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Musings from the Museum 12

I Felt Like Alice in Wonderland (Italian & English)

Irene Regolo

[*We are delighted to have many international members, volunteers and correspondents. To ensure their voices are captured, we present their posts in their own words, followed by a translation where necessary.]

Durante il mio viaggio attraverso l’Inghilterra, casualmente scoprii la SGS e il suo museo, ero abituata a visitare grandi e rinomati musei, ma quando vi entrai pe la prima volta, fu come scoprire un piccolo gioiello celato a sguardi indiscreti.

Era come essere proiettati nella Storia, in un tempo sospeso che si mostrava poco a poco.

Quello che mi colpii di più fu l’atmosfera particolare che vi regnava e la moltitudine, la varietà e la preziosità degli oggetti esposti che mi fece pensare ad una sorta di Wunderkammer, ordinata ed esposta con grazia, perizia ed eleganza.

Tutto era come doveva essere, aveva il fascino di una partitura musicale, non coglierlo era quasi impossibile, almeno per me.

Questo contribuì a capire meglio il mio personale rapporto con l’Arte ed il Restauro, le motivazioni e la curiosità che mi spingono in quella direzione ed attraverso le quali mi sento appagata.

In quell’occasione, al termine della visita e aver parlato con i volontari presenti presi la decisione di aderire alla SGS e di attivarmi per contribuire per quanto mi è possibile, collaborando e contribuendo a far conoscere ed apprezzare ciò che ci deriva dal passato, sul quale si basa il nostro presente.

An 18th century deck of playing cards from the SGS museum (SPAGS 65000047).

During my journey across England, I casually came upon SGS, and its museums.  I was used to visiting large and famous museums, but when I entered there for the first time, it was was like finding a rare, tiny and precious jewel.

It was as if I had been sent back in time, to a place where time itself was suspended, edging out a little at a time.

What struck me the most was the particular atmosphere that reigned there, and the vast variety of precious items exhibited, that made me think of a kind of Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) carefully exhibited with grace, skill and elegance.

Everything was it should have been, it had the charm of a musical score, to not fall under its spell was impossible, at least for me.

This helped me to understand my personal rapport with Art and Restoration, and justify the motivation and curiosity that drives me in that direction, giving me great personal satisfaction.

On that occasion, at the end of my visit and after speaking to the volunteers present, I decided to join SGS.  My aim is to help, where possible, to collaborate and contribute in making known and to appreciate that what derives from our past, is also the foundation of our future.

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Musings from the Museum 11

Combat Over the Trenches

Alistair Goodrum

Their donor sadly unknown; tucked away among the treasures in our Library are two unique books that, to an aviation historian, are little gems.  These are a pair of Log Books – not of the more familiar, personal, aircrew type – but of two individual aeroplanes that flew during the First World War.  Each book contains the service history of an aeroplane known as the FE2b (Farman Experimental 2, model ‘b’).  Over the Western Front in 1917, these were used for bombing and photo/reconnaissance and even – rather optimistically – as an escort fighter.  The FE2b was the main production model of this two-seat, single-engine, ‘pusher’, aeroplane manufactured by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough and outsourced to Boulton & Paul; Weir; and Ransome, Sims & Jefferies who between them built about 1,900 b-models.

Due to the high rate of loss in combat or accidents, life-span of these rapidly mass-produced aeroplanes was short enough, but one machine can only be described as ‘a real Friday-afternoon job’, since it gave nothing but trouble every time it flew.  Serial A5472, built by Boulton & Paul in Norwich, was issued to No.11 Squadron in France on 7 January 1917 but saw no combat action.  Various wing components were faulty and replaced and its engine was unreliable.  On 18 March the engine seized up in the air and A5472 was wrecked during the ensuing landing.  After nine weeks service, the RAF gave up on it, packed it in a crate on 28 March and shipped it back to ‘Blighty’ for spares!

Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b, serial number A5478, presentation aircraft ‘Gold Coast No10’; from same batch as SGS aircraft logbooks for A5472 & A5485

The second log book relates to FE2b, serial number A5485, also Boulton & Paul-built. It was what is known as a ‘Presentation Aircraft’.  It had ‘BOMBAY No.1’ painted on the side of the cockpit nacelle and had been ‘bought’ by the gift of money from wealthy citizens of that Indian city.  As an indication of the attrition rate, no less than nine aeroplanes bore that particular name – as each one was written off, its replacement was given its predecessor’s name.  On shipment to France in parts, in a wooden crate, A5485 was assembled and issued to No.23 Squadron based at Baizeau airfield on 15 February 1917.  On 13 March it was flown by pilot, Sgt James Cunniffe and his gunner Airman First Class (AM1) Strong, before Cunniffe was posted away from No.23 to No.11 Squadron.  In action with No.11 on 13 April 1917 he encountered the famous Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) flying an Albatros DIII fighter.  Sgt Cunniffe was shot down and wounded but was one of the few Red Baron victims (Cuniffe was his 42nd) to survive and quite coincidentally this Welshman spent two years in Johnson Hospital, Spalding recovering and recuperating from his wounds.

At 2.15pm on 24 March 1917, pilot Sgt Edward Critchley, a twenty-four-year old American from Ohio and his observer/gunner, Airman First Class Frank Russell, aged twenty, took off in A5485 as part of an escort for a group of photo reconnaissance aircraft.  The lumbering FE2b was far from an ideal aeroplane for fighter escort duties and was certainly no match for the nimble German fighters currently opposing them.

That day, it was bad luck that Critchley and Russell should run into the next best air fighter in the German Air Service at that time, Leutnant Werner Voss of Jagdstaffel 2 (Fighter Squadron 2).  Voss was a fighter pilot ‘ace’ with 20 air victories to his name already and his victory tally would climb to 48 before he was killed in action.  Flying an Albatros DIII, Lt Voss swooped at the RAF aeroplane; his gunfire was deadly accurate and his twenty-first victim dived to the ground.  AM1 Russell was killed outright and Sgt Critchley was wounded in the leg but despite his wound, Critchley managed to crash-land the stricken aeroplane behind British lines.

A5485 was damaged beyond repair and the logbook records its demise: “Forced down in combat near Achiet-le-Grand with extensive damage by machine gun fire.  Total time in the air since ‘purchase’: 7hours 45minutes.  Operational flying time: 2hours 0minutes.  It was dismantled, packed in a crate and sent back to England on 28 March 1917.  It had lasted just six weeks at the Front.

Why don’t you have a browse through our Library – you just never know what you might find.

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Musings from the Museum 10

U3A Shared Learning Projects with the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society

Dr Mandy Topp

The Spalding Gentlemen’s Society holds some thirty plus boxes of documents relating to Sir Joseph Banks and the Stanhope family who inherited his Revesby estate. Over the last few months members of Sleaford U3A have been working with the SGS, in a Shared Learning Project, to catalogue the contents. The SGS provided training in how to handle, catalogue and describe documents. Then the SLP members set to the task. The ultimate aim is to develop a comprehensive inventory of the boxes’ contents so that it can be cross-referenced and made available to aid researchers.

These boxes are proving to be a wonderous mixture of regional, estate and personal documents covering almost two hundred years of the Revesby estate history. Everything from detailed records of Lincolnshire’s canal network and eighteenth-century drainage improvements to very personal items such as school textbooks and even love letters. Some mirror national historical events, such as the setting up of a powered weaving factory in Louth for which Banks sought advice from ‘Mr Arkwright’. While others deal with very local issues, for example the exchange of letters between Edward Banks-Stanhope and the neighbouring vicar as to how a hare came to be shot on Revesby land. This fascinating project has even produced some significant finds. For instance, a copy of the second act for the building of the Sleaford Canal. As this act failed, copies of the act were discarded making this a rare and important document.

Signature of Sir Joseph Banks

From this wealth of material each cataloguer has their personal favourites. These include the documents about local elections in Lincoln and Boston which include an affidavit swearing that one of the candidates had been seen to have raised a glass to ‘The King Across the Water’. The long list of curiosities including ‘exploding glass balls’ and ‘jumping frogs’ but sadly no explanation as to how or why the list was made. The magistrate records showing Sir Joseph Bank’s involvement in the planning and organising of the ‘transportation of felons to Botany Bay’ and that some wives opted to go with their husbands. A very personalized cartoon about a recent local election drawn for Banks-Stanhope by a house guest.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis means that the project has had to be put on hold for the time being. The U3A members were sad to have to stop so jumped at the chance to join the SGS in an online Shared Learning Project in the form of the Stukeley Memoirs Project. This involves the transcription and annotation of the SGS’s five unique volumes gifted by William Stukeley. These slender notebooks offer a personal, first-hand account of the Royal Society from 1740 to 1750. This project is proving to be just as fascinating and simulating. A great way to pass the lock-down.

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Musings from the Museum #9

Discovering the SGS Archives

Dr. Michael Honeybone

As I’m a historian, I will start with a date.  In 1992 I had just moved from school-teaching to educating adults and was teaching a course in the History of Science and Technology for the Open University.  I was in search of local historical material which could make the scientific work of the past seem relevant to Lincolnshire students; someone in Grantham, near where I lived at the time, mentioned a very unusual set of eighteenth-century documents kept in Spalding.  So I bravely ventured from Kesteven across the Forty-Foot Dike into the Parts of Holland, where the SGS President, Norman Leverett, proudly showed me an unbelievable archive of documents from the early years of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, including minutes recording scientific observations.

I realised that here indeed, in the Society’s archives, was a complete window into the world of the early eighteenth century, a favourite period for me.  The six volumes of minute books provided plenty of material for a PhD, which I undertook, on ‘The Communication of Science in the East Midlands of England, 1710-60’.  I was proud to present a copy of my findings to the SGS in 2002, in gratitude for their assistance and I had been equally happy to become a member of the Society, following in the footsteps of Newton, Celsius and a number of other eighteenth-century scientists, both well-known and obscure.

Far from exhausting the resources of the archives, this was only the beginning.  I was soon blessing the name of our founder, Maurice Johnson, for his precise and careful keeping of the SGS’s records, the most complete of any left by an eighteenth-century learned society.  I discovered the remarkable Treasurer’s account books, unparalleled in Europe for their period, which give week-by-week accounts of the subscriptions from members and expenditure on refreshments as well as equipment for their studies.  The amazing hand-written catalogue of the original library collection drew me to the collection itself, still looked after today.  It was built up by the Society which kept rigidly to its original rule that every new member must give the SGS a book, or books, to the value of one pound.  The range of titles gives a helpful insight into what the early eighteenth century thought was worth reading.  This collection is complemented by the seventeenth-century Spalding Parish Library, cared for by the SGS ever since the days of its first set of rules in 1712; indeed, the cleaning and care of the Parish Library was one of the first tasks the new Society set itself when it began.

To my great encouragement my wife Diana became equally fascinated and was kindly admitted by the Society, who did not have women members at the time, to join me in my exploration of this eighteenth-century world.  Together we were able to work on the huge collection of correspondence, over 500 letters from the Society’s early years, containing discoveries and information they wanted to send to the SGS; this could be anything from the track of a comet observed in Greenland to a ‘strange fish’ found near a local dike and what sort of tea-tray was now fashionable in London.  This led to our being able to publish, via the Lincoln Record Society, a calendar, with some transcriptions, of the SGS’s correspondence from 1710 to 1760.  In recent years, many members are discovering the fascination of the Society’s documents and the thrill of transcribing them; more volunteers for transcription are always welcome.  Luckily much of the handwriting of that period is more legible than the mediaeval documents in the Society’s collection though a few are almost illegible at first. A prominent correspondent, Dr William Stukeley, has a surprisingly legible hand; our founder, Maurice Johnson, has a beautiful hand with some elegant flourishes, so that reading his work is a pleasure.

Let me finish by sharing a letter that Johnson wrote to his much younger step-brother Richard Falkner, then an undergraduate at Lincoln College, Oxford, welcoming him as a member of the SGS in 1734.  Please note the other new members that Johnson welcomes, notably the “ learned Mahometan Priest from Africa” – but that’s another story!

Letter from Maurice Johnson in London to Richard Falkner in Spalding, 6 July 1734 (SGS Archive)

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Musings from the Museum #8

Lordships of Manors – The Manor of Crowland

-Freya Trotman

Following a visit to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society in Broad Street, after a very long absence. Ian Hoult very kindly showed me round and introduced me to one of the “stars” of the vast collection. The Crowland Cartulary. This early medieval manuscript was just astonishing to me. I am a volunteer archivist for Crowland Abbey, and none of the documents and records I care for have real antiquity. So, for me, to see this amazing book was revelatory… and to be able to touch it (with thoroughly scrubbed hands) and to be able to carefully turn the pages, and hear the sound and feel the texture. It was very special. It is easy to forget the skills needed to produce such a tome; the collecting of the animal skins, and the long preparation to make them ready, the scraping, stretching, preserving, curing and dressing just to make each individual leaf that was required, (along with the rejection of any imperfect skins); because such a book could only be produced using the best materials.

The gathering, preparing, and cutting of the quills, is another feat. Facing down annoyed geese, and gathering discarded quills from abandoned swans nests, (whilst avoiding very smelly swan poo – I remembered not to wear sandals on the second sortie), and almost falling in the Welland, my sympathy for the ancient scribes increased somewhat. At risk of sounding like Phil Harding, with his flint knapping on Time Team, I quickly discovered swan quills, in particular are much better trimmed using flint, rather than even a scalpel blade because they are softer quills and splinter easily. I am sure swan’s quills would have been used, because Crowland Abbey, very unusually, was permitted to keep and sell swans, a privilege granted by the Crown.

‘St Guthlac Sails to Crowland’, Guthlac Roll, British Library Harley Roll Y.6

Many years ago, having trained as a cartographer, drawing on both vellum and sometimes dressed linen, (a fiendishly hideous material to draw on); I decided to learn calligraphy, it seemed a useful and complimentary, skill to have if drawing maps, Rotring drawing pens are great for fine lines on maps but are not remotely suited to lettering.

Naturally, the archivist in me, wanted to be able to use quills, as well as modern calligraphy pens, I dread to think how much paper, ink and modern acetate mapping film I wasted trying to acquire the skills of the medieval scribe and cartographer. Eventually, I managed to produce something that was at least legible, but hardly skilled. I went back to modern calligrapher’s tools in the end. Occasionally, I have another try, but the results are very hit and miss.

Looking at the beautifully controlled hands that produced the flowing script in the Crowland Cartulary, I am put to shame. The ink flows with consummate skill and penmanship despite using such basic tools. It is only to be marvelled at.

My own attempts at ink making were reasonably good or so I thought at the time of brewing the stinky mixture. We have abundant walnuts and oak galls in the garden to use, and I had managed to track down some gum arabic and some very noxious vinegar, but I have never perfected my ink to be stable enough to still retain its dark hues even five years on, let alone after 900 years!

I undertook a brief foray into book binding, and conservation. My Dad had taught me a bit when I was younger. He like most boys of his age, learned book binding at school. Again, I doubt my paltry efforts would be anything like as sturdy as the Cartulary in years to come, but it did make me realise just what was involved in producing a sturdy volume that was able to withstand years of use without falling apart.

Suffice to say, my visit to SGS filled me with wonder and a real appreciation for the efforts that were made by so many people in order to produce something so extraordinary. Had I met a unicorn on the journey home for Broad Street, it wouldn’t have been as exciting for me as seeing that book!

On my arrival home, feeling inspired, I fished out a sheaf of papers from the Crowland archive which had never been transcribed and set about producing a document from them. Had I chosen vellum, quills, and ink as the medium for its production, I doubt it would ever have been finished.

The Manor of Crowland, in Lincolnshireis my transcription of a handwritten document dating from around January 1967. The original author is, as yet, unknown. I have transcribed it faithfully so some of the grammar is still quirky, I have also included some additional handwritten notes by Ron Cooke. The pink notes are regarding a particular word or phrase, or where I am unable to read the word. It would be interesting to see how much of the notes I have written here correspond with the wording of the Cartulary.

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Musings from the Museum #7

Family Memories

Ed Oetting

Terra Nova, Pinchbeck

My first visit to the Society was in 1960 when my mother, sister and I were spending the summer with my grandparents, Cecil F. and Patience Turner.  We were staying at Terra Nova, Pinchbeck — the house my grandparents built after they moved from their Northgate Mill house. People in Pinchbeck may not be aware that it was named Terra Nova because my grandmother was originally from Newfoundland.  Since I was 10 at the time, I don’t have a crystal-clear recollection of that first visit to the Society with the exception that I was fascinated by a collection of Dutch clay pipes.

The Matching Chair

Other than his family, I think my grandfather’s greatest love was the Society and antique collecting.  At one time, I did some research and it appeared that my grandfather was the longest serving President in the Society’s long history (I’m not quite sure whether that is or is still true).  In my subsequent trips to the Society, I have always marvelled at the Museum and usually took a visit to the Vault to see some of the items my grandfather donated.   One of the items I believe is still in the President’s office – that’s a companion to the chair I’m sitting in now (I’ll send a picture).  This chair, I know has a story (somewhere I have an article about this type of chair) – it was my grandfather’s at his desk on the second floor of Terra Nova where he kept the majority of his antiques (those that weren’t part of the household items).  It’s now my office chair – carrying on the tradition.

I’ve been to the Society several times this century.  One memorable visit was actually to the Lecture Series in 2011.  The lecture was on the archaeological dig in Pinchbeck centered on “Healey’s Field”.  When I came back home and told my mother about the lecture and where the dig site was, she indicated that it was her memory that at one time that field had been owned by my great-grandmother Turner.

Cecil F. Turner


Also, at one of this century’s visits, I was able to spend some time with Tom Grimes and to have him digitize some family photos that I brought for the Society’s archives.   All in all, I’m very proud to be a member of the Spalding Gentleman’s Society and I know that my grandfather would be thrilled that I’m carrying on the family tradition, even if it’s from “across the pond”

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Musings from the Museum #6

We Don’t Always Know the Answers

-Colin E Baslington

As part of my helping at the Society I undertook to act as a Steward showing visitors round the Museum and some years ago a request came from a lady who wished to visit with her son. This was to be a private visit for two of them so I met the lady and her son and started showing them around. The usual questions flowed and it soon became apparent the questions were going in one direction namely, ‘Do you have any information on Baron Shepherd of Spalding? To which I had to answer ‘not that I’m aware’. The visit continued and both seemed quite happy with their visit and thanked me for my assistance.

Being the person at the Society such genealogical questions usually end up with I set about researching Baron Shepherd of Spalding, and yes, there was such a person and still is.

The first Baron, George Robert Shepherd, was born in Spalding in 1881 the son of a local tailor and shop keeper. He moved away as a young man and became interested in politics, and married a lady of similar persuasion. She had many connections and they both finished up in the south of the country with George becoming a senior member of the Labour Party. He was part of the group responsible for setting up the coalition government during WW2 and, it was for his work with this group he received his title.

Since that time I have had the privilege in corresponding with the current title holder, who now lives abroad, and producing a family tree for him.

A year or so ago, the local Civic Society arranged for a Blue Plaque to be  erected on the premises he lived in as a boy and young man with an unveiling of the plaque one Saturday morning.

Should you wish to research your family in Lincolnshire, the Society has a number of research tools e.g. digitised decennial Census returns for the county including name indexes for each census year. These are of high quality and very easy to read.

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Musings from the Museum #5

Villein Pedigrees

-Dr Michael Gilbert (

In the Society’s archives there are many surviving medieval documents that contain a wealth of information for the local historian. The best known are the Crowland Cartulary (a detailed account of the rights and privileges of Crowland Abbey in the middle ages) and the Myntling Register (a collection of records for Spalding Priory primarily from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). There is also a large collection of other documents from the period including a near complete set of manorial records for Gedney from the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV as well as a detailed master mason’s account for Pontefract Castle. These have been a valuable source of information for social and economic historians of the later medieval period including Hallam, Platts and Bailey.[1]

The Myntling Register contains information on the Priory and how it managed its estates across the Wapentake of Elloe (now South Holland). It details the appointment of officials essential to the safe and smooth running of the commercial enterprise that the late medieval religious house had become. An example of this is a record of the appointment in 1421 of John Atkyn, Thomas Spanogh and William Rede as Dyke Reeves for the marshes of Northfen and Southfen by Spalding. These were important roles as they were responsible for maintaining the flood defences and drainage of this vulnerable low-lying region. The document also contains information on the many and varied fines that were intended to maintain discipline on the Priory’s estates as well as to help fill the Prior’s coffers. An example were the fines for being absent from the land without permission, such as the Hobson family from Whaplode in 1460. There was also the merchet or marriage fee that was paid by servile tenants on Priory lands for the right to marry and was in part to compensate the Prior for the potential loss of income from that person. The payment could be in money or in goods, such as the fine of two capons paid in 1428 by Gregory Sherwin for licence to marry Joan Halden of Moulton.

Much of the Myntling Register is given over to ‘villein pedigrees’ which were family trees of servile tenants (serfs) on the Priory estates. The purpose of the pedigrees was most likely to enable the Prior to keep an accurate record of the people owing labour duties and payments. The following figure shows the original document for the Dally family of Weston along with a translation. It is unusual in that it displays the family tree graphically in a format that the modern reader would be familiar with rather than just a list of family members that is typical of other contemporary records. It contains a wealth of detail showing family relationships and referencing the court rolls in which they can be found. Unfortunately, these documents have not been discovered so it is difficult to date the pedigrees. However, as I mentioned earlier the Myntling Register contains records of merchets and one from 1335 refers to a fine of £1 for licence for Katherine daughter of John Dally of Weston to marry Robert Cokes. So by comparing the different records it is possible to start to fill in some of the blanks in the family tree.

Similarly, the pedigree for the Halden family, also of Weston, notes the marriage of Joan daughter of Thomas Halden to Gregory Sherwin which can as seen earlier be dated to 1428. The family tree shows that there was a degree of social mobility even at this early period with Joan daughter of William Dally marrying John Hartt of Ware and presumably moving to Hertfordshire. The pedigree for the Cony family shows that Katherine daughter of Atkyn Cony went to Ramsey possibly to join a religious order. The villein pedigrees are a useful tool to help with building an understanding of late medieval society in the Lincolnshire Fenlands, particularly when cross-referenced again other available records. They help to paint a picture of local families and how they interacted with their neighbours (both the Dally and Cony families have numerous links, mostly through marriage, with the nearby settlements at Spalding, Moulton and Whaplode). It is necessary to be cautious as the pedigrees can be frustrating as they are not only difficult to date but do not contain any other supporting information such as details of land holdings and servile obligations (these would be in the missing court rolls).

Although the original documents are in medieval Latin and of variable quality it is fortunate that a handwritten translation from the nineteenth century has survived and is in the library. For the local historian with an interest in the social history of the region in the later middle ages then the villein pedigrees in the Myntling Register are an excellent place to start. If you would like to find out more then please contact me.

[1] H. Hallam, Settlement and Society: A Study of the Early Agrarian History of South Lincolnshire (Cambridge, 1965); G. Platts, Land and People in Medieval Lincolnshire (Lincoln, 1985); M. Bailey, Decline of Serfdom in Late Medieval England: From Bondage to Freedom (Woodbridge, 2014).

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Musings from the Museum #4

The Fun of Chasing a Mystery Object

-Patty Harris

As a fairly new member of the SGS, I cannot tell you the joy it brings me to be a member, from the first day of being shown round I felt welcomed despite being completely non-academic.

When I enter the building, the 21st century slips from my shoulders and I’m home.

My love of history stems from being born in a house called Purley Hall, built in 1609 and rumoured to be heaving with ghosts, Warren Hastings is said to one of them, together with the large Indian menagerie he kept whilst awaiting his trial.

My Mother claimed to have met some of them!

We went to the estate school, all twelve of us, with a headmistress who adored the Romans and would whisk us off to sites at the slightest excuse. Does anyone remember Ascension Day outings? I can’t recall why it was a day off, but we went to museums, the Natural History Museum was my favourite.

Reading Museum was also a magnet for me, every other Saturday we would go to the library and after books were exchanged I would race upstairs to the Museum with its Anglo-Saxon and Roman treasures. All these things shaped my fascination.

When Sharon asked me if I would like to research some of the more obscure items in the Roslyn cabinet, I thought I would have a go, what fun. The most interesting were the ivory or bone sticks, about 12cm long with carved heads in the shape of hearts, feathers, etc., they look like large cocktail sticks but they are flat with blunt ends.

The game of Spillikins, Spellikins, Jack Straws, Pickup Sticks or Mikado are all the same game, a set of straws are tipped onto the table and sticks are removed with a hook until the players dislodge an unintended one. Each stick has a number on the shaft and the players win with the largest score. Originating probably in China (where else) this game has been played for many centuries. There does not seem to be a particular rule regarding the numbers of straws, some sets have 100 but the average number seems to be in the twenties. Digging deeper into the antique sales sites, I began to find sets that looked familiar to ours, Roman numerals on the shaft and the same patterns of carving on the heads and what should come to light but our old friends, the Napoleonic Prisoners of War at Norman Cross.

There are several boxes of Spillikins, some in the straw work boxes we are familiar with and some with the most beautiful ornate fretwork boxes carved from bone, the straw boxes with their contents appear to be quite common but, of course, we cannot tell whether they are complete sets, unlikely I would think.

So, in conclusion, it’s very likely that these are Napoleonic P.O.W. Bone spillikin gaming pieces, given our proximity to Peterborough and the fact we have other pieces of straw work. If you have an opportunity to look at these closely, they are exquisite work.

I thoroughly enjoyed this project, but the one I’m working on at the moment is going to take me considerably longer, there appear to be innumerable Persian Gods, wish me luck!

[This post is part of our series of ‘Musings from the Museum’ written by Society members, volunteers and friends. If you would like to contribute, please email]

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Musings from the Museum #3

Puffer Fish, Dolphins and substance abuse.

-Phil Clay

I am a volunteer assistant curator and steward at the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, one of my other duties is organising visits to the museum.

I came to the Society with no museum experience at all but have gained a considerable amount of knowledge since joining the SGS. This has mainly been gained from working in the museum, but we find that often we can gain some interesting information from the visitors themselves.

One instance which comes to mind happened when a local couple contacted me with a problem. Their granddaughter was coming to stay with them and they were looking for somewhere to take her which she may find interesting. I volunteered to give them a tour of the museum which, as with most people, she found fascinating. During the visit she spotted a stuffed Puffer Fish (we have two). She pointed out that she was studying marine biology at university where she had seen videos of dolphins playing football with puffer fish. When the fish are attacked they blow themselves up with water which makes the spines on their skin stand out and therefore difficult to swallow. That was interesting enough but it was what came next which really sparked my interest. She had an idea that, somehow, the dolphins got some kind of high from this.

After the visit I thought that I needed to investigate this further.

SPAGS 65000174

I found that, apparently when puffer fish are attacked they not only blow themselves up as a defence, but also eject a potent chemical called tetrodotoxin, which is a very poisonous toxin (and the dolphins’ recreational drug of choice) produced by bacteria in the fishes’ gut. Each fish has enough poison to kill about 30 people. The dolphins are careful not to swallow the fish, just upset it enough for it to eject small quantities of the toxin.

The result is that the dolphins’ behaviour changes considerably. Footage filmed for the BBC showed a group gently passing round a puffer fish and nudging it to make it eject the poison. They had obviously done this before! This resulted in very erratic behaviour in the dolphins, including floating just underneath the surface as if fascinated with their own reflections

Working at the SGS can lead to learning some remarkably interesting facts!



It should be noted that it is safe to handle dried puffer fish, but gloves are recommended.

[This post is part of our series of ‘Musings from the Museum’ written by Society members, volunteers and friends. If you would like to contribute, please email]