While the Museum is Closed …

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

It’s been two weeks since Buxton Museum and Art Gallery closed for refurbishment and there have already been dramatic changes to the building. The staff room has been emptied to make way for a lift and the builders have ripped out the old toilets. This means the museum staff are temporarily having lunch in an empty art gallery and visiting a portable lavatory. We are happy to endure these provisional measures to improve the facilities for you, dear public.


Closure has given us the opportunity to take stock of the museum shop and pack everything away. This entails counting hundreds of imitation Roman coins, gemstones and Woolly Mammoths. The retail is actually part of the redevelopment. Arts Council England are kindly funding Buxton Museum to help improve both the shop and the merchandise. Some of the items on sale when we re-open next Spring are based on the collections and…

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Buxton’s Orchestra Days

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

Ian Gregory, volunteer archivist at Buxton Museum, gives us some insight into another of the lesser-known collections he’s been working on:

For the last two weeks, I have been editing images of programmes for The Spa Orchestra of Buxton. These date from the 1940s and include summer seasons (May to September) and winter and Christmas concerts.


There are, unsurprisingly, differences between live entertainment then and now but also parallels. The programmes are overwhelmingly Classical apart from a little Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin. Many end with the National Anthem. There are names of composers now forgotten although many are still familiar.


Nevertheless, there is a general parallel between then and now; present day Buxton has a thriving arts festival and fringe festival. The festival began in 1979 and has gone from strength to strength. The Buxton Fringe is now a good size with young people involved in live productions.

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A Letter from Buxton’s Spa Heyday

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

Buxton Museum is grateful to Derek Brown for donating this letter written by his grandfather James. The letter is undated but it concerns taking the spa treatments of Buxton so we estimate its age to be somewhere between 1880 and 1920.

It is a sincere and charming message that permits an insight into a time when people came to sample the air and water of Buxton to improve their health and cure a variety of ailments.

The handwriting is a little faded and hard to read in places but we think it reads:

3 Leyland Cottages

Hardwick Square


Dear Mamma, Richard, Will, James, Alice and Grandma

I am here alright as you will see and have got beautiful lodgings with a very nice family, and I think I shall be very comfortable. It is a bonny place and a lovely ride to it after you leave Manchester district. I…

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Don Bramwell: The archaeological artist

Don Bramwell: The archaeological artist

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

When most people think about the work of Don Bramwell they will be reminded of his accomplishments within the field of archaeology, working on sites in Derbyshire such as Fox Hole Cave and Elder Bush Cave. But a select few might also recognise his creative side through his archaeological drawings of finds like this bear skull seen below. The accompanying photograph (showing the actual bear skull drawn in his diagram) helps to highlight the precision to which he gave to these drawings and how invaluable his talent was to aid in the recording of these sites, at a time when it was much harder to get a perfectly clear image from a camera.

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His talent for the arts was not just kept to archaeological objects and finds however, and while searching through boxes of archived material I have come across many detailed illustrative drawings, complete with watercolour additions, of…

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All things weird and wonderful

Last weekend we changed some displays in the project space so we could show off some of the fantastic items from the Randolph Douglas collection. This was acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1984 with help from the PRISM (preservation of industrial and scientific material) fund. The scheme is administered by Arts Council England to encourage collecting and conserving items that tell the story of the development of science, technology, industry and related fields.

Douglas display
The new display in the project space at Buxton Museum

Randolph Douglas has already been written about by my colleague Ben Jones in a previous blog here, and we know from questions we are asked that he is a popular subject with our visitors. He’s particularly well-known among magicians and also for the museum he ran in Castleton, called the House of Wonders.

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Randolph Douglas took the stage name Randini. Here he is on a postcard signed Jan 1914.


Douglas was born in 1895 at Greenhill in north-east Derbyshire, the son of a silversmith. He was fascinated by Houdini from a young age, purchasing locks and a straitjacket as a young boy, and meeting the escapologist when he was still a teenager. Their friendship quickly evolved beyond that of star and fan into mutual admiration. Douglas even inspired Houdini’s famous upside-down escape from a straitjacket during one of the escapologists visits to the Douglas family home at Endcliffe in Sheffield.

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Douglas and Houdini outside the Empire Theatre in Sheffield, 1920


After being discharged from the army on medical grounds in 1916, Douglas used his experience as a steelworker and amateur locksmith to focus on making models. He also amassed a large collection of ethnographic and geological specimens, locks and chains, and local curiosities. He and his wife Hetty moved to the village of Castleton and turned half of their house into a museum to display his collection. The House of Wonders opened at Easter 1926 and visitors paid a small charge to be shown around by torchlight. After Douglas died in 1956, Hetty continued to run the museum until her death in 1978.

A House of Wonders

Poster advertising the House of Wonders c.1930

On display this summer you can see items including handaxes from the Pacific islands, a case of patented locks and keys from the 19th century, beautifully decorated Chinese card markers and water pipes, a copy of the Lord’s Prayer small enough to pass through the eye of a needle, a smuggler’s dictionary with a secret cavity and a Saxon spearhead found at Matlock. Truly wonder-full!


Meet the Flintstones

Here at Buxton Museum we are lucky to have an amazing selection of flint tools and implements. These range from the 10,000 year old hand axes, two of which we have on display for visitors to handle, to the tiny microliths (an abbreviation of the Greek word for stone -LITHIKOS), made by chipping small pieces off a core block of hard quartz flintstone.

One question I am often asked by visitors is ‘How can we identify a flint that has been shaped by human hands and not by geological activity?’ The answer is ‘not easily’. Flints were fashioned, using a fracturing technique; by striking a single point on the core stone to send out fractures through the whole block (a bit like splitting logs with an axe). Unfortunately, the same technique and result was achieved, en masse, when ice formed in the cracks of the flint rocks during the Ice Age; making it difficult to identify geological flints from handmade flints.

It is worth bearing in mind that the ‘human hands’ that often shaped these flints did not necessarily resemble the human hands that we know today and that different species of humans shaped and made flint tools according to their capabilities. There have been several species of human primate along the journey to the current model: Homo-Habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Homo Sapien to name the most widely known species’ and most, if not all, species made and used flint tools in varying forms. Flint tools made by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo erectus in the Lower Palaeolithic Age around 1.8 Million years ago, comprised two – sided, pear-shaped, hand axes and scrapers fashioned from thick flakes of flint. These type of tools are categorised as ‘Acheulean’ which refers to the technology and industry which produced them. Acheulean tools have the largest footprint of usage spread across earth and were continually produced for over 1 million years; making Acheulean technology the longest lasting industry on earth to date.


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The Hopton Hand Axe  found near Carsington in Derbyshire shows extensive signs of retouching. It is believed to date from the Middle Palaeolithic, Acheulean era,  around 200,000 years ago.


Although the Acheulean design was to later re-emerge in Neolithic times, it was bridged by  different tools and technological designs during the Mesolithic period. Flint tools from this period, around 10,000 years ago, comprised tiny microliths of flint fashioned to make delicate arrow heads, scrapers, spears and wood working tools. The Mesolithic period fell between the end of the last ice age (although, technically, we are still in the ice age), about 11, 000 years ago, until the beginning of organised farm settlements about 6,000 years ago. Mesolithic flints were the tools of hunters – predominately used to hunt herds of game as the animals moved North, following the melting ice, for new pastures.


Mesolithic Flints 1

An example of the John Leonard Waterhouse Collection of Mesolithic flints originating from the Kinder Scout area of Derbyshire.

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