Worcester’s history of gunsmithing

The surname Perrins is prominent in the city’s history, linked to Royal Worcester Porcelain and (of course) Worcestershire Sauce. A distant cousin of well-known chemist William Henry Perrins, John Perrins also became a leader in his field of expertise. A gunmaker’s apprentice from the age of twelve, John returned to Worcestershire with his wife and sons to set up his own business in the 1830s.

Establishing himself at the edge of the city centre, his business grew until he was able to expand into St Swithins Street in the 1840s and Mealcheapen Street in the 1850s. Perrins and Sons Gun and Pistol Makers of 6 Mealcheapen Street advertised themselves as makers of firearms and improvers of guns, offering precision alteration and selling patent shot and powder. They were the second Perrins family to trade in the street: no. 68 had been home to chemists Lea & Perrins since the early 1800s. Both companies boasted Royal Warrants.

The City collection includes finished pieces by Perrins & Sons Gun Makers, but here – in the photo – are tools of the trade from the County collection.

The wooden blocks were used for making the mechanism of a shotgun and the barrel of a pistol. Both need to be precise to prevent failure when firing. The mechanism forms the part of the gun that locks it for firing. It is forged in metal, in a single piece, using the wooden pattern. The surfaces are then worked down to fit the finished gun. The front edge will need to support a hinge that allows the stock and barrels to be swung open for reloading, but the closed mechanism also acts as the seal for the firing chamber. The mechanism must be shaped to form an impenetrable seal, ensuring energy travels only down the barrel and not outwards into the user. As well as being incredibly precise pieces of engineering, the mechanism and other components were often finely engraved.


Two Great Women of Theatre from Worcester

Although the research published here focuses on individual objects from the museum collections, curating a display or exhibition more usually starts with a story, history or concept. The first step of the planning is to try and select the right art and objects to tell that story.

It is frustrating, therefore, that the item in Worcester City’s collection that best illustrates the histories of two great women of the theatre connected with Worcester – Sarah Siddons and Ann Julia Hatton – is an engraving of their brother-in-law/husband. Most large civic museum collections are compiled through donations, and not every story has been comprehensively retained or offered to their local museum. Museums Worcestershire’s curatorial team are currently working on the City and County’s collection development policies, and we hope to more actively fill some of the gaps over future years.

This item illustrates Mr William Hatton, a comic actor, on the stage at the Theatre Royal Worcester alongside a poem praising his work. This print was created by the London firm Laurie and Whittle for a benefit night for Hatton. Benefit performances were common in eighteenth century theatres and were a night when the performing star took all of the night’s profit – part of a business model that meant the theatre company could pay lower base salaries.

Perhaps Hatton’s biggest success was to marry into the Kemble family: marrying Ann, the seventh child of Roger Kemble. Kemble, originally from Hereford, formed a travelling theatre company with his wife and family, performing at a circuit of halls and festivals around the west and midlands and playing many times in Worcester. This was an apprenticeship in the world of theatre for his children, five of whom became successful actors on the London stage.

It was Roger Kemble’s eldest child, Sarah, born 1755, who would most take the theatrical world by storm. Even today, more than two centuries later, Sarah Siddons is considered one of England’s finest actors in a tragic role, particularly lauded for her intense portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Interestingly she even played the title role in Hamlet occasionally – the first time in Worcester in 1775, the same year she made her Drury Lane Theatre debut as Portia in the Merchant of Venice in David Garrick’s company. Worcester, no doubt thrilled by its connection with theatrical fame, built its first permanent theatre on Angel Street a few short years later. Sarah’s rise to fame came in parallel with the industrialisation of newspapers, meaning she reached a level of celebrity unheard of for previous generations of actors. She is reputed to have be paid £5000 a year for her performances, which would be close to £1 million today, such was her popularity.

Sarah’s younger sister Ann was born in 1764 in Worcester. At eighteen, she married an actor, Curtis, but then discovered that he was already married. In disgrace, unable to face her family, she earned her living working with Dr James Graham, who we would now describe as a celebrity sex therapist. Before long Ann managed to make an income through her own writing, publishing a successful book of poems. Aged 28, she married the actor William Hatton and they set off to America to make their fortune. William started a business making musical instruments and Ann carried on writing. Just two years later, her tremendously popular opera Tammany: The Indian Chief was given its première on Broadway. This was the first known opera libretto written by a woman, and the first major libretto written in the United States on an American theme. When the Hattons returned to Britain a few years later they first opened a bathing house. William then clearly returned to the acting circuit, but Ann went on to write fourteen gothic novels using the pen name Ann of Swansea, publish a play and many more volumes of poetry.

Worcester’s 1960s Arts Scene

Painting of a woman standing on a table painting a big board, with two other people behind her
Copyright the artist’s estate

This painting, The Scene Makers, 1966, by Peter Spicer, pictures Herbert Gardner and Cyril Cowley helping Joan Knowles to create scenery for Worcester’s Swan Theatre in their workshops, which in the 1960s was located on Henwick Road.

These three, as well as being enthusiastic supporters of the Swan’s productions, were all members of the Worcester Society of Artists. The society was formed just after the Second World War and was created to promote amateur arts, music and drama. This group produced many committed and involved local artists like the painter of this picture, Peter Spicer, who was a former chairman of the Society.

Joan Knowles (1924 – 2006), is painting the palm trees in the foreground. Joan supported and promoted the arts in Worcester for many years, including teaching with NADFAS (now called the Arts Society). She was also a volunteer for the City Museum and was for many years a fixture sitting at a desk in the gallery painstakingly cataloguing parts of the Social History collection.

A Scientific Foundation

Shelf full of a variety of bottles, marked with chemist names

Although mostly associated with history and art today, Worcestershire’s museums have deep links to science and medicine.

On the roof of Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum stands Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom, symbolising the aspirations of the building’s founders to acquire and share knowledge with the people of Worcestershire. The museum was first opened in 1833 by the Worcestershire Natural History Society (in Worcester’s Angel Street), the museum housing thousands of natural science specimens so they could be studied and shared.

Chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins would have helped prepare medicines for the Worcester Infirmary on Castle Street. Chemists were innovative characters and developed many goods for sale alongside their medicines and tonics. In their shop on Broad Street, their medicines and lotions shared shelf space with rose water perfume, hair restorer, gravy browning and worming treatments for animals.

Their small shop became woefully inadequate to deal with the culinary behemoth they unveiled in 1837 – the year Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce went on sale! The tasty product was an enormous hit and has remained popular throughout the world ever since. Despite its fame, it is still prepared in Midland Road, Worcester, and continues to bear the chemists’ names.

The Tickenhill Collection, on display at Worcestershire County Museum and at the Museum Collections Centre, contains apothecary items such as these medicine bottles recently conserved and catalogued by volunteers. The giant “carboy” bottles were hand-blown demijohn-style vessels used for transporting liquids. The carboy ultimately became the symbol of the Victorian chemist shop – like that of Lea and Perrins – often displayed in the window and filled with coloured liquids. Much like the striped barber’s pole, the cobbler’s boot, or the three golden balls of the pawnbroker, they were the easily recognisable symbol of the chemist or apothecary.

British Camp and the Herefordshire Beacon

Wide landscape painting of hills

This gorgeous oil painting (which was an inspiration during the pandemic lockdowns) from the Worcester City collection shows British Camp and the Herefordshire Beacon, painted in 1872, by landscape artist Henry Harris Lines.

The majestic scene is reminiscent of journeys and quests over the hills, and a time before the built-up landscape of Worcestershire had developed to the extent we know today. The county has long inspired artists, poets and indeed authors to respond creatively to its beauty – including the writer responsible for The Lord of the Rings.

We are grateful to Tolkien-specialist Dr Bradley Wells for providing us with some insight into the author’s relationship with Worcestershire:

“J.R.R. Tolkien had a deep and personal relationship with this county, and there has been much research and speculation regarding the extent to which its people and landscape directly influenced his writing.

“One of the key figures in Tolkien’s connection with Worcestershire was George Sayer, the Head of English at Malvern College. Tolkien met George through their mutual friend C.S. Lewis who was a former pupil of Malvern College. Having met and befriended C.S. Lewis at Oxford, Tolkien soon joined him on his regular trips to Malvern to stay with Sayers. The three men became very close friends. These were wonderful times of walking, talking, drinking (at the local pub, The Unicorn) and fellowshipping.

“Recent research has uncovered how on one of these visits a significant event in the production (and potential destruction) of The Lord of the Rings took place. Frustrated by ongoing rejections from various publishes for his new book, Tolkien had a crisis of confidence, stood up, and threatened to throw the whole manuscript in the sitting-room fire. It was only the quick thinking and loving reassurance of George Sayer which prevented Tolkien from doing so. Later, Sayer not only helped Tolkien choose the titles for the trilogy but also became his trusted proof-reader and editor. Indeed, it was Sayer who personally connected Tolkien with his contacts at Allen and Unwin, the publishers who would go on to publish Tolkien’s work. The rest is, of course, now literary history.”

Small Token of History

This tiny (about the size of a one pence piece, but a lot thinner) and seemingly innocuous object in the Worcester City Numismatics collection has an important story to tell about one of the darkest periods of British History. It is a halfpenny token, made of copper alloy – one of many that were made in England between 1648 and 1672, when private traders decided to meet the need for small change by issuing token coins of their own.

This particular token was made in London in 1662 on behalf of a Worcester trader, William Swift, one of seventeenth-century Worcester’s most prominent businessmen. His main source of income was sugar which he purchased in its raw form at Bristol, shipped up the River Severn to Worcester, where it would be carted across the city to his ‘sugar house’ in St Swithins parish, to be boiled and refined for domestic consumption. It was then sent over to his warehouse on Powick Lane, a ‘lost street’ just north of Huntington Hall.

Sugar was the pre-eminent commodity of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Empire. Produced on slave plantations in the British American colonies, exports of sugar rose from about 8000 tonnes per year in 1663 to 97,000 tonnes per year in 1770, and accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total value of colonial exports by the late 1760s.

While there is no evidence that William was a slave trader or a slave owner, his lucrative business was fundamentally entangled with the system of Atlantic slavery. After his death in 1688, the sugar refinery eventually passed to his son, Samuel Swift. Samuel was a keen businessman, and also held a number of important civic posts, including mayor of Worcester and city MP. In 1714, Samuel’s commercial interests expanded after he acquired a slave plantation in Clarendon on the south side of Jamaica, which he still held at the time of his death. His will refers to his lands, his plantation buildings, and his slaves, but their names are not given: they were treated simply as a kind of property.

A Tribute to Professor Rolf Olsen

A group of seated people and an enthusiastic speaker
Professor Rolf Olsen talking enthusiastically to Museum Members in an event in June 2022

Professor Olsen, the Chairman of Trustees of the newly formed Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity, recently passed away after a short illness.

Professor Olsen spearheaded the charity to support fundraising for the development of Worcester’s art collection. His aim was to increase the Art Gallery & Museum’s reputation as a regionally significant art gallery and enhance the cultural life of the city.

As a long-standing resident of Worcester, Professor Olsen’s enthusiasm for art and for the city he lived in was an inspiration and his work on behalf of the new charity has already had a positive impact.

Caroline Naisbitt, representing Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity trustees says: “The charity trustees are very saddened to learn of the death of our founder and Chairman Professor Rolf Olsen. His clarity of vision and dynamic energy has helped propel the charity to an excellent place in a very short space of time. He was a lovely, kind and generous person who always put others first – Rolf will be very sorely missed.

Museums Worcestershire and the Worcestershire Heritage, Art and Museums charity will be continuing to work on Professor Olsen’s ambitions for the development of Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, with the first phases of improvements expected in 2024.

Pressing Matters – Cam Engineering

large piece of old machinery

This humble piece of machinery in the City’s collection was used in the gloving trade. Presses have been a symbol of innovation and technological advancement throughout history.

In Germany during the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised communication with his invention of the movable type printing press. Works that had traditionally been painstakingly brushed or transferred by hand were now created in seconds, and in huge numbers by repeatedly impressing entire pages of letters via a giant screw press. The letters could be moved to create the next page, and the process repeated.

This incredible innovation sped up the production of books and reduced costs. It is still regarded by many as one of the most significant inventions of all time.

In nineteenth century France, craftsman Xavier Jouvin took this screw press technology in a new direction by applying it to leatherwork. Jouvin created the “iron hand” which used the pressure to stamp numerous pairs of gloves out of sheets of leather like a pastry cutter. It sped up the time-consuming act of cutting individual glove components by hand and once again revolutionised the industry.

The glove press we can see pictured in use below was used in at Dents Gloves in Worcester, but this item was constructed by John Cam in the Shambles, Worcester. Another great engineer and inventor, John Cam was born in Worcester in 1850 and is famed for developing the carburettor, the automotive radiator and handlebar controls. His company, Cam Engineering owned premises in Charles Street and South Quay, both of which still stand.

This press was donated to the museum collection by his family. We are refurbishing the press for inclusion in our glove factory and in honour of Guttenberg, Jouvin and Cam, this triumph of science and engineering will serve its intended purpose once again.

historical photograph of a man operating a machine on a desk

Pitchcroft gates: A Proud Gift to the City’s Residents

historical photograph of a pair of ornate iron gates and their gateposts

Most Worcester City residents will have walked, driven or cycled past the ornate gates to Pitchcroft on Croft Road many times. They were erected in 1899, the ironwork by the Bromsgrove Guild, and the stonework by local master stonemason William Forsyth.

The Bromsgrove Guild were the foremost maker of ceremonial gates at the time: in 1905 they were even commissioned to create the gates to Buckingham Palace. This picture (above) of a pair of elaborate gates is part of a collection of Guild catalogues and commission records in the Worcestershire County museum collection, and shows an example of the sort of gates that could be commissioned from the firm.

Before 1899, the river meadows north of the railway line in Worcester had a complicated mixed ownership. Although paths crossed the land and events would be staged from time to time, the public did not have the right of access to the whole area as they do now. The Corporation of Worcester negotiated with the landowners, bringing Pitchcroft into public ownership with the aim that it could then be permanently used for recreation by the city’s residents.

The 7th Earl Beauchamp, William Lygon, had succeeded his father aged 18. He would go on to a political career in the Liberal Party, including as a cabinet member at the outbreak of the First World War. But his first public role was a year as the Mayor of Worcester, at the age of 23, just as the Corporation was negotiating to secure the Pitchcroft meadows.

Shortly after the end of his Mayorship, Lord Beauchamp commissioned and presented the Pitchcroft gates as a personal gift to the City, celebrating the successful deal dedicating the land to the general public. The presentation stone reads:


The brick gate pillars and gateposts are topped with fabulous sculptures made by Forsyth: a swan, bear and ragged staff (the symbols of the Beauchamps), and turreted castles which refer to the arms of the City of Worcester.

photograph of some elaborate gates and brick piers