Thursday, September 9, 2021

Collections on the Move

At Wakefield Museums & Castles, we hold over 110,000 objects, which tell the story of our district from prehistory to modern day. As with most museums, we only have space to display a small proportion of these objects in our museums – the rest are carefully looked after in our museum store. You can go behind the scenes at the museum store here.

Racking in the store, with furniture and larger social history objects

In the autumn and winter of 2021, we will carry out a partial move of our stored collections. We need to move around half of our collections to a new building. Thankfully, this new building is on the same site as our existing store, so we don’t have far to move. However, it’s vital that we protect our objects during the move, so that nothing gets damaged.

Racking in the store, with boxed objects

To protect our objects, we are currently re-packing them, using conservation-grade materials such as acid-free tissue paper. This involves making lots of tissue puffs and tissue sausages, which we can use to pad out the box, making sure that the objects don’t move around when the box is lifted or carried. This also prevents the objects from touching or rubbing against one another, which can cause damage.

A re-packed box, containing glass bottles

Larger objects need to be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and bubble wrap, or secured in crates for moving. We’re also taking the opportunity to give everything a good clean. Conservation students Kylie and Zoe, from Lincoln University, have been helping us to clean our objects, using conservation cleaning methods.

All of this work takes a lot of time and effort. Our Collections team are working on this project almost full-time and we also have five amazing volunteers who are supporting us. Unfortunately, this means that some of our other services have been put on hold, while we focus our attention on the collections move. We are currently unable to respond to collections enquiries, image reproduction requests or offers to the collection, until further notice. If you have emailed us with an enquiry, we have noted it and we will respond to you as soon as possible once these services have been resumed.

It is our responsibility to care for our collections so that generations of people can enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by their heritage. Please bear with us while we work on this important project and stay tuned for more updates.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

On this day in history: telling the fascinating story of our medieval castles

Over the last few years, a group of volunteers at Pontefract Castle has been publishing ‘On this day in history’ articles for the castle’s Facebook page. In this special guest post, they explain how the project came about and introduce their exciting new website.

By Kevin Wilson and Alan Archer

This project developed out of a desire to bring the fascinating histories of both Pontefract and Sandal Castles to a much wider audience. The 'on this day' Facebook articles were tremendously well received, with at times more than 10,000 hits for any particular post. A good example of one of the most popular posts was in relation to the death of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster:

“Following the defeat of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, lord of Pontefract, and his supporters at the Battle of Boroughbridge on March 16th 1322, Thomas was tried and condemned in the Great Hall at Pontefract Castle. He was denied the opportunity to speak in his defence and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentence was commuted to beheading because Thomas was the king’s cousin and, it is rumoured, due to the intercession of Queen Isabella. He was taken on a mule to St Thomas’ Hill - as it has since been known - and executed on the 22nd March 1322 in sight of his castle and whilst facing Scotland (symbolic of his alleged treasonable correspondence with the Scots.) ...”

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster being led to his execution
James William Edmund Doyle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Similar interest has been shown in the history of Sandal Castle, with one of the most popular entries relating to the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460:

“On 30th December 1460, the Battle of Wakefield was fought on the plain ground between Sandal Castle and the town of Wakefield i.e. to the north of Sandal Castle. This battle has often been overlooked in history mainly due to its short duration (one to two hours) and the number of combatants (about 30,000) when compared against some of the great battles of the era at St Albans, Towton, and Barnet. However, this battle changed the course of English history as the Yorkists were routed, losing 2,500 men. Richard, Duke of York himself was killed and his head subsequently displayed on Micklegate Bar in York …”
Richard, Duke of York memorial on Manygates Lane, Wakefield
SMJ / Richard of York Memorial

As a result of the interest shown in these articles, it was clear there was a real thirst for knowledge about the history of Pontefract’s royal castle and its neighbour, Sandal. In seeking to build upon this interest and provide a permanent and repeating record of historical events at both Pontefract and Sandal Castles, we developed, which aims to tell a day-by-day history of both castles through the centuries. The entries on this site have been thoroughly researched through the reading of historical books and texts, articles, ancient chronicles, websites and the contributions of published historians.

The Keep, Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Castle was originally built in 1070 by the de Lacy family, who had journeyed to England with William the Conqueror. The castle was first built of timber but over time a stone fortress was constructed and added to.

The first castle at Sandal started to be built in 1107 at Lowe Hill by the de Warenne family, who also arrived with the Norman Conquest. In the early 13th century, a more defensible castle was built at the site we see today. The castle had a compact but very secure design.

Sandal Castle

The histories of the two castles are inextricably linked. Their story is the story of medieval England: from their initial development as motte and bailey castles built on lands granted to Norman barons who had supported William of Normandy in his conquest of England, through Magna Carta, the local and baronial wars of Thomas of Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil Wars, and the castles' destruction in its immediate aftermath. 

However, this is a story that has often been overlooked, and through the new website, we hope to bring the histories of these two great castles to a wholly new audience. With Pontefract being the ‘Key to the North’ and Sandal being the site of the death of the ‘heir’ to the throne, Richard Duke of York, as well as the site of Richard III’s ‘Council of the North’, this is a fascinating narrative that deserves to be more widely known.

We actively encourage feedback and contributions to our website through the ‘Contact Us’ button on the right of the front page of the website. 

A big thank you to Kevin and Alan and the fantastic volunteer researchers team for this guest post and all their work on Facebook. We wish them the best of luck with the new website.

To find out more about Sandal Castle's history and recent improvements to the site, including brand new interpretation, check out Sandal Castle: from noble beginnings to picturesque ruins

Sandal Castle: From noble beginnings to picturesque ruins

In recent years, over £700,000 has been invested in Sandal Castle as part of a project to share and preserve its fascinating heritage for current and future visitors. Essential conservation work on the ruins has helped to stabilise the stonework and protect it from the elements, whilst maintenance on the wooden walkways and bridges has improved access. Last year, we also installed new interpretation panels. Vibrant illustrations commissioned from Yorkshire based artists bring the castle's turbulent past and picturesque present to life. 

A brief history by Nick Ellwood

First built in the early 12th century, Sandal Castle has a long history. Award-winning York based illustrator, Nick Ellwood, introduces the key eras in this comic book style panel. The art work takes us from noble beginnings under the de Warenne family, when the castle developed from a wooden motte and bailey style to a stone keep and courtyard design; through trouble in both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil Wars; to a space for exploring and relaxing today. 

Nick's other work can be seen in newspapers, on book jackets and across the museum and heritage sector. In his work Nick celebrates and explores both stories from today and from the past, observing and questioning people’s behaviour, actions, characteristics and quirks. Clients include The Guardian, English Heritage, Random House Publishing, The National Coal Mining Museum England, The Thackray Medical Museum Leeds, Arts Council England and the BBC.  Nick currently teaches illustration at York St John University and regularly exhibits across the UK.

The Battle of Wakefield by Tomekah George

This board looks out towards the scene of the Battle of Wakefield, a crucial part of the War of the Roses. Whilst today the scene is peaceful, on 30th December 1460, this was the site of a brutal battle in which Richard Duke of York was defeated and killed by the Lancastrians. Illustrator, designer and animator, Tomekah George has captured the carnage of the battle.

Tomekah specialises in bold collage and colourful illustration. She creates content for clients all over the world, from the USA to London, Manchester and more. Since graduating from an illustration degree in 2018, she’s worked on books, animations, digital illustrations and products, as well as being shortlisted in nationwide competitions and regularly taking part in exhibitions. She’s particularly interested in working on stories that promote a positive message or draw attention to sensitive topics such as inequality and representation, an interest that develops from a working-class upbringing, which influences her style and approach. Her work is emotive, colourful & warm at heart.

A day in the life of a medieval castle by Liz Kay

In the early 1480s, Richard III ordered improvement work at Sandal Castle to make it more comfortable and defensible as a permanent base in the north of England. This was a rare period of investment in the castle, which was largely left to decline from the mid 14th century. Liz Kay's illustration depicts the castle in 1485 after the improvements were completed. It offers visitors a glimpse into the bustling castle courtyard, kitchens, gatehouse and Great Hall. 

Liz Kay has been working for over ten years as an illustrator whose work has been used across children’s books, murals, maps, animation, magazines & newspapers. Liz lives and works in Wakefield, and loves to work on projects that involve aspects of her hometown. This project to show a snapshot of Sandal Castle in 1485 allowed her to explore her interest in the everyday lives of people throughout history and incorporate her passion for maps, architecture, calligraphy and period costume.  

A castle in ruins by Richard Bell

From October 1645, having been besieged three times during the English Civils Wars, Sandal Castle lay in ruins. Over the centuries, it became a place to take in spectacular panoramic views over the Calder Valley and towards Wakefield city centre. The castle has been excavated by archaeologists several times since 1893. Natural history illustrator, Richard Bell, here turns his hand to depicting the castle ruins as we can enjoy them today and gives a taste of what the different remains would have looked like in their heyday. The panel also highlights some of the key archaeological discoveries.

The Keep would once have stood four storeys high.

The discovery of ointment pots suggests that the kitchen was used as a field hospital during the English Civil Wars.

Richard Bell studied natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art. He writes a nature diary for The Dalesman magazine and his local publications include Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, All Sorts of Walks in Liquorice Country and a guide to Sandal Castle. His work features in the permanent collections of The Hepworth Wakefield and The National Coal Mining Museum for England.

See for yourself

If you live locally and would like to see the fabulous illustrations in person and tread in the footsteps of kings, you can find the latest visitor information for Sandal Castle at Experience Wakefield.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

“History opening up”: Transcribing the Sykes Visitor Book

In 2019, Wakefield Museums & Castles acquired a very special object: a Visitor Book from William Sykes Ltd in Horbury, Wakefield.

William Sykes Ltd was a sporting goods manufacturer, based in Horbury, Wakefield. In 1870, William Sykes used all his life savings to buy his own saddlery. After 10 years in business, he turned his leather working skills to making footballs and soon expanded into making goods for a wide range of different sports. William Sykes Ltd went from strength to strength and was soon selling equipment all over the world and supplying major tournaments like the FA Cup. William Sykes Ltd eventually merged with rival firms, Slazenger and Dunlop, but Horbury remained the centre of production until the factory’s closure in 1986. Find out more about William Sykes Ltd.

In 2021, Anne Dawson, one of our wonderful volunteers, took on the challenge of transcribing the Visitor Book and researching the names within it. After 6 weeks, and 12 pages, Anne shares what she has found so far…

Have you ever been asked to sign a Visitor Book?  Maybe you have been to another office for a meeting.  Perhaps it was that lovely little B&B where you flicked back a few pages to see what everyone else had written before adding your "great breakfast" to the comments section.

You probably didn't think that a hundred years later, someone would be trying to decipher your name and working out where you were from.

The Sykes Factory was a major manufacturer of leather footballs, expanding to golf and cricket and other sports - at one point making 21 models of tennis racket. During World War II, it switched production to the war effort. It merged with Slazenger it 1942 and in 1959 was bought by Dunlop. 

When I started to look at the Visitor Book, which started in 1930, I expected to see a list of (indecipherable) names, their hometown and the odd comment.

What I found was a truly fascinating historical document.  The first thing that struck me was that people had come from all over the world - South Africa, Australia, Canada. There were place names which we don't use now, like Bombay and Malaya... And the people......

The names on the page became real living people again.  The first page dated 1931 has a visit from H.R.H. George, Duke of Kent.  But you sort of expect royalty to visit factories - there are often plaques to visits from Dukes and Princesses, so that wasn't unusual.

Then names that I recognised started to appear. Len Hutton, who is described as one of the greatest cricketers of all time, and Dan Maskell, who I knew as a commentator, but he also played and coached tennis. Whole teams came to visit, including the Australian Rugby League Touring Club, Bristol City Football Club and the New Zealand Cricket team. Sometimes the visitors seem to have no connection to sports, such as a group from Castrop Rauxell, a mining town in Germany that was twinned with Wakefield in 1949.   

As well as signing their names, some visitors also made annotations in the book. Bob Andrews put an arrow up to the visitor above him with the words "what a great act to follow" – that previous visitor was Don Bradman, one of the most famous cricket batsman of his time. Sykes had a partnership with Bradman, who visited the factory in November 1934 and again in June 1948. They produced a ‘Don Bradman’ series of cricket bats and Bradman used a Sykes cricket bat to hit every one of his record achievements – something Sykes were keen to promote!

I think what really made me feel I was looking at history though was the comment made on 10 August 1945, when Japan offered to surrender to the Allies during World War II. The comment reads: "10th August 1945!  What a day!... we are going to start business again. I was lucky enough to be here that day and I'll never forget it..."  Unfortunately in his excitement, his name is illegible.

So next time you are asked to sign a Visitor Book, think of the person in the future trying to decipher your name and write legibly!

With thanks to Anne for all her hard work in transcribing the Visitor Book. If you're interested in volunteering with our collections, please get in touch with Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Volunteer with us!

Our volunteers are vital in supporting our work. We have a range of exciting opportunities for you to get involved, both with the public and behind the scenes.

All our opportunities have flexible commitment requirements and aim to provide a rewarding and enriching experience.

If you're passionate about culture and heritage and have some free time to offer, why not volunteer with us and be part of something extraordinary? Take a look at our current opportunities:

Collections Move Volunteer

We are looking for volunteers to
assist us with a large-scale project to move our collections into a new storage facility. 

The project will involve helping our team to carefully pack objects, move them to the new extension, and keep accurate records of movement, ensuring that all objects remain safe at all times. 

This is an exciting opportunity to work within a friendly and supportive team on a major project, getting hands-on with a variety of objects and contributing to the important behind-the-scenes work of our museum service.

This opportunity is based at our museum store in Ossett. The museum store is a COVID-secure site. 

For more information about this opportunity, please email Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on  

Exhibition Invigilation Volunteer

We are looking for Exhibition Invigilation Volunteers to invigilate ‘Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears’, our new exhibition at Pontefract Museum. 

You will welcome visitors to the exhibition space, provide information about the objects on display, and help our Visitor Experience Assistants to monitor the security of the exhibition, which includes a number of loaned objects from national museums. You will help us to ensure that every visitor to the exhibition feels welcome, learns something new, and has an enjoyable visit.

This opportunity is based at Pontefract Museum, 5 Salter Row, Pontefract, WF8 1BA. Pontefract Museum is a COVID-secure site. 

For more information about this opportunity, please email Leah Mellors, Collections & Exhibitions Manager, on  

Charles Pears exhibition, with thank to the Royal Society of Marine Artists

Thursday, July 8, 2021

We’re recruiting! Could you be our new Learning Officer?

Are you passionate about culture and heritage?
Can you develop and deliver engaging stories using museum objects?
Would you like to create memorable experiences and learning opportunities for all ages?

If so, then this job may be for you.

We are looking for a dynamic individual to develop, embed and expand our Learning and Engagement offer within the operations of Wakefield Museums and Castles. As one of two Learning Officers, you will be working across both formal and informal learning. The role will see you taking the lead on co-ordinating the informal learning offer, including families, adults, reminiscence and the Early Years programme. 

We would welcome applications from people with experience in developing, organising, delivering and evaluating learning content. The role requires you to research and create innovative, participatory learning and engagement opportunities across our sites and in the wider community.  

The Learning Officer will play an essential part in engaging and connecting people of all ages with the varied and fascinating heritage of the Wakefield district, drawing on our diverse collections.

The closing date for applications is Friday 30th July 2021 (Midnight)

Interviews will be held on Thursday 19th & Friday 20th August 2021


Should you wish to discuss this post, please contact Louise Bragan, Senior Officer: Programming and Learning

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears

We are very excited that Pontefract Museum has now reopened with a major new exhibition of artwork by Pontefract-born artist, Charles Pears (1873-1958). Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is the first retrospective of Pears’ work in his hometown. The exhibition focuses particularly on his prolific career as a commercial artist and will transport you back 100 years to the golden age of rail tourism, the British seaside holiday and poster design. 

National and leading art collections have kindly lent posters and original artworks to the show, including some that might even have been seen on platforms at Pontefract’s three rail stations in the 1930s. The exhibition also includes expert commentary from a leading authority on 20th century posters, as well as an exclusive new poster artwork for Pontefract. 

A marine master

The exhibition takes its title from the slogan of a poster promoting the 'Bracing Air' and 'Abundant Amusements' that holiday-makers and day-trippers could look forward to in Southend-on-Sea in 1927. Pears provided the artwork for the poster, showing yachts on the Essex waters. He was an enthusiastic sailor himself and had established a reputation as a leading marine artist, having served as an official Naval war artist during the First World War. 

Pears would go on to capture the Second World War on canvas too and later became the first president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. He eventually retired to spend more time at sea and settled in Cornwall, where he painted his self-portrait, kindly lent to the exhibition from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. It is the first time it has been exhibited in Pears' hometown, where he had first honed his artistic talent whilst growing up.

Self portrait, 1944-46 by Charles Pears (1873-1958)

Poster perfect

Pears went to school in East Hardwick and attended Pontefract College. As a young man, he moved to London and began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, becoming a regular contributor to Punch and illustrating famous titles by authors like Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. 

Pears-illustrated books from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection on display in the exhibition

Illustration in a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland, from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection

In the 1920s and 1930s Pears perfected his trade as one of the travel industry’s go-to poster artists and enjoyed a successful commercial career. At this time, new public holidays and paid annual leave meant that people were enjoying more leisure time and heading off on holidays and day-trips. 

Most holiday-makers at the time travelled by train, taking advantage of summer timetables and special fares. In only the early days of radio and before television, the poster was the most effective means of mass communication and became the rail companies’ primary marketing tool. They turned to leading artists like Pears to produce the most appealing representations of resorts.

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements includes many examples of Pears' most vibrant posters, alongside some of the original artworks. 

Twickenham, Walton and Windsor, Charles Pears, 1935

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Spring on the River Thames, the original artwork for the poster, is on show in the exhibition.

Pick of the painters

It was Frank Pick, the Publicity Manager at London Underground, who initially recognised the potential of the travel poster. Pears was one of the first artists Pick worked with on an initiative to promote travel by public transport in leisure time as well as for commuting. As a marine specialist, Pears’ posters often promoted daytrips away from the hustle and bustle of the city along the picturesque banks of the River Thames. 

Between the wars, London Transport also ran special excursion services to Southend, the nearest beach resort to the capital. Pears produced no fewer than 14 different poster artworks for Southend, showing boats on the waves, water sports, local landmarks and all the attractions on offer. Visitors can see two examples in the exhibition, including the original oil painting for this sun-soaked scene.

Southend-on-Sea, Charles Pears, 1934

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Inspired by Frank Pick’s successful poster campaigns in London, railway companies also began to invest in the best artists for their adverts. After Britain’s many individual rail lines were grouped into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923, the newly formed regional companies each established advertising departments. They were competing with each other to attract tourists to the resorts on their lines, and only the most persuasive artworks would do. As an expert sailor and marine artist, Charles Pears was in high demand to provide seascapes that would tempt holiday-makers to the coast. 

This relaxing representation of Filey must have been an appealing image for passengers at Pontefract, which was served by LNER at the time. For the price of a rail ticket, they could escape the daily grind and get away from it at all on the East Coast. 

Poster, LNER 'Filey for the Family' by Charles Pears, 1930

Science Museum Group

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

A fun family day out

Certainly, at this time more people than ever before were flocking to the seaside with their buckets and spades. Families made sandcastles, wrote postcards and returned home with plenty of snapshots and souvenirs. As well as admiring Pears' posters, visitors to Pontefract Museum can also enjoy a trip down memory lane with retro holiday essentials and mid-century beach attire from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection.

Elsewhere in the museum, you can admire even more of Charles Pears' skill and artistry. He enjoyed a prolific career and we weren't able to display all of his many designs in the exhibition but our slideshow includes posters for destinations all over the country and beyond. 

Inspired by Pears' example, graphic designer Georgina Westley has created a stunning new poster artwork for Pontefract. Adding a modern twist to Pears' style, she has produced a colourful celebration of his hometown today. Visit the exhibition to see the iconic view of the Buttercross and St Giles' Church in a new light!

There's also plenty for little ones to enjoy. Look out for the special family-friendly object labels and pick up your Take and Make activity bag, packed with seaside themed crafts inspired by the posters on display. 

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is at Pontefract Museum, 24th May 2021 – 25th February 2022. 

The exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.

To enjoy more of Charles Pears' work, check out our Curation on ArtUK for an overview of his celebrated career. 

Read more about Georgina Westley's poster in this special guest blog post