Pictures in the Landscape returns

This week, as well as being the Derbyshire schools half-term holiday, the Discovery Days festival is being celebrated across the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. When we were asked to join in, we wanted to find a way to use the museum collections in a different setting.  We don’t have many objects that relate to the mills themselves but we do have some wonderful images of the local area.

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Cromford, taken from the Bridge. Watercolour by William Day, 1789.

 

Cromford has been attracting visitors since the 1700s, when artists came to paint the landscape and tourists came to admire the industrial innovations taking place at the mills. The images in the museum collection span the period from then until the 20th century, with the landscape reproduced in paintings, drawings, engravings and photographs.

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Engraving, published by Rock and Co, 1852

This is also a revival of a project that first took place in Dovedale in 2010 as part of the Derbyshire Literature Festival. This time round, we found 16 images of Cromford to reproduce and they have been hung along the short section of the canal from Cromford Wharf to Leawood Pumphouse, a route which is easily accessible and much used by local residents, day visitors and tourists.

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Pictures in the Landscape: Cromford, 22-30 October 2016

We hope everyone will enjoy seeing some historic views of Cromford along the canal during Discovery Days – and, if they haven’t been before, take the opportunity to visit Cromford Mills and High Peak Junction at either end to make it a real day of discovery.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery would like to thank our friends at Derbyshire Countryside Service, the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and Cromford Mills for their help with all our Discovery Days events.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

The Oldest Building in Buxton

What is the oldest building in Buxton? And where is it?

The Old Hall Hotel might spring to mind. Parts of the building date at least as far back as 1573. Others might suggest St Anne’s Church – an inscribed date on the porch reads ‘1625’, but other sections of the church are understood to be much older.

And what did the Romans do for us? We know they were drawn here by the natural hot and cold springs. Their baths, temple, fort and houses are buried beneath the foundations of contemporary Buxton.

But to find the site of the oldest building in Buxton we need to follow the River Wye south-west. Stroll through the Pavilion Gardens and along the Serpentine Walks to a patch of raised ground by a 20th century housing estate. Welcome to Lismore Fields.

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The entrance to the Serpentine Walks, 2016

The area around Lismore Fields, 2016

Lismore Fields, looking north, 2016

In the 1980s archaeologists excavated this site anticipating the presence of a Roman Road. Instead they discovered evidence for some of the oldest structures in Derbyshire.

Three buildings were discovered dating from around 6,000 years ago, during the Early Neolithic, but it isn’t known if they were used at exactly the same time. The buildings were rectangular and supported by posts. We can’t be sure what they looked like but it’s likely they had walls of mud plaster and heather-thatched roofs.

The people who lived here at that time were some of the earliest farmers in Derbyshire. Analysis of pottery found at the site suggested various contents including milk, animal fats and vegetable matter – the diet of those raising domesticated plants and animals.

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The Neolithic farmers of Lismore Fields can claim the title of ‘Oldest Building in Buxton’. But the site also produced stone tools and debris associated  dated to the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’, a time before farming was practiced in Britain. These highly mobile people lit fires and backfilled their rubbish into pits at their camp, but there’s no hard evidence of any built structures. The ‘Oldest Campsite in Buxton’ perhaps?

 

 

Making faces

This week two of the human skulls at Buxton Museum were scanned to see if these faces from the past can be reconstructed. This will help us tell their story in the new Wonders of the Peak gallery. One skull is of a young person found at Fin Cop Iron Age hillfort, dating from around 300 BCE. The second skull belongs to a man buried around 2000 years earlier at Liffs Low.

The scanning was carried out by Mark Roughley and Dr. Eilidh Ferguson from Face Lab Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University and it was absolutely fascinating watching them work.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

The research group at Face Lab provides expertise in analysing the bones of the skull and face. They use it to identify bodies in forensic investigation, and to make archaeological images of historical figures. Mark has a background in medical illustration and Eilidh in forensic anthropology and they were able to explain brilliantly what they were doing and why, and what we could learn about people from looking at their skulls.

First the bones were inspected to see which parts needed to be scanned. Some of the remains were fragmented, but Eilidh could identify whether they were relevant and she helped us identify some unknown parts.

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Eilidh identifying some of the fragments as parts of the hand.

For example, some of the fragments stored with the skull were actually parts of the hand, so we re-labelled their packaging accordingly. Mark and Eilidh then set to work – Mark scanning each part in turn and Eilidh carefully photographing them for later reference back in the lab.

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The Artec Space Spider hand-held scanner looked rather like a steam iron!

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The image above shows Mark scanning and Eilidh working at our photography area in the Project Space watched by Collections Assistant Dave and volunteer Cynthia.

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An image was built up as Mark moved the scanner back and forth round the skull.

The scanning was done in our public Project Space, so visitors could see what was going on and we could explain about the project.

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Eilidh photographs the Liffs Low skull.

The Fin Cop skull is relatively complete and has not yet been on display. The Liffs Low skull is part of a complete skeleton which has been displayed in a reconstructed burial. Using a hand held scanner meant it was disturbed as little as possible. We’re hoping there’s enough of this skull to make a reconstruction, but it is quite fragmented with some of the key central part of the face missing. Mark and Eilidh will put all the pieces together digitally to create a more complete image of the skull and hopefully visitors to the new gallery will be able to meet these early Peak District people face to face!

My Kingdom for a Tap Washer ?

Lead mining was a key industry in Derbyshire. The Romans were the first to mine and export lead, on an industrial scale, from Derbyshire and there are remnants of Roman lead mines scattered throughout the district at places such as Carsington and Wirksworth. The physical mining of the lead ore (raw material also known as Galena or Lead Sulphide) was not done by the Romans but was undertaken by slaves and criminals convicted to a life in the mines by the Roman Justices. The only up side of such a life sentence was the fact that the toxic lead dust, poisonous and explosive methane gas trapped in the surrounding rock, falling rocks, oxygen deprived, suffocating mine works, and back breaking work, meant that your life was likely to last just a few months.

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Bars of lead known as ‘pigs’ marked as belonging to the Emperor Hadrian  (AD 117 – 138). Each pig measures over half a metre. Discovered at Cromford Moor, near Wirksworth. 1777.

Lead was used by the Romans for many purposes. Perhaps, most importantly, because it could be melted down to produce silver for coins and jewellery. It was also used in the earliest pencils which comprised a lead and tin core; the pencil mark being easily erasable with softened bread.  Other uses were in glass, pottery glaze, writing tablets, weapons, fishing and goods weights, and to make pots, cups, and kitchen utensils.

Lead poisoning destroys the human nervous system, causes hair loss, memory loss, anaemia, constipation, and skin ruptures, among a long list of other toxic ailments, so, it is unusual to find that a very popular use for lead in Roman times, was its use in cosmetics and foodstuffs. White lead was used to create a foundation cream with which to lighten the faces of Roman ladies (and occasionally men). This was often enhanced with the application of red lead, nowadays used in the manufacture of rust-proof paint and batteries, to add a touch of rouge. Lead compounds were also used to make black hair dye and added to wine to enhance colour, flavour, and preservation.

Due to its resistance to acid and alkalies, lead was often used to line water aqueducts and make water pipes, valves, and other plumbing related fixtures.There are many theories as to why the Roman Empire finally came to an end but, perhaps, one of the more curious theories is the one that suggests that the Roman Empire collapsed due to its citizens being poisoned by the water which flowed through the Roman, lead- based, plumbing systems.

 

 

A Walk Around Fairfield

Buxton is a town where every road or street is paved with history. On the northern edge of Buxton, the district of Fairfield has its own vibrant past. Until 1894, it was a separate town; some die-hard natives maintain that it still is. Admittedly, Fairfield does seem to retain its own unique character. Using some fascinating items from the collections of Buxton Museum, I hope you will join me on a stroll.

Walking underneath the viaduct at the end of Spring Gardens, following the A6 in a northerly direction, we ascend the gentle rise into the borough of Fairfield. As this painting by Tony Beresford testifies, the hill offers an impressive view of the town centre.

Building Buxton by Tony Beresford oil 2005

Building Buxton by Tony Beresford oil 2005

Even as far back as 1839, artists were inspired by the view. This watercolour by E. Drennan depicts Buxton as a much smaller town. It makes it easier to believe that Buxton and Fairfield were once two different places, separated by a tract of green land.

View of Buxton from Fairfield 1839 by E. Drennan watercolour

View of Buxton from Fairfield 1839 by E. Drennan watercolour

Fairfield Road out of Buxton is usually busy with traffic. This photograph from the 1920s is a glimpse of an era with fewer automobiles. Did Fairfield have its own procession or is this part of the Buxton carnival that takes place each July?

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At the top of the road, the rather resplendent sight of St. Peter’s Church is waiting to greet you. Dating back to 1839, the church is built on the site of a much older version. This photograph from the Board collection was taken in 1932 but the view is much the same. The churchyard is the final resting place of Dr J.W. Jackson (1880-1978) whose work and collections were fundamental to establishing a museum in Buxton.

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Across from the church is a green spot called Fairfield Common. Nowadays, there is a golf course but can you believe that it was once a race course? In June in the 1800s, this would have been the centre of life in Fairfield; drawing a crowd that had no radios, televisions, computers, phones or any of the modern luxuries of life that we take for granted today. Infact, this oil painting by H. Kingsley, dated 1825, portrays a Fairfield that is barely recognisable.

Fairfield Race Course by H. Kingsley 1825 oil

Fairfield Race Course by H. Kingsley 1825 oil

J.D. Meddins, son-in-law of famous local photographer J.R. Board must have gone to some length to get this shot of Italian and German prisoners of war clearing the snow from Fairfield Common in 1947. Buxton is famous for its challenging micro-climate and anyone who has lived in the town will probably have their own photos to prove it, Meddins being no exception.

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Meandering away from the main drag, we venture into a vast labyrinth-like housing estate with a tiny commercial centre which residents call the top shops. Meddins again captures a wonderful shot of the shops in 1958, not long after they were built when they must have seemed very bold and modern.

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One of the most intriguing features of Fairfield is also one of its most unknown. You could be forgiven for missing the Bronze Age burial mound of Fairfield Low; despite occupying the highest point in the district it is encircled by a crown of trees on private farm land. Some locals are aware of its existence but know it as Skeleton Wood or Skellybob Wood (skellybob is a great local word!).

Photograph by Jen Francis

Photograph by Jen Francis

Local antiquarian Micah Salt excavated Fairfield Low in 1895 and discovered human remains, noting that the sight had been previously disturbed, probably by lime burners. This skull now sits on the desk in Buxton Museum’s Boyd Dawkins study. It belonged to a man who died in middle age. Is Micah Salt’s discovery the culprit for the location’s eerie nickname?

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There is a great deal more history to be found in Fairfield. Local writer David Owen has written several excellent books about the area that offer an opportunity to delve deeper. The basement of Scrivener’s bookshop on Buxton’s High Street has its own Micah Salt Museum if you want to know more about this interesting local character. Why not combine it with a visit to Buxton Museum and make it a day out?

Please note that the images used in the post are protected by copyright laws and if you wish to use any of them, please drop us a line at buxton.museum@derbyshire.gov.uk