Written by Graham Lampard.
Why volunteer in a museum? Wonderful items, the possible back stories? Or simply the excitement of finding what is in that box!
The catalogue entry log wasn’t particularly exciting; “Item number 1050.63: Officer’s sword cane. Early 19th century”. My 14 year old son, Rhys, had only been in Abington Park Museum for 10 minutes, had rolled his eyes numerous times and was ready to say “I’m bored, Dad,” (as 14 year olds are prone to do if they are not plugged into some device).
“What’s the next item?” I asked, somewhat icily, wondering how I was going to keep him interested for the next 2 hours. I’d rashly agreed to help Philip (the curator) and Ken Moakes to sort through some seemingly uninteresting boxes from a moribund leather museum. To keep Rhys away from the computer for a couple of hours I’d perhaps exaggerated the exciting items we would find!
“It’s a stick”, wailed a disapproving voice. Philip gently persuaded Rhys that it must be photographed, so reluctantly he took it to the table and photographed the ‘stick’.
Onto the next one, I thought, when there was a cry: “Hey Dad, look at this!” Rhys, being 14, had been fiddling with the item and found that the top of the cane came off to reveal a 6 inch blade. ‘Made in Sheffield, England’ it said on the fuller, just below the hilt. Now, this was more like it.
“What is it?” he asked. Good question. Having a teenager who is a whizz with mobile devices can be an advantage: “Look up ‘sword canes’ and ‘India’,” I suggested. So he did, and the following suggested itself.
In the early 19th century, the British Empire was nearing its zenith. A third of the world was shades of pink including large swathes of India, which was controlled by The British East India Company. They had conquered Bengal in 1757, and gradually extended their control over the whole of India. The annexed Indian kingdoms varied enormously in size and influence; while the large states brought in the money and had the army to ensure paramountcy, there were actually only a tiny number of British officials and troops in the country. About 20,000 in all, ruling over 300 million Indians.
So it may be that this swagger stick was used by one of those Havildars – a sergeant in the British Raj – to keep control of an outpost on the North-West Frontier. The Havildar would first beat the assailant with the cane to keep him at bay and then, if that didn’t work, remove the sheath and use the Sheffield-made steel blade to ensure compliance. In the immortal words of Corporal Jones, “they don’t like it up ‘em!”
Whatever the reality, the story ignited my son’s interest and, for the next couple of holidays he was there, eager to rummage through boxes.
The second item, which I’d obviously overlooked the first time around, was ‘rediscovered’ when 78 Derngate volunteers decided to use the museum as a venue for their ‘Post-Christmas’ get-together. Philip and I were taking groups around, showing them the archive. “Choose a box”, I said to visitors, knowing that they are unlikely to be disappointed with whatever is inside.
This time we struck very lucky; the first item was serendipitously numbered ‘78’. That sparked immediate interest and upon looking it up, the ledger read; “Quiver, moulded in raw hide with relief decoration of classical hunting scenes. Florentine, 16th century”. That just blew me away – one random box throws up a 500 year old quiver, which could have been used in the defeat of Florence during the War of the League of Cambrai in the early 1500s. Which war? Exactly. Never heard of it, but the War of the League of Cambrai raged as part of the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. They involved most of Europe and the papacy. Or perhaps the quiver belonged to the Florentine rulers at the time, the Medici family! The mystery endures …
This is why you should be volunteering! You can learn so much – I don’t know whether either of the above items were actually part of the history described, but they could have been, and that is the fun, and that is where we are heading, to find out more about the 10,000 items we have in the National Leather Collection. Join us!