The Post Office in Everyday Lives in the First World War

“Last Post” panel with my research!

I’ve been researching the Post Office and its workers for a few years now. This research has obviously focused, prominently, on the nineteenth century and my PhD. Yet, thanks to the collaborative nature of my PhD, I’m able to venture into other aspects and time periods as requested by the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA).

Last year, unsurprisingly, I started to looking into the Post Office during the First World War. Due to the size and nature of the Post Office at this time (largest single employer in the UK, and the “friendly” face of government in every town and city) it has been fascinating.My research took me into the lives of the workers as I found reminiscences and oral histories and could compared these to the official records and reports. Experiences were varied and complex but involved men, women, boys and girls from all over the country.

As a result of my research I contributed to the ‘Last Post” exhibition displayed in physical form at Ironbridge, and also online here. I also gave a paper at the Anglo-American conference and a longer paper at the BPMA as part of their public talks programme.You can download my talk, along with some of the other fascinating talks in the series, as a podcast from here.

Most recently I’ve written a short blog for the new website for the ‘Everyday Lives in the First World War’ Research Centre. You can find it here. This is an amazing project that will look to further our understanding of what life was like at home for people during the conflict, from food to theatre, it’ll cover all sorts of topics and work with a range of groups and people in the process. You can find out more about the centre here, and do contact them if you’d like to get involved!

So, 2014 might be over, but it’s only the start of the First World War centenary, so keep an eye on the ‘Everyday Lives’ project for events, and if you’re interested in hiring the “Last Post” exhibition do contact there BPMA. You can find out more here.

I’m currently doing some work the BPMA on their war memorials collection, and I look forward to sharing more about that at a later date!

MuseomixUK 2014: Some reflections and a chart

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

It’s over. After months of planning, countless emails and a few trips to Derby, it’s over. MuseomixUK 2014 ran from Friday 7 November through to Sunday 9 November with a showcase of the prototypes on Monday 10 November. And what a weekend!

Lots of carbs and caffeine saw us through the long days and I’ve been in awe of what the teams made. It was odd not being on a team this year, but it was nice to be allocated to one team to keep them informed of their deadlines and help progress where I could. This meant I didn’t really feel ownership of any of the prototypes, but I did get a better idea of what was going on elsewhere rather than being in the bubble of a team. I was also looking after evaluation which meant I got to work with Derby Museum, as well as our student volunteers, to develop a visitor evaluation. I was also attempting to monitor the changing emotions of the participants, but more of that later.

Team “Museums as Conversations” see their Tumblr here: http://museumasconversation.tumblr.com/

Firstly, I want to mention the team I worked with. They were ‘Museums as Conversations’, and as a facilitator I was very fortunate that the team worked very well together from the start. I’m not saying it was plain sailing from the get go. Saturday morning was a particular challenge as the team wrestled with their ideas and how they could be realised into a physical prototype. In that, I am also grateful to Dominic and Fraser from Mixed Reality (one of our sponsors) who helped talk them through the variety of tech possibilities. But I have to say that once that got their idea, and agreed, I did very little. I helped put together a to do list, gave them jobs and off they went. I was occasionally asked for tape or post-it notes and had a sing-along, but apart from that they got on with it. Amazing!!

Museums As Conversations map and projection

Museums As Conversations map and projection

And what did they make? It was a tactile 3D map of Derby with particular places of interest available to be selected by pushing them down on to a touchscreen. This activated a projection displaying historic information on the building and a twitter feed that represented memories of that location submitted by the public.

The central point of the prototype was that it stimulated and invited memories from the public.Consequently the group envisaged that a final product could have an interface that allowed people to contribute memories there, through a keyboard etc. The history of locations could also be connected to museum objects, so visitors could simply enjoy learning the history and seeing personal connections or use this as a stimulus for their memories or thoughts. Beautiful!

The other teams were also impressive and it would take me too long to explain them all, so if you want to know more please see their Tumblr sites:
http://museomixuk.tumblr.com/teams

Before I mention the evaluation process I was also looking at over the weekend I should also say a huge thank you to Dr Cath Feely and her five students from Derby University who gave up their time to help us. There were times when there wasn’t much to do, but having them there for the sudden ‘we need this’, ‘can you get this’ and as roving reporters was brilliant. They were also essential to putting together the brochure and tour for the public on the Monday, and they led some tours on the Monday and helped me monitor and think about evaluation. One of the students was keeping blog over the weekend, see here.

Talking about evaluation, the important part of this is yet to come, and we’ll be sending out a post-event evaluation to participants soon. This will be the most important part for our feedback for our sponsors, the Arts Council, but we have also done a couple of other this. A pre-event evaluation for a baseline of thoughts and feelings. Also, over the weekend I put together a visitor evaluation for the public on Monday. A quick look at this shows that the prototypes were very positively received and words to describe the exhibits included:
Intriguing; Fun; Interactive; Tactile; Thought-provoking; Alive; Inspirational; Innovative; Crazy; Left-field; Exciting and Future!

I was also using emotion boxes to attempt to monitor the emotional rollercoaster of MuseomixUK.

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK - they always started with one small block to encourage others

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK – they always started with one small block to encourage others

This is probably not the most scientific method, but from the feedback of a few participants over the weekend, many found them therapeutic. Many people called for a tired box, I said I knew they were all tired and didn’t need a box to tell me, and other said the size of the blocks really mattered to them, so they’d put in a large block for inspired and a small one in frustrated. I hadn’t planned to account for the volume of the boxes, but may include it an anecdotal in my final evaluation. So far I’ve standardised the results and made this graph. What do you think??

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

Waiting for MuseomixUK 2014

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I’m sitting in a cafe in St Pancras station waiting for a train to Derby. I booked a cheap train so now have some time to grab some food, check out twitter and maybe do some work. I say maybe because I’m actually writing this blog, I’m hoping it will be some sort off therapy to understand my feelings of participating in MuseomixUK again. If your been following my blog for a while you may remember the monumental weekend last November when I became a Museomixer. You can find my diary of the weekend here. If you don’t want to read it, I can sum it up as an emotional rollercoaster. There were massive highs and real lows (my team almost fell apart), I was actually nervous about keeping the diary, very aware that it was a very one-sided account of a weekend that was very much about a team. This year I’m looking after evaluation and also going to help facilitate teams to understand the process and meet their deadlines. I’m really excited about this, but also very nervous. It feels like a lot of responsibility but I can’t wait to try and get a grip on how MuseomixUK affects others. By preparing for the evaluations I feel I’ve been able to get to grips with what lies at the heart of MuseomixUK. It’s hard to put into words but as an academic I’ve tried and I came up with this:

MuseomixUK aims to challenge how people view museums and themselves through openly promoting trans-disciplinary collaboration and building a supportive community.

I realise I haven’t talked about what will happen over the weekend, but that doesn’t really matter at this stage. There is obviously a plan but i think the weekend will evolve as we work and create together. That’s another terrifying aspect, I don’t really know what the weekend holds: what personalities, what ideas, what technology what creations!!! I hope to blog again about my experience and my findings, and I hope you’re just as excited as me.

Museomix Diary 4: Sunday

So here it was, Day 3: D-Day aka Delivery Day.

We had some stuff to finish off, animation, attaching the speaker to the pot and bits and pieces. (I got to help Emma with the animation for the interlude section – bubbling blubber – great fun!) We also tried to update the website, and Mark, our tech team-member, worked really hard to finish the programming for the sensor. It was finished, and worked, but unfortunately too late to use the sensor on gallery.

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Programming at work – the sensor would trigger these arms to start the main poem & animation or the holding animation.

We did manage to get the animation and audio on gallery and I had the pleasure of being there to hear the feedback. It was generally very positive. It was great seeing wide-eyed children peer into the pot and adults lean forward into the object to get closer to the audio and animation. Through the guided tours we were also able to give people some background information on the concept and how we could see it being used in reality.

Usefully, not all of it was glowing praise and we did get some constructive feedback. We knew the sound quality wasn’t great and if rolled out there should be back-up speakers to transmit the audio more clearly (in fact one of the coaches tried to get us an extension to plug two speakers in at the same time, but, alas, it did not work). I think the coaches did understand that we saw the value in using the pot as a speaker, especially as you could feel the vibration through the object. (It really did come to life!)

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As well as the visitors and those part of MuseomixUK, I was so grateful for the enthusiasm of the guys that worked on the front desk of the Museum of Iron. Alongside Dominic they also felt like extra members of the team, and we really appreciated their enthusiasm for what we were trying to do.

Thankfully I was able to run round and check out some of the other groups’ creations as well, and what can I say – they were spectacular! The group with the furnace created wonderful audio and visual that put fire back in the furnace. Magic hands brought new dimensions to the large 3D model map in the Museum of Iron, it was the first time I’d used this technology and was amazed my finger could project light! The ‘It’s In the Bag’ group’s family trail looked like so much fun, and who wouldn’t want to do some interpretive dance in a museum?! Unfortunately I didn’t get  a chance to check out the groups in Enginuity, but from their presentations they had big plans for water power display, and the other group was introducing super powers to the gallery! Finally you should check out the wonderful app, Iron Insight – it’s astounding how much content they got into the app so quickly and it really brought the sites together.

All too soon it was over and on the train home I was pretty tired but so happy I was part of the #MuseomixUK weekend and become a Museomixer! I took so much from it. So thanks to Mar and all the teams of organisers, coaches, techy support and web support. We could not have asked for more friendly and imaginative guidance – you guys were the bedrock of all of our amazing creations.

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

But most importantly thanks to my team for your inspiration, challenging conversions and eager participation. I think we achieved something great (this includes Dominic and the front of house guy at Ironbridge).

Finally for more information about what we and the other groups created and what we got up do whilst creating it check out some of these links:

http://www.museomix.org/en/localisation/shropshire-2013/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/museomixuk/with/10780517864/

http://www.youtube.com/user/museomixUK

Mar Dixon’s blog looking back over the weekend: http://www.mardixon.com/wordpress/tag/museomix/

Frankie Roberto‘s blog looking at how they made the Iron Insight App: http://www.frankieroberto.com/museomix-2013

Matthew Whittaker‘s honest account of the weekend working on the Iron Insight App: https://plus.google.com/112567883397519086111/posts/fAPeJu22WiX

There are also Storify compilations of the #museomixUK see: http://storify.com/museomixUK & http://storify.com/mattdawhit/museomix-uk

For a lovely summary of the final day and all the prototypes see Virtual Shropshire‘s video below:

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s here, Friday’s here and Saturday’s here.

Museomix Diary 3: Saturday

Day Two: Dreams to Production

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Strangely I found the second day a lot less stressful. I say strangely as one of our group threatened to walk out a few hours into the day. The important point though, is that they didn’t, they came back and as a team we got on with the project.

Why did they consider walking out? I’m not entirely sure if I’m honest, but on reflection I think it might have been related to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what certain jobs would entail. For many of us making what we thought was a simple suggestion to the exhibit could result in a lot of work for others, I’m specifically thinking of programming here, but this could apply across job roles. From personal experience when people suggest an exhibition’s period should increase (say covering 1800-1900 instead of 1800-1850) they don’t often appreciate the amount of extra research that will need to be done.

An important lesson was learnt.

But a member walking out wasn’t our only problem. Others felt we weren’t being innovative enough, and again they probably had a point. This would not be the first time an animation with a voice over would be used in a museum. However, thanks to Mar and coaches, I think we were able to come to a consensus that innovation is relative and an exhibit like this had not been seen at the Museum of Iron before. Moreover, I strongly felt that giving the pot a voice and using it as a conduit to tell the story was innovative. Someone the previous evening had mentioned ‘Take One’ as an example of museums and galleries using an object as a gateway to other stories and collections. We were certainly using that premise, but we had developed it so that the pot would be telling it story, gathering people around it to hopefully think and reflect on purpose it was designed for and how that placed Coalbrookdale in global history and economy – you can tell I was loving our idea and our pot.

In any case, I really enjoyed the day. We got on with the exhibit, and I really this felt like the most creative day.

Projection in the pot

Projection in the pot

A part from the management of roles and expectations our first hurdle in regards to the exhibition was the question of projection. Could we project an animation into a black cast iron pot? To our complete surprise you could! No only that, but it looked really good!

For me the next question was content. It was quickly apparent that as we were looking at audio the content could not be much longer than 30 seconds to hold visitors’ attention. I was working with Laura and after reading aloud the text I was putting together, we thought it all sounded a bit dry and boring. The realisation that Coalbrookdale rhymed with whale resulted in the decision to write a poem rather than straight narrative. This was one of our eureka moments, as this would work a lot better with an animation, not that we knew what the animation looked like yet, and it could convey ideas and messages quickly and succinctly.

By the end of the day we had most of an animation and two poems. Two, because as well as writing our very simple poem we enlisted the talents of Matthew Ward, aka @HistoryNeedsYou. He leant us his voice and took our poem at a starting point to write a far more sophisticated version. It really is beautiful, and you can find it here. However, subsequent discussions within the team led to the decision that we would use our simple poem, partly because we hoped the simple language might make it more accessible to children but principally because it was shorter.

Consequently Emma and Caroline used our lyrics to create the storyboard for the animation. We were very fortunate to have the talented Emma on our team and her artistic vision really brought the project together. You’d never guess that none of us had done animation before, but Caroline and Emma set to its creation with fantastic results.

After a day of stress and worry we had a day of productivity. We also started to reach outside the group for help, and we have to say thank you to Dominic from Mixed Reality – whose technical and practical knowledge was indispensable. Dominic also provided something that began key to our display – the speaker! It was something we hadn’t even considered, but this clever device used the surface it sits on to amplify sound, if we attached this to the pot, the pot would become a speaker! Genius!!

Below is the video that Ralph put together for the evening presentations. I should also mention that Mark was working hard on the programming for the sensor throughout the day. Unfortunately this was a lonely job and I (unhelpfully) kept telling him how useless I felt that I couldn’t help (doubly unhelpful).

Well I hope the video gives an idea of what were were trying to achieve, and here is a link to all the other prototype videos here.

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s entry here and Friday’s here.

Museomix Diary 2: Friday

Day One: Ideas & Emotion

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The Iron fountain made for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the furnace is in the background

We were up early and raring to go. After the delight of receiving badges, colour coded medals (mine was pink for content), coffee and a muffin, we were off on tours of the site.

After these brilliant tours by the Ironbridge staff I had the conflict of whether to pitch an idea or not. I soon had a couple of ideas, but nothing fully formed. However, cometh the hour, either a similar idea was pitched or an idea was pitched that I wanted to be involved in. Either way I talked myself out of pitching. Rubbish me, but lots of respect to those who did pitch.

There were at least three projects I wanted to work on, and was fortunate that two of those merged (workers and objects). Bingo!

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The team!
From top left: Mark, Emma, Me, Ralph. Bottom left: Caroline & Laura
From @MuseomixUK

I was in a team (#MMUK3) and we were going to focus on objects and try to tell personal stories from them – bloody awesome!

After this excitement the rest of the day was hard work, in fact, at times, it felt like a full on struggle, and, to be honest, I was a little amazed we had something to present on by the end of the day.

Reflecting on the day from my cosy bed that evening, I think I can appreciate how much creativity there was around the table. But there were times it felt like we’d hit a wall, awkward silences and steely looks, it seemed nothing could get a team consensus. We’d all (including myself) be picking problems with almost every idea. It felt like the tech guy didn’t like tech, others were becoming obsessed with the Great Exhibition and we couldn’t see the people in the stories. The coaches called on the librarian and curators to help us and at times I was convinced we were the problem group – the one’s who needed ‘special’ help.

However, it did all help, and something I’ve learnt from that day was that it does help to talk ideas through. Even if the ideas are picked apart, deemed in practicable or without the ability to translate a narrative, it was wonderful to hear new ideas and see people get excited about an exhibit. I also realised that I’m not very visual, I think I rely a lot of text, audio and perhaps physical. I was always going back to the content and the physical presence of the object – these are clearly the areas important to me, but it was great seeing others conjure images and concepts from physical & visual. I suppose this is the benefit of having people with different backgrounds working together.

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The Whaling Pot!

In any case we did it, we had an idea. Inevitably it was something we had started with – the Coalbrookdale pot. Finally, I think it was returning to the low-lit gallery that helped. It felt like we were discovering these objects for the first time. The large whaling pot at the entrance of the museum had a presence for us and gave us something to work with.

On top of that all the talking (and silences) had helped us determine some principles. We didn’t want tech to get in the way of interpreting the object – holding a device to look at an object would take away from being close and looking at the object yourself. Also, we wanted something tactile, we were talking about mechanical levers to get the animation in the pot going, but ultimately we wanted people up code and personal with the pot. If we could get people to reach in or put they’re head in the pot we were winning.

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The initial idea on paper.

So, we were able to present an idea at the end of the day to everyone else, and even got some positive feedback from the coaches. Things were looking up.

Now, was the development the hard part or the easy part? I’d find out on Saturday!

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The evening presentation from @DianaPitchers

See previous diary entries here.

Museomix Diary 1: The Prep

Museomix at Ironbridge – graphic from one of the sponsors KASCEN

Months ago I had seen a few tweets related to something called Museomix, a movement started in France to remix museums. This looked like great fun and seemed to fit with an interesting podcast I’d heard by Muesopunks on Design Thinking. I was intrigued and wanted to be involved so completed the online form to apply. To my amazement I was successful, and, all too quickly, November arrived and I had to pack for this experience.

How on earth do you prep for an event/workshop/activity/thing you don’t really understand. I thought pack warm & pack comfortable. So socks, jumpers, jeans and big boots were high on the list. My foot was recovering from a sprained ankle a couple of weeks previous, so Ibuprofen was also thrown in.

I also had the impression that tech was important, so laptop, tablet and USB sticks were added.

But then the panic set in. I was supposed to be a content person, bringing knowledge about a museum I had never been to before.

I found this short podcast from the BBC History magazine: http://www.historyextra.com/visit/ironbridge

But really, I thought, I should bring some books.

So I packed my essential reading list:
Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory
E.P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class
Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum
And as a last minute decision Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England.

With these books and jumpers, what could go wrong?

Lived-in history or Museum Living

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Over the summer whilst visiting two historic houses, of sorts, I started to think about the relationship between visitor, objects and space.

The ‘houses’ were Warwick Castle and Somerleyton House in Norfolk. Clearly the buildings themselves are objects, and often the main reason for the public to visit. As large objects the way visitors move around the buildings can be important for interpretation. It can build a relationship based on access and feelings of exploration.

But they also hold historic objects and in that sense act as museums, so where and how objects are located within them are important. As set dressing or telling a story in their own right, these objects contribute to the atmosphere of the room or house, because their location is within a house or homely setting the visitor is presented with, I think, a different set of questions, than if the objects were on display in a museum. Principally “what would it have been like to live in this space with these objects?” or “would I want or have these objects in my home?”.

In both cases the buildings themselves were magnificent and I completely recommend them as places to visit. Obviously, they were very different with very different stories but both firmly situated in the history of England and Britain as a whole. Warwick Castle dates back to the eleventh century, it was home to the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick famous for his role in the War of the Roses, and in more recent times it was the home to Frances “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick, a socialite and long term mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton has 17th century origins with links to royalists who prospered after the Restoration. However, it’s current design has more to do with the 19th century and the birth of railways, as it was bought and redesigned by Samuel Morton Peto, civil engineer and railway developer. Following the bust years of the railways the house was bought by the Crossleys, manufactures of Crossleys Carpets and it remains in the hands of that family today, a symbol of the rise of some of these industrial families.

The Royal Weekend Party, Warwick Castle

A part from the historical and design differences, the principal difference between these two historic houses is that one is solely a visitor attraction, run by the company that also looks after Madam Tussaud’s, the other is still a family home. Though at Warwick there have been attempts to recreated rooms for a weekend party in 1898, hosted by Frances Countess of Warwick. Rooms are dressed, wax figures stand in place and very few areas are blocked off, giving visitors free reign to explore rooms, read text or listen to recordings. They pull you into the late Victorian scandals, and made me feel like a ghost wandering through these people’s lives. Also,this immersive technique made you feel like you could touch objects. As a curator-in-training I felt very conflicted about it, but my friends (two of whom work in the sciences and the other a professional kite-surfer – I kid you not) didn’t feel this way at all.

In contrast, at Somerleyton, you were taken round by a guide, preventing as attempts to be too nosey. There were also those tell-tale signs of a lived in house, principally the family photos (and being a stately home also portraits and buffs). Even in the dining room, with the exquisite dining set, you could imagine a family having a dinner party there. In this room one of the pieces of art had been removed to be in an exhibition in Norwich, acting as a reminder that many of these objects could be in a museum, but were, instead, used and enjoyed by a family.

Entrance Hall, Somerleyton

Nonetheless, there must be a responsibility that comes with living amongst ‘museum’ pieces, and this really hit home, so to speak, in one area in Somerleyton, the hallway at the entrance of the house. We came in from the side, so the entrance hall was the third or fourth room, this gave it a more shocking effect as it didn’t seem to fit in with the other areas that felt very lived in. Consequently, for me, it was the most powerful in giving the sense of the house in a different time and was a reminder of how tastes can change. The halfway was a hunting trophy area, with two stuffed polar bears proudly displayed alongside a hippopotamus skeleton head, skins of white tigers and a jockey weighing-in chair. I’ve seen many stuffed animals in museums but it was the home setting that I found unnerving. Yes, this was part of the family story and also part of the house’s history that men in high society at this time would go on hunts and effectively display their achievements or spoils. It’s difficult for us today, so aware of endangered animals and the devastating human impact on nature, to be confronted with this voyeuristic hobby. But it also made me ask myself would I want that in my family home? No. But it was very thought provoking inclusion, and possibly a very brave one add well. It certainly provided a greater talking point for my partner and I, compared to a sofa where the Queen apparently sat and ate lemon cake.

In contrast I didn’t find anything in the ‘home-setting’ in Warwick controversial. Though we were probably most shocked by the bedroom where noises were played from behind curtains of the four poster bed.  You really felt like you’d walked in on a rather intimate moment.

I really enjoyed both and thought the interpretation techniques used were powerful for different reasons. Warwick gave you that feeling of freedom that you were an invisible visitor walking through a family drama at the turn off the century. In Somerleyton we were welcome guests given insights into a family history amongst a family that clearly cared for their history.

They left me wondering how much of a compromise it is to live in a museum piece and how the conflicts curators have over display and interpretation could enter into your daily life. I love what I do, but I’m not sure if I’d welcome the pressure of it entering into my home. It also emphasised the importance of studies into the history of the home – it can tell us so much about how people used space and can reflect their feelings about themselves and society. Not to mention the possibilities of tackling controversial topics.

These two examples are clearly of the higher classes of society, but through a number of collaborative PhDs and work done by museums like the Geffrye Museum website, investigation continues to be done in this area.

A Leicestershire Tradition: Bottle Kicking

Examples of 19th Century Bottles used in Bottle Kicking from Leicestershire's 100 Museum Objects

On Easter bank holiday Monday I happened upon the village of Hallaton in Leicestershire. We wanted to drive through the village on our way to Rutland Water, but the way was blocked by some sort of parade.Stewards told us we couldn’t get through for another 15-20mins while the Bottle Kicking procession went by.

Bottle Kicking? He said it like it was the most normal thing to happen on a rainy bank holiday, but I was intrigued. I grew up in West London, on the route of the Notting Hill Carnival so I know a street party when I see one; and even though they were lacking the floats and the sound systems, there was definitely a party atmosphere. Drink was following and everyone, though clearly quite wet, were relaxed and enjoying themselves, taking little notice of the confused and lost out of towners.

Due to the crowds I didn’t see much of the festival, I saw what looked like bread being thrown to the crowd, bagpipes being played and something like staffs being held in the air. I was fascinated and a bit disappointed we had to leave.

So here I am using my blog to investigate what this was all about.

Bagpipers at the start of the Bottle Kicking Festival outside the Fox Inn, Hallaton.From This is Leicestershire

The ‘bottle’ turns out to be a small barrel and the activity focuses on a competition between two village, Hallaton and Medbourne, to kick the ‘bottle’ into the opposition’s village across a stream boundary, which are positioned about a mile a part. The competition starts at about 3pm and the winner is the best of three.

The ‘bread’ I saw being thrown was actually Hare Pie another part of the festival. A Hare pie is blessed by the vicar and thrown out to the crowd. This part of the festival provides clues that the festival may date back to pagan times when it is thought hares were sacrificed to the goddess Eostre. However documentation of the bottle kicking dates back two hundred years and has been an annual event ever since, only stopped once in 2001 due to foot and mouth concerns.

In any case it’s a village tradition that won’t be disappearing any time soon, and though there are always a number of paramedics around it looks like injuries and trouble are kept to a minimum.

In addition to this I did notice a sign for the Hallaton Museum. It turns out this small village museum has recently reopened after a move to a new location, another good reason to visit this Leicestershire village again.

References:

The bottles are featured in Leicestershire’s 100 Museum objects: http://www.leics.gov.uk/index/leisure_tourism/museums/museumcollections/revealed/revealed_objects/revealed_objects_bottlekicking.htm

Wikipedia entry on Bottle Kicking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottle-kicking

This is Leicestershire’s report of the 2012 Bottle Kicking festival: http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/Hallaton-bottle-kicking-wet-wild-video/story-15763040-detail/story.html

Hallaton Museum: http://www.leicestershirevillages.com/hallaton/hallatonmuseum.html

Armchair Local History: Claybrooke

Claybrooke Magna Milestone, Jonathan Eudall December 2010

This year I’ve taken a break from London to spend my Christmas and New Year in the Midlands village of Claybrooke Magna.

Even though I should be concentrating on essays for University I just can’t help myself but delve in the history of the area. However, it being the holidays, I was feeling a bit too lazy to even enquire if local record offices were open. Consequently I set myself the task of finding out what I could from the comfort of an armchair.

Claybrooke Magna and Claybrooke Parva, or greater and little Claybrooke are rural villages situated in the heart of the Midlands. To start my enquiry it seemed logical to start at the beginning, and one of the oldest surviving documents listing England’s settlements, the Domesday Book.

St Peter's, Claybrooke Parva, Claybrookes website, Pictures of England

In the Domesday Book Claybrooke is listed as one village, Claibroc, and The Doomsday Book Online website notes it is ‘nearby Newcross, formerly known as Venonae, a major Roman settlement, and the junction of Watling Street and the Fosse Way’, Roman roads. The Leicestershire History website had a bit more detail and I discovered the village was held by Fulk, one of the Count of Meulan’s men (whoever the Count of Meulan was?!). He held one plough and 2 slaves. The village had a modest population of 9 freemen, 9 villagers, 2 men at arms and 6 smallholders with 5 ploughs, and had a value of 55 shillings.

My next line of enquiry took me to the Heritage Gateway website and I was surprised and the amount of listed buildings in the Claybrooke area, 7 in Claybrooke Magna and 4 in Claybrooke Parva. The oldest building is St Peter’s Church in Claybrooke Parva, which possibly dates back to Anglo-Saxon times with many additions and modifications over the years and today stands majestically in the centre of the littler Claybrooke.

I couldn’t find much in the way of history in the time between the middle ages and eighteenth century, but Wikipedia turned up an interesting story about some of the ministers of St Peter’s, who had a surprisingly far reach. John Higginson was minister of Claybrooke from 1571 and is also listed as one of the 8 ‘founding fellows’ of Jesus College, Oxford. His son, Francis Higginson became the minister at St Peter’s in 1615 after he had obtained a BA and MA at Jesus College, Cambridge, and became renowned as a preacher. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography details that at some point Higginson became acquainted with Arthur Hildersham, a well-known non-conformist, and subsequently became disillusioned with the Church of England. In 1627 Higginson lost his license and in 1628 proceedings in the Court of High Commission had begun. This led to Higginson’s application to the Massachusetts Bay Company to be a Puritan minister in one of the new settlements in New England. His application was successful and he sailed with his family from Gravesend in April 1629, eventually landing in Salem, Massachusetts. His place in history was firmly established when his account of his journey, A True Relation of the Last Voyage to New England, was published in the nineteenth century.

Claybrooke Hall, early 20th Century, Humphrys Family Wesbite

The majority of key buildings in Claybrooke appear to have been built in the eighteenth century, which include the Water Mill in Claybrooke Magna which is still in working order today. Could this be as the Industrial Revolution coming to Claybrooke? In any case it is clear that the area at this time was growing and with the nineteenth century came the railway boom, and in 1840 a Midland Counties Railway opened a line from Rugby to Derby and Nottingham, with the aim of providing Leicester with Nottingham coal. The service also stopped at Ullesthorpe, a town close to Claybrooke. The route from Leicester to Rugby was closed in 1961, and the tracks now lie overgrown.

The parish of Claybrooke is mentioned in the Topographical Dictionary of England on the British History Online website. This was published in 1848 and details the population of Greater Claybrooke as 514 and Little Claybrooke as 104. The main industry of the area is given as ‘stocking manufacture’, unsurprising as the Midlands had become a centre for the knitting industry during the Industrial Revolution. There are two schools in the parish, the most recent a school for girls set up by a J.E. Dicey Esq.

The Dicey family‘s link to the area appears to date back to 1765 when the printer Cluer Dicey bought Claybrooke Hall, now another listed building in Claybrooke Parva. The Dicey’s left the Midlands in 1848, but did not sell the Hall until 1885. The Humphries family history website where I found this information also had this lovely picture (above) of Claybrooke Hall in the early twentieth century.

A website dedicated to the Claybrookes has the best information on the area in the twentieth century, with a link to an amazing scrapbook and memoirs donated from a local resident. The photos are amazing with many portraits of friends and family as well as beautiful images of a lost agricultural life. Another notable feature of the photos are the amount of men in uniform, a stark reminder the two World Wars and the affect they must have had on these small villages. St Peter’s has a war memorial for all those lost, and the Claybrookes website has an in-depth article on the memorial, it details who the men were, and where they fought and died, it also includes some of the soldiers correspondences with loved ones whilst in service.

1840 Map of Claybrooke Magna & Parva, Francis Firth

The 1960s saw the building of many new homes in Claybrooke and the recent times have seen the refurbishment of the listed buildings including the Claybrooke Mill and Claybrooke Hall, however as with many rural towns many of the local amenities like the village shop and post office have closed. Though the area is still popular and if the Claybrookes website is anything to go by, they still have a thriving community.

This is obviously a very brief history, but still an interesting one, and Claybrooke is definitely a place I would love to find out more about. In my time here I have also come across a couple of documents mentioning a robbery of Church linen in 1507 and nearby villages using Claybrooke’s common land before it was enclosed in 1694. Areas that definitely deserve further research, but perhaps in a records office or library rather than an armchair….

I hope you’ve also found this interesting and if anyone has any more interesting information on the Claybrookes history, or have comes across a copy of Rev. Aulay Macaulay’s The history and antiquities of Claybrook, in the county of Leicester (Northampton, 1791), I’d love to hear about it!