Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Dennisons of Leeds: Pioneers of Penny Slot Machines

Curator Kitty Ross reveals the story behind the popular 1930s 'Murder in the Museum' penny slot machine at Abbey House Museum!

'Murder in the Museum' (1934 model made by Alice
and Eveline Dennison)

One of Abbey House Museum's star objects, the penny slot machine 'Murder in the Museum' has recently been restored to full working order. The comically macabre automaton is subtitled 'Who Killed the Man in the Chair?' and the suspects in this 1930s murder mystery include a woman with a large handbag, a man lurking behind a display cabinet and a man hiding inside the Egyptian sarcophagus.  

The Dennison dioramas and automatons 

The machine was made in 1934 at the height of the Golden Age of crime fiction and was the work of two Leeds sisters, Alice and Eveline Dennison.
The family association with macabre penny slot machines started with their father, John Dennison (1847-1924) who was born in Leeds. He displayed his first working his first working models, demonstrations of a drilling machine and a hand lathe, at the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition, which were well received by the public. He soon began building both mechanical fortune teller machines and working model dioramas for installation at exhibitions, fairs and bazaars. 

The French Execution, designed by John Dennison in 1894 and now
on display at Abbey House Museum (P
hotograph by Norman Taylor)

John Dennison 1917. (Copyright John

By 1884 John had a small exhibition (possibly already in Blackpool). His machines had melodramatic subjects, such as the Dying Child, Drunkard’s Delirium, Haunted Miser and of course the French Execution (now owned by Leeds Museums), pictured above.
John Dennison first exhibited in the old Aquarium in Blackpool in 1891 and he became a fixture in Blackpool Tower when it opened in 1894. It was a family business, including John’s brother William and his son George from his first marriage. 

The talented Dennison sisters 

The three daughters from John Dennison's second marriage, Florence, Alice and Eveline, started by helping their father with his models but soon began to develop ideas of their own. John Dennison valued their contribution and seems to have fiercely discouraged them from marrying out of the family business!

Alice Dennison (1890-1966) initially worked as a governess and then as a dress maker, and was the inspiration behind the costumes for the models. She also turned her hand to the machinery side of the business and was behind the decision to move from clockwork to electricity. 

Eveline Dennison (1896-1970) had been an art student who won a scholarship and she was the artistic one, intricately creating the models out of wood and clay. Their elder sister Florence seems to have been more in charge of the business of running the Blackpool enterprise.
Extract from Alice and Eveline Dennison's notebook

The Mechanics of Murder

The Dennisons left Blackpool Tower in 1944 and sold the machines to the Tower Company, from where they have been dispersed around the world. 

Quoted in the Blackpool Gazette in 1963 the Dennison sisters stated: 

“The most popular models we created were always those with a morbid flavour – “Supper with Death”, “Midnight in the Haunted Churchyard”, “Murder in the Museum”. Anyone who imagines that children prefer fairy stories are way off beam. During the 20 years we held the business we learned a lot about human nature”.

The cast of 'Murder in the Museum' in the Still Room at Temple Newsam House.
(Photograph by Danny Young of Target Productions)
You can try out 'Murder in the Museum' at Abbey House Museum, now lovingly restored by Robert Hind-Smith. An accompanying film which fleshes a live-action version of the story has been produced in collaboration with Target Productions and features local amateur acting talent. It can be viewed in the gallery at Abbey House museum, and also on the Leeds Museums You Tube channel

By Kitty Ross, Curator of Social History
(Unless otherwise stated, all photographs published here were taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and are licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA.)

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Secret Life of the Leeds Tiger

The Leeds Tiger over at Leeds City Museum is one of our best-loved exhibits, but how did it get here and was it really once a rug?  

Thanks to some amazing research by Ebony Andrews, (in her PhD thesis ‘The Biographical Afterlife of the Leeds Tiger’), we have the answers to some of these questions!

The Leeds Tiger came from Dehradun in the Himalayas. It was shot in 1860 by an Anglo-Indian Army Officer, Colonel Charles Reid of thje Sirmoor Battalion (2nd Gurkhas) and sent back to Britain as a prize specimen.

This tiger is rumoured to have threatened the local population and may have been shot as part of a cull. Former curator Henry Crowther wrote of it ‘having destroyed forty bullocks in six weeks and was considered so formidable that no native dare venture into the jungle where this noble beast reigned supreme’ in a 1906 guide book.

Preservation – from skin to mount

The tiger would have been skinned in the field and then more carefully cleaned, with the head mounted by a taxidermist. At this point, Colonel Reid sent the skin to London, where it was exhibited at the 1860 International Exhibition in South Kensington.

By 1862, the skin had arrived in Leeds, where it was presented to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society Building Committee. A local taxidermist, Henry Ward, was commissioned to shape the skin into a full body mount.

Emma, our Conservator, working on the Leeds Tiger.

It seems that Ward had a difficult task, as he wouldn’t have known exactly what the original tiger looked like. Researcher Ebony Andrews believed that the skin might have been trimmed after it was tanned, leaving missing sections underneath the tiger’s chin, neck and up all four legs.

Posing the Leeds Tiger

Henry Ward decided to present a ‘fearsome’ tiger, pinning the ears back, stretching the jaw wide and putting the claws out. We’ll never know for certain whether the Leeds Tiger really lived up to its dangerous reputation, but today it sends a shiver down the spines of visitors to Leeds City Museum.

By Jen Newby, Digital Media Assistant

Ebony Andrews, PhD thesis ‘The Biographical Afterlife of the Leeds Tiger’ (September 2009)

Work experience at Leeds Museums and Galleries

Every year, dozens of students do work experience with us. Here are accounts by some of them about their experiences of working with our team.

Adrian Derucki, Art & Design Student at Leeds City College

Placement: Leeds Art Gallery & Leeds Discovery Centre, 2016

I am a student at Leeds City College studying Art & Design, and I love art. From a young age I started to draw. I drew everything and anything. Since then I have got better and more intrigued by art and have experimented with using other art media. 

During my work experience I worked with the Learning team, which involved taking artworks into schools and working with young people and their teachers to think about and make their own artwork. As part of my formal learning experience I went to a primary school where pupils had to review an artwork and ask questions about it and to and answer the questions for themselves. They seemed interested and happy. I thought it was a good experience to see how they reacted to an artwork. 

 I helped to organise a gallery activity for children, which involved choosing some images (curating) to be used in the activity, speaking to and helping participants. I found it fun and interesting and observed that the kids were happy to take part. 

I also went to the Discovery Centre to learn about the Retail and Marketing department. There was a huge variety of interesting objects which I enjoyed as I learned about what Curators, security and marketing teams do there. Once I gained a bit of knowledge about the department I was able to design my own product that could potentially be sold in Leeds Galleries and Museums.

Overall my placement was a very fun and interesting experience. I have learnt things about myself I never knew and have been able to see different job activities that I had never heard of before. I think it is so important to try out new things as you can find something you really enjoy. Work experience is really good and useful for anyone’s future, it can be fun too.

How to get work experience with Leeds Museums and Galleries

Friday, 26 August 2016

Thomas Green, Member of the Friends Ambulance Unit - A WW1 Story

Amy, one of our youth curators has researched the story of Thomas Green, who served with the Friends Ambulance Unit in the First World War

Large amounts of our First World War archives are paper, or ephemera. This object is a certificate of wartime employment, given to Corporal Thomas Green. 

Serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit

This certificate states that Thomas, a former grocer's assistant, does not have to come and fight due to his essential war work. Green was part of the volunteer Friends Ambulance Unit. Perhaps he was unable to fight due to a medical condition, yet on the other hand, perhaps he chose not to fight due to moral or religious beliefs. 

Many Quakers, who did not fight due to their religious beliefs, served with the Friend’s Ambulance. This would have prevented social backlash. For instance many women would give men who were not serving white feathers to show that they were cowards.

Choosing a non-combatant role

However, we know that Green did serve as active member of the Territorial Force, part of the reserve army. He also took on a non-combat role here, with the Field Ambulance. Green was probably a conscript, because he took on the role in 1916, after the introduction of conscription. It is unlikely he would have volunteered at this late stage. In 1919, he was demobilised from the army.

This object is more interesting than it may first appear, due to the enormous impact that this simple certificate had upon Thomas Green.

By Amy, Leeds Museums and Galleries youth curator and Preservative Party Member.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Education in Victorian Leeds

Placement student Kaya Firth researched Victorian schools around Leeds

Playtime at Meanwood Road Board School in 1910.

The 1870s-1890s appears to have been a very popular time for schools to be built around Leeds. This relates to the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which enabled all children to have access to education between the ages of 5 and 13. It was also a way of ensuring that local councils had a School Board of Education in order to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. Leeds School Board was set up in 1870.

Green Lane schoolchildren, pictured in 1906.

One of the schools I managed to find out about was Green Lane School. Using the Triennial Reports of Leeds School Board 1891-1900 I found that it had opened on the 11th November 1874.

The school was enlarged in 1894 for an additional 630 pupils, plus a workshop and cookery room, at a total cost of £11,300 (over £670,000 in modern day currency). Sadly the school closed in 1982 and the building was later demolished.

A great source of information about historic Leeds schools was Leodis, then an online photographic archive run by Leeds Libraries. Users can share memories and information about the images and there are some brilliant reminiscence stories of old school teachers, which helped to shape my own ideas of how many of the schools were run in the mid-20th century in particular.

By Kaya Firth, Placement Student at Abbey House Museum, History Student at Leeds Trinity University

WW1 Leeds timeline

Stephanie Webb reveals an online timeline charting key moments in Leeds' First World War history 

During the centenary of World War One, the Leeds Museums young curators group, the Preservative Party, has been committed to researching and commemorating the sacrifices made by the people of Leeds. We have created WW1 Leeds, an interactive Facebook timeline documenting the story of the city during the war.

Our research has revealed that Leeds and its people made a significant and varied contribution to the war effort both at home and overseas.

The WW1 Leeds timeline covers many different themes. One area is the military, covering recruitment and conscription and the experiences of the Leeds Rifles and Leeds Pals.

The Pals suffered terrible losses in the Battle of the Somme. On 1st July 1916, 24 officers of the Leeds Pals took their men over the tops into No Man's Land. At the end of the first day of the battle, only 17 of 900 men answered a roll call. 750 men had lost their lives and the battalion was all but decimated. Across Leeds, hundreds of grieving families closed their curtains in mourning. It is said that after the Somme, every street in the city had at least one house with its curtains drawn.

Personal War Stories

One of the aims of WW1 Leeds is to reveal the individual war stories of people from Leeds. We want to bring out the personal experiences as well as the overall events and statistics. One of the stories we follow is that of George Sanders of the Leeds Rifles. Sanders received a Victoria across for courage and leadership shown during the Battle of the Somme. Later in the war, he also earned a Military Cross and also spent some time as a prisoner of war.

Leeds and wartime industry

The timeline also covers the contributions and sacrifices that were made on the home front. Leeds was a key industrial centre, manufacturing, for example, munitions, aeroplanes, blankets and uniforms.

One of the most notable factories in Leeds was the Barnbow munitions works. Over 3 years, 36 million cartridges and over 24 million shells were produced at Barnbow. Barnbow's workforce of 16,000 people was 93% female. The so-called 'Barnbow Lasses' were well paid for their vital work, which was highly dangerous. Indeed, many of the women made the ultimate sacrifice.

During the night shift on 5 December 1916, the women in room 42 were filling 4.5 inch shells when a machine malfunctioned. A massive explosion killed 35 women. Such was the secrecy surrounding the work at Barnbow, the incident was covered up and the women were merely listed in the Yorkshire Evening Post as 'killed by accident.' It would be 6 years before the truth was revealed.

Lotherton Hall - convalescent hospital

Leeds also became home to many convalescing soldiers. Several military hospitals opened in the city, including at Beckett's Park teacher training college, which was given over to the War Office and treated 57,200 soldiers between 1914 and 1918. Country houses also became hospitals, including 2 Leeds Museums and Galleries sites. Temple Newsam housed recovering officers, whilst Colonel Gascoigne of Lotherton Hall insisted upon his property providing for other ranks.

Given the city's wide contribution to the war effort and its significant losses, it is little wonder that the announcement of the Armistice prompted mass celebrations. 40,000 people gathered at the Town Hall where fireworks were let off. Over the course of the war, from the 82,000 Leeds soldiers, 10,000 men had lost their lives.

Try out the WW1 Leeds timeline!

You can discover more wartime stories and experiences by visiting the WW1 Leeds timeline. Scroll through the years to explore the different themes. Like and follow the page to receive regular updates about centenary stories and projects on your news feed.

Why not share your own stories on the WW1 Leeds timeline? Please get in touch by posting on the page, sending a private message on Facebook, or emailing You can also connect with us on Twitter @PresParty.

Meanwhile, you'll find 'In Their Footsteps', a major temporary exhibition on WW1 Leeds, curated by the Preservative Party, over at Leeds City Museum until the end of 2016.

If you are aged between 13-24 and would like to become a youth curator, please email

Monday, 8 August 2016

Leeds Remembers: How the local community filled the museum with poppies

On 1-2 July 2016 the Brodrick Hall at Leeds City Museum was filled with poppies to remember those who lost their lives during the Battle of the Somme, and all the lives affected by the First World War.

©D’arcy Darilmaz
Thousands of poppies cascaded from the upper seating, down onto the giant map of Leeds. These poppies were red and white, reflecting remembrance as well as peaceful resistance to war. If you look carefully, you’ll see some shamrocks too, echoing the Irish roots of many soldiers from Leeds.

©D’arcy Darilmaz
Over 45 groups from across the city made the poppies. Many of the makers were people who are living with dementia – spot the really large poppies they made! One member of Peer Support was inspired to create this beautiful embroidery:

Inkwell Arts and Groundwork Leeds got sculptural creating these beautiful clay poppies:

In the days running up to the installation packages of poppies arrived from schools, day centres and individuals. One person made this beautiful poppy, showing Private Jogendra Nath Sen. Private Sen studied at the University of Leeds and joined the Leeds Pals in 1914. He was killed on 26 May 1916, from wounds to his neck and leg after an encounter with the enemy. His friends said “he was the cleverest man in the battalion”.


Another poppy included a beautiful poem that looks at the relationship between families and remembering:

I write this poem
to all the people
who died. and protected
us and didn’t even
fus. while you
were in the          
horrifying trenches

we sat on our
benches hoping you
would be safe
and sound and
hold your

and still fighting
till the end and
not being DeaD.
hoping you will
be next to me
in befo Day
After Day

even when it was
your birthday i
made a cake
with sauce

Remember when we met
at the lake when
you bought a
fake toy. Boy was
it funny the
teddy looked

Like bugs bunny.
I would tell
safe that daddy
would be
home and
you could

play with hime
then and both
act like a
ten years old
boy. So
Me and safe are missing

From Khabeer Fusev.

As part of the process, Curator Lucy visited several groups and schools, discussing the meaning of poppies and the effect of war on Leeds. East Leeds SILC made a heart-shaped arrangement of poppies, sewn and felted by hand by the class. One student said they’d struggled with the idea of poppies and remembering war, until they realised that “remembering is just loving”.

©Kirkstall Festival

On 8 July the poppies moved the Chapter House at Kirkstall Abbey for the Kirkstall Festival.

We’d like to thank all the people from across the city, including:

Agnis Smallwood
Alexander House
Apna Day Centre
Armley Grange Day Centre
Armley Mills Close Knit Friends
Bramley Elderly Action
Bramley War Memorial
Calverlands Day Centre
Calverley Brownies
Carr Manor Community School
Castleton Primary School
Cedars Care Home
CHIME with Leeds Irish Health & Homes
Cookridge Holy Trinity CE Primary School
Crossgates Brownies
East Garforth Primary Academy
East SILC Temple Moor Partnership
Elsie Ayre
Frederick Hurdle Day Centre
Groundwork Leeds
Holt Park Day Centre
Holy Trinity Church, Meanwood
Ingram Road Primary School
Inkwell Arts – Take Over Café & Craft Café
InterACT, Church & Community Partnership
Laurel Bank Day Centre
Leeds Concord Interfaith Partnership
Little London Arts
Middlecross Day Centre
Middlecross Residential Home
Morley Library
Peer Support Service for People Living with Dementia
Pool-in-Wharfedale CE Primary School
Rothwell Primary School
Royal Armouries
St Gemma’s Day Hospice
St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School
St Matthew’s CE Primary School
Suffolk Court Residential Home
West SILC at Farnley Academy
Westborough High School
Wetherby High School
Wheatfields Day Hospice
Whitecote Primary School
Wykebeck Day Centre
Zest Health for Life
… and many other anonymous donors

How to get in touch:

If you would like to contribute to the display in the future or would like them displayed near you, please email

By Lucy Moore, Projects Curator at Leeds Museums and Galleries

Friday, 5 August 2016

Appeal for stories of the 2015 Leeds Floods!

Red oblong metal plaque, reads "December 27th 2015 Flood"
Plaque commemorating the December 2015 flood, at Armley Mills

This December will be the first anniversary of the worst floods in Leeds for many years.

Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, a site heavily impacted by the floods which happened on and after Boxing Day 2015, will be hosting a community exhibition to commemorate the event at the end of the year. We are looking for your stories and pictures to complement our existing collections.

Photograph of the clean-up at Armley Mills after the floods in 1946
Previous floods such as the ‘Great Flood’ of 1866 have been recorded through the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries, and this is something we are once again keen to do following the 2015 floods.

Share your memories of the Leeds floods!

  • Were you affected by the floods?
  • Did you take any photographs of the affected areas?
  • Would you like to share your memories of previous floods in the Leeds area?
  • Were you involved in the clean-up operation?
Particular areas of focus are around two of Leeds’ museums affected by the flood, namely Thwaite Mills Watermill in Stourton, and Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, both of which due to their location along watercourses were badly hit by the rising water.

We are also interested to hear about your experiences from other areas of Leeds, and any photographs that you may have taken of the event.

Please contact Chris Sharp, Assistant Community Curator at Thwaite Mills and Armley Mills, by emailing if you would like to be involved in the exhibition.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Giving the Leeds Ichthyosaur a Face-Lift

Something large and very blue, with a lot of issues, came into the Conservation Studio in April 2015.  Some items can be conserved in a short space of time, others need a little more time spent on them and some can be a labour of love.

The Ichthyosaur lives down in 'dinosaur alley' at the Leeds Discovery Centre (our museum store) and was initially chosen to go out on loan. Unfortunately, this did not happen but it meant that it could come in for some sorely needed conservation work.

Icthyosaur dinosaur skeleton, framed with a very blue background.
The Ichthyosaur before conservation (LEEDM.B.1843.4)

1. Paint-stripping

As you can see the background was very blue, the in-painting was noticeable and there was underlying damage. My first course of action was to strip the paint back to see what was going on! We used a steam cleaner, scalpel, a very small sander and a lot of hard work to do this.

Ichthyosaur dinosaur framed with the blue paint now removed, leaving behind a grey stone matrix and lots of old infill.
Ichthyosaur after the paint layer was removed

2. Discovering what lies beneath

Once the layer underneath the paint was revealed a number of problems were spotted. There were numerous cracks, missing pieces of bone that had been damaged in antiquity and various types of materials had been used to infill different areas.

Once this was documented the work could begin on stabilising and repainting the fossil.

Ichthyosaur dinosaur framed with bright white filled in areas.
Filling all the gaps
3. Filling in the cracks

A conservation grade type of Poly-filler™ was used to fill in the cracks and stabilise the fossil. This can easily be carved and sandpapered down lie flush with the surface.

Once these areas had been in filled and left to dry the surrounding matrix needed to be coated with a paint layer.

Ichthyosaur dinosaur framed with the background now painted a neutral grey colour.
The background is painted

4. In-painting and colour-matching

After two coats the in filled sections of the fossil needed to be in-painted.  This needs a steady hand and a good eye for colour-matching. We tend to use pigments rather than paints, but it is dependent on the material.

The rule is six feet away you do not notice but six inches up you can clearly see the in-painted section.

Ichthyosaur dinosaur framed with the frame stained mahogany.  The finished article.
The Ichthyosaur is finished!
5. The finishing touches

Nearly there, just the frame needed varnishing and a deep mahogany was chosen to complement the blue grey paint.

I hope you'll agree the finished article, which has been in conservation for one year and three months, looks a lot better than when it started its journey with us.

Emma Bowron, Conservator

(All photographs within this blog were taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and are licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA)

Quest for Information on a Shoemaker’s Last

The fairytale ending to my brief time at Abbey House Museum

Holly Roberts, work placement student,
pictured at Leeds Discovery Centre

As a placement student I have had a chance to experience a brilliant range of aspects of heritage and curatorial work. But one thing which has consistently impressed me (and no, despite his wow-factor, it is not the striking juvenile Giant Squid, who hangs, impressively from the rafters of the Leeds Discovery Centre store) but it is simply the unfolding of the history of objects through research. 

I particularly like researching very mundane objects (yes, you can sigh) because often, paradoxically, they have the most intriguing and familiar stories to tell.

In line with the upcoming Fairytale exhibition (at Abbey House) I was to work on the Elves and the Shoemaker story, which involved getting hands on with a fairly enormous plethora of shoemaking tools and equipment. It was a fairly rusty, dirty iron shoe last buried amongst many other nondescript lasts and other shoemaking equipment which grabbed my attention. 

This Last, however was branded in enormous letters 'LION'. After a clean-up I thought to investigate, where did this giant hunk of rusty metal come from and what life had it had?
Lion Foundry shoe last
(Photograph by Holly Roberts for Leeds Museums and Galleries )

From Glasgow with love
To find anything at all from the word LION was of course going to be a struggle, but after a while, estimations of manufacturing dates and variation of the name I discovered THE LION IRON FOUNDRY. The Lion Iron Foundry was established in 1880 at Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, by the firm of Jackson, Brown & Hudson. 

The foundry went from strength to strength, employing one twentieth of the population of the Burgh of Kirkintilloch by 1910 but its earlier works in the late 1800s were less impressive, manufacturing railings, gates and other largely mundane items, most likely when our unassuming last was created. Into the twentieth century The Lion Foundry began to take on more ambitious projects such as bandstands, tram and bus shelters. Developing a fine reputation from 1900-1914 the foundry was involved in large constructional ironwork projects in cities all over the UK.

The Surprise
County Arcade, Leeds, decorated for the Royal Visit 1908

On further investigation, quite poignantly on the final day of my placement, I discovered that the Lion Iron Foundry, with its humble beginnings in the wilds of Scotland had a very impressive Leeds link! What are the chances? The Lion Foundry supplied and erected the highly ornamental roof trusses, domes and balcony railings of the incredibly beautiful and ornate Leeds County Arcade. 

As reported in the Kirkintilloch Herald of 29 November 1899, ‘A BIG ORDER – We are gratified to learn that the Lion Foundry Company have been successful in securing a large English order that will ensure a briskness in certain departments for months to come. It is an arcade for Leeds, in which ornamental castings will play a large part.’ To my utter surprise, my rusty old shoe last had led me to uncover a hidden history!

So on the very last day of my exciting and fulfilling placement with Abbey House Museum the faith in my rusty old iron last had paid off. This hunk of Glaswegian metal, sat on the desk in front of me had a story! A fantastic and very surprising link to a significant part of Leeds heritage. 

Even the most unremarkable of items, lost in the sea of an extraordinary collection, are truly worth exploring.

More information on The Lion Iron Foundry can be found on the East Dunbartonshire Leisure & Culture Trust website 

By Holly Roberts, Work Placement student from Lincoln University 

(All photographs within this blog were taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and are licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA)