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.

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.

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.

Leeds’ Library gets a makeover…

The Leeds’ Library has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Antique oak bookcases, obtained from the National Maritime Museum (NMM), have replaced the former, rather bland metal shelving.

The Library at Royal Armouries, Leeds before…

The bookcases came from the old Caird Library at the NMM where they had stood since it opened in 1937. They were originally designed with the help of the Maggs Brothers, an eminent rare books dealership who still trade in London today, in consultation with British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens is famous for designing the Cenotaph in London, the Thiepval Memorial and much of New Delhi. The bookcases became redundant as the Caird Library has moved to the new Sammy Ofer wing at the NMM, and the Royal Armouries jumped at the chance to save some of them, and bring them to Leeds.

Moving the bookcases turned out to be a logistical nightmare. They easily break down into 8 pieces, however each one is still over 3 metres long, ranging from 60kg to around 140kg in weight. Narrow and twisted corridors meant that there was only one way to get the cases into the Library (short of removing windows or knocking holes in the wall) by lifting them onto the mezzanine and carrying them straight through the curators’ office!

Now where did I put the instructions…?

Once in the Library, the bookcases had to be assembled and remodelled to fit a much smaller room, which was done as sensitively as possible to respect the original designs. The new Library looks incredible and there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from staff and the public – the main comment being that it now looks like a “proper library”. The atmosphere has been drastically transformed to a much more academic setting, and a section of the old Caird Library has been saved.

The Library at Royal Armouries, Leeds after…

Blogger: Jasmin Patel

Behind the Scenes: Kings of Cloth of Gold

We spoke to Set Designer, Ruth Paton about having history at her fingertips as she prepares the scenery, props and costumes inspired by the Royal Armouries collection for Kings of Cloth of Gold.

Emanuel Brierley as King Francis I and Dominic Goodwin as King Henry VIII

What inspiration have you taken from the Royal Armouries’ collection?
The amazing thing for me was being able to see the actual armour that Henry VIII wore. As it is a complete head to toe body shield with no part of him showing, you can really imagine that he is inside there. It was moulded to his body and so you get a feeling of his physical presence. There is also a beautiful tent on display, a replica of one in the famous panting. It is very impressive and a good reminder of the display of power shown from both sides. We have to come up with something that alludes to the scope and grandeur of that scene.

What props are being used from the Royal Armouries?
We have generously been allowed to borrow some gorgeous and authentic costumes and I think we will be borrowing some weaponry, swords and daggers too.

Tell us about the set and costumes.
It is quite a difficult brief. I must provide the different locations that the text demands, demonstrate the vastness and wealth of the tents and palaces both nations brought with them, whilst at the same time design something that can be put up and down quickly on the tour. It also has to be versatile enough to fit into a whole range of different performance spaces, from village halls to proscenium arches. So, we have come up with something golden and tented, which can be manipulated by the actors on stage to imply different locations. The costumes have come from the Royal Armouries and the Royal Shakespeare Company and are as sumptuous as you would expect for the early Tudor period.

What does it mean to you to have the resources of a museum’s historical collection at your disposal?
I consider it a great privilege to have behind the scenes access to the museum and it’s staff. Meeting Karen Watts, Senior Curator of Armour, was completely inspirational. Her knowledge and passion was infectious. I was interested in her description of handling historic artifacts and the art of “reading” them. She spoke about the importance of passing on her knowledge. In a far lesser way, I also feel responsible for describing history although I must admit to using a huge pinch of artistic license- my world is that of make believe after all.

What stage of preparation are you at now?
Well, I am writing this from the train to Stratford Upon Avon where I have an afternoon in the costume store looking for suitable things. Scale drawings are on my desk at home ready to be sent to our production manager Steve and I have fabric samples in my bag of the fabric for the tents as I am trying to make a decision.

Kings of Cloth of Gold by Angus & Ross Theatre Company, premieres at the Royal Armouries on 29 September 2012.

For more information and to book tickets visit our website here.

Count Factula…

Ahead of the How to Kill A Vampire seminar hosted by Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, we are sharing what you never knew, thought you knew and wished you didn’t know about Vampires!

Vampire Slaying Kit purchased by Royal Armouries

Unusual Slaying Techniques
If myths are to be believed, a clove of garlic, a stake through the heart or a strong Christian belief and cross in hand would be the weapons of choice to fend off a vampire. However, one way you may not have heard of is to throw seeds (usually mustard) outside the door or place a fishing net outside a window. Vampires are compelled to count the seeds or the holes in the net, delaying them until the sun comes up.

Never invite a vampire in
Thresholds have historically held significant symbolic value, and a vampire cannot cross a threshold unless invited. The connection between threshold and vampires seems to be a concept of allowance. Once a commitment is made to allow evil, evil can re-enter at any time.

Not even the fruit bowl is safe!
Certain regions in the Balkans believed that fruit, such as pumpkins or watermelons, would become vampires if they were left out longer than 10 days or not consumed by Christmas. A drop of blood on a fruit’s skin is a sign that it is about to turn into a vampire.

Vampires on screen
By the end of the twentieth century, over 300 motion pictures were made about vampires, and over 100 of them featured Dracula. Over 1,000 vampire novels were published, most within the past 25 years.

Dracula Disease
Vampires are said to have pale skin, not have a reflection in mirrors, and grow fangs. Doctors believe there may be a medical explanation for the proliferation of vampire stories in Eastern Europe. Porphyria (also known as porphyric haemophilia or Dracula disease), a hereditary blood disease, was once widespread among the aristocracy. Patients were sensitive to light, developed brownish teeth, and had skin lesions. They were often told to drink blood from other people to replenish their own.

Come along to the How to Kill a Vampire seminar to delve deeper into the history of slaying vampires in both folklore and fiction, and discover the real story behind the mysterious vampire killing kits. Get up close to the kit and join in a discussion with Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms at Royal Armouries in Leeds, who has a particular interest in the mythology of arms and armour as well as popular culture and the supernatural.

With Halloween just around the corner, what better way to prepare than with a crash course in protection from the undead…just in case!

How to Kill a Vampire
The Bury Theatre, Royal Armouries Leeds
Tuesday 30 October, 7pm

For more information and to book tickets visit our website here.

Facts courtesy of www.facts.randomhistory.com