Category Archives: Collections

Lawn Tennis Championships started in Buxton … or did they?

If you spend long enough in Buxton, sooner or later someone will tell you that “lawn tennis championships started in Buxton.” The truth is slightly murkier but the town did once see a lot of balls being knocked about and contributed to the founding of the sport. A local resident and member of both Buxton Lawn Tennis Club and the Friends of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery called Jek Jacob researched the local history of tennis and subsequently wrote a book called White Lines.

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Tennis in a long dress in Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, late 1800s

In the late 1800s, Buxton was a rising health spa resort for the middle classes. As well as “taking the waters”, visitors would indulge in a wide array of sporting endeavours, including a new game introduced in Leamington Spa in 1873 called Spairistrike. With the slightly-catchier name of tennis, the vigorous pastime exploded in Buxton and by 1880, a tournament was established that grew swiftly in size and popularity. Around the same time, another tournament began in Wimbledon. The Buxton version ceased in 1951 and its far more famous counterpart, of course, continues to this day.

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Field Marshall Lord Roberts presents a cup to Mrs Larcombe in Buxton in 1913

Interestingly, the tennis tournament in Buxton was enjoyed by both women and men competitors right from the start, although the Gentlemen’s Singles was played under the title of “Championship of Derbyshire” whereas the Ladies Doubles was “All England Ladies Doubles.” The need for the distinction is unclear. Buxton Museum currently has a vanity set on display as part of its 125th birthday exhibition (on until 6th October). It is comprised of four items set in glass, hallmarked silver and silver plate and it was given as a prize to winners in the ladies tournaments at Buxton between 1900 and 1905. It was gifted to the museum by the Buxton Lawn Tennis Club in 2015.

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What you get for winning women’s tennis in the early 1900s

The popularity of the game in late 1800s / early 1900s Buxton is evident from the variety of courts that once graced its green and leafy locales. At one time, you could play tennis in The Pavilion Gardens or Ashwood Park or at most of the hotels and large houses. Buxton College for Boys and Cavendish Girl’s School had their own and there was even a Fairfield Tennis Club. Most of these have now vanished without a trace and only maps and photographs from this tennis boom-period testify to their existence.

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Lawn tennis courts in Pavilion Gardens, Buxton in 1929

With special thanks to Jek Jacob

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Separated by Time and Space: Human Remains in the Modern Museum

This week’s blog was written by a student on work experience at Buxton Museum. Darcy is in her third year studying History at the University of Lincoln but grew up in Buxton. She wrote her dissertation on the subject of human remains in museums and was able to provide us with her expertise on this controversial subject:

Our relationship with viewing human remains on display in the modern museum remains a turbulent and divisive one. The controversy surrounding these exhibits has highlighted the ethical argument over how remains should be displayed, and whether they even should be. Modern museums are still struggling with the fine balance between education and entertainment, whilst trying to frame their exhibits in a manner which doesn’t compromise culture, respect and dignity towards the remains.

Most modern museums are formed from private collections, like the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. With the growth of the museum due to donations, human remains were added along with the popularly collected Ancient Egyptian mummies during the ‘Egyptomania’ phase of the nineteenth century. Currently, the British Museum holds over 6000 human remains from all over the world dating back as recently to the early twentieth-century, to as far back as prehistory.

Due to the huge time difference in the range of human remains, the Human Tissue Act of 2004 introduced new guidelines of how to display human remains and dictated that remains can only be displayed without the permission of kin if they are over 100 years old. For context, 100 years ago marked end of the First World War, which is easily in close memory of the older generation’s parents and grandparents.

Buxton Museum currently has around fifteen examples of human remains on display. The displays include a complete skeleton, skulls, jaw bones, teeth embedded in a portion of cave floor taken from the famous Poole’s Cavern, cremated remains in a Bronze Age urn, and even a fake ‘mermaid’ with real human hair. The age of the remains can be dated from anywhere between 6,000 – 2,000 years ago due to the high level of prehistoric and Roman activity in the area. The only ‘modern’ exception is the ‘Mummified Mermaid’ who is a forgery estimated to be from the Victorian era.

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Because of the thousand years which stand between the remains and visitors in the museums up and down the country, the separation in time removes a lot of the humanity and empathy when viewing the displays. Even during the height of ‘Egyptomania’, there was still the separation of thousands of years between the ancient mummies and the Victorian public. But how and where do we draw the separation in time between us and the remains for them to be considered ‘objects’ and not ‘ancestors’? This is still unclear as shown by the Human Tissue Act and opens up new debates on whether 100 years is really long enough to justify the display of remains without the permission of any living relatives.

However, museums are experimenting with ways that present the remains as more than just objects. Labelling and information cards are important to the narrative of the remains, but it is still easy to remain disconnected from this. Instead, technology in the museum space can be utilised to engage more intimately with the remains on a human level to aid in visitor interaction and also in provoking more empathy than before. Digital facial reconstruction has been used on two of the skeletons in Buxton museum from excavations at the local sites of the Iron Age mass grave at Fin Cop and the Neolithic burial at Liff’s Low.

3D printing further aids in the acceptability of viewing human remains. For example, a 3D print of the Fin Cop skull was made to be exhibited in Buxton Museum, as the full skeleton had been found, and to separate and display only the skull would have been inappropriate. Electronic tablets are also stationed around the museum to give visitors the ability to find out more about certain exhibits in depth and seeing them closer than just in the glass case. The tablets in Buxton Museum also provide the visitors with videos of how the digital reconstructions on the skulls were done, and in the case of the Fin Cop skull, an image of the real skull is shown without the need for it to be separated from the rest of the remains purely for the purposes of display.

So whilst the words and the facts of traditional museum information cards help to pull the visitor in, they can feel like too clinical a way of presenting something so controversial. This is why technological advancements like digital facial reconstruction provide a respectful way of initiating empathy and re-humanising the remains to keep them from becoming just ‘exhibits’. Not only does it give a more familiar face for visitors to relate to, but it also helps in closing the thousands of year’s gap in time and space which divides the modern museum goer from the human remains.

Woman at a Spinning Wheel

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory discovers another curious image from the depths of Buxton Museum’s collection:

It’s been said that any portrait is a two-way dialogue between artist and sitter. We have, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, photographs of people as well as landscapes and fossils. One of these dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. It shows an elderly woman at her spinning wheel. A wicker basket sits on the floor beside her and a fireplace can be seen. Washing hangs from the ceiling.

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The nineteenth century was a time of contradictions. Of course, The Industrial Revolution swept the nation, but this created nostalgia for a supposedly simpler more stable way of life. Some would argue that we still feel the effects of this. People revived Medieval styles in art and crafts. Musicians collected folk songs and wrote them down for the first time. Painters depicted thatched cottages with roses round the doors.

Returning to this woman at her spinning wheel, I wonder; did the photographer think he was recording an idyll? Did he imagine this lady as happy peasant? If so, then perhaps she didn’t share that perception. Agricultural work could be monotonous and physically demanding. The late Victorian era saw a depression in agriculture that drove people to the new industrial cities.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too hard on the photographer. The woman isn’t smiling and she doesn’t meet his eye. Her attention is all on the job. Did photographer and subject understand each other? Or did they face one another across a social chasm?

 

The Greatest Mermaid

This week, he have enjoyed the assistance of a school pupil named Eleanor who decided on Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for her work experience. The staff found Eleanor to be energetic and enthusiastic and her knowledge of the Marvel Comics Universe unparalleled. We encouraged her to write about something she found interesting and like many visitors to the museum, Eleanor was fascinated by the Victorian mermaid on display (first written about here) and how it related to a recent film she had seen called The Greatest Showman, where Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum. Over to you, Eleanor:

P.T. Barnum was an American showman, politician and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he had had “freaks” perform and do tasks the average person couldn’t do. Some of these acts include the Fiji mermaid, the top half of a under-developed monkey and half of a fish sewn together to look like a mermaid and General Tom Thumb, a small boy who Barnum taught to sing, dance and impersonate famous people.

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The Derbyshire Mermaid. Photo by Nick Lockett

It is believed that Barnum mistreated his “freaks” and used them for his own financial gain. One such case was Krao who was sold to Barnum after her parents were captured during an expedition to Laos. Her mother was detained in Bangkok and her father died. She was exploited as “The Missing Link” between humans and apes and toured throughout Europe for 70 years until she died of influenza (flu) in 1926.

Another case was Myrtle Corbin who was named “The Four-Legged Woman” because of an under developed twin who gave her two pelvises and four legs. She was bought by Barnum from her family aged 13.

Feodor Jeftichew was a boy suffering from hypertrichosis, (excessive hair growth all over the body). He was nicknamed “Dog Boy” when he joined Barnum and was made to bark, growl, and act like an angry dog and was even pitted against his own father (who suffered from the same condition) as a wild savage. In 1898, a group of performers protested against being called freaks and Feodor was at the forefront.

General Tom Thumb, one of Barnum’s most famous performers, was only 5 years old when Barnum took him on tour where he was made to drink wine and smoke cigars for the amusement of others. He was also a personal favourite of Queen Victoria who loved “freak shows”. His marriage to Lavinia Warren was exploited by Barnum making both of them stand in many positions in full attire weeks before the real wedding. He sold photos for 20p (£12.86 in 2018). When he died, Barnum bought a life-sized statue of him and placed it as a head stone. When his wife Lavinia died, she was buried next to him with her gravestone only reading “his wife”.

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Extreme close up. Photo by Nick Lockett

At the age of 80, Phineas Taylor Barnum died of a stroke in his home in 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport. The circus was left to Bailey who carried it on until his death in 1906 when leaders of the amusement world, the Ringling brothers purchased the show and combined it with their own.

To gaze upon the beauty of the mermaid yourself, click here to plan your visit. Admission free!

To learn more about P.T. Barnum, visit this museum.

 

Buxton Museum’s Favourite Visitor

As well as providing a focal point for the heritage of The Peak District, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is also a meeting place for the local community. One of our most frequent visitors is a Buxton resident called Cynthia who makes use of the public computers at the museum. More often than not, Cynthia is there to greet us when we open the door at 10am. It’s always nice to see a friendly face and get an early morning chuckle from one of her jokes or anecdotes. Cynthia often mentions her dad who was served in the RAF during World War 2 but her past is equally fascinating.

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Cynthia lost an eye to a wayward arrow when she was just four years old. 67 years later, she still remembers being taken to Stockport Infirmary in a maroon-coloured ambulance and being put into a cot; the only child in a cot! The surgeon, Mr Faulkner, told Cynthia’s mum and dad that he could save her eye but there was a risk she would be completely blind by the time she was 14. They decided to completely remove it and Cynthia was the town’s first ever recipient of an artificial plastic eye. Not only did she overcome the accident but Cynthia developed a new party trick; taking out her eye and showing it to her school pals at playtime. The entertainment was brought to an end when the head teacher called mum and dad. At home, they “grizzled” at her and she wasn’t allowed out at playtime for six weeks.

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Cynthia’s mum died when she was 8 but her dad, Ernest did a wonderful job of bringing her up. Holidays were at the seaside but one year, they went to Downham Market in Norfolk where Ernest was stationed in the war and met Mr and Mrs Barlow, whom he used to stay with. Mr Barlow was the town’s railway signal man. One morning, he took Cynthia to the box and she was allowed to use the signals; under supervision, of course!

In 1977, Cynthia worked at a school and one of the teachers asked for volunteers for a charity parachute jump and she and her dad got involved. Despite being an RAF man, Ernest had never jumped. He was the eldest of the volunteers and the event soon attracted the attention of the media. Ernest hit the headlines. He went on to do a lot more parachuting and even tried hand-gliding and hot-air ballooning.

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Cynthia recalls the adventures with her dad with great fondness. A couple of years ago, she developed a problem with her eye and had an operation in Manchester. She learnt a few things from her consultant:

1) She was not the youngest person in Stockport to have an artificial plastic eye but the youngest in the country.

2) She is no longer classified as having an artificial eye but a prosthetic limb.

3) Her “eye fitter” is now called a prosthetic engineer.

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Cynthia often laughs at the way things have changed. She has researched what her dad did in the RAF during the war as it was kept under wraps for years afterwards. This final story from Ernest himself gives you an insight into the tenacity and spirit that she has clearly inherited.

I was in a Bomber Squadron based in Norfolk during World War Two. Our aircraft were dispersed for miles around the huge airfield, which was surrounded by woods. Next to our aircraft on the edge of these woods, was a Nissen hut. This was our home. One Christmas, we were ordered to stand-by for operations, despite the fact that the ground was covered in snow a foot deep with huge, mountainous drifts.

I had promised to ring my wife at 19.00hrs. The nearest phone was a lonely road on the other side of the woods so, giving myself plenty of time due to the adverse weather conditions, I decided to set off an hour early. After struggling through the snow drifts, I finally reached my destination with seconds to spare. My relief turned to misery when after my battle against the elements, the operator greeted me with “sorry, the phone lines are fully booked until 21.00hrs”.

In order not to be caught out again, I booked a call myself for 21.00hrs. Not fancying the thought of standing around for two hours, I set off again on my bleak trek through the woods, back towards civilisation, and the hut. I crawled and crawled, finally arriving there at 20.00hrs. I looked in and explained my situation to the lads; they were highly amused at my predicament. Well, an hour there, an hour back and an hour left before I was due to place my call. Off I set once more, to fight my way back through the frozen wastes of Norfolk.

I made it with two minutes to spare, the operator connected my call and I then managed to wish my dear wife a Belated Merry Christmas. It was roughly 22.00hrs when I arrived back. I was cold, wet and thoroughly exhausted.

The Squadron Leader had invited Joe Loss and his Band over for the evening, to give a little comfort to those of us who weren’t on duty. And despite my physical sufferings, I couldn’t help but smile when during my journey, I heard their melodic rendition of In the Mood. It was a Christmas Night I will always remember.