Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Matthew Murray's Beam Engine

On 27th December 2015, along with many nearby homes and business, Leeds Industrial Museum suffered its worst flood since records began. As part of the clearing up process it became increasingly clear that one of the badly affected ground floor storage areas at the Museum held an object in several pieces that had some question marks hanging over its identity. Following the initial clean up of the residual silt and flotsam washed into the museum site, we brought in specialist industrial machinery contractors to begin the process of treating the objects hit by the Boxing Day deluge.

By one of those strange co-incidences that seem to be a daily occurrence in working with collections, around the same time we had received a request from BBCs Antiques Road Trip to film any objects we had relating to pioneering Leeds engineer Matthew Murray.  Murray is probably best remembered for his achievement in developing what is widely regarded as the first commercially successful railway locomotive in the world for the Middleton Railway. 

A search of our collections database revealed several items including a brass lubricator recorded as having a connection to a beam engine by Matthew Murray 'at Queen St, York'.  An exchange of emails with the National Railway Museum revealed that the beam engine in question was listed in the catalogue for the Queen Street Museum, a predecessor to the current National Railway Museum.  The entry made interesting reading, especially its mention that the engine had powered sawmilling machinery at the Great Northern Railway carriage repair workshop at Kings Cross station engine shed.

Matthew Murray's model of 'Salamanca', the first locomotive to run on Leeds' Middleton Railway, patented in 1811

This key reference gave us more to go on.  Further database and file work led us closer to the probability that the large cast iron components lying in our ground floor store were indeed the engine designed by Matthew Murray.  Delving into the files, the journey of the object was confirmed.  This was indeed Murray's engine.  In 1966, as the displays at the old Queen Street museum were being prepared for clearing - and no space had been allocated at the new Leeman Road Museum - British Railways contacted Leeds Museum.  Curators at Leeds were initially reluctant to acquire the engine and little further happened until 1972, when on being asked for a second time, they agreed to accept the engine. 

Fast forward to 1979, and Leeds Museums finally took delivery of the object in question. Frustratingly, the files go rather quiet in recording what was being done with the engine following its arrival at Armley Mills, however it was clear that it had been at least partially erected for display.  Just as frustrating, next to nothing was recorded of the engine being dismantled again, presumably in order to improve a blocked access route.
In yet another co-incidence, on the first day of public opening after the flood, we were visited by a Mr Paul Murray Thompson with his brand new book 'Matthew Murray (1765-1826) and the Firm of Fenton Murray (1795-1844)'.  We were able to show the beam engine components to Paul, which set him on the trail to track down more details of the object's history.  Amongst the evidence gathered by Paul was an article from the Yorkshire Evening Post from 1926 highlighting the engine's 115 years of continuous use.

In July, as part of the post-flood action plan, we moved the Murray beam engine components from their previous location to a dry and secure store and laid the components out in a way that would help explain the construction of the object.  Up to this point, no usable image of the beam engine in its erected state had been traced.  However, as part of another project, Chris Sharp, our recently appointed Assistant Curator of Community Engagement, has just identified a good quality image of the engine - probably dating from the early 1980s - in its largely assembled state.

The four vertical columns of Murray's beam engine in their new store
Sections of the Beam Engine in their new store

Re-assembling the engine to display condition is undoubtedly likely to be a long and complex process.  But we have made great strides in a short time in firmly identifying the object, securing good storage and pulling together contextual material to enable us to set about the task as resources allow.  The name of Matthew Murray, one of Leeds most innovative engineers, is currently enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. We hope that Leeds Industrial Museum can make its contribution to telling his story.

The Murray beam engine in near-assembled state at Leeds Industrial Museum, probably in the early 1980s


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Museum Outreach: The power of interesting things

Learning Officer Andy reveals how museum objects can become part of the recovery process for children in hospital

At my last visit to the Leeds General Infirmary Learning zone, where I do museum outreach with children who are in hospital long term, I had one of my best experiences so far as a Museum Learning Officer.

I spend time with the children in the learning rooms, if they are able to make it, and then go to the wards with objects and do bedside sessions with those children not able to make it.

One child, A, was leaving the hospital to go home that evening. The staff from the Learning Zone said that he was 13 years old and had challenging behaviour and profound learning needs. They told me to explain carefully how he was to behave round museum objects. I felt some slight trepidation. When we got to the ward he was not there, then we heard loud screaming.

“That’s A, having his IV removed” said the staff member with me. My trepidation became a little more than slight at this point.

When A came back to ward he was clearly upset and crying a lot. The first object I showed him was a kaleidoscope, he had not seen one before and was mesmerised by it. The crying stopped instantly! He politely asked if he could look at the other objects I had and was very gentle with them without me having to explain how to handle them other than saying that they were very old and please be careful with them.

Andy (centre), pictured at Leeds Discovery Centre
He was very taken with the printing block from Hunslet Locomotives, being a 13-year-old boy and into trains. I explained that we have a museum in Armley with trains. As we were high up and had a good view out the hospital windows to the east, I pointed out the spire of St Michaels Church and tracked left to where Armley Industrial Museum is, “There is the museum. Why don’t you visit with your mum when you feel up to it,” I said. He ran off to tell his mum, and that was the end of that session.

From worrying that this session was going to be a challenging one to in fact being one with a polite, attentive and gentle child I put down to the power of interesting things. I am a firm believer that handling interesting things can aid in the recovery of many ills.

Andrew Kyrover, Learning and Access Officer, Leeds Discovery Centre

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Burn time: Light related objects

Pamela Crowe explores light conditions and objects linked to lighting in the museum store

In-store arm-waving illustrated by the author
The Discovery Centre is a purpose built museum storage facility with regulated temperature and humidity. It is also windowless so that we can control how much light the museum objects are exposed to. 

Any visit to the store usually involves a fair bit of arm-waving at the motion-triggered light sensors located throughout (see photo). These lights are on timers, eventually returning the store to darkness when the humans have left. 

Here, light is rationed, not just to save energy but because light exposure can significantly damage the objects within. In the Store, we have the luxury of choosing how and when we use light, we understand how to control it and can instantly illuminate or choose darkness. 

Searching the store and researching the collections is about giving as many items as possible a small spotlight – even if only briefly. It’s tricky to merely toe-dip into an object’s story and then quickly retreat. You feel you must stay for the duration, ask questions, look closely, ask more and look again. You have to allow it into the light long enough for it to glow a little.
This was the premise for my search today: I return to a particularly ill-lit passageway between the costume and ceramics cabinets in zone 4, scrutinising shelf after shelf in the semi-gloom. I look not so much for oddities but for the unremarkable. 

Shelf 2, Cabinet 12, Zone 4. Semi-gloom

I’m trying to re-train my eyes to see those artefacts that have no ego, the wallflowers that avert their gaze as mine skims past. I half-pretend my errand has an intrepid purpose, like Dorothy in Disney’s Return to Oz, tasked with three guesses for the true object in the room of antiques.

The 'Fairly' Fairy Lamp

Amongst a shelf of colourful glass I fix focus on a small amber cup with a diamond cut design in the glass. In our museum database it is described as a “Fairly lamp” which throws me initially. What is a “Fairly”? This turns out to be a typo, revealed when I go back to the real object and see the words “Prices Fairy Lamp – Glass Empire made” written on its underside. 

Two minutes of googling later and a whole world of Fairy Lamps has opened up. We would call them night lights or tea light holders now. This one (pictured below) dates from around 1900-1910 and was a very ordinary little object, mass-produced in a variety of shades (blue, green, red, amber) and intended to promote sales of Price’s candles.

Price's Fairy Lamp, night light holder c.1900-1910
Price’s Patent Candles Company began trading in 1830 and helped transform candle production away from a small workshop based enterprise with the wax chandlers and their apprentices overseen by the ancient City Livery Companies into production on an industrial scale. They revolutionised candle production by replacing traditional tallow and beeswax candles with a new Stearine candle made from a composite of refined tallow and coconut oil. Tallow candles, made from animal fat, were low-cost but smoked and smelled.

In contrast, beeswax candles were expensive and could only be afforded by the Church and the wealthy. Candles made from Stearine fat burned cleanly and brightly and were much cheaper to produce making them available to far greater numbers. Domestic light could be marketed to the masses, light became considerably more affordable and the impact on non-daylight hours must have been great.

Within twenty years of start-up, Price’s had become a household name and by 1900 were producing over 130 types of candles: candles for pianos, photographic darkrooms, carriages, dining rooms, ballrooms, nurseries, candles to deter intruders, edible candles for desperate explorers on expeditions and the army, candles for bedrooms, double-wick railway signal candles, miner's candles, beeswax candles for the Catholic and Anglican churches and smokeless candles to sit under shades.

The 'Servant's' Candle

Of all these I am most struck by the servant's bedroom candle. Distinct from the standard bedroom candle, it burned for only 30 minutes. It starkly illustrates the place of light as a commodity, the ownership and manipulation of which exposed and reinforced social hierarchies. If light gave liberty then that liberty could be rationed and controlled. Access to brighter light, longer light, cleaner light reflected social status and the opportunity to move more freely and productively, more socially through the darker hours. 

Servants typically received coals, bed and candles as part of their terms of employment but were instructed not to use their 30 minutes of light for reading. Later, when gas and electric lighting began to replace candles, employers could choose to install wiring so that servants' lights could be switched off remotely at their own, not the servants' convenience.

In our huge Store, I contemplate the small candle holder, sat light-less in the Glassware cabinet. Across the floor, high up in cardboard boxes in Zone 3 lie its counterparts, the candles. Most, unburned but held in appreciation, like so much here, of what they once represented. 

By Pamela Crowe, Volunteer Tour Guide and Blogger at Leeds Discovery Centre 

Store Tours
Come and explore our collections at the Leeds Discovery Centre every Thursday at 11am and 2pm in our Store Tours. For more information about visiting our store, please contact us on 0113 378 2100, email or visit our website. 

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