Friday, 24 June 2011

An architect uncovered (and the story of a successful placement)

My name is Archana Kapoor and I have just finished a three week placement at Abbey House Museum.

I have very much enjoyed my placement here at Abbey House. It was a great opportunity to increase my experience of working in museums. I had had a brief experience of working in my local museum in Wolverhampton, but the length of the placement hardly allowed for much work. At Abbey House it has been the opposite! I have been involved in such a wide range of activities and tasks from cataloguing images and text on TMS, preparing web texts, measuring and scanning photos, dusting items at Discovery Centre, to researching in trade directories. Such a range of work has given me a different insight into the world of museums and curatorial work. It is not only continuous but also extremely flexible. I have found it also requires good social skills. I was a bit taken aback when I asked to attend a buffet lunch (for volunteers) on my second day, but I found that I enjoyed meeting different people and began to feel part of a team. I was very grateful for the help and advice that Kitty and Nicola gave me, especially during the first week, but also (and perhaps more!) the interesting conversations we and other staff had about their work and historical issues in general. It gives out a signal of enthusiasm, which made the placement even more enjoyable.

Similarly, each task I was asked to do I enjoyed - even the dusting! It was something new that I hadn't even thought of as being part of a museum job before, the work that goes into creating a profile on TMS and in addition it tested my flexibility as well. What I valued more as an historian, however, was the work done with primary sources, something which does not happen as much in my course. I did find though that the method of researching for my degree helped in my placement. Trade directories, censuses, newspaper archives and National Registry information were all used in the work I was set.

One of the tasks I really got stuck into was finding out about the man behind the drawing tools (see picture at the top)! Having quite literally just a name to go by, I soon found that Thomas Howdill had had quite a brilliant career as an architect and popped up every now and then in the newspaper announcements. Again, trade directories and newspaper archives were used, and I was delighted to be able to see the drawing instruments themselves when the donor brought them in this week. It was a thrill for to me to see the link between the information on paper and a physical link to the person I was researching. It is this element of my placement, which has flown by, that I value most, and which is something my course had not quite introduced me to. Because of this, and because of the kindness of the staff, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself here at Abbey House.

Archana Kapoor, History undergraduate student at Leeds University.

The drawing instruments have just been donated to the museum by Mr Woods from Pembrokeshire who was given them as a boy by Mr Howdill (Mr Wood's mother and grandmother cleaned for the Howdill family). Thomas Howdill designed among other buildings the Oxford Place Chapel and Brudenell School in Leeds.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

There’ll be dancing in them there streets…

Two months ago, if someone had asked me about the most unusual way my research had been used, my answer would probably have been rather unexciting - for use in an exhibition or an essay. If someone asked me today, my answer would be very different...

Over the last few months, a team of dedicated museum staff along with volunteers and members of different Leeds communities have been frantically preparing for a summer of 'Dancing in the Street' - the next special exhibition to arrive at Leeds City Museum from next month. It will be looking at carnivals and celebrations, focussing on four very different Leeds events - Otley Carnival (18th June), Bramley Carnival (17th July), Leeds Pride (7th August) and the Leeds West Indian Carnival (29th August). However, rather than simply collecting and curating souvenirs and memories, the team leading the exhibition had a dream - a dream where Leeds Museums and Galleries would not just spectate, but would participate in these events.

To start with it sounded easy - a group of people would make a few costumes and enjoy some fun (hopefully) in the sun. But, it quickly became clear that there was going to be a lot more to it. I wasn't involved in the original planning of the exhibition, but have been to a fair few carnivals around Leeds, and was gently coaxed by Helen Langwick, Curator of Exhibitions at Leeds City Museum, into taking part. I dutifully attended the first information session, but with my dislike of dancing and wearing costumes, I really wanted to find a way to help behind the scenes. My opportunity came when Hughbon Condor, renowned carnival costume designer, told us about his vision for the costumes.

For those of you unfamiliar with carnival etiquette, there are showpiece costumes designed to wow the audience, and troupe costumes that are usually themed to match the big costumes. In our troupe there are going to be two main costumes. One is based around Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, and the objects and treasures in our collections. The other is the Leeds 'His-tree' - a tree made up of leaves using a selection of images to reflect the history of Leeds. The other members of the troupe are split into two different groups - the saplings who support the 'His-tree', and a group wearing historical costume to demonstrated the wide range of historical sites and objects our collections represent.

My job, on the surface, sounded easy - find pictures representing the history of Leeds. Once I began, it quickly dawned on me what an enormous task it was. Firstly, where do you start? As Assistant Curator of Leeds and Social History, I am used to looking for stories in the unlikely, often overlooked places. I didn't want to miss anyone or anything out - but there are only so many leaves one carnival costume can support. I spent several afternoons trawling through a wealth of images - firstly from our own collections and then on the fantastic (Can I just add a massive thank you to the staff at Leeds Libraries for all their help).

But how on earth do you pick key events over such a long period that will give something for everyone?

In the end I started thinking about the events and people I already knew about. It was important to include modern events and images as well as those long since past so that everyone at the carnivals would see something familiar and that meant something to them. It must be noted that, at this stage, I still had little idea of what the finished costume would look like. This made it especially tricky to visualise which images would fit well. My next step was to speak to people I knew had been in Leeds for most, if not all of their lives, to see if they could think of anything I hadn't. I then tried to fill in a few gaps as there were some great suggestions that we didn't have the images to support. (Another thank you goes to the Leeds office of the West Yorkshire Archives Service).

Once I had compiled a rather long shortlist of images, it was out of my hands until they arrived printed and ready to turn into a 'his-tree'. However, the rest of the troupe have been working extremely hard, giving up evenings and weekends to make the vision come alive since then. I went along to their penultimate workshop last Saturday, and was really impressed with the almost finished article. The residents of Clarence Dock had no idea what had hit them when the troupe were marching and dancing up and down the Discovery Centre car park in full costume - taking instruction from 'Dancing Debbie', charged with the task of coordinating everyone's routine - with some typical West Indian Carnival music booming out from a stereo on the steps! There were still lots of bits and pieces to do, but it was the first time I could truly imagine how all my research would fit in and what it would look like.

If you fancy coming and having a look at the finished articles, you can either see the troupe taking part in the four carnivals over the summer - or when we're not off 'Dancing in the Street', you can see them as part of the Special Exhibition at the City Museum running from 22nd July 2011 until January 8th 2012. The first carnival date os Otley this Saturday (June 18th 2011). Please come and support us and see for yourself what the 'His-tree' of Leeds has to say.

For more information visit our website - or come and find us at one of the carnivals!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The first UK telephone call

This mysterious looking polished wooden object (one of a pair) is actually part of the equipment through which the first ever telephone conversation passed in the United Kingdom. Its significance might have been lost for ever without the remains of an old museum label which stated that it was an "early telephone receiver" made and donated by James E. Bedford. Unlabelled this would have probably remained as an unregarded "mystery object" in the museum stores.

In 2010 we had an enquiry from a descendent of James's brother Charles S. Bedford asking to see what was reputed to be "the first telephone in made England" and were able to locate it and start to understand its significance, but the evidence was still just anecdotal. Earlier this month we received a letter from George Rudram, a volunteer at Amberley Museum in West Sussex which helps shed light on the claim and enclosing a copy of an article in "The Telegraph and Telephone Journal" from April 1933.

The article is based on an interview with Mr Charles S. Bedford, Managing Director of the Leeds firm of Wood & Bedford, manufacturing chemists:

"In 1876, he and his brother the late Mr James Edward Bedford, later to become the first Lord Mayor of Leeds in the Great War period, were two youths interested in all kinds of mechanical contrivances. To assist them in their hobby, they perused among others, the periodical "Scientific Americans". From it they were vastly intrigued by a description of Graham Bell's new invention, the telephone, and they immediately decided to make two replicas.

A suitable piece of beech was first obtained and by turning on a lathe the frames of two telephones were evolved. Mr. Charles Bedford has rather poignant memories of this lathe, for he states that he provided the necessary power, whilst the future Lord Mayor performed the more skilled operations. For the next stage a bar of steel 2 feet long and 5/8 inch diameter was obtained and cut to the desired lengths. The pieces were then bored and tapped for an adjusting screw, and magnetised.

The diaphragms were made of thin ferro-type plate and were very similar to the modern type. The coils were made of fine wire wound round bobbins, the latter being fixed to the bar magnet and the two ends of the wire coils led out to terminals at the other end of the magnet. A wooden cup, bevelled in the centre similar to the present receiver caps, was fitted by means of screws, and the combined receiver-transmitter was ready.

Bell wire was run on pot insulators from the attic to a workshop about 30 yards away in the grounds of their residence, Sycamore Lodge, Woodhouse Cliff, Leeds. The internal leads to the instruments were of gutta-percha covered wire.

Although no batteries were used, speech could be heard quite plainly at the first trial after a preliminary adjustment of the adjusting screws.

The first conversation over the line was:-

"Are you there?"

"Yes, I am, will you count?"


"That's all right. Will you go through the alphabet."


"Wait a minute while I adjust the screw."

The new telephone was an object of interest to all the friends of the family and many were the demonstrations given in the evenings."

The original instruments were donated to Leeds Museums by James Bedford in the early 1920s.

It appears from the chronology that James and Charles Bedford just managed to make their replica telephone before Graham Bell patented his invention in England. Bell had been granted his US patent in March 1876. The Bedford brothers first tried out their version in October and Bell was granted his English patent in December. Bell's telephone was first officially exhibited in England in August 1877 to the British Association at Plymouth and was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in January 1878.