[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Previous Next
of 3 items

The charming case of Alfred William Rowlett

Robin Strub, our Anthropology Volunteer, has been looking into the Horniman's collection of charms.

Have you ever wondered how the Horniman got its objects?

Who brought them here, and why? 

I’m here to help answer some of those questions! I volunteer in Anthropology’s collection of English charms and amulets, which has a lot of pieces from a man named Alfred William Rowlett. 

He came from the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots and, between 1904 and 1933, he sold the Horniman dozens of items that he had found as part of his town’s rural culture.

What do you think of when you look at the objects in the Horniman’s cases?  What do you imagine of the people who collected them?

Do you think of a Victorian, professorial man with a tweed jacket and pipe?

How about a Victorian dustman with a bin and broom? 

  • AW Rowlett by CF Tebbutt, From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978
    From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978

This picture is of Rowlett, who worked as a Dustman for the local government.  Bert Goodwin, a historian and local of St Neots, remembers Rowlett, and wrote about him for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s 2011-12 winter edition, including this picture of Rowlett and his dustbin making his rounds. 

When looking up Rowlett in the 1881 Census I found he was in work as a labourer by the time he was 13. He went on to become a businessman, as well as a Dustman, with an antiques shop, and worked with the Horniman in a professional capacity.  He even had his own official stationery that he used to write letters and invoices to the Horniman!  Here is how his letterhead looked:

  • Rowlett's, letterhead
    letterhead

We don’t know how Rowlett started working with the Horniman but as a local, he had specialist knowledge and access to his community. This was undoubtedly part of the benefit of the Horniman doing business with him. In a letter dated 6 May 1907, Rowlett noted that ‘my business is to find out and get all the necessary information I can get’ on objects destined for the Museum. 

His research is still important for the Horniman, as the things we know about the objects he sourced came via his connections. The information would otherwise have been lost without his detailed descriptors. 

Here is what he wrote about a ‘Spinning Jenny’ (object number 7.199) as an example, with a transcription beneath.

  • Spinning Jenny, Object description
    Object description

Spinning Jenny.

used at Easton Socon, Beds for Raffling oranges sweets & home made cakes at Holiday times & festivals with an original charm against the children in getting to high a number so as to benefit the owner of Spinning Jenny

used by Mrs Newton at home and village feasts in & Round Bedfordshire Cambs & Hunts

1856 half penny a spin

This is how the Spinning Jenny works:

You can see a piece of orange flint tied to the device - that’s the charm.

We know what that flint was for thanks to Rowlett, as well as precise details about how the Spinning Jenny is used. (I thought the owner would’ve been caught out by cheating, but my Curator figured out that if you keep the stone against your palm and hold out the Spinning Jenny, nobody can see that you have it in your hand!)

Rowlett would also make handwritten labels for artefacts that were entering the collection, and many of his labels are still stored with the objects. This is an example for number 9.41 in our collection, a wood pigeon’s foot that was used to ward off cramp.

  • Wood Pigeon, foot label
    foot label

A lot of the charms that Rowlett brought us are things from the natural world that people associated with various curative powers.

It may seem strange today, but the idea was that wood pigeons never get foot cramps. If I carry a wood pigeon’s foot, maybe that will protect me too. If you have ever heard of someone carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, it’s not too far a leap from practices today.

Rowlett’s community of St Neots still remembers him as someone to go to for these kinds of all-natural remedies for health problems.

Local historian Rosa Young transcribed several adverts from a 1900 issue of a local paper for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s, which included an old advert that Rowlett had put in the paper for his own special patent medicine. It cured everything (naturally) but Rowlett’s neighbours did come to him seeking his medical expertise.

Bert Goodwin, the local historian who photographed Rowlett, recounts that when he was a child he had a wart on his knee cured by Rowlett,

He cut a small twig from a bush which he called ‘Joseph’s Thorn’,  which he shaped into a spatula, and then made his mark on the wart X.  “There,” he said, “it will be gone by the next full moon.”  Strangely enough, I forgot about it, but when I next looked it had gone.

Because of Rowlett’s work at St Neots, the local historical society put up a Blue Plaque for him.

  • Rowlett's blue plaque, Thanks to Eatons Community Association
    Thanks to Eatons Community Association

Like the wood pigeon’s foot above, many of the objects that Rowlett brought to the Horniman were considered to have health benefits. The charms I’m studying were used by real people who believed in them, and used them to solve a variety of different problems. Ironically, Rowlett – with his Joseph’s Thorn for curing warts – thought that some of the charms’ owners were ‘eccentric’!

I don’t know about you, but I have lucky charms. Millions of people all over the world believe in the power of objects and in 2018, the Horniman will open a new gallery where you will be able to find charms from all around the world, including those collected by Rowlett!

If you’d like to see what Rowlett brought to the Horniman, and 2018 is too long to wait, you can find all of Rowlett’s objects online

Conservation of a trailing feather war bonnet

Hello! My name is Sarah, and I am the new student placement in Conservation. I have recently been spending a lot of my time treating a trailing war bonnet used in a Wild West show. You might be wondering what a trailing war bonnet is, well…

A Kiowa tribe war bonnet at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/8375).  Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

A war bonnet is a form of ceremonial headdress worn by men of various Native American and First Nations tribes in the Plains area of the United States and Canada.

Traditionally, each feather was taken from the tail of a golden eagle, and was intended to commemorate an act of bravery performed in the wearer’s life. Sometimes the tips were dyed red to indicate a particularly significant act.

The war bonnet before treatment.  It will be displayed in the redeveloped anthropology gallery.

The war bonnet that I am working on is a replica created as a prop. It was made of white goose feathers that were painted, with red feathers attached to the tips. Despite its beauty from far away, it is quite dirty and requires a lot of work before it can be put on display in the newly redeveloped anthropology galleries.

My current work with the headdress is focused on the condition of the feathers. Some time ago someone tried to make the feathers more stable by putting adhesive on them to keep them from moving. Unfortunately, after all of that time, the adhesive has started to peel off and become dirty.



Before the adhesive was removed from the feather (above) and after (below).


Sometimes this happens in conservation. Conservators can’t see into the future, and sometimes unexpected things happen to objects that we were unable to foresee. It can be a challenge, but we try to keep a close eye on our objects to minimize that risk.

Removing adhesive off of the inside of a feather using a homemade cotton swab.

My job now is to remove all of the dirty, peeling adhesive so that the feathers are in a more stable state. This involves me using a cotton swab (I make my own!) dipped in solvent, and gently rolling it over the surface of the adhesive until it lifts away.
It takes a long time! So far, I’ve spent 14 hours delicately taking off the adhesive, and I’m not done yet! But the end result looks much better than before treatment, and the feathers are in much better shape.

After I have finished removing the adhesive, I will be repairing some of the feathers that have been bent or broken, and cleaning the dirt that has collected on the feathers over time.

 

Conserving a Cree Shirt

Although our new gallery displaying our anthropology collections is still some years away, we have already started work preparing and conserving objects to be shown in the gallery, as Charlotte from our Conservation Department explains.

One of the objects which we hope to display in the new gallery is this shirt, from the Cree people of North America. The shirt is more than 200 years old. However, it needs significant conservation before it can go on display.

  • Cree Shirt Conservation, Cree shirt which is currently being conserved
    Cree shirt which is currently being conserved

The shirt is possibly made of brain tanned deer hide.

The intricate rosettes and bands are made of dyed porcupine quills. The lack of bead work and the naturally-dyed quillwork indicates that it’s possibly from the late 1700s / early 1800s and quite an old example of a shirt.

  • Cree Shirt Conservation, We think these quills were added at a later date.
    We think these quills were added at a later date.

The quillwork on the shoulders was probably dyed with "modern dyes" which suggest these bands were added at a later date.

Quite a lot of quillwork is lifting off the hide, so we need to secure that. Also, the hide is really stiff and crunchy!

  • Cree Shirt Conservation, Close-up of shirt showing the quillwork lifting which needs to be repaired.
    Close-up of shirt showing the quillwork lifting which needs to be repaired.

We're going to try and introduce some flexibility by carefully applying moisture to the hide, which we'll then manipulate until it's dry.

Hopefully this technique should help the hide regain some suppleness!

There are also tears that need structural repairs so it can go on display in our new Anthropology gallery.

It's quite a complex project and we'll keep you all up to date as we treat it.

Previous Next
of 3 items