our profile and improve the visitor’s experience and access to our collections and sites”. 

Over the past two years, we have made progress in achieving this aim; developing content for a new stand-alone website, developing the digital skills and expertise of our staff, and starting a programme of digitisation for our collections and historic documentation. However, it was the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of our museum sites that really pushed us forward in our use of digital. We quickly transitioned to a virtual offer, repurposing our Discover the Extraordinary blog to serve as a central hub for all our digital resources, and significantly increasing our social media output. We experimented with different types of content and platforms, always with the aim of maintaining access to and engagement with our collections and sites and keeping them at the heart of all of our content.

We would now like to undertake a review of our progress and use the valuable lessons and skills we have learned to develop an ambitious yet realistic digital strategy that will focus on digital audience development and engagement with our collections in new and innovative ways, over the next three years and beyond.

We want to:

  • Understand, increase and diversify our digital audience;
  • Increase engagement with, and accessibility of, our collections and sites through digital and be able to measure this;
  • Encourage creativity and community involvement with our digital activities;
  • Explore how we use digital interactions at our museum and castle sites;
  • Provide an online museum experience for those unable or unwilling to visit our sites in person;
  • Enhance the digital skills, expertise and confidence of our team, and effect a culture change in our organisation whereby digital becomes part of everyone’s role.

We are looking to appoint a consultant to help us devise a digital strategy and action plan, including:

  • Analysis of our current and target digital audiences (as distinct from our footfall audiences), and a methodology for measuring and evaluating digital impact, which might include benchmarking, analytics, KPIs etc.;
  • A strategy and streamlined process for developing and creating collections-based digital content, to reach new and more diverse audiences. This could include virtual tours, digital exhibitions and learning resources, videos, podcasts, games, mobile apps, live-streaming etc., featuring on our own website and/or third-party websites, including social media platforms;
  • An options analysis for future use and development of our Collections Online facility, including the introduction of open licensing;
  • The potential for user-generated digital content, including curated collections, exhibitions, tours, contributions of memories/information;
  • Digital interpretation techniques for use at our museum and castle sites, or at alternative sites in our communities, which could be anything from virtual reality experiences to touchscreen kiosks, and may involve third party developers;
  • The technology, hardware, software, tools and equipment needed to achieve our digital goals;
  • Staff training and skills development, ensuring everyone has the right level of digital capability and competency.

How to apply:

Please submit to the following documentation:

  • A CV or resume of your previous experience, qualifications, skills, references etc.
  • An indicative project plan, showing how you would meet the objective and outputs of the project. This should be no more than 4 sides of A4.
  • A simple budget showing how you will be using the available budget and how you will fit the timescale for delivering the project.
  • You may also include photographs or testimonials from previous projects if you feel they will be relevant to your application.

If you are shortlisted, you will be asked to attend an interview, via Skype, where you can expand upon your proposal and give a presentation to the project board.

Closing Date: Monday 15 February 2021, 9am

Interviews will take place in the week commencing 22 February 2021.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Play your cards right

The 'Twixmas' period is the perfect time for having fun with family, when many of us dig out the packs of cards and challenge each other to a game. So we thought we'd have a root in our Toys and Games collection for some ideas to pass the winter evenings. From traditional trick-taking and trumps, to more obscure offerings, we found some real aces.

We are all familiar with the humble playing card thanks to a long tradition dating back to the 14th century when playing cards first arrived in Europe. They most probably came to the West via India and Egypt from China, where they were likely invented along with the pioneering of paper and printing. Originally lavishly hand illustrated, playing cards were the preserve of the rich until advances in printing technology made them cheaper and more readily available to the masses. The backs of cards were left blank until the 19th century. They were first decorated to avoid cheating by marking cards but manufacturers soon saw the advertising potential. Playing cards are often now produced as promotion items like this pack advertising Wakefield based brewery, Beverleys.

Playing cards advertising Beverleys Beers, John Waddington Ltd, c. 1950s - 1970s

The four suits we are so familiar with in Britain today originate from France. The global popularity of whist and bridge meant the Anglo-French suitmarks became the international standard, although national variations remain.

Trump indicator used in whist. Whoever played the highest scoring clubs card would have won the trick in this round. 

The tabs on this whist marker lift up to indicate the score. The large tabs are for points scored in the round and the smaller tabs for number of rounds won. This is an exquisite example of a Shibayama marker exported from Japan- it is lacquered and inlaid with precious stones like mother of pearl.

Bridge set in Bakelite case, Seaforth, 1930s - 1950s

There are countless games to be played with a standard 52 card deck, whether single player or for teams or large groups. But we have also found a variety of other card decks in the collection, some educational and some a little more frivolous.

Counties of England, Jacques & Sons 

Counties of England is a geographical variation on Happy Families. Players compete to complete a county by collecting all the appropriate town cards. The winner collected the most counties. Of course, the real victor is whoever collects Yorkshire!

Beat Your Neighbour is a catch and collect game- the aim is to claim all your opponents’ cards. Without looking at their hand, each player turns over a card in turn. If someone plays a Put card, the next player has to surrender that number of cards. If they do not turn over a Put card themselves, the previous player claims the pile. There are many varieties of Beat Your Neighbours card, each with different themed illustrations.

Snip Snap, Stanfield Holdings, 1970s

Snip-Snap is a matching game with a difference. It was designed to help the British adapt to the new decimal currency system introduced in 1971. Players won cards by being the first to spot pairs. They would shout ‘Snip’ for a matching pair of decimal coins or ‘Snap’ for two identical old currency cards. When a pre-decimal card is matched with its new currency equivalent, players must declare, ‘Snip-Snap!’ whilst being careful not to call an incorrect pair and be forced to forfeit a card to each of their opponents.

Pit, John Waddington Ltd

Pit is a trading game mimicking a corn exchange. The cards represent different crops (9 cards for each of the 7 grains) and players vie to be the first to complete a full set. Players trade cards with each other, declaring the number of cards they wish to swap but not revealing the commodity. The traders all shout out their offers at once resulting in a high energy, high volume competition. Each complete set has a different points value and the victorious trader is the first to reach 500 points.

Muggins, R&S, early 20th century
There are no winners as such in this game - rather the objective is not to be the Muggins, the last player left holding any cards. There are four packs of cards numbered 1-25 that are shuffled and shared out by the dealer. The aim is to reunite the cards into their four groups. Each player takes it in turns to discard as many cards as they can but cards must be played in numerical order, either ascending from 1 or descending from 25. If you don't have the next number in the sequence, you must instead accept a card into your hand from each of your opponents.

Muggins promises 'roars of laughter'. As a nation, we have been enjoying card games for centuries. Which is your favourite?  Let us know what you've been playing these holidays in the comments and over on social media.

If you'd like more inspiration for games to enjoy this Christmas, check out Old Fashioned Fun and don't forget you can browse our Toys and Games collection online

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. 

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