Musings from the Museum

Musings from the Museum is a series of posts written by SGS members, volunteers and friends. If you would like to contribute, please email us at

Musings from the Museum #5

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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).

Musings from the Museum #4

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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]

Musings from the Museum #3

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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]

Musings from the Museum #2

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[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.

Musings from the Museum #1

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

I have been fascinated by The Spalding Gentlemen’s Society since I was young and first noticed the stuffed birds in Ayscoughfee Hall where I went for dance classes.

When I got the opportunity to join I was delighted, however filling in the entry form was a bit of a challenge.

What did I have to offer the Society?

Apart from being a bit of a medieval nut, I decided that as an erstwhile acting coach I could probably draw on my wardrobe mistressing skills to help with textiles, and as a mother I could cater. I have never had a problem with talking to people so stewarding was a possibility too.

So far I have stewarded in a minor capacity, helped catalogue the costume collection and baked a cake.

But then I struck gold!

One day Dustin, our librarian approached me. With my literacy and local background would I be interested in joining his work party to learn to care for books and catalogue the Society’s papers? Would I ever!

I have learned about cleaning and storing books, even going to a workshop at Cranwell R.A.F. College which I have always wanted to visit. I have perused the very C18 newspapers that Maurice Johnson himself annotated for meetings and I have studied old photographs that take me back to my childhood and beyond. At the same time I have made good friends with colleagues of like mind to me.

One particular job that Dustin gave me was to check the ‘Literature Stack’ in the library for condition and content. Several weeks of Tuesday mornings found me at the top of a ladder with pencil and paper and little soft brush (this was before the health and safety decree), checking each book. On one occasion, taking a break, I mentioned to Dustin that I had been working on some drama, quite a lot of it in fact, as when I thought I had finished a shelf there was another.

Dustin perked up “Is it a set?”


“It’s not Bell’s British Theatre is it?”

“Yes, that’s what it is called”.

“I’ve been searching the catalogue for that and never found it, though I really hoped that we had one”.

(It was in the catalogue but under the first play in each volume, not as the set).

“What date is it?”

I gave him the date.

“How many volumes?”

I gave him the number.

“That date of issue had that many volumes. I must see this”.

We repair to the library where Dustin gazes in awe.

“That is a complete set. Nobody has a complete set of Bell’s – not even the British Library”.

Reader – we have!

I now feel that I may have something to offer the Society.



Member since 2014