The Curator goes to War – the domestic front – March/April 1914

March 1914 saw ffoulkes on his travels once more, returning militia colours unearthed amongst the White Tower basement stores.  This time it was not so far afield – a day trip to Chatham.  He was back on site in time to conduct Queen Amelia of Portugal around the displays, recording in the Minute book that she lingered “for over an hour and was deeply interested in the Collection”. Modern visitors who have laboured round the White Tower’s four floors might have considered this a relatively quick tour, but in 1914 only the upper two floors were open to the public.

April was back to business as usual – pest control and housekeeping, enlivened with a VIP visit.

The execution block was under woodworm attack.  Traditionally associated with the last public beheading on Tower Hill, that of Simon, Lord Lovat in 1747, the block came into the Armouries’ collection via the Tower Record Office.  Its precise path and dating of its travels are difficult to pinpoint but it had arrived by the Tower Remain of 1857. Heart of oak notwithstanding, the minute Book entry on 18 April records its treatment “with corrosive sublimate …. the lower part was in a very bad condition”. The woodworm proved tenacious, and in 1925 a further two treatments were necessary.

The block and axe on the top floor of the White Tower on open display in 1895 – exposed to prying fingers and hungry woodworm alike. © Royal Armouries

The block and axe on the top floor of the White Tower on open display in 1895 – exposed to prying fingers and hungry woodworm alike. © Royal Armouries

The highlight of the month was undoubtedly the visit of Queen Mary and her four younger children on 28 April.  ffoulkes recorded the children’s names in the Minute book – Princess Mary, Princes  Henry and John – and captured autographs in the Visitor Book, where it turns out Prince George came too.

Only Prince John failed to sign the Armouries’ Visitor Book.  The youngest of the family, aged nine, his epilepsy was becoming an increasing problem, and in 1916 he was withdrawn from public life.  He died in 1919, aged 13. © Royal Armouries

Only Prince John failed to sign the Armouries’ Visitor Book. The youngest of the family, aged nine, his epilepsy was becoming an increasing problem, and in 1916 he was withdrawn from public life. He died in 1919, aged 13. © Royal Armouries

The Fire Brigade call of 30 April at the Tower revealed a considerable oversight – as the Minute Book noted “No arrangements made for the salvage of Armour &c”.

ffoulkes recalled the incident in his autobiography Arms and the Tower (1939).  Enquiring what had been done to salvage “my armour which might be valued at half a million pounds at least” he was told “the Fire Brigade had not been informed and the only solution was to throw the pieces out of the windows and trust to luck and the good craftsmanship of Henry VIII’s armourers.”  Already concerned that the national collection was housed above “some 1000s of service arms …. saturated with oil” stored on wooden stands, ffoulkes despaired that “we had not progressed very far from the days when gunpowder was stored under the national records”. He was not the man to let such matters lie, and the days of the White Tower Gun floor (today the entrance floor) were numbered.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

Bridget Clifford

Bridget Clifford is Keeper at the Tower Armouries, based in the Tower of London.