Augustus John Gypsy Drawings

Sepia pen and ink drawing of a traditional gypsy caravan with two women and a small child

This is one of a pair of pen and ink sketches, made around 1910, by Augustus John (1878-1961), that have recently been acquired for Worcester City’s collection.

Born in Pembrokeshire, Augustus Edwin John went to the Slade School in 1894. He was young and a bit of a country bumpkin, but incredibly talented at drawing. He played up his outsider status in his appearance and attitude and this grow into his character as an adult. He was a pupil of Henry Tonks, a former surgeon turned Art Professor, who taught some of the most successful artists of this generation.

Having a new wife, Ida Nettleship, a fellow student, and then a rapidly growing family with five children in as many years, in 1901 he took a job teaching at the art school in Liverpool. He formed a close friendship with the University Librarian, John Sampson, who was fascinated by Gypsy life. Together they visited camps, including “Cabbage Hall” near Liverpool, and Augustus was enthralled by the romantic picture of a traveller’s life

He fell in love with Dorothy McNeill, whom he called Dorelia, and the three adults and their children travelled England, Wales and Ireland in a couple of Gypsy caravans, with Dorelia even giving birth in the caravan. Ida died in 1907, at which point Augustus and Dorelia settled in Dorset, and later Hampshire, with the combined broods of seven children. Gypsy tents and caravans were kept in their garden for visitors.

In 1931 John Sampson died, and Augustus read the lament at his funeral on top of Foel Goch. Sampson’s gypsy Vardo, Esmeralda, is in the Worcestershire County Museum collection. Augustus John went on to succeed Sampson as President of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1937 and remained so until his death in 1961. He also campaigned for Gypsies’ and travellers’ rights.

John was publicly brash and confident, but like many artists suffered from self-doubt. He loved to surround himself with family and friends, no doubt part of the appeal to him of the Gypsy lifestyle. He was constantly painting and drawing those around him and those pictures, like these two pen-and-ink drawings are his most free and emotional.

John has included his second son, Casper, in the doorway of the caravan and the drawings were in Casper John’s collection originally. Having started with a bohemian early childhood, at the age of nine, he went with his brothers to Dane Court preparatory school in Parkstone, Dorset. There he won the prize for the ‘best gentleman in the school’ and a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships, and this inspired him to join the Royal Navy. Against the wishes of his father, but supported by Dorelia and his grandmother, Caspar entered naval college aged thirteen in 1916, passing out in 1920.

He went on to become Admiral of the Fleet and Vice-Chief of Naval Staff to Lord Mountbatten in 1957 and First Sea Lord in 1960. Although father and son retained a relationship, they had very divergent views: not long after Casper’s appointment, and just over a month before Augustus John’s death, Augustus joined anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations against the Armed Forces in Trafalgar Square.

Musket Ball Mould

A plier-like metal instrument

Musket balls are the ammunition used in muskets – the weapons used during the English Civil War. The balls could be made from any metal alloy, but many were made from lead. Lead can be melted at reasonably low temperatures and so lead musket balls could be made over a camp fire. Lead could be readily sourced from such places like church roofs or even coffins, and recast from old musket balls, so it was an easy material to work with while preparing for battle.

The soldier would carry a crucible in which to melt the lead, he would put the material into it and place it over the fire until it had formed into a liquid. Musket ball moulds like this one in Worcester’s collection, had a small hole above one of the domes where the liquid could be poured into once the two domes were closed together. The soldier would wait until it cooled then opened the mould to reveal a solid lead ball inside.

Because these were cast in halves even though pressed together, there would always be a small amount of liquid lead leakage which would form a thin crust around the ball. These needed to be filed off before being used inside a musket, so some soldiers would pop a few in their mouths and roll them around, chewing off the excess until the ball was smooth. The obvious downside to this method is that lead is poisonous. You could always tell a musketeer soldier when you spoke to him as his teeth and gums would turn green from the lead poisoning – if the Civil War battles didn’t kill him, sadly the lead eventually would.

South East Australian Parrying Shield

Long wooden tool with white engraved decoration

This interesting looking object from the Worcestershire County collection is known as a Drunmung or parrying shield and was made in the 19th century by First Nations people who lived in New South Wales, Australia.

As opposed to a more conventional flat, broad shield which would protect against spears and weapons launched as a projectile, these were used to ward off blows from clubs and hand-held weapons.

Usually made from the heartwood of ironbark or box gum tree, these shields were shaped using stone tools or shells. They were carved with intricate incised decoration using a small stick with either volcanic glass attached to the end or a possum’s tooth. The grooves would then be filled in with white coloured clay and the whole shield would be covered with animal fat to preserve the wood.

Unfortunately, we have very little information about how or when the shield came to Worcestershire so more work on tracing the object’s history is currently underway.

Butterfly Research

Row of orange and brown butterflies in a collector's drawer

Museums Worcestershire were pleased to have a visit recently from Mel Mason, Vice-Chair of West Midlands Butterfly Conservation to Worcester City’s natural history collection.

Mel is leading a project to reintroduce an endangered species of butterfly called the Pearl-bordered Fritillary back on to the Malvern Hills, following its local extinction at the end of last century. He was interested to view specimens of the butterfly in the Worcester City collection, which were collected in 1908. The Pearl-bordered Fritillary can be seen as early as April, found in woodland clearings or rough hillsides with bracken, feeding on spring flowers such as Bugle. The butterfly, though once widespread, is now highly threatened in England and Wales having declined rapidly in recent years.

The butterfly is one of many specimens of Lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) housed safely in storage at the City Art Gallery and Museum where they are a research resource. During the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, butterfly collection was a popular hobby, particularly amongst the wealthy. Specimens were frequently traded between enthusiastic Lepidopterists, and natural history suppliers made good money providing butterflies and other insects to obsessed collectors.

Worcester’s collection was enhanced in the 1970s when the museum became the custodian of cabinets from the Malvern Field Club. Most specimens within the collection include paper labels providing provenance, date and other priceless information. Whilst the butterfly collection is rarely on public display due to its fragility, the collection is invaluable to modern research groups looking to understand how species are changing in response to their environments.

The “anti-reform” Worcester plate – a time capsule from 1832

Willow pattern blue and white plate with brown writing

Jane Askew, Roger Ball and Steve Poole from the University of the West of England, undertook research into this intriguing plate in Worcester’s collection in April 2022. Their research paper below suggests why it was created and how Worcester people participated in the national arguments in the 1830s about extending the categories of people allowed to vote.

The period of 1830-1832 in Britain was marked by waves of protests and disturbances demanding reform of the electoral system. In 1830 the existing arrangements, which dated back to the rule of Henry VI, enfranchised less than three percent of the population, mostly significant land and property owners. With a few exceptions, women, much of the middle class and all the working-class were excluded from the process. Exacerbating this, access to power through the distribution of County and Borough MPs was very uneven, with rural towns and areas overrepresented compared to the massive urban populations in the new industrialising cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The staunchly anti-reforming Prime Minister from 1828-30, the Duke of Wellington, had benefited from this and so was virulently opposed to expanding the franchise or reforming the ‘rotten boroughs’. His parliamentary opponents, the Whig Party, saw an opportunity to take advantage of popular protest demanding reform to further their electoral interests.

The borough of Worcester was not considered to be ‘rotten’ as such, as it had a freeman franchise, that is, voting rights were given to those declared ‘freemen’ of the city. Freemen were created by inheritance or won either by purchase or gift from the Corporation, meaning honorary freemen could be created with the specific intention of swaying elections. This more indirect corruption allowed party prejudice to be effectively built-in to the electoral system. In Worcester the Corporation at this time was unelected and dominated by anti-reformers, though in practice the Corporation usually tried to ensure power was shared by one Tory and one Whig MP, a strategy aimed at preventing a contest.

The first signs of popular organisation over the issue of electoral reform in the period in England appeared in January 1830 with the formation of the Birmingham Political Union (BPU), founded by banker Thomas Attwood. Led by printer and businessman Issac Arrowsmith, the nearby Worcester Political Union (WPU) followed shortly after, and by the end of 1830 the WPU had 200 subscribers and was actively agitating for reform. The trend continued into 1831 with the WPU membership growing rapidly to around 1,500 with public meetings drawing more than 10,000 (1). It is estimated that 23 Political Unions were formed in 1830, and by June 1832 there were more than a hundred in Britain. Despite this rapid growth in protest organisations, the social movement for reform harboured several significant contradictions, most notably the question of universal (male) suffrage. Many Whig reformers were opposed to working men getting the vote and splits in the movement began to appear in some areas as the limited content of the Reform Bills became known.

The First Reform Bill which proposed expanding the franchise and reorganising seats fell very far short of universal (male) suffrage. The Bill was launched in the aftermath of the collapse of Wellington’s Tory government in November 1830. The new prime minister, Lord Grey, was a Whig reformer and in March 1831 the Bill was put to the Commons where it was narrowly defeated. This led to a general election between April and June which, despite the inequities of ‘borough-mongering’, produced a Whig landslide. This created the opportunity to launch the Second Reform Bill which passed through the Commons by a significant majority in September 1831. However, one more hurdle remained, the House of Lords. On October 8th 1831 the Bill was defeated in the Lords leading to a wave of protests and disturbances sweeping across Britain and Ireland. The ‘reform riots’ began with serious disorder in the East Midlands (Derby, Nottingham) followed by unrest in towns in the West and Southwest. The wave reached its apogee in Bristol at the end of October with the most serious riot in nineteenth century Britain.

As part of our research project we are investigating the reform-related riot in Worcester in early November 1831. We were informed by the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum that they had an interesting artefact related to the reform struggles of the period. The artefact, a reassembled ceramic plate, was covered in text front and back:

The centre-front of the plate is transcribed thus:

Great rejoicings have taken place lately in England on passing the Reform Bill.
I say it will be the ruin of the country.
What say you Mr Finder of this plate about it?

The writing on the circumference of the plate has largely rubbed off apart from the rather confusing fragment:

…take a good ½ pint of wine…

In contrast the back of the plate is full of personal information:

The back of a plate covered in written names

The 1st stone of this Bridge was laid June 19th1832 by Richard Spooner, Esq. of Brickfields
The 2nd stone by M J Ross of Astwood
3 by Mr J Hake
4 by Mr William {Julle} (2)
5 by Mr J- Parry the surveyor of the road
6 by Faye {Tison}
7 by Mr Master Rich Staples
8 by Harvey Eginton, Architect to the Bridge
9th by Hester and the 10th by Emily

And from the inside bottom anti-clockwise:

11 by Miss Eliza Staples 12 by Judith, 13 {—} 14 Jane her sister 15 Miss Ann Eginton {—} sisters
16th by Mr B Staples, 17th {—–} Staples 20 W Rapha {—-} Miss Jane Carson
The Right Reverend the Bishop Eginton, formerly of Handsworth Birmingham
{—} gave towards its erection £30 on condition of its being made a {—} remainder to be paid by the parish.
the contractor William Wood of Droitwich
We hope this will be satisfactory to whoever finds it centuries hence
My reasons for doing it is some ancient foundations were found of which there are no records. Many think {-} stand long {-} left as it {iw}.
The committee were Sir Offley Wakeman, Bar, Rich Spooner Esq.

Our research suggests the plate was laid in the foundations of a new bridge being built over the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Bilford (3). A contemporary newspaper article dated 30th June 1832 refers to this location and notes that during its construction the workmen discovered the ancient structure of a previously unknown water mill. This was dated back to the period of the dissolution of the Monasteries (4). Referring to the transcription above, the “ancient foundations” verifies the location as being the Bilford bridge. A second validation comes from the date with the newspaper claiming it to be Wednesday 20th June, whilst the plate states Tuesday 19th June, suggesting the former was in error. However, the dates are close enough to substantiate the event.

Of the people named on the back of the plate we can insert some details. Harvey Eginton ‘Architect to the Bridge’, his two sisters Hesther and Emily and their father William Raphael Eginton are listed as the 8th, 9th, 10th and 20th stone layers respectively. The Eginton family were renowned for several generations as skilled glass painters and stainers. Harvey went onto design and restore many churches in the region. At the time of his early death in 1849 he held the posts of county surveyor and senior architect for the construction of church buildings in the Worcester district (5). Although there don’t seem to be many details of a ‘Bishop Eginton’ the connection to Handsworth in Birmingham is viable as the Eginton family were closely associated with the area (6). Sir Offley (Penbury) Wakeman, 2nd Baronet (1799-1858) lived at the nearby Perdiswell Hall, constructed by his father Sir Henry Wakeman in 1788 and demolished in 1956 (7). The unexceptional Offley Wakeman was probably present at the stone laying as his ‘seat’ of Perdiswell adjoined the Parish of Claines, the funders of the bridge (8).

Of particular interest, however, is Richard Spooner (1783-1864), the first stone-layer. He is undoubtedly the son of Issac Spooner the West Midlands nail manufacturer and banker. Spooner (jnr) initially followed in his father’s footsteps by helping run the family’s banking and manufacturing business. The former, a joint concern with the Attwood family, brought him into contact with their son Thomas, the subsequent founder of the Birmingham Political Union. Richard Spooner and Thomas Attwood became friends, political associates, and financial theorists. In 1812 they were both chosen to represent Birmingham in meetings with parliamentary committees. Spooner made several attempts to become an MP, most notably in the Boroughbridge election of 1820 but despite his electoral victory, he and his fellow winning candidate were deposed on the charge of bribery by an election committee a few months later. Although Richard Spooner was regarded as being a ‘radical reformer’ and he spoke at meetings with Thomas Attwood in Birmingham in 1829 which were precursors to the formation of the BPU, he took an anti-reform position on the right-wing of politics in the 1830s and gravitated towards the more extreme political opinions (9).

It is thus likely that the comment “I say it [reform] will be the ruin of the country” on the front of the plate could have come from the pen of Spooner or one of his supporters at the Bridge ceremony. A well-used argument touted by anti-reformers in the period was that the widening of the franchise would bring in voters who had less allegiance to the country, as they owned less property, let alone the largely property-less working classes. This in turn, they argued, would lead to social chaos and financial ruin. This approach, based on fear, was aided to some extent by the riots and disturbances of autumn 1831 when prominent anti-reformers were selected for ‘rough music’ and in some cases attacks on their property or person. Of course, it was pointed out in response by many pro-reformers that the vast majority of those who took part in these protests were peaceful and those that weren’t, were disenfranchised in any case. In parliament, reforming MPs turned the anti-reform argument on its head by emphasising the threat of riots and revolution if the Third (Great) Reform Bill was not passed. The Worcester reform riot of November 1831 may have played a part in fomenting the reactionary views of Spooner and his anti-reforming associates which are exposed on the plate. Several of them were targeted by the crowd during the disturbance and it is likely that Spooner would have known about the event in some detail.

Another intriguing aspect of the Worcester reform riot relating to Richard Spooner is that several historians have argued that one of the causes of the riot was “Wetherell’s marriage into a Worcester family” (10). Sir Charles Wetherell, MP, had been both Solicitor-General and Attorney-General for England and Wales in the governments of the 1820s and was the Recorder for Bristol in 1831. Wetherell was (in)famous for his reactionary views and “violent speeches” against Catholic emancipation and he was a staunch anti-reformer, apparently making even the Duke of Wellington feel uncomfortable. Like Spooner, Wetherell became associated the most extreme British and Irish politics in the period (11). It was Wetherell’s controversial and contested visit to Bristol on 29th October 1831 that had initiated three days of the most violent rioting in the nineteenth century. The Worcester reform riot followed less than a week later. So, to what marriage were the Worcester ‘historians’ referring? More than 25 years before the reform crises, in 1804, Richard Spooner married Charlotte Wetherell, Charles Wetherell’s sister, making them brothers-in-law. This is probably the “marriage into a Worcester family” that the historians were proposing as a causal factor. This link to the Worcester reform riot certainly deserves further investigation.

On the front of the plate, the line “Great rejoicings have taken place lately in England on passing the Reform Bill” refers to the events of June 1832. The Third Reform Bill had been launched in December 1831, passed through the Commons with large majorities in March 1832, and survived the uncertainties of the “Days of May” when Lord Grey resigned as Prime Minister and Wellington was restored to power. This period of intense agitation across Britain was described by a historian of Worcester, Tuberville:

May 14—The Worcester Political Union met on the resignation of ministers, because the Lords, for a second time, refused to accept the principle of the Reform Bill. The meeting was held in Pitchcroft, at five p.m., and the members of the Union went in procession to the grand stand, headed by flags and a band. It is said that at least 10,000 persons were present. (12)

Fear of the consequences of a third failure of the Bill in the Lords after the ‘lessons’ of the reform protests and riots of autumn 1831 put Grey back into power once again and forced Wellington to relent and persuade the anti-reform Lords to back down. The Bill was finally given Royal assent on 7th June 1832. Despite the fact that the Great Reform Act, as it became known, fell very short of the demands for universal suffrage, there was great “rejoicing” when it finally passed. The reference on the plate was probably to the celebrations in Worcester on 11th and 12th June, a week or so before the plate was laid in the Bilford Bridge. Tuberville described them thus:

On the Monday [11 June] the Worcester Political Union, with a great number of lodges and friendly societies, paraded the streets with banners and music, and in the evening dined at various public houses. On the Tuesday [12 June] evening the city was illuminated — the lighting up being almost universal, and costly transparencies and devices in many instances adopted. (13)

The anti-reform plate was clearly placed in the foundations of the Bilford bridge in 1832 as a kind of ‘time-capsule’, passing onto future generations the feelings of some of those close to the political and social crises of the 1830s. As such, it presents us with some fascinating evidence and poses us with a question:

What say you Mr Finder of this plate about it?

Research into the Worcester “anti-reform plate” is far from complete and we would urge local historians to add to our initial investigations.

  1. Lopatin, Nancy D. Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999) pp. 59-60.
  2. Curly brackets {} designate that we are unsure of the transcription or it is unclear.
  3. This would be where the B4482 Bilston Road crosses the canal, close to Perdiswell Leisure Centre. The current bridge replaced the one being constructed in 1832.
  4. Worcester Herald 30 June 1832.
  5. The Builder Vol. VII No. 317 3 March 1849.
  6. Francis Eginton Handsworth History: Its story and its people
  7. WAKEMAN of Perdiswell Hall,Worcs The Baronetage of England, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Great Britain and the United Kingdom; Perdiswell Park, Worcester Parks & Gardens
  8. Worcester Herald 30 June 1832.
  9. Fisher, D.R. “Spooner, Richard (1783-1864), of Glindon House, Warws.” The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher (Cambridge: CUP, 2009); Birmingham Daily Post 25 November 1864.
  10. LoPatin, Political Unions p. 97. LoPatin refers to Gwilliam, H. W. Old Worcester, People and Places (Bromsgrove, 1983) and Whitehead, David Book of Worcester: The story of the City’s Past (Buckingham, 1976) for this argument
  11. Sack, James J. “Ultra tories (act. 1827–1834).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 24 May. 2008; Accessed 31 Mar. 2022.
  12. Tuberville, T. C. Worcestershire in the Nineteenth Century: A Complete Digest of Facts Occurring in the County since the Commencement of the year 1800 (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1852) p. 71.
  13. Ibid. p. 277.

Pirton School Bell and the Walford family connection

A large shiny brass bell

The Pirton School bell was recently donated by Malcolm Walford to the Worcestershire County collection. Malcolm has worked for the Croome Estate since August 1953, and is currently Croome Heritage Trust’s historian.

As an employee of the Croome Estate, Malcolm and his wife Mary were entitled to a tied house. In 1954 their first home was at Post Office Cottages at Pirton, where there were no conveniences such as electricity, running water or toilets. In 1961 Malcolm and his family were very glad to move to the former Pirton School which was by this point a house.

When the house had been altered in 1957 the bell had been removed and returned to the Croome Estate Office at High Green. It eventually hung outside the Clerk of Works Office but was not used. It was during Malcolm and his family’s time at Pirton School House that the bell returned to Pirton. Later Malcolm had the bell cleaned by Swinbourne Brothers of Baughton, Worcs.

Malcolm feels a strong connection to the bell, not only from his time living at the house but because his father, Leonard had been tasked with ringing the bell when he attended Pirton School from 1904 – 1913. Malcolm is very pleased that the bell will be cared for as part of the County collection, giving future generations the opportunity to learn the local history and stories associated with it.

Can a Fan tell your story?

Open paper fan showing writing

The practical function of a fan – to swat away insects and cool the skin – was rarely the reason for choosing or using one in Georgian and early Victorian society. Instead, fans were used by fashionable ladies to engage in social rituals.

In the 1820s, Parisian fan maker Duvelleroy published a leaflet setting out a language behind the use of the fan. It included such instructions as ‘drawing through the hand – I hate you’, ‘fanning slowly – I am married’ and ‘twirling in the left hand – we are watched’. Almost certainly Duvelleroy wasn’t actually recording messages in use, he had just come up with a very good advertising campaign. Certainly there’s no evidence for men’s understanding fan signalling. This ‘language’ has become part of costume history mythology and has been included in many romantic stories set in the Georgian period.

Some fans were, however, definitely used as a different form of communication. In the popular party game ‘Fanology’ or ‘Speaking fan’ a fan would be printed with questions and answers on either side and gave examples of how to hold a conversation at a party by just using signs and gestures.

Close-up of a fan showing questions printed on

This fascinating fan from the Worcestershire County Collection takes the game one step forward – fortune telling. The player must pose a question. Some examples of question seen on the fan include whether the proposed marriage is advantageous and whether the dream be true. One would then stick a pin in the central circle without looking, giving a number at random which will lead to the answer. Judging by the number of pinholes this fan has told many a fortune!

Worcester’s Slipware Tells a Story

fragments of pottery painted with a figure

Within Worcester City’s Archaeology Collection sits several pieces of slipware pottery. This example is part of a dish dated to the eighteenth century and decorated with the figure of a man wearing a coat and hair style very reminiscent of a Cavalier from the Civil War period.

These pieces came from an excavation on Broad Street in Worcester which revealed parts of a medieval building, sections of a Roman road and several wells. One of the wells, which was brick built, contained a large amount of drinking mugs, bowls and chamber pots from the eighteenth century which were presumed to be from an inn in the area.

The decoration of the man features on a press moulded slipware dish with a pie crust edge. This is where the edge has been impressed to give a ridged adornment.

The slipware decoration asks questions: Is this a depiction of a man during the eighteenth century wearing Georgian type clothes or does it look more like a Civil War Cavalier? If it is the latter, does it tell a story of Worcester coming to terms with what happened to the city and its people after the Civil War?

The Rowan Tree

A dried branch with several stalks and leaves

This is an example of Sorbus Aucuparia, commonly known as Mountain Ash or Rowan, and is one of thousands of specimens that form the Worcester City herbarium collection. The collection consists predominantly of local and native British specimens, gathered, preserved and exchanged between enthusiastic collectors throughout the nineteenth century.

The old Celtic name for Rowan, ‘fid na ndruad’, means wizards’ tree, and in fact, Rowan has a long tradition of being used as a protection against witches. Red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil, and so the Rowan’s bright red berries were seen as a tool for keeping witches and evil spirits at bay. In Ireland, it was planted near houses to protect them against spirits, Rowan trees were planted in churchyards in Wales, and cutting the tree down was considered taboo in Scotland. The wood was used for stirring milk to prevent curdling, as a pocket charm against rheumatism, and also as divining rods.

Rowan is most often found in the north and the west of the UK. Its leaves are enjoyed by the caterpillars of several moths, including the larger Welsh wave and autumn green carpet. Caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries. Whilst the flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, Rowan berries are a nutrient rich source of food for birds in autumn, especially the blackbird, mistle thrush, redstart, redwing, song thrush, fieldfare and waxwing.