Volk Heroes: Heritage Learning gets Inventive

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©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a bit of a rail travel buff. In fact when I moved to Brighton just over a year ago and found that the Volks Railway (the world’s oldest electric railway, established in 1883) was pretty much on my doorstep, well I won’t say that it was the deciding factor in picking my flat, but I’m happy to admit that it was a definite plus point!

So when I heard that the museum was involved with a Heritage Learning project on the Volks Railway inspiring primary school children to imagine and design alternative modes of seaside transport, naturally my interest was piqued.

Magnus Volk

Cartoon depicting Magnus Vollk from Brightonian magazine, 17 November 1883.

 

Magnus Volk was an extraordinary inventor. Today he’s remembered just as much for one of his creations which did not stand the test of time as for his railway, which remains a popular summer seaside attraction.

The Daddy Long Legs was a remarkable folly, a boat-like structure which ran on rails 23 foot high above the seabed (and along tracks set some 18 feet apart) between Rottingdean and Paston Place. Unsurprisingly the ingenious contraption was beset with technical and financial problems and – despite being completely rebuilt once after a serious storm lashing –  it was eventually scrapped four years after it debuted in November 1896.

Postcard showing 'Daddy Longlegs', early 1900s. Shows seagoing rail car on stilts heading west from Rottingdean to Brighton. Brighton beach and cliff top in background.

Postcard showing ‘Daddy Longlegs’, early 1900s

Now all that remains of this amazing invention are the concrete foundations, still visible at the Rottingdean end when the tide is out. Volk was also responsible for installing electric light in the Royal Pavilion, hence the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ connection with this equally imaginative education project.

The project, which started in September, was the initiative of Heritage Learning Brighton, and a collaboration between Royal Pavilion and Museums, STEM Sussex, Brighton Toy & Model Museum and of course the Volk’s Railway itself. Heritage Learning exists to provide local schools with a great choice of partners to work with on similar initiatives, including Brighton Fishing Museum, the West Pier Trust and the Regency Townhouse, among others.

Pupils from five local primary schools were treated to a ride on the railway, the start of their ‘magical mystery tour’ in search of a mysterious top hatted lady in possession of a golden ticket. Printed on the ticket was their mission: to take a tour of the Volk’s workshops, learn what being an engineer entails, and set to work designing their own innovative transport prototypes.

The project was designed to promote values such as ‘innovation, invention and perseverance’ and the results unveiled at a special exhibition in November were an impressively creative and colourful showcase of models, taking in such diverse and forward-thinking concepts as a wind propelled big wheel, a sail powered car, a glass bottomed submarine – and the wonderfully-named Disco-Bobulator. Collected together they resemble a set of designs for a less destructive version of Robot Wars.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

VERA Vice Chairman Peter Williams commented that ‘a wonderful display of imagination has been shown in this challenge. The children spent the day with us and have really grasped the concept of what an engineer does. Most importantly of all, they’ve learned the true meaning of the word ‘perseverance’, which is something which Volk would not have succeeded without. Hopefully we’ve planted a little grain that they can take with them.’

The results of their perseverance and imagination were unveiled at a special Celebratory Day, where BBC broadcaster Nick Owen rewarded the school groups with certificates for their efforts.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

The children clearly enjoyed the project too. One said:

‘I liked all of it, from start to finish. From making the model to seeing it in the museum and getting a gold star for best model from St Marks Primary.’

The past, present and future seemed to collide perfectly with this project which shows how much fun you can have while learning some new skills.

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

©Tony Mould: My Brighton and Hove

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

A Curious Night at the Booth Museum

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Stag heads at the Booth

Well I could not have hoped for a better start to my exciting new post as the third Blogger in Residence for Brighton Museums than a visit to the Booth Museum of Natural History, where I squeezed in for a sold out evening event, A Curious Night of the Slightly Strange.

For most of the attendees, the event was a bit of a trip down memory lane, the museum familiar to them from school trips, but being a recent incomer to Brighton this was my very first visit. A chilly night not long after Halloween was certainly a suitable time to be inducted into this twilight world of stuffed birds, lizard skeletons and thousands of pinned and mounted creepy crawlies.

The first thing I noticed were the stuffed brown bears in the entrance hallway. There’s nothing remotely cuddly about these critters who stand opposite each other, baring their fearsome teeth in reproach, which very much sets the tone of the museum and its approach to capturing nature.

Stained glass panels Booth Museum

Just beyond the well stocked shop are a set of beautiful stained glass panels (artist unknown) which originally lived in Court’s Furniture Factory until they were donated to Brighton Museums in the early 1900s, and an impressive row of antlers surveying the scene from the wall above, like the lobby of an especially industrious hunter.

The next thing you’re likely to notice are row upon rows of large white wooden framed glass display cases housing the museum’s 300+ bird specimens. I was startled by the sheer size of many of them, so accustomed as I’ve no doubt become with seeing them through the scale of a television screen.

We were issued torches and encouraged to sketch specimens for a display of ‘death drawings.’

Eagle and lamb

The Booth’s great strength is that it presents nature as it is, well and truly ‘red in tooth and claw.’ One bird sits looking rather pleased with himself, with an iridescent bright blue butterfly clamped between its jaws. A pair of eagles dispassionately eye a dead lamb and a crow turns away from the gored corpse of a rabbit, possibly distracted by the prospect of its next meal…

gaiman specimen booth museum

That emblem of mortality, a dodo skeleton, takes pride of place in one case, taking on an almost bronzy glow. A kind of grim booby prize, reminding us what we’ve already lost – and stand to lose if we fail to heed the conservation lessons from the past.

Many of the specimens are posed in such an animated fashion that you daren’t turn your back on them too long…

wolf

In the atmospheric low light, a nattily dressed accordionist wandered the galleries adding to the spooky ambience, playing eerie, funereal music, while a series of happenings and demos played out throughout the night.

In one room we were treated to a random show of magic lantern slides from the Booth’s vast and varied collection, a sort of natural history lucky dip.

We gathered round and sat on the floor for a rather unnerving bedtime story, courtesy of the Booth’s Writer in Residence (yep a proper, published fiction writer, not like these Blogger in Residence chancers!) Mick Jackson, whose lepidoctor story would not have been out of place on Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.

Taxidermy Unstuffed

Taxidermy demo at Booth Museum

Taxidermy seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. What is it about seeing stuffed animals brought back to their former glory that fascinates us so much? Is there something oddly reassuring about the illusion of ‘life after death’ that plays to our own fear of the reaper?

There’s something about taxidermy which feels slightly transgressive somehow (and for more about the dubious thrill involved with private collecting read David Sedaris’ brilliant story about his adventures buying a stuffed owl in a London taxidermy shop.)

Whatever the deep-seated psychological reasons behind our attraction, it was certainly fascinating to watch ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long at work, carefully and cheerfully unpacking the innards of a gull while a rapt crowd watched and bombarded her with questions.

Jazmine trained at the Booth herself and only works with specimens that died from accident or natural causes. At one time every town had a taxidermist and Brighton had three.

Merman! It’s Mer-man!

Merman

One of the more off-the-wall exhibits in the Booth is that of a Merman. I had no idea that this was a thing – the word merman reminds me a scene from the hilariously silly Ben Stiller movie Zoolander.

But it was actually quite a popular Victorian ruse, where charlatans and notorious showmen such as PT Barnum would construct elaborate, if improbable, models of mermen they claimed they had found in the Far East to fleece gullible punters for a few guineas.

Merman storytelling with Daisy Jordan

Inspired by this was a special puppetry performance of the Fiji Mermaid by puppeteer and storyteller Daisy Jordan, whose delightfully eccentric verse performance with a blonde-wigged monkey was pitched somewhere between Nina Conti and the fascinating and frankly skin-crawling puppets created by Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, who was the subject of a great exhibition at Brighton University last year.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Curators John Cooper and Lee Ismail unveiled their Cabinet of Curiosities with obvious pride and passion, unearthing treasures and giving people a chance to lay their hands on a scaly pangolin specimen, a 14 million year-old crocodile skeleton and some plant fossil specimen books from William Parry’s 1824 expedition to the North Pole.

Vicariously Victorian?

It’s easy to gawp at some of the Victorians’ more macabre obsessions of course, (and the abhorrent cruelty that sometimes accompanied this, as with the sad tale of ‘the Elephant Man’, John Merrick) but behind the sensationalist circus sideshow freakery there often lies a more serious and laudable scientific purpose.

Indeed that was the case with Edward Thomas Booth, a self taught naturalist whose personal collection comprises the bulk of the museum’s today, and who lived in the house he knowingly labelled ‘Bleak House.’

While undeniably eccentric, Booth set out to capture and collect every species of British bird and his methods of displaying them in a realistic ‘diorama’ setting, complete with their habitat and prey, soon set the global standard which others aspired to and sought to emulate.

This event did precisely what any good museum should do, educate and inform people in an entertaining, relevant and engaging way.

A visit to the museum is always bound to fascinate, but there’s something particularly special about experiencing it at night, when its stark representations of nature can really set the imagination in flight.

Don’t miss the chance to catch the next evening soiree, Beneath the Whispering Sea, on Thursday 12 March at Brighton Museum:

‘A special after-hours event featuring marine taxidermy demonstrations, storytelling, cocktails, underwater silent disco and a chance to discover sea secrets from the Museum stores. In collaboration with Whalefest.’

7-10pm £5, members £4 in advance, £7 on the door.

The Booth Museum is free and easily reached, with buses 14 and 27 stopping directly across the road. See opening times on the website.

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

 

A WW1 Indian Hospital on Brighton Pier?

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Exactly 100 years ago today, the decision was made to make Brighton a unique hospital town for Indian soldiers who had become sick or wounded on the Western Front.

Sir Walter Lawrence (on right) in the Pavilion Garden with Lord Kitchener (left) and Jemadar Mir Dast (centre), 1915

Sir Walter Lawrence (on right) in the Pavilion Garden with Lord Kitchener (left) and Jemadar Mir Dast (centre), 1915

The decision was made by Sir Walter Lawrence, a former India Office Civil servant who had been appointed Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Indians in England and France by Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. Over the next few weeks, three Indian military hospitals opened in Brighton, the most famous of which was the Royal Pavilion.

Lawrence’s personal papers are now held at the British Library, and these provide a valuable insight into the decision making behind the hospitals. On 18 March 1915, a few months after his first visit to Brighton, Lawrence wrote to the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, with an account of how he gained use of the Royal Pavilion.

I suggested to Lord Kitchener that… I should be allowed to take up two large hotels in Brighton. He gave me permission and on the 21st [November 1914] I went down to Brighton. I saw the local authorities there, and instead of taking up local hotels, which are unsuitable and costly, I secured from the Corporation of Brighton the buildings of the Pavilion and the Dome.

But was Lawrence’s visit really so straightforward? In 1929 he published a memoir, The India We Served, which suggested that the local authorities took some time to understand the nature of his request.

When I reached Brighton the local authorities pointed out that hotels formed their chief industry, and offered me the racecourse and a pier. But I wanted something with a roof, and in one day I secured the Dome and Pavilion, a fine school, and the spacious Infirmary, which was known afterwards as the Kitchener Hospital.

In his book, Lawrence praises the ‘generous and unselfish attitude of Brighton’, but this is hard to entirely reconcile with this passage. Given that Lawrence made his request in late November, the idea that sick and wounded Indian soldiers would be hospitalised on a  structure exposed to winter wind and storms seems to be rather lacking in generosity.

Palace Pier, c1912

Palace Pier (now Brighton Pier), c1912

Lawrence does not specify which pier was apparently offered, but I suspect this was never a very serious suggestion. There is no mention of the proposal in Lawrence’s surviving correspondence of the period, and he was full of praise for Brighton Corporation’s efforts, even though other military officials dismissed this in favour of the myth that the Pavilion’s use had been initiated by King George V.

The pier suggestion also seems odd in that it was a vital part of the local economy. Brighton remained a popular seaside resort throughout the First World War, and the piers helped attract visitors to the town. By contrast, the Royal Pavilion was a much easier building to hand over to the military authorities. It was not the visitor attraction that we know today, but a civic building with no permanent or necessary purpose. Balls and civic functions were held there, the Red Drawing Room served as the Mayor of Brighton’s office, and local Freemasons occupied several rooms on the upper floor; but it was a quick and easy building to clear, with little impact on the town’s economy.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Brighton became a hospital town for over 12,000 Indian soldiers during 1915, and the Indian hospitals became a great source of local pride — and fascination. Many photographers and artists have become fascinated by the images of Indian men in the grounds of an exotic Mughal palace. It is hard to imagine that one of Brighton’s piers would have had the same impact.

'Sunshine in the Grounds'. Photograph by A H Fry, 1915

‘Sunshine in the Grounds’. Photograph by A H Fry, 1915

Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer

Look out for a new multimedia tour of the Royal Pavilion as a WW1 hospital, launching in January 2015.

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