STEN – Now and Then

Mass-produced military firearms rarely survive with much of their service histories intact. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds we recently discovered an exception that has been hiding a lot of history – in plain sight – in the markings stamped and scratched into its metal body.

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

It is a rare type of Mk.II STEN made in 1943 using a new, cheaper, wrapped steel body. These were found to be faulty and were all recalled – just like a car would be today. This particular STEN survived because it had been supplied to South Africa and ended up in Cyprus sometime in the 1960s.

An explanation for this is that lots of young Greek men went to South Africa during the Second World War to fight with both the South African and the Greek armies, and the STEN must have left with them at the end of the war.

Mk.II STEN on the production line

Mk.II STEN on the production line at BSA assembly facility plant at Tysley, 1942

Having been cut and welded internally to prevent it firing, it was then purchased by the Royal Armouries and spent 17 years being used for education and live interpretation. We don’t normally collect deactivated firearms, you wouldn’t blunt a medieval sword after all, but we have now added this example to the permanent collection due to its rather interesting history.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate

X-radiography can often reveal unexpected things about even the most common objects in our collection, this is just one of reasons it is such a useful tool for conservators and curators alike.

During an important project looking at the construction of 17th-century duplex and triplex armour in our collection using a combination of X-radiography, metallurgy and metal hardness testing, one of the triplex breastplates was shown to have a surprising internal construction. Triplex breastplates, as the name suggests, are made of three layers of wrought iron sandwiched together on all sides.

Breastplate front view

Breastplate front view

The aim of this type of construction, which was not known about until the project was undertaken, was to produce a shot-proof armour without adding noticeably to the breastplate’s weight. The way in which the layers of metal in a triplex breastplate are held together, with the outer and inner layers folding together along all sides of the breastplate, mean that the middle layer is totally invisible by any means of non-invasive examination other than X-radiography.

Following the radiography of one particular breastplate it was possible not only to observe the internal metal layer but to see that it in fact consisted of a large portion of an English pikeman’s tasset. In addition to this it was possible to determine that the tasset’s decorative rivets had been removed prior to inclusion in the breastplate and that the surface of the tasset had been decorated with incised horizontal lines to give the appearance that the object was made up of individual lames or strips of metals rather than from one solid piece. Also faintly visible running along the bottom edge of the tasset is roped decoration.

Xray of Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate (Circa 1650)

Xray of Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate (Circa 1650)

The breastplate itself is English and dates to around 1650 and was originally part of the Littlecote Armoury which came to the Royal Armouries in the 1980s. The origin of the tasset is not known for certain however it is though to date to around 1630, which if correct means it was in use for around twenty years before being incorporated into the breastplate. Re-use like this is not uncommon as armour and its component metal have long been expensive commodities however, as with the triplex breastplate re-use is often hidden and can only be clearly seen using X-radiography.

As this breastplate reveals any object in our collection, even the plainest or most generic looking, may potentially house hidden secrets waiting to be found.

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservator

Flintlock Repair Work

This English flintlock is a William III Land Service musket dating from approximately 1689-1702. The lock-plate is engraved with the cipher of William III and Mary II and the maker’s mark ‘WP’ is stamped on the right side of the lower breech and repeated near the muzzle. The barrel is also marked ‘EG’ crowned, referring to Edward Godward, c.1695-96. The dog-catch of the lock has been previously restored.

Flintlock musket before conservation

Flintlock musket before conservation

The metal components on the flintlock were in very good condition prior to entering the conservation lab as they were only showing yellowed oil on the metal surfaces. The wooden stock was structurally unstable due to multiple large horizontally running cracks appearing mostly around the lock and around the muzzle. A large area of wood loss was present where the barrel is pinned to the stock. Some earlier repair material was present suggesting previous attempts on the cracks with what seemed to be wax. Tinted wax had also been used to fill a deep dent near the muzzle at some point in the past.

After carefully checking that the musket was not loaded, the lock-plate was taken off and disassembled in order to remove superficial dirt and residues with solvent swabs. The barrel was similarly cleaned and the stock was given a mechanical cleaning to rid it of superficial loose dirt. Any previous repair material was carefully removed as it had failed and no longer provided any adherence. The cracks were then refilled with adhesive.

Repairing the damage - before and after conservation

Repairing the damage - before and after conservation

The large area of wood loss was a problem as the pin located at the centre of the area of loss was loose as a result. To fix this problem it seemed best to try and refill the gap with a suitable material. The fill needed to be strong but also flexible in order to not get damaged with the wood’s natural movement. The material used needed to be reversible which in addition would make it easier to redo the fill if the first attempt was unsuccessful due to the critical location of the gap. The colour of the fill was also taken into consideration in order to achieve the best colour-matching result.

Tinted polyester webbing provided great support on the inside and helped mould the internal shape of the fill. To help estimate the trajectory of the pin a slightly wider cocktail stick was pushed through the opposite end of the hole which could serve as an outline for the pin and which could be easily removed half-way through drying time.

Blogger: Leila Mazzon, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Collections Up Close July

The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds displays several archery prizes, one of which is a medal from the Stockwell Archers, presented to George Ellis Esq., “for the skill displayed by him in Archery on the 9th July 1832”.

Archery medal in the Royal Armouries collection

Archery medal in the Royal Armouries collection

Archery has a long-standing place in history as both a method for hunting and for warfare. It later developed into a competitive sport. The first known organised competition in archery was held at Finsbury in 1583 and had 3000 participants.

By the 17th century, due to the introduction of guns, the bow was no longer used as a primary weapon. Archery as a sport was later revived in the 18th century. This was attributed to the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who took up the sport. He became patron of many societies established during the late 1700s in which both men and women took part.

Female toxopholite in competition

Female toxopholite in competition

Competitions have always formed an important part of archery, the most significant being the Grand National Archery Meeting, first held in York in 1844. Archery prizes have included engraved arrows, archers bracers and medals. The museum’s displays include medals from the Derbyshire Archers dated 1823, the Tottenham Archers dated 1825, the Stourbridge Archery Society dated 1850 and the Grand National Archery Society dated 1880.

In 1900 archery was introduced into the Olympics but was then dropped after 1908. Other than a single appearance in 1920 the sport was not re-introduced until 1972. In 2012 the archery contest will be held at Lord’s Cricket Ground with 128 competitors taking part.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Mobilising the Guns

This week has seen more moblisisation of the guns at Fort Nelson. Beck and Pollitzer have now moved the first exhibits – two anti-aircraft guns – into the new gallery, The Voice of the Guns. A further 12 guns will be moved into position during the next two weeks.

Moving the guns

Moving the guns

The guns moved this week included:

  • British 3.7-inch Anti-Aircraft gun and Searchlight – During the grim nights of the Blitz, the guns’ skilled crews worked closely with the searchlight batteries. Fort Nelson had its own gun batteries and also supplied the ammunition for the other guns in the area.

Weight – 8,120 kg. Date – 1943. Fire rate – 8 rounds per minute.

  • Bofors 40 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun – With one of the most rapid rates of fire, this versatile light anti-aircraft gun was used by Britain on both land and sea for over 30 years and was particularly effective against low-flying, attack aircraft. Whether operating in the North African desert campaign, or on a convoy in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bofors’ firepower saved countless Allied lives.

Weight – 1,920 kg. Date – 1940. Fire rate – 120 rounds per minute.

It’s particularly fitting that we’re starting with anti-aircraft guns, because, in World War II, Fort Nelson supplied ammunition to the AA batteries that defended the south coast. These weapons gave the local civilian population hope and a sense of fighting back, as they suffered through the blitzes of 1940-41.

Other guns to be moved into the new gallery include a French cannon, captured at the Battle of Waterloo; a bronze Russian cannon from the Crimean War of the 1850s, and sections from the barrel of the infamous Iraqi Supergun.

More images of the re-development of Fort Nelson can be found on our Flickr page.

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

Moving the Guns

Project focus at the Royal Armouries has moved from the historic White Tower in London to the equally stunning Victorian Fort Nelson near Portsmouth. This project offers a new set of challenges, combining an historic site with a new build – including  exhibition installation.

Interestingly, work within the existing galleries has turned out to be more straightforward than in the new build. Mainly because the design team and installers are working with a known quantity. To date, progress has been made in ripping out the old exhibition content, making good the gallery spaces and prepping electrics. The new art gallery space has also received its display plinth – made to measure on site and painted up ready to receive its cannon.

Moving the guns into position

Moving the guns into position

Over recent weeks we have seen installation of gun moving equipment in the new gallery – the Voice of the Guns – by engineering company Beck and Pollitzer. They have extraordinary experience of moving historic artifacts – including cannon at Greenwich and fine art such as the ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square and sculpture by Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy – so our collection should be in safe hands. The installation culminated in a test lift and move of the 88 German Anti-aircraft gun which was carried out successfully.

We are looking forward to moving the remaining guns to their permanent homes within the galleries, which is scheduled to take place in July.

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes

An Admirable Armour

Over the last six weeks we’ve had two students from the University of Huddersfield, Jonathon and Vikki, in residence within our Curatorial Department. Whilst working behind the scenes Jonathon found this suit of armour to be of particular interest.

This stunning armour was made for foot combat at the barriers for Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The main decoration is gilded and etched, symmetrical scrolling of foliage intertwined with grotesque figures of animals, human and mythical hybrids.

Cosimo de Medici's armour

Cosimo de Medici's armour

This is done in the ‘Mannerist’ style, notable for its bizarre and contorted figures. The secondary ornamentation consists of scrolling foliaged which sprouts off and ends in floral shapes or personified figures, with the same figures intertwined. This was originally gilt and has now been polished bright, the rest of the armour has a blackened dogtoothed appearance which makes the decoration more obvious to the eye.

The helmet is impossible to remove without help due to the manner in which it is attached to the armour. Also when the armour was first made the helmet was too heavy for its wearer to keep his head up, therefore an extra support had to be attached to help support the weight.

Blogger: Jonathon Ellis, Student Work Placement – Curatorial Department

Fort Nelson Re-development

Fort Nelson houses the Royal Armouries’ collection of artillery, with over 350 big guns and historic cannon on display. The Fort was built on the direction of Victorian Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, as part of a chain of fortifications protecting the great Naval harbour of Portsmouth and its Royal Dockyard from French invasion – a fear that never materialised.

Panorama of visitor centre under construction

Panorama of visitor centre under construction

Fort Nelson is nearing the end of a £3.5m project to transform the heritage site into a museum fit for the 21st century. Part funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the project will include spectacular new galleries; visitor centre and extended free parking; new modern café; and state of the art learning centre.

Lower Gallery Artist's Impression

Lower Gallery Artist's Impression

The new glass-sided galleries will showcase the most impressive and iconic Big Guns, covering the most colourful periods of history from every corner of the globe. Key exhibits will include Saddam Hussein’s infamous Supergun, and the Great Turkish Bombard of 1464, that once protected The Dardanelles.

As the project nears completion over the coming weeks we’ll be following our Projects Team throughout the closing stages of the redevelopment.

Collections up Close June

On 18 June 1815 the opposing forces of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, joined by the Prussian Army met at Waterloo. The battle began just after 11am and the conflict continued throughout the afternoon. Both sides suffered heavily.

Napoleon had returned to France and resumed the throne as Emperor. However, his aims to dominate Europe were impeded by Allied armies advancing on several fronts. Napoleon had planned to advance into Belgium and separate Wellington’s army from the Prussians and then destroy them both. However, after a long day of battle, Napoleon’s army was defeated, and the battlefield was strewn with 40,000 dead and wounded men.

Wellington's sword

Wellington's sword

The White Tower at the Tower of London is home to the Duke of Wellington’s uniform coat, telescope and sword. The Duke was Constable of the Tower from 1826–1852. The coat is finely made with blue fabric with scarlet facings and has epaulettes of gold thread decorated with crossed batons under a crown in silver. The gilt buttons bear an image of the White Tower in silver. His telescope has a brass plate attached which reads, ‘TELESCOPE BY BERGE OF LONDON USED BY THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON AT THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, PRESENTED BY THE DUKE TO SIR ROBERT PEEL’.

Napoleon's Sword

Napoleon's Sword

Also in the Royal Armouries collection is a sword presented to Napoleon I by his friend Alexandre Des Mazis. Des Mazis was a contemporary of Napoleon at the École Militaire and was his close friend. They later served together as officers in the Regiment de la Fère at Valance in 1796. The sword is on display in the War Gallery in Leeds, near a large model of the battlefield made in 1842–43.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Waterloo: A Family's Story

On 18 June 1815 at the battle of Waterloo, the Allied armies under Lords Wellington and Blücher defeated the French, bringing to an end the Napoleonic Wars which had raged for over 15 years. Amongst the Royal Armouries’ archives is a collection of papers relating to the military careers of three brothers; William, Henry and Charles Dawson, which comprises extracts from official publications and from the letters they sent home. The archive was put together by their father, Pudsey Dawson, and their younger brother Pudsey Junior.

Extract from the officer’s list of the 52nd Regiment, including Lieutenant Charles Dawson

Extract from the officer’s list of the 52nd Regiment, including Lieutenant Charles Dawson

William Dawson joined the Royal Navy and served with distinction, on one occasion taking command when his captain was killed and capturing a French frigate. He rose to the rank of Captain and the command of his own ship, but died from fever in Madras in 1811, aged 29. Henry and Charles were officers in the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment, serving during the campaign in Portugal and Spain. Both were wounded in the terrible siege of Badajos, and Henry was killed in 1812 during the retreat from Burgos, aged 24. Charles survived the Peninsular campaign to fight at Waterloo, where he was again severely wounded.

Hand drawn colour map of the Battle of Waterloo, showing the dispositions of both armies on the night before the battle

Hand drawn colour map of the Battle of Waterloo, showing the dispositions of both armies on the night before the battle

The archive includes four maps relating to the Waterloo campaign, showing the countryside of the surrounding area and the troop dispositions on the day. The 52nd fought on the right of the line, close to the famous Chateau Hougoumont, and took part in the repulse of the Imperial Guard which finally broke the French army. Although Charles had survived the war he died aged 25 in 1817. This remarkable collection acts as a sad memorial of a father to his sons, and gives us an insight into some of the personal stories of the Napoleonic Wars.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant