F.J Cock’s Sewing Machines

Sewing machines were one of the first machines to enter the family household and during the 19th century they came in a large array of distinctive shapes as manufacturers sought the ideal design. This model from the Worcester City collection was used in Worcester’s renowned glove-making industry during the early 20th century.

At the turn of the century sewing machines were starting to look more alike – partly influenced by the success of the Singer sewing machine. The foot pedal, called a treadle, succeeded the former hand-cranked models. The treadle took a while to catch on in Britain, where it was seen as an unladylike movement and bad for the ankles, but would have made larger-scale production significantly easier.

Early machines were beautifully decorated, and this one has a dark finish with contrasting golden floral designs on the base, the arm and the wheel and an unusual sailing ship motif on the base. One theory is that machines were associated with industry and engineering, so the ornamentation made the sewing machine feel more appropriate in a domestic setting.

F. J. Cock was a distributor with branches in Birmingham and Coventry. He sold many ‘badged’ machines which were models made by other manufacturers but specially labelled for the shop or department store that sold them.

This machine is mounted onto a treadle table with cast iron sides that read “Cocks” and has no model name on the arm or company trade-mark revealing its maker. However the central decal of a schooner (sailing boat) at sea reveals it as the ‘Original Victoria’ made by the German firm Mundlos & Co., manufactured from 1896 onwards.

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The Beacons are lit!

This engraving is part of Worcester City’s collection, and illustrates a fire being built atop the Worcestershire Beacon.

As the highest point in the Malvern Hills, the Beacon has historically been used as part of a chain of signalling fires, used to pass messages of approaching danger across the country. The Worcestershire Beacon formed part of the chain of warning fires lit in response to the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588. During World War II, the Beacon was also used as a look-out point for fires after air-raids on both Birmingham and Coventry.

Throughout the nineteenth century, beacons became a popular form of celebration, used to commemorate national events such as Coronations, Jubilees and even the end of the Crimean War in 1856. We think this engraving depicts the construction of a beacon in celebration of the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863.

These celebratory beacons were impressive in scale and often complex. Some included chimneys in order to ensure a good blaze, whilst others utilised the help of local construction companies. In this example, tons of wooden barrels can be seen making their way to the summit by horse and cart, and workers are assembling bundles of gorse atop a wooden platform to form a core of kindling.

The Worcestershire Beacon continues to be used during National celebrations, having seen fires lit for the Millennium and the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees.

Kate Banner
Collections Volunteer

William Callow’s view of Worcester

When William Callow held his retrospective exhibition in London in 1907, he was described as the ‘oldest living British artist’. At ninety-five, he’d lived through and painted some of the biggest changes in the English landscape. This watercolour of Worcester painted around 1850 shows the city on the cusp of major industrial development: still a charming and verdant scene, but with the Severn trow barges busy on the river and chimney smoke rising in the distance.

Callow’s early life was a whirlwind of society glamour – aged only nineteen he was offered a job teaching the family of the French King Louis Philippe I. Supposedly he fell in love with his young pupil Princess Clementine, but she sadly did not return his feelings. In his late twenties Callow returned to England, married, and settled into his career as a watercolour artist. His paintings became larger and, like this one of Worcester, reflected a more mature outlook, both in himself and in the landscapes he pictured.

Hallow Handaxe

In 1970, a field at Moseley Farm near Hallow was ploughed for the first time in 40 years, ready for a crop of potatoes. A sharp-eyed observer, identity unknown, spotted a peculiar piece of flint on the surface and took it to Worcester City Museum.

Hewn into a teardrop-shape by overlapping chips that left tell-tale ripples radiating from the edges, it is a Stone Age flint handaxe in remarkably fresh condition. It comes from the top of gravel deposits formed between 240 and 130 thousand years ago. During the earlier, warmer part of this period, small groups of early humans called Neanderthals moved along the river valleys, before climate change drove them from Britain for more than 120 thousand years.

But this find is at the heart of a scientific puzzle: tools like these were outdated by the time the Hallow gravel was formed. Some scholars argue that handaxes of this date had been tumbled in rivers for millennia by the time they ended up in the gravels where they’re discovered, but this example shows none of the battering you would expect from such treatment. So, is this artefact one of the final clues left by a dwindling band of Neanderthal settlers, the last to lay human eyes on Worcestershire for 6000 generations?

Rob Hedge

Lost Landscapes Project Officer

Hello Operator… The Guildhall Switchboards

These telephone switchboards date from around 1939, and were used for many years at the Worcester Guildhall. They became part of the Worcester City museum collection during the 1980s.

Known as a private manual branch exchange, or P.M.B.X, the switchboards were the essential component of a manual telephone exchange. Switchboard operators would have used electrical cords or switches to establish connections between callers, many of whom would be subscribers with similar machines in their own establishments.

Once a caller had passed details of their intended call to an operator, they would be asked to replace their receiver. The operator would then make contact with this intended party, call back the initial caller, and finally connect the two parties.

The Guildhall was used as a telephone exchange for many years. These switchboards would also have been key in Worcestershire’s wartime communications network.

Kate Banner
Collections Volunteer

On the Heath at Old Storridge, Worcestershire by Henry Harris Lines

Henry Harris Lines was one of several artists active in the burgeoning cultural and intellectual Worcester of the mid-nineteenth century.

The eldest son of a Birmingham artist, Lines followed his father’s footsteps into landscape painting. He moved to Worcester in 1832, around the time he made this painting, because of a Midlands cholera epidemic. Although Worcester wasn’t spared the illness, its surrounding countryside would have appeared fresher than industrial Birmingham.

In his 60s, Lines formed a passion for archaeology and turned his drawing skills to accurately survey historic sites. He was a prolific watercolour painter and the excellent collection of his work held by Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum gives us many views of the Worcestershire landscape at such a significant period.

What’s your poison…?

These poison bottles are original to Steward’s Chemist Shop, which was relocated from the High Street to the Art Gallery & Museum on Foregate Street in 1974.

Poison was greatly feared throughout the Victorian era. This fear was fuelled by frequent mishaps and grisly misdemeanours, facilitated by an almost unregulated access to devastating chemicals such as arsenic, cyanide and strychnine.

One of our bottles is labelled ‘Digitalis’, a powerful drug which is still used to treat various heart conditions. It was created using the digitoxin compound found in foxgloves, and had the potential to cause severe poisoning if taken incorrectly.

Some precautions were taken by manufacturers to guard against accidents – the green glass and distinguishing ridged shape of these poison bottles would have acted as a last warning to an unsuspecting drinker, perhaps looking for his medication by candlelight.

Kate Banner
Collections Volunteer

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.

An idyllic view of nature

Paintings of labourers travelling to or from their days work in the field on a horse drawn hay wagon (also known as a haywain) were made famous by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. These often calm and pastoral scenes were particularly popular with wealthy art collectors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at a time when the agricultural revolution and rapid industrialisation meant that countryside life was changing, moving away from hundreds of years of tradition. For land owners, peaceful pastoral scenes like this offered picturesque, nostalgic versions of a way of life that was disappearing.

Here, the travellers present an elegant arc across the landscape. They are framed by a gnarled, leaning tree, which is a compositional device borrowed from the 17th century French and Italian classical landscape tradition of artists such as Claude Lorrain. This creates a picturesque scene of humans and nature in harmony, idealising agricultural labour.