A look around Carlisle Museum in 1844 may have astounded and amazed visitors – possibly not entirely in a good way!
I’ve not dug into who the donors were: maybe someone will recognise a name among them…
A few years ago, I visited a church which had a specimen of a narwhal tusk propped up on display. A donation way back from some bygone explorer.
It was easy to imagine how it might have gone.
Explorer: “Hi there, vicar. Have I got a treat for you?!”
Vicar: “Er, thank you. It’s very, er, big. May I ask…?”
Explorer: “Some say it’s the horn of a unicorn. It is a great treasure, and I thought it only right that I should donate this rare and precious artefact to the church.”
Rewind a few hours earlier.
Mrs Explorer: “You’ve been away 18 months and you’ve brought back boxes and boxes of junk?”
Explorer: “These are rare and priceless specimens, gathered from my travels and adventures. This, for instance, is a unicorn horn.”
Mrs Explorer: “I don’t care what it is, it’s eight feet long, is what it is. We do not have a room big enough, is what it is. Get rid of the wretched thing. I will not have in this house.”
I can’t help thinking some of the following donations, made to the then Carlisle Museum, were given on a similar basis.
And one wonders if Carlisle Museum staff’s reaction to some of them was less than enthusiastic!
Carlisle Museum 1844
August 1844. Carlisle Journal.
Carlisle museum. The following donations been received since our last notice :— Specimen of Russian bread, by James Fleming, surgeon; piece of stone, from the tomb of Napoleon, St. Helena, by Martha Fisher; Aesop’s Fables, in Chinese, by Mr. Robert Thom presented by Mr. John Saul, Green-row ; a bronze figure of a Roman legionary, found in the church-yard at Burgh-by-Sands, presented by the Rev. J. Lowry; a copper medal of Napoleon and an ancient brass coin, by Master Atkinson, presented by Master Robinson; a farthing of Charles II, by George Nutter; a skull of an animal found whilst digging by Mr. J. J. Sewell, Wetheral; two specimens of ornithorhyncnus paradoxus*, from the collection of the late Mr. Oliphant; a specimen of jet coal, from Philadelphia, by a friend; two hundred and ninety-four specimens moths and butterflies, by Wm. Ewatt, millwright; a specimen of sea weed by Dr. Win Barker, Esk Bank, Connobie; a white Persian cat, (stuffed) presented by George Dixon, Esq; an ancient sword, found in the river Thames, October 1840, by Mr. Bonnett, Holborn, London; a specimen of the golden-eyed duck, by Mr. John Steel, Southerfield ; a pair of ancient satin dress shoes, by Miss McCormick, Coffee-house yard; a silver coin, Mr McIntyre, Warwick; eight Chinese coins, Mr. John Scott, gilder, Rickergate; thirty-three geological specimens, Mr. Thomas Bland, Reagill, Crosby-ravensworth.
Ok, some of the above weren’t total tat, and had the merit of being small. But a lump of bread? Some unidentified animal skull that probably wasn’t going to be a very rare or interesting specimen, having been dug up in Wetheral. A stuffed cat. And lump of seaweed?
Mr Oliphant’s ‘generous’ donations
The next batch say a lot about whoever Mr Oliphant was. Ok, the 1900s were an age of exploration and science and so on. But, these are mostly weird, or creepy.
The following specimens presented by Mr. Oliphant:—Thirteen dogs’ heads, one tiger’s head, one of the Barbarossa, one monkey’s head, two fish heads, three birds’ heads, five birds’ feet, three under jaws of ruminating animals, one malformation of a pup in a small case, one specimen vegetable production, five under jaws of dogs, and one bone.
Which makes the last lot seem less ‘ugh’, though we would frown heavily now on eggs and nests being disturbed. Mrs Mermess was either some kind of obsessive collector, or didn’t like omlettes.
Two specimens of silver Spanish coins one French, and three copper English coins, and a medal Mrs. Joseph Saul, Green-row; two Spanish and one Scotch silver coins, by Miss Bushby, Stanwix; thirteen pages of specimens of ferns, by the Rev. Mr. Rees; thirteen specimens of copper coins, by Wm. Henderson; one specimen of a small shark, (stuffed) by Wm. Scott, Rickergate; an iron spur found in Bowness Church yard, presented by the Rev. Mr. Brown; a unio shell, found in the Carlisle Canal, by Hugh Woolahan; six specimens of minerals, Mr. Sibson, grocer; a wren’s nest, with two eggs, Mr. C. Thurnam; an iron once used for branding felons, letters C. R. upon it, (“Cumberland Rogue’] by a friend; a titmouse nest, by Mr. L. Cumpston ; fossil shell, from Chalk quarries, by Jos. Pickering; a copper coin (supposed Roman) E. Armstrong; three corncrakes’ eggs, by John Leslie, Warwick; nineteen eggs, by Mrs. Memess.
* ie a duck-billed platypus
Carlisle Museum today
In fairness to the Victorian donors, today’s museum does hold ‘large and important collections of zoological, botanical and geological material,’ largely donated by late-Victorian collectors. Perhaps it wasn’t all old tat!