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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]

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Musings from the Museum #2

[This post is part of our ongoing series of ‘Musings from the Museum’ contributed by SGS members, visitors and friends.]

An article from your Caretaker and Life Member, Graham Cupper.

When posed with this task my brain went blank. Having worked here for fourteen years or so, there were many things going through my mind and it was difficult to choose one subject. My wife has a great interest in the Victorian items like the Queen Victoria memorabilia, calling cards and the ilk. I have always had a soft spot for the glasses (not spectacles) of which there is a varied assortment. Having tried glass blowing on one occasion, I know how particularly difficult it is to get it “right”, let alone introducing spiral twists, colour and decoration to the item.

However, after due consideration, I have decided to muse about the history of the Museum and more importantly about the various significant members that have been associated over the centuries. Even if by default as members of other knowledgeable affiliations, the list of famous people that have been involved with the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society is quite formidable.

I am not going to list their names as I am sure many of you will be familiar with them, but instead reflect upon their positions in Society. Their achievements would be too great to detail so I’ll not tackle that subject.

We have had Lords, Dukes, Knights of the Thistle, Peers, Earls, vast landowners and then there are the academics and antiquarians who have graced our role of members. By association with London Societies we have had Presidents of the Royal Society, mathematicians, astronomers, alchemists and philosophers.

The list goes on – Baronets, physicians, naturalists, collectors, globe trotters, poets (of some fame), engravers, archaeologists, painters, historians, clergymen, politicians, a Garter King of Arms, Masters of colleges, engineers, Lord Marys, expedition leaders, architects, publishers, marquesses, viceroys, restorers, etc., etc.

When you look collectively at what these members have done and achieved over the centuries for the world, it is quite humbling to think they have all been in some way linked to our Society.

There, in my mind, will never be another occasion when so many famous people will ever be associated with a single entity such as that I am proud to be a member of.

One hopes, with the current global virus situation, a gathering of like minded people will get together to defeat this modern day plague that is killing so many.

On that note please stay well, stay at home and save lives.

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A Deadly Cargo

In the autumn of 1635, a ship docked at the Norfolk port of Yarmouth. It probably looked little different from the many other ships which plied their trade across the southern North Sea, between the coast of Germany and the Low Countries, and the harbours of eastern England. Hidden in its hold, however, lay a secret which would take time to unravel. Similar ships arrived at Hull and North Shields. What they had in common was the deadly cargo they carried: bubonic plague.


Victims of the disease at first suffer severe flu-like symptoms, followed by fever and the appearance of agonising swellings in the lymph nodes, particularly in the armpit and groin. The disease is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is transmitted by fleas which commonly live on small rodents such as rats, from which they can make the jump to infect humans. It was particularly deadly in towns and cities with overcrowded tenements and filthy, congested streets, where people and rats lived cheek by jowl. By the hot summer of 1636, the plague had spread from its original points of arrival, and was causing heavy loss of life in Newcastle and London. In the capital alone at least ten thousand people died.

In the archives of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society (SGS) is a fragile document which is clearly not written by a professional scribe and is often hard to read. It contains “Orders to be observed by the inhabitants of the wapentakes of Kirton, Skirbeck and Elloe during the time of this visitation, or until we give other directions. Made and appointed by us according to His Majesty’s directions signed 18th day of August in the twelfth year of his said Majesty’s reign over England that is 1636.” (Wapentakes were the ancient administrative districts into which much of eastern England had been organised since Danish times. Elloe incorporated much of what is now the district of South Holland.) Knowing where the disease had first been reported, people in this area must have been looking anxiously over their shoulders at the port of Boston a few miles away.

The Orders concerned were handed down from King Charles I and his ministers. Responsibility for preventative measures and the care of the sick was placed in the hands of local magistrates and officials, and the document contains six signatures, presumably those of the relevant Justices of the Peace. The Orders are surprisingly detailed: infected persons unable to care for themselves, and with no-one to look after them, were to be taken to isolation centres outside the town or village, in many cases probably no more than a barn or other farm outbuilding. If an infected person lived with their family, all residents were to be quarantined in their home, notionally for forty days, until all evidence of disease had passed. The regulations even required the slaughtering of cats and dogs which strayed out onto the street (hence, ironically, aiding the spread of the rat population).

Temporary officials were appointed to ensure these regulations were followed, the cost being met by a levy on all those of sufficient means not affected by the plague. In Spalding, eight ‘wardsmen’ were to guard the entrances to the town, two at ‘Mr Johnson’s bridge’, two at the High Bridge, two at Pinchbeck Lane and two at Windsover end.

Centuries ago, the plague’s cause was the subject of wild speculation: was it miasmas (poisonous vapours), divine punishment for human sinfulness, or the malign effect of comets and planetary alignments? The uncertainty made life difficult for physicians. A number of remedies were tried, but doctors were largely powerless to treat the victims; all that could be done was to isolate the patient and wait for the disease to run its course. Burying the dead quickly was a high priority, and often took place at night, but during severe outbreaks graveyards quickly filled up, and new ones had to be dug hurriedly in whatever open space was available.

Some time in the 18th century bubonic plague seems to have largely disappeared, at least in Europe, for reasons which are not fully understood. In our time, we can barely begin to imagine the chaos and terror which outbreaks must have caused (although the reaction in recent years to the threat of avian flu and the Ebola virus perhaps offers a clue), but the SGS document indicates that society was fighting back in the only practical way it could, even though locking up the sick and healthy under the same roof must have contributed to the death toll. The Spalding registers of burials for 1636 and 1637 do not in fact suggest an unusually high level of mortality, and it may well be that this particular outbreak exhausted itself before it reached some rural areas.

Come along to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society on one of the open days at our museum in Broad Street or, better still, become a member to enjoy our amazing collection and archive. We are a registered charity and an accredited museum, and welcome anyone aged 18 or over to join us. To find out more, visit our website and Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter @sg_soc.

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Society member’s amazing Lindisfarne find

Viking era gaming piece on Lindisfarne.


Society member Heather Casswell was given an unusual birthday treat. Son Christopher invited Mum to join in an archaeological dig he was co-directing at Lindisfarne for DigVentures and the University of Durham.

As Heather was carefully trowelling away  she discovered a curious glass object. It was sent to the finds room where there was immediate excitement at what it just might be, a Viking era gaming piece.

Subsequent research has confirmed the find which has been reported in the national press this week.

More information and an animated 3D image can be found on DigVentures website



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Local History Networking Event

Local History Networking Event

Saturday, 22 February 2020

9.30-16.00, Spalding Baptist Church, Swan Street, Spalding, PE11 1BP

SGS invites representatives of local museums, libraries, archives, volunteering organisations and research groups and projects to joins us for a local history networking day on Saturday, 22 February 2020.

Attendees will hear from other collections and groups from across the region who are working on or supporting local historical research of all kinds. There will be opportunities to present on your work, to network with others, to share best practice, and to develop ideas for future projects and collaborations.

Attendance is free but booking is essential. Tea and coffee will be provided. Full details are available on our info sheet and a flyer is available for download and sharing.

If you would like to attend, please email Please indicate in your email if you would be prepared to give a short presentation (5 minutes) on your organisation or area of interest.

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Applications for Fully-Funded PhD Studentship Now Open

Applications are now being accepted for a fully funded PhD studentship, ‘Antiquarianism, Science and Networks of Knowledge: The Archives of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, 1710-1760’.
Funded by the AHRC’s Midlands3Cities (M3C) programme, the project operates as a collaboration between the University of Leicester and the SGS. The successful applicant will be able to formulate a topic within the project’s broad remit based on their areas of interest and/or professional experience, and will enjoy opportunities for additional training and opportunities for public engagement and publication.
Throughout the PhD the student will be jointly supervised by Dr Kate Loveman (Leicester) and Dr Dustin Frazier Wood (SGS Librarian), with additional supervisory support from Professor Roey Sweet (Leicester) and Julia Knight (Ayscoughfee Hall).
detailed description of the project and information on how to apply can be found on the M3C website. Closing date for applications is 15 January 2018.
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SGS Weathervane

This item is not in the museum, but rather on it. When walking past the museum, many may have noticed a ship perched upon the roof. That ship is in fact a weathervane.

The weathervane came from the roof of the “Old Ship” warehouse in Double Street. It is shown on a view of the warehouses in Double Street which was painted by Hilkiah Burgess in 1827.

Burgess watercolour showing the original position of the weathervane. SGS Collection

When the warehouse was demolished in 1964, the owners generously donated the weathervane to the Society. The vane is made of copper, and when donated it retained some painted colour. It represents a three masted seagoing vessel, of a type that would have been used to transport goods into and out of Spalding when the port was active. The Society contacted the National Maritime Museum in the 1980s to ask if it might be possible to identify the ship as a specific vessel. The Museum Director replied that it was unlikely to be of any particular vessel, and noted that the flag on the stern was a Union Jack, rather than a Red Ensign which would have been the flag actually flown by an actual merchant ship, suggesting that the maker did not have a specific model to copy.

After the donation in 1964, it remained in the Museum for many years while waiting to be erected on the roof. It was finally put in place there in 1996. Apart from the physical problems which had to be solved, detailed permissions had to be given for such a change to the building. One beneficial result was that a detailed drawing of the vane and the building was prepared. The weathervane now remains a wonderful reminder of Spalding’s history as an active trading port.

Drawing of the weathervane and frontage of the museum. SGS Collection