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.


The bottles are featured in Leicestershire’s 100 Museum objects:

Wikipedia entry on Bottle Kicking:

This is Leicestershire’s report of the 2012 Bottle Kicking festival:

Hallaton Museum:

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!