The Last Giraffe of Walworth

Opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth hosted a huge number of grand events; from re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and The Great Fire of London, to spectacular fireworks displays and hot air balloon flights. The gardens housed a large music hall as well as one of London’s first zoos.

The Zoological Gardens included a large circular domed conservatory at its centre which housed a pond of exotic fish and birds as well as cages of large carnivores, including lions and tigers. Feeding time was a big affair and keepers were known to tease the hungry carnivores to ‘put on a good show’ for the visitors. Other exotic animals such as pigmy elephants and monkeys were kept at the zoo which rivalled the equally new London Zoo at Regent’s Park.

In 1843 five young giraffes were purchased for the Zoological Gardens. Bred from captive giraffes in Africa, they were bought at just 6 weeks old and were hand-reared. Their journey to Walworth took them across Africa travelling for 35 days to Cairo. At such a young age it was too far for the young giraffes to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels for transportation. From Cairo they travelled along the Nile by boat. Passage to Britain was booked on a ship from Alexandria, however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. Once arrived in London the animals were walked through the streets, from the docks to the zoo, under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents. The giraffes, the first on public display in Britain, caused quite a stir – their “Nubian attendants” even more so, becoming celebrities in their own right.

Giraffes and their attendants (P02185)

The Cuming family visited various events, fairs and fetes at the gardens and saved posters, tickets and souvenirs as part of their growing collections. The only surviving souvenir from Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens is a lovely plaster of Paris model of a one of the young giraffes, which stands around 38cm high. This was added to the collection by Henry Syer Cuming in the mid-1800s.

However, in 2013 a fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall which housed the Cuming Museum. The model giraffe was rescued but sadly had been broken into six pieces, all of which were dirty and discoloured from the smoke and fire, as well as being water damaged in the aftermath. Along with other damaged items the giraffe was sent to Plowden and Smith for restoration.

After numerous trials conservator Francis Toohey decided that the most suitable way to clean the fragile surface was with deionised water and white spirit, applied with a moist cotton bud and immediately dried. It was very slow and delicate work.

Once cleaned, work could begin on putting the giraffe back together piece by piece. PVA adhesive was used to bond the fragments together again and small holes or missing parts were made up with a soft acrylic filler and plaster of Paris tagged with Barium sulphate. As well as referring to photographs of the model before the fire conservators also researched giraffe anatomy, paying particular attention to the shape of the skull, to ensure the reconstruction would be accurate.

As different fragments of the giraffe suffered different fates during and after the fire – some badly scorched or soot damaged, others more seriously water damaged – it meant that although the structure was once again intact, the damage was still noticeable. It was decided that while any fills would be colour matched as closely as possible the patchwork colouring of the different fragments would remain, conserving the damage caused by the fire as part of the history of the object itself.

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You can now view a 3D model of the reconstructed giraffe on Sketchfab.

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.

 

 

Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

A Brief History of the Cuming Museum

The Walworth Road 1799

In the late 18th century Walworth Road was not the commercial street of shops that we think of today, but lined with grand terraces of Georgian houses, much more in keeping with the style we now associate with areas of London such as Bloomsbury.

Henry Syer TN03705

Miniature of Henry Syer Cuming

Richard Cuming, and his son Henry Syer Cuming, lived in a part of Walworth Road which now lies between Manor Place and Amelia Street, and they had a passion for collecting.

Between them, during the late 18th and the 19th century, they acquired all kinds of objects from around the world – from Japanese shoes and ancient Egyptian amulets to a brown bear, purchased from the Leverian Museum in 1806. In An Introduction to The Cuming Family and The Cuming Museum author Stephen Humphrey describes the more local additions to the collection:

And all the time, father and son accumulated the printed and pictorial ephemera of everyday life – advertisements, catalogues, tickets and programmes, letters and circulars, and even the paper bags in which they bought their rolls from the baker – which have become one of the most compelling sources for local 19th-century history.”

 

CollectionHenry died in 1902 and left funds in his will to create a public museum, which opened above the Newington public library on Walworth Road near Elephant and Castle in 1906.

Camberwell Beauty LDCUM1985.003_1

Camberwell Beauty

Many local history objects have been collected, from the early 19th century right up to today, expanding the Cuming Museum collection and reflecting Southwark’s rich and diverse history, and its unfolding story.

In 2006, the museum opened new public spaces adjacent to Newington Library, on the ground floor of the former Walworth Town Hall. This new space housed regular events and changing exhibitions alongside permanent displays showcasing key items from the collections.

A fire in 2013 damaged the Walworth Town Hall and since then the museum has been without permanent display galleries. However, successful projects and programmes have taken place in locations around the borough. These include the Cabinet of Curiosity, our programme in Southwark’s libraries; Cuming Explorers, our early years offer, in conjunction with Inspire and Victory School; Natural Selection, our collaboration with artist Janetka Platun and Peckham Platform; and our most recent project with the MA Animation students at London College of Communication.

Past Projects

The Cuming museum will return to the former Walworth Town Hall building when it reopens in a few years. In the meantime, look out for consultation opportunities concerning the redevelopment and follow us here and on Twitter to get regular updates about our work and events.