Janus: the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year

By Wes White, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

On Tuesday 17 January we featured the first ‘Museum on the Move’ at Canada Water Library. Each month we’ll present a themed collection drawn from the Southwark Heritage collections. Original documents and artefacts from the Cuming Museum will be on display, freely available for visitors to see and swap thoughts about in the library, while artworks are shown on a big screen above.

Temple of JanusMy theme for January was Janus – the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year; after whom January is named. He is famous as the god with two faces – one looking into the future, and the other on the back of his head peering into the past. Janus might not be an ‘A-lister’ in the Roman pantheon, being less well known than figures with planets named after them like Jupiter, Mars and Venus; but even so he was a significant figure in Roman mythology, and the Cuming collection actually features a number of objects directly related to him. These come in the form of coins bearing his likeness; and even one showing his temple, from the reign of Nero. The story of Janus’ temple tells that its gates stood open when Rome was at war, but closed in times of peace – and they were rarely closed.

Also featured in the display were some press cuttings sourced from Southwark’s Local History Library and Archives about New Year celebrations in years past; particularly from the year 1900. I picked out that year to look at because of the significance of the turn of the century, only to find myself reminded by the Bishop of Rochester that technically the new century would have begun in 1901.

And considering that New Year’s Eve is famously such a busy time for the emergency services, I was also surprised to find a story called ‘Firemen at Play’ describing the Fire service’s own New Year’s Eve party – it finished up, predictably, with some of them having to get changed out of their party gear to tackle a fire…

Because Janus stood at the threshold of the New Year, he was also the god of all kinds of crossing-over points and doorways. This gave me the opportunity to feature some of the Cuming collection’s keys in the display. Those included a surprisingly small and humble key to Marshalsea Prison (which several visitors thought looked just a bit too easy for the pirates and smugglers the prison held to copy), and a far bigger, heavier, 13th century key to Bermondsey Abbey, which stood until the reign of Henry VIII. The Abbey is widely thought to be the reason that the area is known as ‘The Blue’ – as the colour represented sacredness.

By far the oldest thing on display this month was a fragment of an even older belief system than the Roman myth that Janus was a part of – a fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes. This and other Egyptian artefacts came to the Cuming collection via the explorer James Burton in the 1830s. So, why would there have been a false doorway in a tomb? It was false only to the living: this was the door that the departed spirit was supposed to step through, into the next world.

Fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes

The next outing for the ‘Museum on the Move’ will be at Canada Water Library on Tuesday 14 February, 2pm to 4pm, and you might be able to guess the theme from the date! It’s Valentine’s Day – come and check out an exploration of romance down the ages.

Historic Peckham

Southwark’s historic villages: Peckham

Peckham appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a very small settlement of just four households – one villager and three smallholders. There was enough farming land to plough with a single team of eight oxen, as well as two acres of meadow. The Tenant-in-chief was the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was Lord or tenant-in-chief to over 30 places in Surrey at that time. Though Peckham was only small in 1086 its mention in the Doomsday book shows that it was a respected and established settlement.

Valued at 30 shillings, Peckham was owned by King Henry I who gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The Earl later married the heiress of Camberwell, uniting the two properties under royal ownership.

Hard as it is to believe today, but in the early 13th century King John was thought to have hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that having killed a stag he was so pleased with his sport that he granted the inhabitants of Peckham the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week-long event at its high point and included wild beasts and birds newly imported from around the world as well as stalls and curios. The Cuming family were known to visit the fair in the early 1800s and purchased items, such as small toys, which became part of the Cuming Museum collection. The fair developed quite a boisterous reputation and it was finally abolished in 1827.

 

Peckham grew in favour as a residential area and in the 16th century it became home to some quite wealthy people. Sir Thomas Gardyner owned Basing Manor, close to the corner of Peckham High Street and Rye Lane, and wrote of the extensive orchards and gardens nearby which he owned or had access to. With the lack of refrigeration, food had to be grown close to its final market and Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep. Exotic fruits such as melons, figs and grapes were all grown here, some ending up on the royal table. The success of the Peckham farmers is still remembered today in the naming of ‘Melon Road’ just off Peckham High Street.

Painting of Basing Manor (GA01722)

Peckham was an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their livestock to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in local hostelries, such as the Kentish Drovers.

By the end of the 17th century Peckham was home to around 120 households (a population of 600-700). Although still officially a hamlet some documents from the time refer to ‘Peckham Town’. While this may have been to distinguish Peckham from Peckham Rye, the choice of town rather than village may reflect the increasingly urban character of the area. The population continued to grow over the 18th century and was recorded in 1792 as 340 households (1,700-2,000 people).

Partly due to the poor condition of the roads, a Peckham branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built. The plan was to take it to Portsmouth but it never went beyond Peckham due to lack of funds. The canal entered the Thames at Surrey Commercial Docks and originally carried soft wood on barges for construction. Some timber merchants are still located alongside its course.

Grand Surrey Canal Basin – Peckham Branch (PC00155)

Though the majority of Peckham’s residents were employed on the farm land there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard and poverty was all too often the reality for many.

The peaceful country life of Peckham continued to change. In 1833 the South Metropolitan Gas Works opened on the Old Kent Road, which meant some local roads were lit at night, but it was to be many years before most homes had gas.

In 1851, fourteen years before Peckham Rye station opened, communications and travel from Peckham were improved when Thomas Tilling started a horse drawn omnibus service. Unlike most of his rivals Tilling’s horse drawn carriages picked up passengers only from pre-arranged stops. This helped his services to run on time earning them the nickname of “times buses”.

Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses; another fifteen years later he had nearly 1,500. In 1888 he experimented with using pneumatic tyres designed by Dr John Dunlop on some of his carriages. His horse drawn services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed for the war effort.

Thomas Tilling Bus Company (P09166)

As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. As the 19th century drew to a close the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments.

To preserve some greenery in the area Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 to be maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. The common proved so popular with residents and visitors that it became increasingly overcrowded on holidays and it was felt that an expansion was needed. Homestall Farm sat alongside the common and was purchased for £51,000 to be opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. And with the sale and closure of the farm the tradition of farming in Peckham drew to a close.

We will continue our look at Southwark’s historic villages in future posts. Next up: Historic Camberwell.

 

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.

Cuming Museum: On Loan

While you can often see items from the Cuming Museum on display in other museums, we also loan objects and artworks to organisations which, for various reasons, will not be putting them on display.

Our Hawaiian feather cape was originally collected on Captain Cook’s third voyage. It is kept at the British Museum’s stores as they have the right conditions for this very fragile object which is too delicate to display.

We also have two items on loan to the V&A, an embroidered coif (close fitting cap) and a pair of linen gloves, which are used in their textile history research.

Little was known about one of our early Italian Renaissance paintings until it was sent to the National Gallery for identification.  On discovering that it is a rare example of work by the artist Nicholas di Pietro, the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute agreed to clean and conserve the painting.  The intention is to display the final result but in the meantime it continues to be stored by the National Gallery.

Nicholas di Pietro Painting (C01234)

Research into objects and materials, as well as their conservation, helps build the body of knowledge we have about artefacts and culture.  We will keep you updated, here on the blog, about future projects which see items from our collection going out on loan to other museums and organisations.

Cuming Museum: On Display

Although the Cuming Museum doesn’t have its own permanent display gallery at the moment, it is still possible to see items from the collection on display in other locations.

We often loan out parts of the collection to other museums. This can be for a temporary exhibition of a few weeks, or could be a longer term loans for a number of years.

You can see 120 items from the Cuming Museums ethnographic (people and cultures) collection on the ground floor of the Saffron Walden Museum, Essex.

One of our Roman funerary urns is on display at the Cater Museum in Billericay.

If you visit the music gallery at the Horniman Museum in South London, you can see a little ceramic whistle in the shape of a horse from our collections.

Sceaux Gardens ceremonial key (LDCUM1983.002.003)

For the next few days you will be able to see various items relating to Camberwell, Southwark, on display in the library. This includes the commemorative key for the opening of Sceaux Gardens, a Shire horse medal which was presented to Camberwell Council for their working horses and a Camberwell  Beauty butterfly.

When items go on display at locations in Southwark, London or further afield, we will keep you posted here on the blog.

 

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.