The Secrets of the Tower of London Foreshore…

Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna tells us why you should join her at the Archaeology Weekend to discover the secrets of the Tower of London foreshore.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Last year I wrote a blog discussing the start of a pilot volunteer project to look at a collection of foreshore finds. These finds were the result of an excavation of the Tower of London foreshore in September 1986.

With the help of four volunteers and advice from the Museum of London Archaeology Centre we have successfully repackaged and catalogued over 700 small finds from this dig. These objects included gun furniture, pike tips, and musket balls, demonstrating the development and manufacture of weapons on the site.

These finds are important as they provide physical evidence of the Office of Ordnance’s workshops on the Tower of London wharf, and also helped to prove that the Tower foreshore is an important archaeological site.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Our volunteers had experience of working on archaeological collections with the Museum of London, and some had also worked with the Thames Discovery Programme, so were familiar with foreshore archaeology. This proved helpful for handling and repacking the finds. We were able to give the volunteers greater insight into the development of weaponry and the history of the Tower in relation to the Office of Ordnance, an important government department until it was dissolved in 1853.

To celebrate the volunteer project’s success, I will be at the Tower of London Archaeological weekend on 19 and 20 July with a couple of the volunteers. We will have a few of the important objects relating to the Ordnance workshops and a chance for visitors to make their own Ordnance badges. If you’re around please come and say hello, there will be lots of stalls and a chance for a limited number of people to explore the foreshore.

Read Kathleen’s previous blog The Forgotten Dig…

Find out more about the Tower of London Archaeology weekend.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – An introduction…

Last week we announced our plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, with new exhibitions, a series of talks and seminars, online content and events across Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London.

In the run up to and during the centenary programme, we will post a series of blogs covering all aspects of the programme.

Ahead of the opening of the new exhibition in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War – we spoke to Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson…

What themes are included within the exhibition?
We start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; many heads of state in 1914 owned an early form of bullet-proof vest made of silk and other textiles. We’ve had one recreated and tested it, and you can see the results displayed along with the type of pistol used to kill the Archduke and essentially the start of the First World War.

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Moving into the main space, we tell the story of the attempts to design the perfect sword; and the consequences for cavalrymen who faced machine guns and barbed wire on the Western Front. We tell the story of Frank Elms, who started the war as a cavalry trooper, and ended it as a highly trained machine gunner. Other cavalry actually did fight successfully on horseback. We then show the parallel story of the infantry rifle and bayonet; thought to be key to victory by many at the start of the war. In the event, machine guns and artillery became the important weapons, but to the individual soldier of any side, his rifle and bayonet were his best friend. The French even gave their bayonet a girl’s name!

As mobile warfare proved impossible and trench warfare took over, everyone involved began to look for ways to break through and push back the enemy. The machine gun forms the core of the exhibition, as visitors encounter some of the biggest killers of the war as they pass through the space. Personalising this theme is the forgotten story of the men of the Machine Gun Corps, set up as an elite unit to make best use of the famous Vickers gun. We then have a series of cases showing the wealth of responses to the challenge of trench warfare. Medieval style weapons and armour made a comeback, existing weapons were adapted and used in different ways (for example, in the air), and surprisingly modern weapons were invented from scratch.

Finally, we see how faith placed in weapons technology to actually end war forever (the so-called ‘War to End All Wars’) was misplaced, and how it in fact enabled a century of conflict whose effects are still with us today. Not many people realise that the phrase ‘First World War’ was coined during the war itself, when people realised that they now had the means to kill each other more effectively than ever before. The technology of 1880 – 1918, like all technology, is neutral; it doesn’t care how it’s used. It was used to start the war, it caused the hell of trench warfare and took millions of lives, but then went on to end that hell and actually save lives. Finally, it paved the way for the Second World War, the Cold War, and future wars. The objects are intrinsically interesting, but what makes them truly relevant and interesting are the personal stories. You’ll see plenty of both in this exhibition.

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

What are visitors going to learn from the exhibition?
I think people will be surprised at how advanced some of the thinking was, and that both before and during the war, there were constant attempts to innovate and to put the right equipment in to the soldiers’ hands. However, the right tactics to make best use of it could only be learned on the battlefield. That meant that no amount of ingenuity or innovation could prevent a horrific human cost and a legacy that still echoes today.

Why is the exhibition unique?
Our museum is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on arms and armour; it’s what we do best. Our collection was already world-class in 2005, but in that year we also received the entire Ministry of Defence ‘Pattern Room’ collection of 19th-20th century firearms. This allowed us to do far more than we could back in 1996 when the existing display was installed. So the unique aspect here is that we lead with the personal weapons and armour, and then give them context by linking back to the real people who made them, held them and used them in anger. We do that in ways people will be familiar with; stories, and a wealth of imagery, and oral history recordings but we have also filmed a range of original weapons being fired, including high-speed camera footage of bullets striking forensic ballistic soap. We explore what these objects were capable of and what people’s opinions and feelings about them were. Instead of using them simply as illustrations in a generic narrative of the War, we make the interaction of objects and people with the battlefield the focus of the exhibition.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

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

A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

A Day in the Life of…Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Have you ever wondered what its like to work at a national museum? Spending everyday up close to one of the UK’s largest collections of arms and armour? As part of #Museumweek, we found out from Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna. 

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

My role is very varied and involves working with the collections and research, as well as working with the public – answering enquires, managing volunteer projects and some education work.

I started at the Royal Armouries in October 2012, having previously worked and volunteered in a number of museums including the Science Museum, National Maritime Museum and Hackney Museum. In addition to the experience of working within a museum I soon realised in order to pursue a curatorial career that worked with collections and included research, I probably needed an MA. I gained an MA in Historical Research in 2011. My first paid museum job working with collections was a part-time role as Museum Assistant at Enfield Museum Service during which I also started a part-time PhD. The PhD is one of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards with the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) looking at the nineteenth century Post Office. Subsequently I was in a good position with practical museum experience and strong research skills to get this role, and who could turn down a job at the Tower of London?

Luckily there is no such thing as a normal day in my job. Being part of a small team based at the Tower can involve travelling across London to inspect a loan or pick up an acquisition. Alternatively I could be based in the office doing research or overseeing volunteers. We have several offices and stores within the Tower, so on some days if I need to move objects or escort researchers I feel like I have walked miles!

I really enjoy the variety of the job and working with such an astounding collection in a spectacular location.

I’m passionate about history so I really enjoy being able to do research into the history of the Tower of London, those that worked here and the collection held here. The more challenging aspects are probably finding different ways to communicate that history with the public. Writing for a blog or an online exhibition requires different skills to working with colleagues to present a handling session or giving a formal paper, but I enjoy every opportunity to share my enthusiasm.

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

I have recently worked on a great volunteer project repackaging a collection of foreshore finds from a dig in 1986.  I worked with the Museum of London Archaeological Archive (formerly LAARC) to get advice on best practice for storing archaeological finds and also to recruit four volunteers to work on the collection.

The project has nearly finished, but it has been a real joy to work with these skilled people, sharing both experience and knowledge. The volunteers had experience of working with archaeological objects and had often done some archaeological mapping of the Thames foreshore. We were able to give them additional historical background on that section of the foreshore, as the material we were repackaging is evidence of Ordnance workshops, and we could share our expertise in identifying standard issue weapon parts.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Furthermore, working with groups and individuals with an active interest in the areas these collections touched on, has allowed us to discover new value to the material, as the photographic archive of the dig clearly demonstrates the amount of erosion that has occurred to the site. In light of current concerns about the speed and extent of foreshore erosion, our dig assumes new importance in recording an area now lost. You can read more about what the volunteers have been up to on their blog.

This probably sounds quite grim, but my favourite objects in the Royal Armouries collection are the block and axe. They are ubiquitous to the Tower of London and the biographies of these objects are fantastic representations of the history of the Tower as a prison and then tourist attraction. The block was used in the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, and has two cuts on the upper surface, suggesting the axe man either had a trial cut or the block was possibly used for a beheading before Lovat. The axe is from the Tower stores, and although we don’t have anything to confirm its use, records suggest the Tower had four execution axes in store in the 17th century. Both these items have been on display together since the nineteenth century when Yeoman Warders of the time would take delight in asking visitors to lay their heads on the block.

Something people might not know is how old we are, the Royal Armouries’ collection originates from the Office of Ordnance stores that were based in and around the Tower of London and had objects on display for visitors to enjoy from the seventeenth century!

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

The Curator goes to War – ffoulkes’ tales – February 1914

Mr ffoulkes’ second February in office, as the Armouries’ curator, was a quieter month than his first when the Tower had been subject to a Suffragette “outrage”.

The year 1914 saw him start to tackle an outstanding problem in the White Tower – the displays. He had continued Dillon’s work in re-organising the upper floor of the White Tower which had received the contents of the New Horse Armoury in 1881/2 before the latter’s demolition, but space was limited and he wanted to deliver a more didactic exhibit.

The New Horse Armoury constructed against the White Tower’s south side was a crenelated, single storey Gothic building housing the 19th century version of the Line of Kings display from 1826 – 1881. The building was less than universally popular and the displays although impressive were quite old fashioned for the new century.

An interior shot of the New horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

An interior shot of the New Horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

Initially, the displaced armours, horses and figures crowded onto the upper floor of the White Tower, replacing the Volunteer Armoury resident there since 1862. They progressed along the gallery from south to north, with an accompanying forest of staff weapons and munition armour bristling behind.

– The “Horse Armoury” as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

– The Horse Armoury as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

The space was lit naturally, by lights cut into the roof in 1812, when the area was under the control of the Record Office, and which were later enlarged by the architect, Anthony Salvin. In 1884, the Royal Engineers brought electric lighting into the gallery although ffoulkes found the hanging globes rather too harsh.

It was Salvin also who created the light wells in the floor in 1856 – the surrounding railing of Land Transport Corps’ swords dates from the same period.  It was these that ffoulkes attacked in the first instance.

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery.  The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery. The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes crowed in the Tower minute book (i.189) “13 Feb 1914 – After over 60 years the incongruous railings of Band [sic] swords round the well-holes in the upper Armouries were removed today” – and the diary (i.188) claims the holes were filled in.  Slowly but surely the Armouries was being propelled into the 20th century.

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

The Curator goes to War – Happy New Year! – January 1914

The year 1913 ended on a high for ffoulkes with the acquisition of a large volume of the Inventory and Remains of the Tower and Armouries on 18 December.  History fails to record what ffoulkes had actually been looking for in the Ordnance Office, but his discovery and subsequent annexation of this “1,000 pages” dealing with armour stores from 1675-8 was a weighty addition to the collection.

A weighty tome.  © Royal Armouries

A weighty tome.
© Royal Armouries

Other curatorial highlights had included the cleaning of the mask of the horned helmet, “which had been painted red since 1660”, to reveal the engraved decoration beneath. This grotesque helmet (IV.22) is all that remains of an armour gifted to the young King Henry VIII by the Emperor Maximilian I and remains a startling piece.

The Horned Helmet revealed. © Royal Armouries

The Horned Helmet revealed.
© Royal Armouries

Front of house, ffoulkes had continued the work re-organising the displays on the White Tower top floor that his predecessor and mentor, Lord Dillon, had begun.  Most spectacularly Henry VIII’s silver and engraved armour had been remounted on Mr Joubert’s noble, if not entirely life-like model horse, in May.

Joubert’s horse – and Henry © Royal Armouries

Joubert’s horse – and Henry
© Royal Armouries

January 1914 saw the Burgundian Bard shed its rider and move from balancing on the light well crossbeams to the central North side of the gallery.

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913.  Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch. © Royal Armouries

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913. Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch.
© Royal Armouries

Perhaps most importantly, ffoulkes addressed a number of basic collection issues. In July 1913, he tackled the “question of the military remains of the United Kingdom” involving the British Museum, the Rotunda Woolwich, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and of course the Tower Armouries.  Despite the Rotunda’s refusal to participate, and RUSI’s non-committal approach, a committee was formed, meeting at the Tower in December and their initial report produced in January.

In October 1913, he had contacted the Lords Lieutenant of various counties proposing the return of their militia colours currently held at the Tower, suggesting they be kept in a local church or public building thereafter. By 31 December 1913,  he had their consent, and so the New Year dawned with the prospect of numerous photo opportunities as ffoulkes personally made the returns.  His master stroke?  The counties footed the bill.

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection. © Royal Armouries

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection.
© Royal Armouries

Armed with the Treasury’s grant of £765 towards producing a large illustrated catalogue of the Armouries – roughly equivalent to £62,200 today – ffoulkes had a busy year in prospect.

There was still the outstanding question of accommodation.  The Armouries’ office consisted of a mural passage running along the south face of the White Tower top floor, behind the displays and inherited from the Storekeepers.  Dillon had chosen to conduct his extensive correspondence from his library in Ditchley, thriftily travelling up to London 3rd class to deal with the collections.  Meanwhile, foulkes was resolved to achieve better on site provision, but coming events would overshadow and delay such considerations.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries