Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Walter Meeson's dulcimer

Every so often a family history enquiry comes along that sheds new light on objects which have been sitting quietly in the museum collections. When Howard Beck contacted us to see if we still had a zither belonging to his ancestor Walter Stainton Meeson I was able to show him not only the instrument in question (actually a dulcimer - which is similar to a zither, but the strings are struck by hammers), but also a photograph and the bronze medal and certificate he won for making it. In exchange, Mr Beck has provided a full biography of the man we previously only knew as W.S. Meeson of Leeds.

It turns out that Walter was born in Stockton-on-Tees, son of a master brush-maker and beer retailer. We don't know how he gained his musical education but he seems to have been living in Shoreditch, London in 1888 where at the age of 22 he married his first wife Eliza Elizabeth Nockles. This is also the year in which he made the dulcimer and entered it into the Workmen's Industrial Exhibition held at the People's Palace for East London on Mile End Road. It won him a bronze medal.

The plaque on the dulcimer reads "W.S. Meeson, Leeds" and he was certainly living in the city by 1911 when he appears at Oban Villas, 89 Leopold Street in the census. The dulcimer is specifically mentioned in his will and was passed to his son Harold Meeson. Walter had made his living as a music teacher, musical instrument maker and piano tuner and died a wealthy man in 1928.

Quite what inspired him to make a dulcimer is unclear. The instrument originated at least 2000 years ago and was popular in the middle ages. It is the ancestor of hammered keyboard instruments such as the pianoforte. Dulcimers are commonly used in the folk music of eastern Europe but are also played in the traditional music of Wales, East Anglia and Northumbria.

The dulcimer is currently at the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Hinton House bed project: conserved inner valances installed

Three of the original silk damask inner valances were in good enough condition, such that with expert textile conservation, undertaken and supervised by Caroline Rendell, they could be re-united with the tester. Cleaning, consolidation of lifting fibres, infilling of losses, and netting have made these three valances presentable, and they have just been installed.

Posted by Ian Fraser

Soapy Joe's sewing machine

With well over a hundred sewing machines in our collections we generally no longer accept them, although I receive several offers a month. So what made us want to collect this one? And what could it possibly have to do with soap!

Although it was not made in Leeds (it is a Jones model, made in Manchester) this sewing machine was given as a promotional prize by one of Leeds' most successful companies, Joseph Watson & Sons, often affectionately referred to as "Soapy Joe's". Printed prominently in full colour is the following: "Presented with the Compliments of Joseph Watson & Sons Limited, Whitehall Soap Works, Leeds, Competition 1906".

Joseph Watson & Sons were one of largest soap manufacturers in the country and their leading brands were Watson's Matchless Cleanser and Venus soap. They employed about 750 people and were producing six hundred tons of soap a week in 1893. However they were in a very competetive market with well-known rivals such as Pear's, so needed to have inventive ways to publicise their brand. This sewing machine was one of the top prizes in a newspaper advertising campaign to promote Watson's soap. Customers were encouraged to save and send in their soap wrappers, with the best prizes going to those who sent in the most. The top prize in 1906 was £50 cash and there were 500 of these Jones' hand sewing machines (valued at £6) on offer. Every customer was sent something, even if just an unspecified "consolation prize".

The company did not have an entirely clean reputation. As well as soap, the company also dealt in oil, resin, tallow, animal skins and hides, some of which caught fire in 1892 at their warehouse under the Dark Arches. The company's waste helped to pollute the river Aire and one of their less household-friendly products was dynamite!

The sewing machine is on display at Abbey House Museum for the next few months, part of a small display of objects acquired by the museum during 2010 and 2011.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dealing in Shells

Since February I have been undertaking a natural history internship documenting a significant collector's mollusc collection which contains over eight thousand shells . . .

. . . over eight thousand shells from across the globe, collected over a lifetime of devotion to Conchology which now reside in the grand stores of the Discovery Centre in Leeds.

Who could have possibly amassed such a collection of molluscs?

The answer to that question would be Sylvanus Charles Thorpe Hanley (1819-1899).

But who was he and how did the collection come to rest in Leeds?

How did he move from the halls of Wadham College, Oxford, studying humanities to becoming a leading author on mollusca? Although there is little documenting Hanley’s personal life we do know that after inheriting a fortune at a relatively young age he was able to focus all of his energies on a sixty year career of collecting and discovering molluscs. Resulting in him publishing the first book on shells using the then new technique of photography. Hanley not only collected extensively for himself but also corresponded frequently with many other naturalists of his time. Even acquiring several specimens of the now extinct, Unio, for fellow naturalist Issac Lea.

After his death in Penzance, 1899, the collection became the property of his nephew Mr Crew Hanley. After this inheritance a significant portion of the collection types then found their way into the hands of the British Museum via the means of a shell collector known as H. Harvey. Following this there was a period of silence concerning the collection before it emerges again during the 1930s as a donation to the Tolson Memorial Museum in Huddersfield, and finally being transferred to Leeds in 1957.

Although little is known of Hanley as person it is evident from his work on mollusca that he was a driving force in the natural history world, willing to collaborate with anyone if not working alone.


Posted by Clare but written and researched by Kate Hollier (biology intern, Spring 2011) who worked diligently on the wonderful Hanley shell collection held at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.