Its history is just as fascinating: in the early 1830s a young natural historian Hugh Strickland was attempting to make sense of the confusing geology that made up the Vale of Evesham. Men working in the quarries that scattered the landscape would bring him any unusual bones that they came across.
This set of horns was found in Bricklehampton, near Cropthorne. Strickland thought it was an aurochs- a type of extinct giant wild cattle. Upon writing to Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum and the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, Owen identified it as a steppe bison, a close relative of the aurochs.
For hundreds of thousands of years — right up until the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago — bison, along with mammoths, lions and all sorts of other exotic and extinct animals, would have been a common sight in Worcestershire.
The large albatross on display at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum has arguably become one of the museum’s most iconic and well-loved specimens of the collection. Since its arrival in 1902, generations of visitors to Worcester have admired this wonderful piece of taxidermy.
This Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), better known as ‘Albert’ to museum staff and regular visitors, has a wingspan of eight and a half feet and was presented to the Worcester City museum collection in 1902 by Mr Percy Pryce Brown.
After years of research it was discovered that Mr Brown was a refrigerator engineer aboard the RMS Waimate, launched in 1901. The ship owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company made journeys between England and New Zealand as a cargo and passenger vessel, with refrigerator space for 90,000 carcasses.
Although lamb was the more usual cargo on the vessel, the Waimate arrived in England on the 24th February 1902 with the unusual shipment of a large preserved albatross.
The great mystery surrounding Albert has always been how he ended up in Worcester. Further research surrounding Percy Brown’s origins have unearthed that this Herefordshire-born man was related to the Brock family who worked at the Royal Worcester Porcelain factory, which would explain its donation to Worcester City museum in 1902. The museum curator and taxidermist Mr W. Edwards preserved the bird and a custom showcase was made by local carpenter W. W. Hunt of South Quay, and Albert remains on display over 100 years later.
One of the most beautiful parts of the Natural History collection at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum is the rare assemblage of Lepidopterans – butterflies and moths. These fragile wonders are housed in an environmentally controlled area in the Museum basement. Arranged neatly in rows within purpose built drawers, the butterflies are housed within an original mahogany collections cabinet.
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. Catalogues provided examples of specimens available for purchase, with prices included.
Worcester’s own collection was enhanced in the 1970s when the museum became the custodian of cabinets from the Malvern Field Club. Most of the specimens within the collection also include paper labels which provide a provenance and date, as well as other priceless information. The collection is consequently invaluable to modern research groups such as the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and local clubs.
The drawer pictured represents the entirety of British species of butterfly at the time of collection – many of the species here are now extinct or extremely rare. The largest butterfly seen here is a Monarch, or Milkweed, a genuine rarity from North America. This specimen was discovered in Malvern in 1968. The Black-Veined White is seen here at the top of the third column from the left. It became extinct in the British Isles around 1925, having previously been common throughout the South, with a particular stronghold in Gloucestershire.
Due to its fragile nature and the risk of light damage, the butterfly collection is not usually on public view but can occasionally be seen as part of a talk or workshop.
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.
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.
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.
Roy Starkey can be contacted here, where you can also purchase a copy of his book.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.