Minerals of the English Midlands

Specimens from the Worcester City Museum Collection are figured in a new book – Minerals of the English Midlands by Roy Starkey. Museums Worcestershire asks all collections researchers to share an outline of their research on this website, in our spirit of open research.

The mineral wealth of the English Midlands has been exploited for centuries – lead, copper, zinc, and to a lesser extent silver, have all been worked. Deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone powered the Industrial Revolution, providing the raw materials for such visionaries as Sir Richard Arkwright, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, William Murdoch and Josiah Wedgwood.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1559 100 x 65 x 30 mm

In Worcestershire, the extraction of salt from brine has been of considerable historical importance at Droitwich and Stoke Prior, and the book features a fascinating account of the local salt industry with many archive images.

A lecture, delivered by Dr Charles Hastings, to the Worcestershire Natural History Society, and later published in The Analyst, provides an account of the history of discovery and early geological understanding of the Worcestershire salt deposits, and working of brine.

Hastings, a local medical practitioner and keen amateur naturalist, was the founder of the British Medical Association. He also established the Museum of the Worcester Natural History Society in 1833, the fore-runner of the present City Museum. Of particular interest is Hastings’ assertion that rock salt was mined at Stoke Prior, and this led the author, Roy Starkey, to examine the collections in Worcester Museum. Three convincing specimens recorded as being from the Worcestershire halite deposits were identified in the collection.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1554b 50 x 50 x 25 mm

The Midlands has produced a wide range of interesting mineral specimens. Examples of these are to be found in local and regional museum collections, and especially at the Natural History Museum in London. However, such was the importance of Britain in the development of mineralogy as a science that specimens from the English Midlands are to be seen in collections all over the world. Minerals such as phosgenite, matlockite and mottramite are recognised as having been first described from the English Midlands. The hard rock quarrying industry of Leicestershire means that fresh exposures are constantly being created, and new mineralogical discoveries continue to be made today.

Halite, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire. WOSMG 1987-128.G1554a 60 x 40 x 18 mm

Roy Starkey can be contacted here, where you can also purchase a copy of his book.


Giant wombats

Museums Worcestershire not only cares for the remains of giant Ice Age animals from our county but also those from around the world.

One of the earliest additions to Worcester City’s natural history collections is recorded in June 1848; a number of fossils mostly jawbones with teeth from Australia brought over by Mr Hughes. Henry Hughes with his associates, the Isaac brothers, travelled from their native Worcester to Sydney around 1839 and then on to the grasslands of Darling Downs in Queensland where they became some of the very first ‘squatters’ in that area during a tumultuous period in Australia’s history.

The fossilised Australian bones in the Worcester collection were analysed and identified by Richard Owen. Owen was at the forefront of the study of natural science in the nineteenth century and he is best known for both coining the term ‘Dinosaur’ and as the founder of London’s Natural History Museum.

In 1838 Owen drew and published one of these fossils as the first example of its type; part of the jaw and teeth of the Diptrodon, the Giant Australian Wombat. The Diptrodon was the first fossil mammal to be identified from Australia and to have one of these original specimens in Worcester is very exciting.

The giant wombat was the largest marsupial that ever lived, weighing 2800 kilograms and growing to just under four metres in length and 1.7 metres to the shoulder. Until its extinction 25,000 years ago, it roamed the Ice Age woodland and scrublands and later, as the climate dried, the grasslands of Darling Downs.

How to look after a Moose

Worcestershire’s changing Ice Age landscape, at times marshy, briny grasslands, sometimes covered in permafrost, and other times covered in flowering plants was maintained by herds of large animals, such as Mammoth and Aurochs – the solitary Moose appeared nearer the end of the Ice Age, with the arrival of the great forests.

This example of the North American Moose, also known by its scientific name alces alces, is still found in North America, Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic today, but disappeared from Britain towards the end of the Bronze Age around 3,000 years ago.

Whilst the Moose was not widely hunted during the Ice Age in Britain, the existence of this later specimen is evidence of man’s devastating effect upon the Moose population in more recent years. Many such specimens were swapped between collectors and institutions in the early days of natural history research.

Preparing the Moose head in Worcester City’s museum collection for display involved brushing, shampooing and polishing. A domestic carpet cleaner was massaged into the hair and removed with cloths, dislodging years of dust and detritus. An alcohol solution was then applied and patted off, to ensure that no residues were left behind. The glass eyes were cleaned, small areas of skin were re-painted, and the antlers buffed.

Cotham Marble

Worcester City Museum has a large geological collection of about 12,000 fossils, rocks and minerals. It was mainly assembled by local people during the nineteenth century. It contains a good range of local specimens but also has a selection of British rocks and world-wide minerals. It is only possible to display a fraction of this remarkable collection but using photographs gives an opportunity to introduce you to some of the ‘hidden treasures’ in the basement. They all have a story to tell and hold exciting clues to the Earth’s amazing geological past.

This is a photograph of one of the museum’s spectacular specimens of the famous Late Triassic (Rhaetian) limestone, known as Cotham or Landscape Marble. It was first described from the Cotham area in 1754 and was particularly popular as an indoor ornamental rock in Victorian times. When polished, the surfaces gave the appearance of a landscape with ploughed fields, trees, hedges and rounded cloud-like forms above. A small cottage industry developed for a short period when sketches of a village were added. It was also used undressed for outside walls and ornamental rockeries.

Cotham Marble is a limestone, rather than a true marble and was formed around 200 million years ago when the sea gently invaded the flat Triassic landscape. It occurs as lenses within the upper part of the Cotham Formation of the Penarth Group. The lenses are typically between 3 and 20 cm thick and are up to 3 m across. The limestone consists of irregular ‘bun-shaped’ mounds of banded muddy limestone. It was not until 1961 that it was shown to be produced by the growth of algae and worm-like organisms on ancient mudflats. Today similar structures have been found in modern high saline bays such as Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Rosemary Roden, Honorary Geology Curator
Museums Worcestershire

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Many are surprised to discover that museum collections consist not only of paintings, statues and local history objects, but some much stranger items too.

This grapefruit-sized object in the Worcester City collection is one of the most baffling, having confused many visitors over the years when displayed at talks and tours – is it a cannonball? Is it a seed pod? Is it an iron weight?

It is in fact a hairball from a cow, probably originating from the early Worcestershire natural history society collection in the 1860s, before the museum, art gallery and library were amalgamated at the end of the 19th century.

Most people have heard of cat hairballs, but this natural phenomenon also known as a “trichobezoar” can also occur in cud-chewing animals such as cows, deer and sheep. It can be quite a serious problem for cattle, which cannot vomit and so the hairball is not usually discovered until after death, at which point it has often grown to a very large size. There is even a National Hairball Awareness day in April to alert people to the existence of these medical curiosities.


Garston Phillips

Collections Ambassador

The ‘Sabre-Toothed Easter Bunny’

This little rabbit was collected in Worcestershire in the 1970s and sent to Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire to be taxidermied before becoming part of the Worcestershire County Collection.
His unfortunate tooth problems make him an interesting specimen to study, which led to him being nicknamed in the local papers in the 1970s the ‘Sabre-toothed rabbit’.
Rabbits’ front teeth have to be aligned very precisely, so that they grind together and remain at a practical length. The skull at the back shows a set of normal rabbit teeth.
However, when incisor malocclusion occurs the teeth do not naturally wear down and grow constantly, making it difficult for them to eat. The skull in the foreground came from this rabbit, and shows the effects of malocclusion.
As a result, this rabbit would have become unable to carry out any cabbage-stealing (or Easter chocolate deliveries) and would have sadly had to go hungry.

Flightless Fancy

This is a Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), a rare breed of flightless parrot native to New Zealand.

Sometimes referred to as an Owl Parrot due to its moon-like face, the bird is nocturnal and entirely vegetarian, feeding mainly on flowers, roots and leaves. Whilst our specimen is slightly faded in colour, the Kakapo is usually a bright mossy green with dappled yellow and black. This camouflage allows the Kakapo some protection against birds who hunt above the forest using sight, but is of little use against mammals who hunt using smell.

Before the arrival of humans the Kakapo was common throughout New Zealand’s forests, but became vulnerable to attack from introduced species such as rats and cats. The bird is now heavily monitored and managed on predator-free islands.

This specimen is believed to have travelled to Worcester City Museum in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although its precise history is uncertain. Worcester had become a lively centre for natural history research and learning by this period, with the founding of the Worcestershire Natural History Society and other dedicated groups creating and promoting their own collections.

Having visited the Worcester Museum and seen the collection of bird specimens on display, it is believed that famous ornithologist John Gould was inspired to carry out his own Australian expedition.

Kate Banner
Collections Volunteer

As old as the hills?

The Malvern Hills has attracted geologists since the early pioneering days of the 19th century. The rocks and fossils found in this important geological area tell a remarkable 700 million year story about changing environments and climates of the past.

The Colwall (Malvern) Tunnels are a pair of railway tunnels that pass under the Malvern Hills and connect Colwall and Malvern Wells on the Cotswold Line. The railway was built to supply the Birmingham manufacturing area with coal from South Wales and started in 1856 before opening on the 17th September 1861. In 1907 part of the tunnel collapsed and a decision was made to bore another wider tunnel which was built between 1924 and 1926.

Around 400 specimens from the first Colwall tunnel were given to Worcester Museum, founded in 1833 by the Worcestershire Natural History Society. It is an irreplaceable part of our geological heritage as specimens can no longer be collected as the tunnel is brick-lined and closed to public access.

This specimen is an example of part of a crown (the head) of a crinoid sea lily collected in 1861 by W. J. Else. It dates from the Silurian period, around 435 – 405 million years ago when the sea flooded over Central England and the Welsh borderland.

Although the bodies of the animals are not preserved, they have left behind evidence of their activities and are known as trace fossils.


Rosemary Roden, Honorary Geology Curator

Huia Bird

The Huia bird (Heteralocha acutirostris), which has been extinct since 1907, originated in the mountain ranges and forests of the North Island of New Zealand. The female had a long thin beak that arched downwards to help extract insects and grubs from rotting trees, whereas the males had short, crow-like beaks that could chisel away at the wood in a similar fashion to woodpeckers.

The 19th century was a great age of travel and exploration, and when members of the Natural History Society formed a small museum in Worcester in the 1830s, they displayed the exotic forms of wildlife that they had collected, developing a very important collection of over 1300 specimens.

The origins of this Huia are so far inconclusive. One of the world’s most famous ornithologists John Gould was so impressed by his visit to Worcester museum’s collection of Australian birds that the Worcestershire Natural History Society reported at the time that he was impelled to travel to Australasia as a direct result. Here, he wrote his famous volume of ‘Gould’s Australian Birds’ and the society states in their report that the collection was “enriched with many beautiful specimens from Mr Gould himself,” making it possible that it was a gift on his return.

On the other hand, museum records from the 1850s show a donation of two Huia birds in July 1851 from a Captain Thomas, yet only one specimen remains in the collection.

Garston Phillips

Collections Ambassador
Museums Worcestershire