A Quite Interesting Outing

As the National Museum of Arms and Armour we regularly get asked to share our expert knowledge on all kinds of items in our vast collection. The BBC’s QI boffins recently contacted us to find out if during WWI soldiers had been known to urinate on their hot machine guns to keep them cool – rather unpleasant business!

qi-logoWe were able to confirm that soldiers did indeed collect urine to refill the water jacket of their guns in emergencies: “…Often, in a pinch, when water was short we were forced to fill the barrel jacket with urine – it helped make the war a bit personal…” Cpl John Young, 12th Machinegun Company, 4th British Division, First World War. It’s often said that soldiers used their machine-guns to boil water for tea when fresh water was scarce. This was first suggested by war poet Robert Graves in his memoirs and is now thought to be untrue, though one soldier did report using cooled ‘greasy’ water for his tea! In any case, you would want to give the water jacket a very thorough wash before considering a bit of a brew… To ‘demonstrate’ this quite interesting fact we took a Vickers machine gun to meet Stephen Fry and the QI gang, making sure that no one put history into practice!

 

 

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

 The Vickers machine gun was the British First World War version of the Maxim gun, which was named after its designer, Hiram Maxim. The Vickers gun wasn’t declared obsolete until April 1968, seeing over five decades of military action.  The Maxim was the first practical design for a machine gun and fired at a rate of 600 rounds per minute. However, belts contained only 250 rounds, and machine guns were generally fired in short bursts to conserve ammunition and prevent overheating. The popular idea of machine guns mowing down enemy soldiers point blank was the exception, and in fact they were used mainly at long range, like miniature artillery pieces. Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close Special

With Royal Wedding celebrations in full swing this month we’re exploring armours which relate to one of the most influential marriages in British history. The Royal Armouries at the Tower of London is home to ornate armours which belonged to King Henry VIII and commemorate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry was crowned and married Katherine in 1509 when he was 17 years old and she was 23. Katherine had previously been married to his elder brother, Prince Arthur who had died. However, Henry and Katherine’s union ended when after 24 years together Henry sought an annulment of their marriage in his quest for a male heir instigating one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

Henry VIII's armour and detail of tonlet decoration

Henry VIIIs armour and detail of tonlet decoration

The suit of armour is decorated with Katherine’s pomegranates and also has a border of intertwined letters H and K for Henry and Katherine. The armour also features scenes from the lives of the royal couple’s patron saints, St George and St Barbara.

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

This ornately engraved, gilded and embossed horse armour was a gift to Henry from Emperor Maximilian I, the ornamentation features both her badge, the pomegranate, and Henry’s Tudor Rose. The elaborately decorated suit of armour and this horse armour was partly imported from Flanders and some parts were probably made in Henry’s own armourer’s workshop at Greenwich in 1515.

The Tower of London also houses military uniform and polo kit belonging to Prince Charles, on display in the Power House exhibition in the White Tower.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Towton on Twitter

On 29 March 1461 the largest and bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought about 12 miles southwest of York, between the villages of Towton and Saxton. According to the chroniclers more than 50,000 soldiers from the Houses of York & Lancaster fought in blizzard conditions on Palm Sunday 550 years ago.

Towton 1461

Towton 1461

On Saturday 9 April join us on Twitter from our Towton History In Your Hands Seminar to learn more about the arms and armour of the period, find out how the battle unfolded and see images of contemporary pieces from the Royal Armouries collections. We’ll be Tweeting the day’s events live as they happen from 10.30am.

To join simply follow @Royal_Armouries on Twitter or search for #RAseminars on Twitter to join in the action. We’d love to hear any questions you have about the Battle of Towton so please ask away, on the day or in advance – we’re waiting to hear from you!

Power House – Object Conservation 4

Object: Uniform Coat of the Duke of Wellington c.1835 (xvi.8)

Blogger: Suzanne Dalewicz-Kitto, Conservation Manager

This blue cloth uniform with white lining and scarlet facing was worn by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower of London. It has gilt buttons bearing a miniature of the White Tower in silver, and epaulettes made of gold and silver thread.  The coat is in reasonable condition with only a few small holes and surface grazing of the cloth, probably caused by moths.  The main area of interest to our Conservators were the tarnished metal threads and spangles (sequins) on the epaulettes.

Duke of Wellington's uniform

Duke of Wellington's uniform coat

Metal threads are fragile at the best of time.  Some are made from twisted fine metal wire and others are formed by twisting wire around a cotton or silk thread.  When applying treatments to remove the tarnish Conservators have to be careful not to leave residues behind that will ‘rot’ the thread over time.  On these epaulettes there are eight different types of thread design including: dull purl, pearl purl, bright check and Lizardine close.

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

The tarnish was removed by gently cleaning the surfaces with a damp swab using a mixture of carefully chosen chemicals.  This was carried out under a microscope to make sure no metal threads were being pulled away from the epaulette.  Residues where removed again by careful swabbing using deionised water – very pure water that has had any minerals filtered out of it.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London which opens on Saturday 2nd April. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 3

Object: Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

This musket is one of several experimental firearms which are to be included in the Power House exhibition. The musket was designed and made by the gunmaker Richard Wolldridge who worked at the Tower from about 1704 until 1749. Although this particular pattern or design was not issued to the military its does show the general form which British military firearms were beginning to take in the early 18th century.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

The musket was is a very good condition prior to entering the Conservation Lab with only a small amount of old yellowed oil visible on the lock. Even though the exterior of the musket didn’t need a great deal of remedial work the lock mechanism was carefully removed from the musket, after of course checking that the firearm wasn’t loaded.

When working with firearms we will always, where possible, remove the lock mechanism in order to check the condition of the lock’s interior as well as the underside of the barrel. Often the interior of a lock can look very different to its external appearance, with combinations of dirt, old oil or wax and corrosion all potentially present.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Luckily in this case the interior of the lock was in a very good condition with no further cleaning or disassembly needed. The musket was therefore reassembled, making sure that the screws were replaced in exactly the same order they were removed. This is good practise as particularly with older firearms the screws threads will have been hand cut so using the wrong screw can damage both the screw itself as well as the internal thread.

Once the old yellowed oil was cleaned from the musket’s lock using solvent swabs the metallic sections of the object were given a thin coating of Micro Crystalline wax providing a protective layer. Finally the object was photographed and packaged for transport to the Tower of London.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 2

Object: Brass belt plate (mid 19th century) I.979 ii

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

It’s always nice to work on an object which can be related back to a particular person in history. This belt plate is one of a pair of objects relating to the Board of Ordnance’s only identified rat-catcher, Richard Dean.

The plate is the only surviving portion of Dean’s uniform and he can be seen wearing it in a portrait which is to be displayed alongside the plate. The brass belt plate is engraved with a rat shown sitting below the arms of the Board of Ordnance, whilst around the edge the inscription reads ‘Richard Dean, Chislehurst, Rat Destroyer to the Honorable Board of Ordnance’.

Belt Plate

Belt Plate

In order to make the letters and images engraved on the plate stand out a black enamel-like material was originally applied to the object. Unfortunately over time this material has cracked and in some areas has been lost. Where damage to the enamel had occurred traces of a powdery green corrosion could also be seen.  The powdery corrosion was carefully removed from the damaged lettering and other areas of decoration using a scalpel whilst under magnification. Once clean it was necessary to stabilise the enamel to prevent any further cracking or loss, this was done by running a thin adhesive solution into the damaged areas.

Before and after conservation

Before and after conservation

In addition to the problems with the lettering several finger and palm prints were clearly visible and spread across the plate. When we handle metal objects with our bare hands the sweat and oils on our fingers are transferred to the objects and if not swiftly removed can become etched into the objects’ surface. Sadly there is no way of removing finger prints once they are etched into a metal surface without removing the object’s top layer at the same time. Once fingerprints are imprinted they are generally there for good, which is why conservators always ask people to wear gloves when handling or moving objects.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at the Tower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House Installation: Week One

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Creative Programmes

Construction of the Power House exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London began last week. Preparing the gallery for the installation has involved ripping out the old displays, which in an old building can be problematic if unanticipated issues are found.

Often all the pre-planning and preparation done prior to installation can be overturned in an instant – with new solutions and decisions needed immediately. However, with the right project team these moments feel more exciting and a challenge to be solved rather than finding them to be insurmountable problems.

 

Squeezing into the Tower of London

Squeezing into the Tower of London

On day three of the build a clear blue sky greeted the delivery of the crane – an excellent situation as snow or high winds would have meant potential schedule delays. The crane lorry squeezed its way under the Tower’s historic archways and over bridges to take up residence, allowing the removal of the old exhibition material and lift in of new build items.

Craning items in and out

Carefully craning items in and out

By day four it was apparent that the existing showcases had originally been screwed very firmly to the floor and each supporting foot had to be located and unscrewed before they could be moved to their new positions. However, as move after move took place and with a van and 2 builders skips of old material left the site, it was clear that a new exhibition was beginning to take shape.

As the first week drew to a close not only had all the cases been repositioned, they had also received a complete internal fit-out and one of our new cases was also finished. Everything was ready for graphic installation – and then objects…

More images of the installation at the Tower of London can be found on our Flickr page.