Rediscovering ruins

Before construction work began in 2015 to renovate Cathedral Square in Worcester, an archaeological dig took place.

This beautiful piece of decorative stonework, thought to be part of a window surround, was one of the many fascinating pieces discovered on Lich Street, where the foundations of a house once stood. The earliest residential buildings on Lich Street appeared around the 13th century and the area soon became a thriving and important part of Worcester’s urban landscape, undergoing many phases of building and rebuilding over the centuries until it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a new hotel and shopping complex.

It is likely that this piece, and many others similar to it, originally came from a much grander medieval building and was then re-used on the Lich Street house. This re-use of masonry demonstrates the recycling spirit of the time – building materials were expensive and shrewd medieval builders would have made the most of what they could find to use again.

A discovery of national significance

A very rare object has been identified in the World Cultures collection by a visiting curator from the British Museum, London.

This coiled mat originates from late 19th century South Eastern Australia, and is now known to be an incredibly rare example, one of only two known in the UK. It was designed to be carried on the owner’s back and was a multi-purpose item used for sitting on and as a way to carry belongings, as some other examples are known to have small pockets. It was woven from a hardy perennial plant known as spiny-head mat-rush, spiky-headed mat-rush or basket grass, which is found throughout Eastern Australia.

The mat was identified on a recent visit to Worcester City’s collections by Dr Gaye Sculthorpe (pictured), Curator & Section Head of Oceania in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum.

Dr Sculthorpe has been exploring the Worcestershire’s World Cultures collection during a project aiming to uncover Aboriginal artefacts in collections all over the country. She was delighted to discover the mat, saying, ‘This is a really rare find and it is in such great condition. The British Museum has one of these, but it’s not as good as this’. High praise indeed!

Unmistakably Worcester

This oil painting from Worcester City’s collection is by accomplished landscape and marine artist Walter Stuart Lloyd, the only painting in the collection by the artist. Born in 1875, Lloyd lived in Brighton and exhibited over 170 works with the Royal Academy, Royal Institute, and Royal Society of British Artists amongst others. This evening scene A View of Worcester shows barges on the River Severn (interestingly with a woman clearly at the tiller) and the city’s unmistakable Cathedral in the distance, and is typical of Lloyds’ fondness for tranquil subjects. It was acquired by Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum during the 1980s, a hundred years after it was painted in the 1880s.

From as early as the mid-1830s, regular temporary art exhibitions had been held in Worcester, featuring works by important local artists. A popular venue was the Literary and Scientific Institute Athenaeum, a building which once stood towards the rear of what is now the Odeon Cinema in Foregate Street. Venues in Pierpoint Street and Angel Street also exhibited works by local artists, however it was not until the completion of the new City Museum and Library (now Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum) that a custom-built gallery existed for the display of paintings.

Lockdown Inventories

Lockdown working is a solitary experience. Colleagues are distant now; present but safely separated by email or video conferencing software. However, the catalogue cards of drawer ‘D2F’, which usually reside in the museum’s archives, have given me a set of new colleagues to populate my home workspace. These cards date from the 1960s, and were amended and added to until they were replaced with computer logs.

Each card is 10.5 cm by 15.5 cm and contains detailed information about an item gifted, loaned to, or bought by the museum. But these cards are more than flat descriptions of items; the personalities and emotions of the card writers and their colleagues have imprinted onto them as well. A person can be recognised through a repeated spelling mistake across a number of cards, or a particular choice of adjective to describe an item, while some things are more specific. The writer of card 3784 lets their excitement about the bronze cooking vessel of ‘late medieval form’ leak onto the page. The description of the item is followed by the typed words ‘surely not (?)’, suggesting the writer is barely suppressing the fantasy familiar to every museum worker; that like a minor Howard Carter they have stumbled onto something impossibly exciting.

Occasionally, the cards give away a name. A ‘Mr M’ (let’s call him that) was apparently a glass expert, whose expertise people did not trust. His name is appended to a number of cards categorising glassware, as though the writer is backing away, pointing their finger at Mr M so he can be blamed when the judgement is inevitably wrong.

Mrs B is the strongest personality to emanate from drawer D2F. We find her name angrily written in red biro on card 4669. Mrs B has removed the screens of ‘petit point embroidery’ from ‘the pair of standing bulerster [sic] legs’. The writer’s anguished ‘why?’ shows their frustration at her undoubtedly well-meant actions. As much as I feel the writer’s frustration leap from the record, in these strange times, it is a comfort to have Mrs B around.

Oliver Carey, The Commandery team

Scoping the Bromsgrove Guild

The Bromsgrove Guild and its role in the economic and cultural heritage of Worcestershire is an interesting story that is touched upon in the galleries of Hartlebury County Museum.

As well as the items on display, we have statues, glassware, stained glass windows, woodwork, wax statues, tools and box after box of archive in Museums Worcestershire’s stores. Over the years, several artefacts have been researched in more detail, but the collection has never been studied as a whole or given the due deference such an important organisation deserves.

The Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts was founded in 1898 by Walter Gilbert, the headmaster of Bromsgrove School of Art. It embraced the philosophy of the wider Arts and Crafts Movement: to celebrate both beautiful design and skilled craftsmanship in metal casting, wood carving, plasterwork, glass work, embroidery and many other disciplines.  This was a reaction against mass-production and the exploitation of workers brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The years up to 1914 can be seen as the heyday for the Guild, with such high profile commissions as the Buckingham Palace gates, the Liver Birds for the Royal Sun Alliance Building, Liverpool, and the interior fittings for cruise ships including The Lusitania.

The First World War proved to be a difficult time for the Guild. Despite some war contracts, their debts mounted and they were only saved by the demand for war memorials from 1918.

Towards the end of the 1920s, the Guild had moved away from producing luxury goods, instead focussing on an increasing variety of ‘popular’ goods like signs, plaques and light fittings. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a further decline and the glory days of the decadent Edwardian period were very much a distant memory. The company survived World War Two mainly due to the need for craftsmen to repair bomb damage, but by 1966 the financial difficulties were too great and the Guild closed its doors for good.

Research opportunities

We have had a large number of enquiries about our Guild collection over the years. Each one allows us the opportunity to take some time to research what we have.

One such enquiry came in last year when we were contacted by Stan Parry, a volunteer at the now closed Broadfield House Glass Museum (pending the opening of its replacement the White House Cone Museum of Glass) and a member of the Glass Society.

A few years previously, Stan became interested in Vesta Glass through seeing some examples produced by Walsh Walsh held in the Broadfield House glass collection. Walsh Walsh (a Birmingham glass manufacturer) had commissioned Walter Gilbert of the Bromsgrove Guild to produce the designs. Another member of the Glass Society then discovered that the Worcestershire County collection held a significant quantity of Vesta glass.

This glass was only made for about 3 years, from 1929 to 1931, and is known internationally to be one of the best examples of its type in the world and rare as the result of its short production run.  

Stan and fellow members of the Glass Society came to our store study and photograph approximately 10 items from our collection of Vesta glass, which has proved to be a springboard for further research, which will hopefully help to fill a gap in Bromsgrove Guild history.

Interestingly, the collection includes some beautiful examples from a set entitled the “The Twelve Labours of Hercules”

The Future

The museum is currently looking at ways of increasing knowledge and awareness of our Bromsgrove Guild Collection. There is huge potential both in our own collection and potentially through links with other institutions that hold Guild archives and objects. In the meantime, please click the Bromsgrove Guild tag below to read more about the collection

With thanks to Stan Parry and Bill Millar

Reconstructing Bays Meadow Roman Villa

The term ‘villa’ is used to describe Romano-British homes ranging from deluxe palaces to simple farmhouses and over its long history, Bays Meadow Villa in Droitwich was arguably both those things.

Bays Meadow began to develop in the second century AD and in 2018, Museums Worcestershire began work with Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Pighill Illustration to attempt to reconstruct what this early phase of the Bays Meadow Villa might have looked like.

The many rooms of the villa complex revealed evidence of opulent mosaic floors, painted plaster walls, a sophisticated hypocaust system (under-floor heating) and a bath house. Archaeological finds suggested the use of decorated furniture, jewellery and samian ware and overall the finds suggest that the site was owned by a Roman official, presumably overseeing the nearby salt production.

Hodgkinson mosaic

This archaeological evidence from Bays Meadow and other similar sites was used to reconstruct a 2-dimensional view of the exterior of the main villa with its covered veranda and porch, rounded windows and ceramic tiled roof. A 3-dimensional VR (virtual reality) interior view of one of the villa’s fine rooms includes evidence from mosaics and painted wall plaster in Worcestershire County’s collection.

These reconstructions offer a glimpse into a remarkable building that stood in Worcestershire almost two thousand years ago. The 3D VR reconstruction can be viewed on a screen, with VR googles or by using a mobile phone with cardboard VR goggles.

With thanks to Peter Lorimer, Pighill Illustration and Derek Hurst, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service

Trilobites

The geology collection of Worcester City contains some fascinating fossils of long-forgotten creatures that used to populate the ever-changing landscapes stretching back millions of years.

Trilobites are extinct sea creatures that looked rather like today’s woodlice and belong to a group of animals called the arthropods which includes spiders, insects and crabs. They first appeared in the Cambrian seas but vanished from the Earth about 250 million years ago. Some crawled along the sea bed, others swam in the water and some also lived buried in mud. They all had jointed legs, a segmented body divided into 3 parts and a hard outer skeleton which was shed as they grew.

Some trilobites, like the ones seen in the first photograph, were able to roll up into a ball probably for protection against predators. These are Calymene blumenbachii, a species of trilobite discovered in the limestone quarries of the Wren’s Nest in Dudley, West Midlands. Nicknamed the Dudley Bug or Dudley Locust by 18th-century miners it became a symbol of the town and featured on the Dudley County Borough Council coat-of-arms.

There were more than 10,000 species of trilobites and the specimen in the second photograph, Encrinurus punctatus, is popularly known as the ‘strawberry-headed’ trilobite. Its headshield was covered with tubercles. This specimen is from the Silurian Wenlock Limestone of Dudley. Around 420 million years ago, this part of the Earth’s crust was covered by a shallow warm coral sea. Trilobites were one of the first creatures to have eyes and most had good sight from two eyes made of many tiny lenses packed together.

Georgian Worcester and the Commandery

The English Civil war devastated much of the country, but as the stage of the last, brutal battle, Worcester was particularly badly affected.

Recovery was slow but sure and by the start of the Georgian period, Worcester was back up and running. One of the earliest newspapers in the country, the Berrows Journal, makes reference to events such as balls, cock fights, theatre and public breakfasts – even a cricket match between eleven one-armed men and eleven one-legged men, all whom were Greenwich Hospital pensioners. The one-armed men won.

The population of Worcester doubled between 1678 (10,000) and 1821 (20,000). This would normally indicate a prospering city, and while it is true that its status as a minor spa town did bring wealthy visitors, and all the splendid trappings of such wealth, to the city, this masked serious economic problems of the urban poor.

Areas like Bridgenorth and Kidderminster were growing in importance and diverting trade from Worcester. So while the local landed gentry and growing set of wealthy middle classes continued to make money outside the city, their investment in the city took the form of large mansions and town houses like those on Britannia Square, and the restoration of churches. Diversifying and developing the cities manufacturing base and infrastructure were somewhat neglected. Most workers were involved in the clothing industry which gave a very poor return for labour and there was stiff competition.

The poverty didn’t go unnoticed, however, and the local Whig professional classes tried to make improvements. Dr Wall set up the Worcester Porcelain Works in 1751 in order to try and reduce local unemployment and, along with pioneering Bishop Isaac Maddox, he founded the cities first infirmary on Silver Street – one of only seven such buildings outside London. This was succeeded by the Worcester General Infirmary in 1771 – the seat where Sir Charles Hastings later founded what was to become the British Medical Association.

The underlying economic fragility is shown as the size of the city in the early 19th century was the same as it had been in the later medieval period – its vastly bigger population living in increasingly squalid conditions.

Meanwhile, at the Commandery
An additional wing was added to the Commandery in this period, including a new set of windows which, given the tax on window glass at this time, would have been an ostentatious sign of wealth.

Records show that John Dandridge, an attorney at law and prominent man in the local property business, purchased a portion of The Commandery from the Wyldes for £917.00 in 1764.

The Dandridge’s only had a brief period of assumed happy living at The Commandery. Daughter Emelia Letitia died at the tender age of five in 1768, quickly followed by son Robert aged just three months old. In 1770, Mrs Dandridge died at around the age of thirty three, leaving John to care for five children. A notice in the July 26th edition of the Berrows Journal reads “On Friday last died at the Commandery in this City, Mrs Dandridge, wife of John Dandridge Esq. and one of the daughters of the Right Honourable Sir John Strange. The many amiable qualities she possessed endeared her to her relations and acquaintances, and make her death most truly regretted by them all.”

The Dandridge’s continued to live at the Commandery until 1806 when Richard Muggmence took occupancy.
In the same year that the Dandridge’s bought into the Commandery, Joseph Harris, a wool merchant, bought property adjacent to it from the Wyldes for £915. Just a year later, he also purchased the canal wing of The Commandery – possibly to lease as industrial units.

Another family associated to The Commandery at this time was the Camerons. They leased most of the garden wing from the Dandridge family. Thomas Cameron was a doctor. Originally from Edinburgh, he settled in Worcester as his family had Jacobite sympathies and Thomas presumably found England a more favourable place to live.

Thomas’ first wife Elizabeth endured a long illness. He later wrote about her suffering, and about their love and devotion to one another. She made her husband promise that, on her death, he would marry her friend Barbara Anne Plowden to which he agreed. The wedding took place exactly a week after Elizabeth’s death. Barbara Ann and Thomas had five children.

HMS Worcester

HMS Worcester was one of sixty-seven V and W Class destroyers in the British Navy, most serving in both world wars. Worcester was one of the last to be ordered in April 1918, built at Cowes and then launched in October 1919 so unlike many of her sister ships, she never saw active service in the First World War.

When built, these ships were the most advanced in the world and went on to be reliable, speedy and well-armed destroyers. Originally they were planned to be deployed in flotillas of 16, working together in fast, armed attacks. However early-twentieth-century communications were not sophisticated enough for this to be successful, so the flotillas were reduced to eight, including one larger ship with the flotilla’s senior officer and his staff on board.

By the Second World War, the V&Ws were used mainly as convoy escorts, although they could also engage with the enemy including submarines when needed. Some were converted to give them extra fuel stowage and became slower Long Range Escorts, others including HMS Worcester were designated as Short Range Escorts. Worcester reported for duty in September 1939 as part of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla and was put into service for escort and patrol in the English Channel.

The V&Ws working together were an essential and effective part of the heroic evacuations from Northern France in May 1940. HMS Worcester made six trips to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo, rescuing 4,350 troops and bringing them back to Britain.

Worcester’s darkest hour was as part of the Channel Dash in February 1942. The German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to take the direct route back to German ports from their station at Brest in Brittany. This meant travelling through the English Channel, where British forces believed they could stop them.

The operation was chaotic and unsuccessful with both the RAF and the Navy suffering many losses of men. HMS Worcester was the last in line as part of a torpedo attack and pushed in too close before firing. She was hit, lost bridge communications and power, and received six hits in total as she drifted. The ship was on fire and taking on water and the order ‘Prepare to Abandon Ship’ was given. Some aboard heard this as ‘Abandon Ship’ and went straight into the water. Her sister ships managed to pick up some of these sailors but some were swept away as the remaining flotilla swerved to avoid torpedos.

The German fleet soon ceased fire – assuming HMS Worcester was about to sink – and moved on through the Channel. Slowly Worcester’s crew managed to get one boiler going and enough water pumped out to enable her to move. The boiler had to use seawater and the crew jettisoned everything they could to keep the ship light enough to stay afloat. Somehow she limped back to Harwich.

26 men had been killed or fatally wounded and 45 were injured. HMS Worcester was able to be repaired and was pressed back into service. She was again badly damaged after detonating a mine in the North Sea in December 1943. This time she was considered too damaged to repair. Her final days of the war were spent as an accommodation ship and then she was broken up in February 1947.

 

In 1941-42, the people of Great Britain were asked to invest in war savings equivalent to the cost of building a new Navy vessel through an initiative called Warship Weeks. The residents of Worcester raised the enormous £769,173 in their Warship Week in March 1942, shortly after HMS Worcester’s tragic involvement in the Channel Dash. The City then formally adopted HMS Worcester and its crew. As with many other communities, Worcester’s sea cadet unit took on the name of the adopted ship after the war.

 

This painting of HMS Worcester was presented to the City of Worcester by the V&W Destroyer Association and hangs in the Guildhall. The Citys civic collection also includes the ship’s bell.

The V&W Destroyer Association was a group of those who served on these ships. They have collated many first-hand accounts of HMS Worcester, which can be read on their website.