Swords of the Middle Earth…

To celebrate the premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, four heroic swords based on weapons used in the epic The Lord of the Rings film trilogy will go on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds on Thursday (December 13). Royal Armouries’ curator of European Edged Weapons, Bob Woosnam-Savage, reveals all about the magical swords.

After our highly successful The Wonderful World of Weta: Arms and Armour from the Movies exhibition in 2008, I have kept in close contact with one of the workshop’s directors, Sir Richard Taylor, in New Zealand. So when these swords were suggested as a collection of ‘high-end’ collectibles of museum quality I knew we had to have them.

Although the swords in this collection are not movie props, they have been made at the multi-Academy Award winning Weta Workshop by the movie’s very own swordsmith, Peter Lyon, using the same designs, methods, materials and tools that were used to create the original hero weapons for The Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy. The pieces encompass a multitude of sword making, metal crafting and wood-working techniques and are examples of present day, world-class sword-making skills. In fact it could be said that they are even better than the original movie props as Peter Lyon now has 10 years more experience in sword making!

The swords – Andúril, Strider’s Sword, Glamdring, and Sting – are all artists’ proof copies of the long since, sold-out limited editions, ranging from only 10 to 25 in number, and have been made over the past two years.

The design of some of the swords is based on real medieval and Renaissance designs, similar to those held by the museum.  Andúril, the sword of Aragorn, was based upon a large ‘cruciform’ European sword. The hand-and-a-half sword of the ranger ‘Strider’ was based closely on the proportions of a late 15th century European (bastard or hand-and-half) sword, but with non-historical design features. The result is a functional and elegant synthesis of history and fantasy. Even ‘Sting’ was originally going to be based upon a Holbein-type dagger of the 16th century, but after much rethinking ended up as it is seen. John Howe, one of the concept artists of The Hobbit also, designed the sword Andúril for The Lord of the Rings as well as co-designing Strider’s sword.

To run alongside the installation, our visitor experience team has written a demonstration entitled ‘From Battle Scene to Silver Screen’. The talk will give a fascinating look into how arms and armour are used for film and television. There will be a chance to learn about what materials are used, how they are made and the difference between props and reality. The talk is suitable for all ages, particularly The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars’ fans! At the end of the 10-minute talk, visitors will have a chance to hold the props used in the talk and feel like movie stars themselves.

The Swords of Middle Earth exhibition goes on display at Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, on December 13 and runs until February 2013.

Where Christmas began…

This year at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, Santa swaps his red suit for green and his grotto will transport you back to where Christmas celebrations began, in Victorian times.

Santa and friends at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds

It seems hard to believe now but before the 19th century, Christmas was hardly celebrated and it didn’t become a public holiday until the end of the century. It is now the biggest annual celebration and we owe the Victorians for many of the festive traditions we still uphold today.

Starting with the man himself, Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green – thought to symbolise a sign of the returning Spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th century. From the 1870s, Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh. (Source: www.historic-uk.com)

We also owe the pleasure of that colourful paper crown, tiny toy and joke that comes within the Christmas cracker, to British confectioner, Tom Smith, who in 1848 travelled to Paris and discovered bonbons. From this, he came up with the idea of a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart. The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period, and remain in this form as an essential part of a modern Christmas.

The roast turkey has its beginnings in Victorian Britain. Previously other roasted meat such as beef and goose were the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. Wealthier sections of the community added the turkey to the menu in the 19th century. It was deemed the perfect size for a middle class family gathering, and so became the dominant dish by the beginning of the 20th century. (Source: www.bbc.co.uk/history)

Come and experience the beginnings of Christmas in traditional Victorian style at Royal Armouries, Leeds. Christmas activities run from 1-23 December and Santa will visit every Saturday and Sunday.

For more information, visit our website.

An Everyday Story of Museum ffoulkes

November 21, 1912 – 100 years ago, Charles ffoulkes, B.Litt Oxon, FSA was appointed Curator of the Armouries at the Tower of London.  He took up the post on New Year’s Day, January 1913.

Mr ffoulkes – whose surname was spelled, unusually, without an initial capital letter – inherited a series of displays redolent of imperial glory in the White Tower and the remaining stores of the Board of Ordnance (dissolved in 1856). These were scattered about the site – in effect a museum in “kit form”.  The protégé of the first modern Curator, Viscount Dillon, (in post 1895 – 1913), ffoulkes set to with gusto, consolidating his position and dragging the organisation – such as it was – into the 20th century.

The office of Charles ffoulkes, Curator and later Master of the Armouries in the Martin Tower.

The curator was not one to hide his light under a bushel, and he liked to find advantageous links with the past.

He declared with pride in the Minute Book (I.189,) that recorded the Armouries’ daily activities, “The curator is a direct descendant of Captain Thomas Fowke, keeper of the Queen’s Hand Guns and Calivers and Warden of the White Tower circa 1596 (see Hatfield Papers).  Captain Fowke was therefore in office under Viscount Dillon’s ancestor Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armouries”. Impeccable credentials indeed.

He had a small staff to assist him, noting in his autobiography Arms and the Tower (London, 1939), “Unlike all other museums, we had no staff except those engaged in the actual treatment of armour”.  The team is listed in the front of the Minute Book as follows:

Foreman of the Armouries: W Buckingham;

Staff of cleaners: T Bishop, W Williams, W Brown, T Riddles, G Stewart, F Davy – and not forgetting A H Price (ticket office), D Marsh (Parcels) and W Johnson (lavatory).

Messrs H Evans (died 23 December) and W Spooner (ruled through with a marginal note as to his dismissal) are also listed.

All other services were provided courtesy of the War Office.

We invite you to follow the fortunes of the curator and his band a century ago by following the Minute book entries, month by month, in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

The Axe and the Head

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, tries not to lose her head in the mystery of the heading axe…

Recently I received an enquiry regarding an axe; could we identify it as a heading axe? Well if anyone could, you’d think the Tower of London could. However, identifying a heading axe is a lot more difficult than you would think.

Indeed, the shape of an axe head can tell you a lot about what an axe was used for. From Coachmaker Axes (clue’s in the name) to Blocking Axes (often used in shipbuilding), axes were often designed as tools of trade rather than weapons. To discover their uses we often turned to trade directories or the handy Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodwork Tools.

Nevertheless, cutting heads off isn’t normally named as a particular use and ‘Executioner’ isn’t generally the sort of trade these works are discussing. Depictions of public executions aren’t always reliable either. Artistic impressions are sometimes made long after the execution with no way of knowing if the artist attended any public executions. The image below of Lady Jane Grey’s execution was actually created in the 19th century. Furthermore written descriptions don’t tend to focus on the design of the axe when describing a public figure’s last few moments.

Engraving by George Cruikshank showing the execution of Lady Jane Grey on Tower Green in 1554. From The Tower of London / by W.H. Ainsworth (1845)
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

Consequently, provenance is our best indication. Beheading was an execution preserved for the rich and (previously) powerful. The average execution involved hanging and if you were particularly treacherous you were hung, drawn and quartered. Moreover, it was primarily the English who favoured an axe beheading, whereas the executioners on the continent preferred the sword. Not trusting the axe, and perhaps an English executioner, Anne Boleyn requested a swordsman and sword to be shipped over from France especially for her execution.

Heading axe. Probably English, 16th century
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

The Tower of London’s heading axe is traditionally believed to be one of four that we know were stored here in the 17th century, but we don’t have details about its use. We actually know more about the block it is displayed with, which was used for the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, but that is a different story. So in conclusion, to know if you have a heading axe you need to know where your axe head comes from.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Protecting WWI Troops…

One of our Library Student Interns, Hugh Osborne investigates a letter written by J.B Forster detailing a new idea to protect soldiers in the First World War.

In 1915 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the well known Sherlock Holmes series, sent a letter to The Times newspaper stating the need to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. Following the publication of his letter in the paper, Doyle received a number of responses from inventors, metal workers and engineers detailing their various ideas and solutions. One of these responses is particularly interesting, if however a little farfetched in terms of how effective it would be.

J.B. Forster of J.B. Forster and Co. wrote to Doyle, on 4 August 1916, detailing his idea for a woven steel net/mail to be attached to the barrel of a soldier’s rifle to catch bullets, using ‘the same principle as the cricketer’.[1] The idea was to catch shrapnel, ricochets and other low velocity projectiles. It is unlikely however that it would have caught a rifle or machine gun round which would have probably gone straight through. The net was to be mounted on the barrel using a steel frame, which could be removed and folded for storage and transport. This would have made the weapon very heavy (the net alone would have weighed at least 10lbs). The barrel resonance would have also been adversely affected, as the barrel wouldn’t have been able to flex and move in its normal way, reducing accuracy. Also visibility would have been greatly reduced making aiming the weapon all the more difficult.

For all its flaws the idea demonstrates that inventors were willing to try anything to solve the problem of how to protect soldiers. Captain Boynton’s gun shield idea is worth a mention but suffers from similar drawbacks to J.B. Forster’s design as it was also attached to the rifle’s barrel, though this time with a hinge. Gun shields weren’t a new idea; from as early as Henry VIII’s reign there are examples of shields fitted with pistols. Gun shields are still used today particularly on mounted weapons such as heavy machine guns and grenade machine guns mounted on vehicles, giving their users more protection.

Blogger: Hugh Osborne, Library Student Intern


[1] J.B. Forster, quotation taken from J.B. Forster’s letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Editing, a labour of love…

Sound Artist Amie Slavin talks about the trials and tribulations of editing Other Ranks and how every stutter, mumble and pause must be considered.

At the end of the process of collecting sounds, I gathered them all up and began the massive labour of love, which is the editing process. I had to listen to every moment of every recording, snipping and making tidy cuts of usable sounds and filing them for inclusion in the piece.  I had to spot what’s especially good and excise anything off-topic, contaminated or unusable for any other reason.

At this point I had a big pile of files, each still quite lengthy, containing the best of each location and/or voice.  This is where it gets tricky…

The toughest part of editing for a project like this one is that you end up with more material than you have space.  You are, if you are me, now in love with every sound, every voice, and getting really scratchy about losing anything anyone has said.  Tough!  Man-up, whining arty-person!

From here on, each sound file has to stand up and justify its inclusion in the piece.  Every voice gets edited further as each one is snipped and placed, with extreme delicacy and care, into position within the mix.  Each must overlap its surrounding sounds correctly. A fraction of a second alters where the listener’s attention is – and this has a very real impact on which parts of which voices actually get heard.  I like to have voices criss-crossing each other, like old chaps in a pub, each philosophising into his pint, they chime, coalesce and weave gently around each other.  They also cut across each other, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.  They reinforce and contradict each other.  One voice adds to another from a very different experience or perspective.

Throughout the process, my preference is to preserve the participant’s own speech rhythms and style of articulation.  I don’t like to begin by cutting out their stumbles and stutters.  I like the emotional elaboration we get from the way someone speaks, as well as the words they say.

At every point the priority is to pay central attention to what each person was trying to say.  I warned participants that their voices would be edited.  I also promised to represent them fairly.  This was a most serious and sincere pledge and, at the end of the production process I am equally concerned with how each participant will feel about his treatment within the edits and the piece, as well as the effectiveness of the whole mix.  This creates an additional complexity which has served to keep me awake and pacing the floor through many nights in the past four years.

The end product contains literally hundreds of sounds and dozens of voices, as well as several hundred participants who contributed their marching feet and PT exertions.  In many places the voices are edited into fluency.  Many, are of course, fluent to begin with.  Where necessary, I have removed stumbles and mumbles, which make a particular piece of speech too long for the gap it’s heading for.  Did it work?  Well that’s your call, isn’t it?

Blogger: Amie Slavin

Other Ranks is now open in the War Gallery at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds until March 2013. For more information, visit our website.

Creating Other Ranks…

Sound Artist Amie Slavin has been creating the installation, Other Ranks, for the past four years. She tells us about her journey; travelling to Army camps to record soldiers’ stories, witnessing a mocked-up Afghan war zone and trying to instigate a good old dressing-down.

Artist, Amie Slavin

Other Ranks owes its existence to many contributors and friends. A project of this scale and scope requires a lot of research and preparation. The bulk of the work, in terms of the time it has taken, has been spent in pursuing every sound, every voice, every piece of proffered advice or wisdom and seizing ruthlessly on anyone not quick enough to stay out of reach!

I’ve been on three different Army camps and visited a TA veterans’ group.  I’ve recorded in the street, in fields, backrooms and a mocked-up Afghan Forward Operating Base.

At the beginning, notwithstanding meticulous and painstaking planning, there’s little predicting the sounds that’ll make it into the studio.  I roughed out lists of questions for interviewees and plans for sounds.  In the event, though, people say what they want to say and the best conversations are those where I’ve facilitated the participant to lead me in his chosen direction.  Some guys will talk about almost anything and are eager to do so.  Others are wary of speaking out of turn or of causing me distress with what they say.  For example, I spent some considerable time and effort attempting to find and persuade someone to give me a good old-fashioned Army dressing-down.  I wanted to show how the rigorous standards of behaviour and training are applied to the soldier on the ground. Two chaps very kindly had a crack at it for me but one eventually admitted it was just impossibly difficult to stand in front of a female civilian (my gender was more inhibiting than my disability they told me, to my delight) and deliver a proper telling-off.  Both spoke to me in gently firm and moderate language about my slipshod turnout on parade or my drunken behaviour off camp (how did they know?)

Upshot was I had to rethink the inclusion of a dressing-down, whereas a thoroughly slick and fluent explanation of the history of the Drill Parade flowed onto tape without hesitation or preparation.  I couldn’t have guessed that this would be the case.  Planning a production of this nature is a deeply imprecise science.  This is, of course, one of the greatest joys of it.

Other Ranks, opens in the War Gallery at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds today (1 November) and runs until March 31, 2013.

Blogger: Amie Slavin

It’ll be all Fright on the Night…

As Halloween looms over the ever-darkening horizon, the Royal Armouries, Visitor Experience Team are busy preparing for the spookiest night of the year. After dark, on October 31, the museum will be transformed into a frightful Halloween scene. Owls will swoop overhead, Royal Armouries staff will be dressed to scare, the spooky museum trail will be set, awaiting its first victims and the ghost stories will be prepped to give you shivers.

We spoke to Lisa Power and Keith Ducklin, Visitor Experience Team, as they prepared a chilling tale for those that dare listen this Halloween.

One of the strangest and disturbing haunted house stories of the last century, The House that Winchester Built, relates to the lone heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The enigmatic Sarah Winchester purchased an eight-room farmstead in California in the 1890s and set to work on continually expanding it. For 38 years carpenters and builders were employed 24 hours per day, seven days a week to add new rooms, corridors and stories to the building.

Her motivations for creating this monstrous house are shrouded in mystery. However, stories emerged of the mistress of the mansion’s belief in restless apparitions multiplying from the exploits of Winchester guns out to seek vengeance on her.

Some of these mysteries surrounding Sarah Winchester and her house of horror may be solved at the Royal Armouries, Leeds on October 31.  Jason Cravatte a vaudevillian peddler of mysteries recounts the tragedy of Mrs Winchester with the aid of a former servant Margaret Duggan.

Ghost stories will be told as part of our Family Halloween Party, we also have a series of Spooky activities running everyday in Leeds and Fort Nelson until November 4.

Bloggers: Lisa Power & Keith Ducklin

For more information about the mysterious Winchester House go here.

From Leeds to Oman…

Royal Armouries is staging an exhibition of iconic matchlock guns in the Sultanate of Oman as part of its ongoing commitment to showcase global heritage to the Islamic world.

The firearms played a crucial role in the history of both Europe and Asia and some were originally displayed in our Leeds museum. They are now part of a new exhibition at Bait al Rudaydah Museum, a recently restored Omani fort, which has its own diverse collection of small arms.

Royal Armouries Technician, Giles Storey tells us about the journey from Leeds to the Middle East.

Transporting the objects from the museum in Leeds and mounting the exhibition in Oman took eight full-on days. The first stop on our journey was London and the Constantine Warehouse, where three packed crates of the objects awaited. Once we arrived the crates were loaded onto custom-made wagons, with air-ride suspension and temperature-controlled storage to ensure the objects travelled safely.

The eight-hour overnight flight left on time with our precious cargo on board! We touched down in Muscat airport at 8am local time, and quickly made our way into the cooler air-conditioned terminal, remembering to obtain a 10-day visa in exchange for 5 Rials, before heading through security to meet up with Dihan Dole, the representative from CEVA.

We arrived at Bait al Rudayah Fort at around 4.30pm, and got ready to unload the crates into a secure area, ready for customs to inspect each crate. By the time we had worked our way through the object manifest and packed everything away in a secure room it was getting on for 8pm.

The next day was Install day. The room for the exhibition was quite small, so we were restricted slightly in terms of how much space we had to move about. The six large graphic wall-panels were the first to go up, relatively easy, though one panel did need a little alteration with a hacksaw, so it could be positioned to hide a fuse-box.

After lunch, we made a start on installing objects; my colleague, Senior Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters, condition checked each object as we unpacked them, and I started the process of placing them in the cases. We had layout drawings to work from, though the depth of the case was slightly shallower than anticipated, due to a couple of battens that were fitted to allow the glass frames to be screwed into position.

Day two involved fitting the glass for the display cases, and installing the object mounts into the table top case, bonding them in place and leaving them overnight to cure.

On the final day of installation we had to crack on with putting the finishing touches to the cases. The mirrors had to be carefully taped and bonded into position. Luckily I had brought a spare mirror, as my first attempt resulted in a scratch straight down the back of the first one. Object numbers were taped and installed, then it was a case of cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning, ready for the glass to go in.

The glass had to be bonded into its frame, and then carefully carried through the doorway at an awkward angle. It was a five-man job to manoeuvre the glass into position – where it will stay for the next 12 months.

Once the install was finished we still had to prepare all the crates for storage. The heat in Oman can make wood warp pretty quickly so they have to be stored built up rather than as flat panels. Special seals around the crates ensure that we won’t bring any bugs back with us in a year’s time.

The return trip was relatively smooth with only the small hiccup of me losing my boarding card in the airport!

It was a tight project time-wise but we have successfully exhibited a small piece of our Leeds collection in the Middle East!

Blogger: Giles Storey, Technician

Explaining the unexplainable…

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, reveals how he aims to explain the unexplainable in his How to Kill a Vampire seminar.

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, holding the Vampire Slaying Kit

Here at the Royal Armouries, we have a Self Defence gallery, detailing the ways in which civilians have protected themselves, and been protected, by arms and armour. Knives, guns, swords, even walking sticks, have all been weapons of choice. This Halloween, we’re going to tackle a new area of self defence, against a threat that most of us no longer believe in, but a lot of us remain fascinated by…Vampires.

Vampires are everywhere; even zombies haven’t quite managed to topple them from their position as our favourite fictional monsters. Movies, books, and games have all given us varied and often contradictory ways in which to defend ourselves from their fangs and claws, but what about people that really believed in vampires? What about the ones that still do? What did they use to ‘slay’ the vampires they thought were a genuine threat to their communities? Who did the slaying? Was there any basis to their fears? We will answer all of these questions, as well as giving you an insight into the vampire killing kits that vampire fans may already have heard something about…

Five years ago, someone gave me a link to an eBay auction for a supposedly 19th century ‘vampire killing kit’. It wasn’t very convincing –  one of the giveaways being a rather cheesy, stainless steel fantasy dagger, which as a student of arms & armour stuck out to me like the proverbial sore thumb. Like many people, I wondered whether there might be a ‘real’ kit out there somewhere, so I set out to find it, initially online, and then out in the real world.

The more I looked, the more I realised that whilst the truth remains fixed, ‘real’ can be a flexible term. Some kits appeared old, but how old? Could some have been made for people that really believed, or still believe, in the supernatural? At least one is owned by someone who claims to be a real-life vampire slayer! But how many of the kits are lighthearted pieces of fun, or more troublingly, were made to deceive unwary buyers? I had aired my initial thoughts on a blog, but wanting to make a more scholarly study of the kits, presented a paper last year at the ‘Exploring the Extraordinary’ conference in York. I believe that I now have the answers to all of these questions and more, and look forward to sharing them in this talk. The evidence points to a more recent, but no less interesting, origin and still leaves room for an air of mystery to these fascinating objects. I wrote about this in a Fortean Times article earlier this year, but since then we at the Royal Armouries have acquired our own vampire kit – the only one in a UK public museum. You will also have the chance to get your hands on the real thing.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries Leeds

How to Kill a Vampire takes place on Tuesday, 30 October, doors at 6.30pm. For further information, and to book tickets, visit our website.