Celebrating Vote 100: Part 1 Suffragists in the Southwark Art Collection

By Curator Judy Aitken

On 6 February 1918 the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act by an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons (385 for and 55 against). This Act was one of the major milestones of a long and sometimes violent struggle for representation.

Wealth and class have had an impact for centuries on the right to voice opinion and, in formal democracies, to vote and, indeed, to be elected to represent people. Until the 20th century your right to vote depended on your social class and your gender.  In 1884 the right to vote was extended from 30% to 60% of all adult men, based on property and other rights.  It brought many more men from poorer backgrounds into the democratic voting pool. But women’s voting rights continued to be severely restricted.

The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 gave some single women the right to vote in local elections only – and for this they had to qualify by living in a rated property and having paid rates for a year. Married women were specifically barred from voting, as they were considered femmes couvertes. The Local Government Act 1894 confirmed single women ratepayers the right to vote in local elections, and extended it to married women ratepayers, except a husband and wife could not both qualify to vote through residence at a single property. Where both were qualified, the man got the vote.

That is not to say women were not part of the political scene or campaigning social life.  Women actively took part in or drove many social reforms and improvements during the 19th century and early 20th century. But the one perhaps most contentious was the women’s right to vote, known as Women’s Suffrage.  The history of this campaign is long and full of both peaceful and forceful action on both sides, from campaigning women, from men supporters of the campaign and from those who resisted the demands. The women, above all, suffered a great deal as a result of harassment, attack, imprisonment and state-sponsored repression, with their treatment in prison little different from outright torture.

The violence lessened during the First World War, as everyone focussed on the war effort and women became more and more involved in occupations and responsibilities on the home front which had previously been only for men.  The war in effect gave women the chance to demonstrate to detractors that women could play a vital role in society beyond domestic life.

The passing of the Representation of the People Act is often seen as a “reward” to women for their contributions during the war.  It was certainly a little surprising given the massive resistance up to 1914.  However many people now think this takes away from the role of the suffragists and the result owed more to their effort and sacrifices than simply to a benevolent gift.

In truth the Act was only one of many needed to bring women into full political involvement.  The 1918 Act gave the vote only to women of property over 30 years old. About 22% of adult women over 30 did not have any property and could not vote.  In contract the Act increased the male vote to all men over the age of 21 (or 19 if the man had been on active service in the armed forces). However compromised the victory was hard won and was a huge step forward.

Southwark had its own organisations and campaigning heroes.  The United Suffrage Women’s Club opened at 92 Borough Road in November 1914 and continued to campaign during the war.  You can read more on this blog written by contributor Johnl.

Southwark’s archive and museum collections have only a small amount of suffrage related material. However, the borough’s art collection, formerly at the South London Gallery and managed by Southwark Council, also has several artworks by significant campaigners for women’s suffrage including Bertha Newcombe and Charlotte Elisabeth Babb.

Bertha Newcombe (1857-1947) attended the Slade School of Art in 1876. It is believed that she was one of the first women artist to train at the school. Following her successful arts training, Newcombe was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, Fine Art Society, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and Society of Women Artists, among other esteemed exhibiting societies. In 1888 she became a member of the New English Art Club.

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The Goatherd by Bertha Newcombe (1857 – 1947)

Newcombe was highly influenced by the artist Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) and also by other artists associated with the Newlyn School. She was romantically involved with the playwright George Bernard Shaw and painted a series of portrait studies of him in her studio at 1 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the spring of 1882.

Newcombe was a strong advocate for women’s rights, in particular their right to suffrage. She became a member of The Society of Women Artists, The Society of Lady Artists and The Artists Suffrage League; a collective of female artists who produced artworks and posters for the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign.

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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Charlotte Elizabeth Babb (1830 – 1907)

Charlotte Elizabeth Babb (born Peckham 1830, d. 1906) was a female artist and sister to John Staines Babb, a mid nineteenth century decorative painter who is also represented by the Southwark Art Collection. Babb spent much of her career campaigning for equal rights for women, in particular their right to suffrage. In 1859 Babb started campaigning for the admission of female students to the Royal Academy schools and resulted in her own admission in 1861. Babb was among the first female students at the Royal Academy Schools. Throughout her career Babb exhibited widely with arts societies including the Royal Society of British Artists, the British Institution and the Society of Women Artists, among many others. She was a frequent exhibitor at the Dudley Galleries from 1862.

Babb produced oil paintings and watercolours in a typical Pre-Raphaelite mode and with a strong emphasis on female figures and associated subjects (such as the Annunciation and story of Saint Cecilia). Babb was also associated with the decorative Arts and Crafts movement through established figures such as ceramic pioneer William de Morgan. Babb’s fairly accomplished yet loosely Pre-Raphaelite style enabled her to migrate over the more stylised Aesthetic Movement will relative ease. It was within this more decorative art territory where Babb produced large commercial paintings directly onto ceramic tiles (which were made by Minton).

Babb exhibited works at the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) Manchester City Art Gallery (1881) and also the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, USA (1893). Her paintings and drawings remain mostly in private collections. The Southwark Art Collection holds the only known publicly owned oil painting by her.

To find out more about the Vote100 commemorations taking place during 2018 visit the Vote100 project pages.

In addition as part of their regular talks series, Southwark Cathedral is having a day of talks devoted to women’s history on Saturday 24 March 2018.

More tales from the Mystery Object Group

by Wes White, Library Development Officer

Canada Water Library’s Mystery Object Group brings together creative individuals for sessions focused on one or more objects from the Cuming Museum, and other artefacts of local historical interest. The aim is to foster creative responses to the featured artefacts, and we share some of the outcomes on this blog.

Rotherhithe Pottery

The most recent group session was our second field trip, this time to the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library at Sands Film Studios. (To see outcomes from our first field trip, to see the press at the Printworks building, see our previous update.)

This field trip was part of November’s ‘Illuminate Rotherhithe’ celebrations. The Picture Library had a display about the 17th century Rotherhithe Pottery, which operated on the site of the old King Edward III mansion house. This and other potteries along the banks of the Thames often involved people who had moved here from the Netherlands, and they produced ‘English delftware’ using techniques made famous in and around the Dutch town of Delft. Cuming Museum curator Judy Aitken brought a selection of such English delftware found in Southwark.

Water Sprinkler

October included half term week and as a result we welcomed some children into the group to study a replica 16th century ‘water sprinkler’. We were all fascinated and somewhat bewildered by this device, which would have been used to wet dusty floors for sweeping. Placing or removing a thumb on the hole at the top would instantly stop or release the flow of water – although, as you will see in the writing, it seemed to the group to be a bit ‘over-engineered’. Seemingly these sprinklers were very popular hundreds of years ago, however, so they clearly made sense to our ancestors…

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Hops Warehouse Lantern

For many years, and well into the 20th century, the hops trade was a big part of the economy in Southwark. In September we had some examples of the trappings of the trade, including a sample packet of hops and a large candle holder. This lantern had spikes which would have enabled workers to secure it in the bags of hops – the group’s first impression of the device was that it looked vicious rather than practical, which again has certainly influenced our writing here.

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The ‘Veedee Vibrator’

The sexual connotations in the name of this bizarre-looking medical device are misleading. This and contraptions like it were sold in the late 19th and early 20th century as a kind of mechanical panacea – purported uses included treatment for rheumatism, gout, insomnia, tumours, constipation, deafness… the list goes on, but you get the idea. The ‘Veedee’ part of the name is thought to be a reference to the famous Latin idiom ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ – presumably on the basis it would ‘conquer’ any illness it came across. Tempting while it might be to think that the manufacturers also hoped to hint that the vibrator would also combat venereal disease, the term ‘VD’ in that context only came into usage in 1920, some years after this was on the market.

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Roman Southwark

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

For more than 2000 years, Southwark has been a place of settlement, business and trade.  The Romans established a foothold on the south bank of the Thames shortly after establishing their city of Londinium on the north bank from around AD50.

This southern location, around present day Borough High Street, then grew into a major “suburb” feeding the new trade and travel routes to the South coast and thrived under nearly 400 years of Roman rule.  Sites and artefacts have been found all over Roman Southwark helping us to build a picture of this fascinating period.

Roman Cinerary chest lid (C15232)

The Cuming Museum has over 600 items of Romano British archaeology in its collections, some dating from the earliest days of archaeological excavation.  Early digs in Egypt tended to be focussed on excavating treasure for profit, rather than intellectual understanding and most found their way to traders.

Richard Cuming, the founder of the collection, would have purchased or traded for curios from these digs.  Henry Syer Cuming, his son, was much more interested in archaeology as a discipline.  But even so was keen to take items given to him by workmen who were themselves “excavating” London for new roads, embankments, tube tunnels and other developments.  Henry tended towards Roman British finds rather than Ancient Egypt and there are a large number of small, often personal artefacts from all over London.

The rest of the Cuming’s archaeology collections come from digs during the 20th century.  Professional archaeologists such as Kathleen Kenyon, who went on to make her name as one of the world’s foremost archaeologists in places such as Jordan, carried out extensive excavation of sites around Borough High Street.  Look out for a blog about her soon!

The Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Excavation Committee (SLAEC), which continues to this day, also carried out extensive excavations of sites.  Much of the material came to the Cuming Museum as the nearest place of repository.

However, in the late 20th century the main place of repository for archaeological excavation material was the Museum of London.  The Cuming’s collections still contain large amounts of material from Kenyon’s and SLAEC’s digs however, and we are working with Museum of London to review it all.

Roman Hunter God statue (C15236)

London Borough of Southwark still supervises major digs in the borough, along with professional archaeology companies such as Pre-Construct and Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) as the north of the borough in particular is rich in archaeological evidence.  Companies who want to build or alter premises have to have an archaeological survey carried out and if there are finds then work can be paused in order for archaeologists to record and preserve the sites and any material.

“Pots and Prayers” is a new free exhibition at Morley College, giving a glimpse of Southwark’s Roman story by showcasing from the collections of the Cuming Museum.

It will run from Wednesday 1 March to Wednesday 19 April 2017 and will be in the college’s main foyer.

Events during the exhibition run include talks, walks around Roman Southwark and creative workshops. Families will be able to make Roman mosaics, try a toga or create a Roman city.

While the exhibition only scratches the surface, you will be able to learn a lot more during Morley’s 10 week Roman London course, starting Wednesday 26 April 2017.

Amazing Aeronauts

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Throughout our history we humans have been fascinated by the idea of flying and have admired and venerated the creatures which can do this with ease.

Great Montgolfier Balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1838.

Hot air balloons were our first successful flight technology capable of carrying humans.

Although tethered and unmanned attempts were made for centuries beforehand, people only managed to sustain a proper balloon ‘free flight’ in the late 18th century when in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers managed to get their balloon, manned by fellow Frenchmen Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlande, to fly untethered at around 1000 metres, for 10 minutes.

It seems this act had as big an impact on the popular imagination of the time as the moon landing did in 1969. Balloon images were everywhere, in clothing, jewellery and endless prints of the feat.

But while NASA took some time to send the first women into space, the first lady balloonists started appearing only a year after the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon first flew.

In 1784 Elisabeth Thible made a voyage in a hot air balloon that was to spark a forty year popular obsession with women “aeronauts”.  Women like Jeanne-Genevieve Labrosse, Elisa Garnarin, Sophie Blanchard, Lizzie Ilhling Wise, Wilhelmine Reichard, Carlotta (Mary) Myers, Leila Adair, the fabulously named Leona Dare and Mrs (Margaret) Graham all took to the skies, many in solo flights.  These women became famous and celebrated although very few are spoken of today. Most were doing it for thrills, many became world-wide sensations, some were doing it as stunts with their male partners and some, like Wilhelmina Reichard, were also undertaking scientific experiments.

Sophie Blanchard was the most famous of these and her tiny, timid and bird like character apparently completely changed once off the ground.  She toured alone and was highly successful until a fatal crash in 1819 ended not only her life but also some of the audience’s taste for ballooning – although it surged again in later years.

Female balloonists were famous across France, Germany and America, while Britain’s own sensation, Mrs Margaret Graham, was making a splash nearer to home.

I first came across references to this lady in posters in our collections for events taking place in Walworth at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.  Mrs Graham claimed to be the only English female aeronaut, which might have been true, but her posters also claimed she was the “only female aeronaut in Europe” which, given the number of other ‘balloonistas’ at the time, was probably poetic licence.

Mrs Graham's balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1837.

As a skilled self-promoter she knew a good story when she saw one and wrote thrilling accounts of her exploits, including the time when, just as she was touching down, a man with a lit taper came up behind the balloon and accidentally set fire to it.

Margaret Graham at first worked with her husband in their joint balloon ascents but by the 1840s he had all but stopped.  Mrs Graham carried on alone, occasionally accompanied by one or more of her seven children, especially her daughter Alice.

Balloonists risked life and limb, particularly as they were fond of setting off fireworks from the balloon cars once in the air, which, although spectacular, seems unwise.  Balloons were filled by attaching to gas valves and Mrs Graham recounts “filling up” at Lambeth gas works before a flight – which sounds a hair-raisingly risky operation.

Mrs Graham had her share of accidents, including one which caused her to miscarry, but she often turned these to her advantage as she used the danger to promote the next flight after her recovery.

Unlike many of the intrepid balloonists she lived a long life and died peacefully in bed well into her seventies.

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After the fire

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building.  The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.

All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them.  The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects.  Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.

In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.

Cuming Museum displayLike most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions.  The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.

Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators.  Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job.  Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare.  So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm.  For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.

Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job.  They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.

The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire.  It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.

When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke.  However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged.  The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.

The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires.  It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere.  It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.

Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display.  The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.

So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.

Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.

Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.

Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections.  People either love it or hate it.  Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.

Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum.  This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road.  The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.

Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.

In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.

Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them.  However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them.  In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.

Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.

 

 

Weighing of the Heart

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

At this time of year the heart is everywhere: on a card, represented in chocolate or even on your sleeve.  The Ancient Egyptians, however, saw the heart not as a romantic symbol but as the key to getting into heaven.

Egyptian death rituals demanded that most organs were removed from the deceased and preserved in jars along with the mummified body so that they would serve a function in the Afterlife.

The heart and the brain were treated differently.  The brain was thrown away, as it wasn’t thought useful (some days I’m sure we can all sympathise with that).  But the heart was preserved and put back inside the body cavity. In some cases an amulet in the shape of a heart or other important symbol would serve if the real heart was damaged or decayed.

Ancient Egyptian Heart AmuletAncient Egyptians regarded the heart as the most important organ of all.  For them, it was the seat of memory, intelligence and emotion. But, crucially, the heart was also the passport to the Afterlife.

After death the souls of the dead would be judged and the successful were admitted into heaven.  The unsuccessful would be erased from memory, a terrible fate.

The judgement took place through the “weighing of the heart” ceremony.

FeatherFirst of all the dead soul, on arrival at the entrance to the Afterlife, would have to undertake rituals and state their case for acceptance.  Then the god Anubis would take them to the Hall of Maat and weigh their heart against the weight of a feather.

If the heart and feather balanced then the dead person was judged to be good and passed into a happy eternity.

If the heart outweighed the feather then it was judged to be heavy with guilt due to all the bad deeds the person had committed in life.

That soul was then cast away to oblivion.  The god Thoth recorded the verdict in his book and the heart of the bad person would then be eaten by Ammit, the “gobbler” goddess. Part crocodile, part lion, part hippo, she sat by Thoth ready for a meal.

So whether this Valentine’s day finds you with a light or heavy heart just think: Anubis might be watching and Ammit might be smacking her lips for a chance of a snack!