Holding up 600 years of history: The Commandery’s Great Hall ceiling

Just outside the old medieval town walls lies The Commandery: a late-fifteenth century H-shaped building which was once the Hospital of St Wulstan. The Commandery’s architecture is exceptional, a blend of timber framing and brick construction which reveals its unique historical story. Throughout the centuries people have put their stamp on the building and now its different elements reflect many styles and materials used in each era.

Sitting at The Commandery’s heart is the Great Hall, a curiosity in its own right. The hall was originally designed as a space for ceremonial activities and it would have been open to the public to display the status and wealth of the owner.

The timber-framed hall contains what was originally a hammer-beam ceiling. This type of ceiling is rarely found in timber-framed buildings in general but it is particularly unusual to discover one in Worcestershire. Buildings that contain these types of ceilings generally need masonry walls to carry the weight.

At the inside end of the curved braces jutting out from the walls were originally intricately-carved wooden angels. These were probably removed in the nineteenth century when the middle sections of wood were inserted to join the hammer-beams. These sections cover metal ties and there are another set of ties added at a later date, used to keep the walls from spreading under the huge weight of the roof. It is unknown what became of the wooden angels, one of many mysteries of this incredible building with such a long and fascinating history.

Mary, Queen of Worcester’s Fine Art Collection

portrait of a lady in a ruff, with something on the surface obscuring the paintingThis oil painting on panel is one of the earliest artworks in the museum’s collections, dating to 1550-80. It is attributed to the English School, simply meaning that the artist was from England, but no more is (yet) known about who painted it.

The painting is part of one of the earliest donated collections of fine art – the Bowles Collection. The Reverend George Downing Bowles donated 26 artworks to Worcester City in 1850. The subject of this work is Mary Queen of Scots who reigned over Scotland from when she was just 6 days old in 1542 until 1567. The Bowles Collection contains portraits of many historical characters including Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and Erasmus.

The surface of the artwork is currently protected by a thin layer of tissue, which prevents any further damage to the painting’s surface – this is a process called facing. The tissue has been secured using a water-based glue or paste, to preserve a crumbling paint layer until it can be worked on by a conservator. As most oil paintings of this period use an oil-based varnish that will not dissolve in water, the painting will not be damaged by the dampening and removal of the glue. The tissue was added about 20 years ago, and this year we have finally, with support from the Leche Trust, been able to commission a conservator to tackle the work it needs.

The Estuary by Leonard Pike (1887-1959)

The Estuary is one of seven artworks by the artist Leonard Pike (1887-1959) in the City’s collection.

Though he was born in London, Pike’s career flourished in Worcestershire and he has been adopted as a local artist. He studied at Worcester School of Arts & Crafts, where he later returned to teach for many years and served as the first chairman of The Worcester Society of Artists from its formation in 1947 to 1951. He was very active in his role as advisor to the gallery as the photograph below shows.

Pike tended to paint rural scenes and this one, unusually, doesn’t feature a historic architectural feature of which he was particularly fond. A more typical work, picturing Stokesay Castle, features in a previous article.

Slightly past its sell-by date

This catering size tin of beef stew was donated to the Tickenhill Collection (now part of the Worcestershire County Museum Collection) by John Strafford Preece. John, also known as Jack, was a labourer from Kidderminster who was a sergeant in the Queens Own Worcestershire Hussars. He gave the tin of beef stew to the museum collection along with other items documenting his experiences of World War One.

‘Maconchie’s meat stew’ was one of the best-known brands of trench rations and was usually eaten with hard biscuits. Maconchie’s stew contained “finest beef”, potatoes, haricot beans, carrots, and onions. Although this sounds nice, these tinned rations did not get very good feedback from the soldiers who described it as “garbage,” and it gained a reputation for causing flatulence – an unwelcome addition to the unpleasant conditions in the trenches. Little information is available about Rhodes & Co beef stew, however, it would be reasonable to suggest that the contents were similar.

Soldiers recovering from illness or injury at Hartlebury Castle Convalescent Hospital, however, were treated to three, warm, home -cooked meals a day and the occasional tea party with sandwiches and cakes. For men who had faced the horrors and indignities of the war, their stay at Hartlebury would have offered desperately needed respite and provided happier memories during a harrowing time.

Worcester’s Luxurious Roman Bath House

This is the only piece of mosaic flooring in the city’s museum collection, excavated from Worcester city centre. Only sixteen tesserae remain (each piece of glass, tile or stone is a tessera) but its modest size belies a story of Roman luxury in what seems to have always been one of the most luxurious areas of Worcester.

The mosaic fragment was found in Britannia Square. Single tessera have also been found close by but this particular fragment’s white accretion suggests it could have been part of the floor of a Roman bath house. Over recent years, Roman building materials like roof tile and box tile have also been found in the area which may have formed part of a hypocaust heating system, where hot air flowed into a hollow space below the floor to warm a room. Such building materials suggest that a substantial Roman building once stood in the area.

In 1829, during the building of what is now Springfield School, substantial foundations of a Roman apsidal building (semi-circular) was found. In 1840, Jabez Allies theorised in his book On the Antiquities and Folklore of Worcestershire that the apsidal shape implied the building was a temple. More recently James Dinn, City Archaeological Officer, has suggested it may instead have been part of a villa. Whatever it was, it remains one of the few Roman masonry buildings which remains as evidence of this fascinating aspect of the city’s archaeological past.

Put your hands together for Morley Gloves

Many Worcester residents know that the Fownes Hotel was once Fownes Gloves factory and has barely changed externally. Others will know that the enormous Dent’s Gloves factory operated on Deansway, where the Heart of Worcestershire College now stands. Others will remember Milore Gloves, which is now a branch of Sainsbury’s on Barbourne Road. These three companies employed many hundred Worcestershire people, but were far from the only glove works in town.

The signs are everywhere but some have been lost entirely, without trace. Another gloving landmark is about to disappear as the former Morley glove works on Raglan Street is demolished in the coming months. Barlow Associates granted the Museum Service permission to fully record and photograph the interior and exterior of the structure for our records. This will be invaluable in adding to Worcester City’s record of Worcester’s once-great industry.

Morley made fine leather gloves that were sold all around the world. Our colleagues in Environmental Records have the plans for the construction of the Morley Works in 1911, and the City Museum collection contains examples of their craftsmanship. As another chapter of history draws to a close, let us put our hands together, rather appropriately, for Morley Gloves.

Harvest Time Spirits

Throughout history, crops have been gathered in as the days get shorter and the coldest weather begins to set in. Farmers of today have a range of modern techniques and technology at their disposal to ensure a good crop, but thousands of years ago farmworkers relied on corn dollies or corn figures to encourage a good harvest in the coming year.

Corn dollies were originally designed to capture the spirit of the harvest, believed by many regional traditions to be trapped within the last wheatsheaf cut from a year’s crop.

Dollies are woven into intricate shapes or figures of many shapes and sizes, sometimes representing a human figure but more often a twist, rod, or decorative pattern. The dolly would be kept, sometimes in a pew in the local church, and at the end of the year it was burnt, and the ashes scattered and ploughed back into the field – meant to guarantee a good harvest for the coming year. These ritualistic practices are steeped in local folklore, with some areas having traditional songs and ceremonies for the cutting of the last sheaf.

The custom is thought to originate from seventh-century Europe, with numerous records from Flanders (Belgium) and Germany indicating corn dollies being produced there. Thankfully, the making of corn dollies still lives on as a traditional craft, with beautiful examples in Worcestershire County Museum’s collection, part of the large body of folk- and agriculture-related items donated by the Parker family of Tickenhill Manor. The photograph shows the Parker’s collection in the 1920s, with the corn dolly circled in red.

Ancient Remedies

Although we don’t recommend trying these at home unless you are an expert, there are some fascinating examples of plants with traditional health benefits in Worcester City’s collection.

There is a good quality example of the Agrimony plant in the Mathews Collection, a huge variety of specimens that were collected by Mr Mathews throughout the 1800s.

Agrimony has historically been used for all manner of complaints, from sore throats to upset stomachs. It can also be used as an antihistamine and many would value the use of Agrimony to help those pesky hay fever symptoms of sneezing and watery eyes. Indeed, the Greeks used Agrimony for a remedy to do with ailments of the eyes and in Greek the word Argemone means ‘the plant that heals the eye’. This versatile plant has also been used to stem the flow of blood by many cultures, including traditional Chinese medicine and the Anglo Saxons.

This specimen was collected from Colwyn, North Wales, but Mathews also collected specimens of it more locally in Kinver.

The Egyptian God Shu

Egyptian history and beliefs have captivated people for many years. This amulet of the Egyptian god Shu is just a few centimetres long and is part of Worcester City’s World Cultures collection.

Shu was one of the oldest Egyptian Gods who controlled air and was created by the very first God Atum, or Ra. Shu’s symbol is the ostrich feather which represented air. As seen in this tiny amulet, his function was to support the heavens by kneeling on the earth with his arms raised above his head to hold up the sky Goddess, Nut. Shu was the suns protector, as well as helping to determine the fate of souls after death, and was often worshipped in the form of a lion along with his twin sister Tefnut who was a lioness.

Often amulets were worn as jewellery, but sometimes they were included in the linen wrappings of a mummy. Originally, this amulet would have been covered in a green glaze but time has worn this away so that only the stone underneath is visible.