Friday, 26 September 2014

Mrs Montagu and the Chimney Sweeps

Towards the end of my internship here at the Leeds Discovery Centre, I have been focusing on the numerous boxes of books that form a substantial part of the Henry Collection of ‘sweepiana’ (anything and everything to do with chimney sweeps). 

 The collector, Dr. Henry was an avid and extremely thorough (some might say, obsessed) collector, with many books containing just a single reference to chimney sweeps or sweeping. The majority of the collection I have been documenting spans the 18th and 19th centuries and it is fascinating to delve into these books and magazines to catch a glimpse of the different facets of English society as it was back then. Many of the publications include beautifully crafted engravings, some of which (in the more expensive editions) were then painstakingly coloured by hand using watercolours.

One of the books I came across early on in my internship, was a volume entitled Mrs. Montagu 'Queen of the Blues'. This book lacked the usual handwritten note by Dr. Henry on the inside, indicating a reference to sweeps contained in the volume, and this omission left me wondering why it was included in the collection. A little research unearthed a story that started in York, ended in London, with wealth, philanthropy, personal disaster and rumours of a kidnapping worthy of any Hollywood drama, sandwiched between.

Elizabeth Montagu (née Robinson), was born to wealthy parents in York, moved to London after her marriage, and there hosted a group of intellectuals who became known as the 'Bluestockings'. This group included several prominent and powerful members of society and they would meet regularly In Mrs. Montagu's house and discuss and debate the issues and politics of the day. The hostess herself enjoyed a reputation for holding her own during these debates, not an insignificant feat considering the general position of women in society at that time. Elizabeth Montagu must have been a formidable woman indeed.

But where does the link between Mrs. Montagu and chimney sweeps come in? Right where the rumours of kidnapping abound... According to several (all slightly differing) accounts, a young nephew of Elizabeth Montagu’s disappeared one day. Sometime later, she hired a chimney sweep to come to her house, and who did the poor, dirty urchin whose job it was to crawl up that narrow, sooty tunnel turn out to be? None other than her own nephew who had been kidnapped and forced into labour! How accurate this story is, may never be known, but what is certain, is that Mrs. Montagu provided a May Day breakfast feast for chimney sweeps every year until her death in 1800.

I can imagine that May Day morning scene; a group of young boys, scrubbed as clean as they have been all year, sitting in Elizabeth Montagu’s beautiful garden, stuffing down as much food as their bellies could hold before heading out excitedly to take their part in the May Day celebrations – the only day’s holiday for the sweeps in the whole year.

Elizabeth Montagu undoubtedly played an important part in changing some of the attitudes of society at that time, showing compassion to those less fortunate than herself, and raising awareness in the upper class circles she moved in, of the plight of child chimney sweepers.

By Izzy Bartley, Social History Intern.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Passenger Pigeon - 100 Years On

September 1st 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), a stark reminder of the destruction humanity can inflict on the natural world.

It is estimated that when Europeans first arrived on the coasts of North America, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant land bird in the country, with numbers ranging from 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – accounting for over 25% of the entire bird population. For over two hundred years, there were dramatic accounts told of the dense clouds formed by migrating Passenger Pigeons, blacking out the sky for days at a time with flocks a mile wide.

Passenger Pigeons would migrate around the country, moving whenever weather conditions or food availability became unfavourable, settling down in forested areas to roost. The roosting sites were often massive; though no accurate data was collected, estimates place nesting sites as covering many thousands of acres. One report of a site in Wisconsin estimated the roosting area to cover 850 square miles, housing over 136 million birds.

The decline of the Passenger Pigeon:
Passenger Pigeons had always been used as a food source by both Colonialists and Native Americans, however this had no real effect on the massive populations. The real damage started in the 1800s, when professional hunters began to trap the birds for sale at the town markets. Because of the dense populations found at nesting sites, Passenger Pigeons were captured in the hundreds of thousands – young birds were knocked out of nests with sticks, and burning sulphur fumes used to daze the birds so that they fell to the ground. 50,000 birds a day were killed over a period of five months at one of the last large nesting sites in Michigan, 1878. Those that survived were quickly tracked to their new nest sites by hunters and killed before they were able to raise young.

By the 1890s the bird had almost completely disappeared. In 1897 a bill was passed asking for a 10-year ban on the hunting of Passenger Pigeons – unfortunately the damage had been done by this point. The success of the Passenger Pigeon depended on its large numbers, as massive flocks were relatively unharmed by predators and adverse conditions, whereas the few surviving individuals were simply picked off.

Martha: the Last Passenger Pigeon:
There were not enough birds left to recover the species, despite numerous attempts with captive animals – a common problem we’re facing with many endangered species today. The last known Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1st 1914 at 1pm. Martha was mounted and is now preserved in the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

What can we learn from the Pigeon's fate?
The attack on Passenger Pigeons by humans was two-fold – the slaughter certainly hastened their extinction, though it is likely that they were doomed by the deforestation that swept across North America. The lesson of the Passenger Pigeon is a poignant one that we shouldn’t forget, and is a reminder that the destruction of a species should not be allowed to continue until they appear on the ‘critically endangered’ list – by that point it may be too late to undo the damage.

Today, the only way to see a Passenger Pigeon is by visiting a museum, as fortunately specimens have been saved by 19th century collectors. These skins and mounts are the last remnants of a once thriving species and must be preserved for future generations to appreciate – museums provide access to extinct and endangered species for education, research and to satisfy (and enhance!) curiosity.  If you’d like to see a Passenger Pigeon for yourself, why not visit Leeds Museum Discovery Centre to see one of the seven specimens in the collection?

Glenn Roadley, Trainee Curator of Natural Science