Collection Highlights

A Deadly Cargo

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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.

SGS Weathervane

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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

An ‘Instrument of Torture’

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Placed on the top of the Shell Cabinet in the Turner Gallery this small, 150 x 100, frame contains an ‘Instrument of Torture’. The caption tells us where it came from and who had ‘worn’ it on a particular date, but little else. So, who was Ethel Taylor; who were her family. I decided to investigate.

The 1891 Census (taken on the night of 5 April 1891) show Ethel, 6 years of age, living with her mother and older brother at 78 Winsover Road, Spalding. The mother is entered as a ‘Widow’ with the Occupation of ‘Grocer’. The brother is 11 years older and working as a Grocers Assistant. As the mother is 44 years of age in 1891, Ethel is a late arrival into the family. As the mother was a Widow, when had her husband, George Taylor, died? A quick search indicated only one death of a George Taylor in the Spalding area and he had died in 1883 which, if correct, made it impossible for him to be the father. More research needed. Leaving this for the time being, I concentrated searching for further details of Ethel.

The 1901 Census (taken on the night of 31 March 1901) when Ethel was 16 years old, has her far from Spalding as she is now in Greenwich, London working in the household of the General Manager of the P&O Steam Navigation Co. as a ‘Housemaid Domestic’. The house is an elegant Victorian dwelling still occupied today and looks as if it could accommodate the whole of 78 Winsover Road in one room!

By the next decennial census of 1911 (taken on the night of 2 April 1911) Ethel had changed her employer and is now working in Blackheath, London as a Domestic House Parlour maid, her employer being a manufacturer of buckram. At 26 she is still a single woman. As no further Census information is available for some years to come, I had to leave that line of enquiry and look elsewhere.

I next looked to see if I could find a marriage for Ethel. This was something of a daunting task as I only had one name and no idea where a marriage, if there was one, took place. After several attempts I had to abandon the search there being too many ‘possible’ hits.

As mentioned earlier, there was some doubt about the father of Ethel. Her birth certificate has the father as George Taylor yet by the 1891 Census the mother is a ‘Widow’ indicating the father must have died between Ethel’s conception (she was born 6 November 1884) and the Census date i.e. 5 April 1891. So when did George die?

Searching the Registrar General Office Records for a death, the only George Taylor in the Spalding Registration District was in the second quarter of 1883 with an age given as 24. This could not be the person I was looking for as our George would be in his thirties by that time. Turning to another source i.e. The Parish Register for St Mary & St Nicolas, I found what appears to be the same record but with different information viz: George Taylor Buried 23 June 1885 age 39 years. This age fits with ages given in the earlier Censuses and is I believe the husband. So all’s well that ends well (I hope) but, this is by no means certain.

One final comment; the caption states the ‘Foster Mother’ placed the ‘Instrument of Torture’ which begs the question ‘Who was the Foster Mother? Until access to later information is available this question will remain unanswered unless, you have this information.

Armes & Memoires of ffamilies in Lincolnshire

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Maurice Johnson “Armes & Memoires of ffamilies in Lincolnshire. Collected from Authentick Records, Rolls, MSS, & other Monuments of Antiquity & Creditt, & Authors cited”

This is an exceptional example of early eighteenth-century antiquarian practice.  The manuscript volume bears a bookplate dated 1735, but was probably begun by Maurice Johnson c. 1720 and continued by him at least until 1747.  It contains genealogical and historical materials relating to the families in his wide circle of antiquarian, professional and social acquaintance.

The folio volume, covered in green vellum tooled and stamped in gold, with a red morocco spine label, binds together 418 leaves of varying size and age. Johnson’s entries include families from Affordby to de la Zouche. Some, such as the entry for Ambler, seem to have been planned and copied out in a more or less finished form, with decorative chapter headings, coats of arms in pen and ink or watercolour, and red guidelines separating genealogical notes from footnote source citations.

Other entries are incomplete. Some, such as that for the family of Stukeley – Johnson was a lifelong friend of the antiquary William Stukeley born in nearby Holbeach – appear to be little more than notes, pasted or bound in, presumably to be returned to at a later date.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s own lineage occupies more leaves than any other and contains pedigrees of the various branches of the Johnson family tree. With his own impressive library resources, Johnson’s presentation of the findings of his researches into his own family’s past sheds light on the way in which he carried out his studies. The entry for the earliest Johnson, ‘Eustathius’, is traced to 1048, and marginal notes on the page cite earlier antiquaries whose works Johnson owned – William Camden, William Dugdale, Thomas Maddox, Thomas Gale and Edmund Gibson, to name a few – and manuscripts from the Cotton Library. Evidence for later medieval and early modern Johnsons comes from the Myntling Register, then as now also part of the Spalding Gentleman Society’s collections. The volume also contains eleven loose items, including a letter written by one of Johnson’s ancestors, a genealogical note by one of his descendants, and Victorian and Edwardian additions in a variety of hands.

Armes and Memoires can be said to be a kind of latter-day Myntling Register, as it illustrates the social and cultural history of Spalding and the surrounding area after the dissolution. It complements the Society’s collection of almost 600 letters, many written by Society members named in the volume; and sheds new light on the Society’s original minute books, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century libraries, and manuscript collections. Further, it provides critical context to the thousands of manuscripts related to Lincolnshire’s history and people added to the Society’s collections in the three centuries since its foundation. This rich and idiosyncratic volume is part presentation manuscript, part commonplace book, part repository and part starting point for generations of antiquarian research.


Astronomy in the Early Minutes

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Astronomy in the Early Minutes

The Society’s collection includes a three inch reflecting telescope, a photograph of which graces the front cover of this Annual Report.   It was bought in 1761, clearly for use by the Society’s members.  The instrument is marked “B Martin, Fleet Street”.  Benjamin Martin dealt in a wide variety of scientific instruments, mostly as a retailer.  His shop in Fleet Street was close to the premises then used by the Royal Society, which may have provided him with a ready supply of customers.  The telescope was purchased with two microscopes and an air pump.  It is possible that all were supplied by Martin, but unfortunately the telescope is the only item that has survived in the collection.

A reflecting telescope uses curved mirrors to focus the light rather than the lenses of “normal” telescopes.  The light passes down the tube of the instrument and is reflected back to where it is again reflected by a smaller mirror to the eyepiece which is in the middle of the primary mirror.  These multiple reflections allow an instrument of manageable size to have a much greater effective length.

Our telescope does not compare with the largest ones of its time, but it would have been capable of being used for making important observations.  Even today, some amateur astronomers have instruments which enable them to contribute unique scientific observations.  Unfortunately, the Society’s minute books were not at that time maintained as well as they had been before, and we have no record of the uses to which the telescope was put.  However, earlier minute books do include records of astronomical studies.

Astronomy was clearly an interest of several members, and they reported on their observations, often in considerable detail.  It is clear from several of the comments that some members had telescopes of their own that were advanced enough to make useful observations.  Indeed, some of these early members were making observations and writing to a standard that ranks them with the leading astronomers of their day.

These references to astronomical events seem to start in 1734, when the Society had already been in existence for nearly twenty-five years.  Was that when a few newer members with scientific interests joined?  Was that a time when astronomical instruments were first available to amateurs?  Whatever the reason, there was clearly an explosion of interest in the heavens.  The minutes include:

1734 Mr Bogdani gave an account of a new star “in appearance as bigg as Venus”.

1740 Mr John Grundy donated to the Society a copy of “The Use of the Globes” with propositions in astronomy geography and dialling [probably about sundials].

1742 Dr Roger Long, master of Pembroke College donated a copy of his five volume “Astronomy”.

1735/6 an eclipse of the Moon was reported, with comments that the sky took on an appearance similar to the Aurora Borealis.

In 1738 and 1739 there were reports of meteors.

1739 a description of the expected appearance of a partial solar eclipse on the 24th July.

1737/8 and 1744 references to the appearance of three suns, known as “parhelii”.  This is now known to be caused by unusual atmospheric conditions.  One of the minute book references has been illustrated by a small print showing this appearance of the phenomenon.

1746 a report of detailed observations and timings of a total eclipse of the Moon.

1746 two different reports of sunspots, one of seven spots in March, and one of 21 spots in July 1745.

1746 Dr Stukely reported seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) at Grimsthorpe.

1750 A detailed set of observations of the occultation of Aldebaran by the moon in 1737.

It is possible that some of these observations may not be reported elsewhere, and could add to the early astronomical record?