Leeds City Museum has been running a remote transcription project to uncover more of the story of what happened to its collections during and after the Leeds Blitz. In this post, two of the volunteers, Jane and Caroline, introduce what happened when the museum was bombed and some background to one of the collections affected.
The Leeds Blitz
On the night of 14-15 March 1941, the Leeds Blitz happened. Locations around the city were bombed including the City Museum, then located on Park Row. At 3.00 am on the morning of Saturday 15 March 1941 a bomb crashed through the roof of the bird room destroying the front half of the building. The bombing caused much damage and destruction to the museum’s collections.
Recently, a notebook was rediscovered in the museums newly-compiled archive which listed items from the archaeology collection that were rescued from the Blitz damaged museum. This notebook contains handwritten lists of objects from the Savile Collection: Pottery, Bronze, Iron, Ivory, Lead and Glass. These rediscovered lists are important today, because they allow us to see which items in the Savile Collection survived the Blitz, either whole or with some damage.
The transcription of the notebook was the subject of a volunteer project running from December 2020 to March 2021. The notebook contains 70 pages of handwriting and some drawings. The writer used cursive script with some abbreviations so careful scrutiny was needed by the volunteer transcribers to decipher the words. The script was written on lined paper with useful headings (e.g. “Miscellaneous Early cornice fragments”) and each found item cross-referenced to page and item numbers from the catalogue of Lanuvium objects documented by A.M. Woodward in 1929. As well as descriptions of the items, the writer noted against specific items those that had been damaged in the Blitz. This information has enabled the compilation of a list of Blitz damaged Savile collection items.
Woodward worked as a Lecturer in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Leeds. His paper entitled “The Antiquities from Lanuvium in the Museum at Leeds and Elsewhere” was published by the British School of Rome in 1929. It was very useful to have Mr Woodward’s catalogue to refer to while transcribing as the handwritten lists included words that I had never met before but are probably well-known in the world of roman archaeology (e.g. “Lesbian Kymation”) and other words that were difficult to identify without context (e.g. “dart-shaped heart of flower”).
It would be interesting to know who compiled the notebook list post-1941 Blitz. It was probably the curator of the museum at that time, H.W.R. Ricketts. After the blast, Mr Ricketts is recorded as saying: ‘I never thought we’d have a “dig” inside our museum. We are still looking for important specimens and making every effort to retrieve them’.
How did these Roman artefacts ended up in the Leeds collection?
Lanuvium, or Lanuvio, as it is called today, lies approximately 20 miles or so south of Rome just off the Appian Way, the main highway of the Roman Empire. Lanuvium was one of the oldest Latin cities. It was a member of the Latin League and remained independent of Rome of Rome until 338BC. The city played a prominent part in helping to defend Rome in wars against other kingdoms and was at its height in the 2nd century AD.
Sir John Savile Lumley was a career diplomat whose hobbies were painting and collecting. Whilst he was British Ambassador to Italy from 1883 to 1888, he led the excavations at Lanuvium and brought his discoveries back to England. In 1896 he donated and split his collection between Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (as Leeds Museum was known then) and the British Museum. Other finds from his excavations at another site in Italy, called Nemi were donated to Nottingham City Museums and Galleries. As the Savile estates covered large parts of Yorkshire (Hardcastle Crags, Hebden Bridge, Emley Moor) and Nottinghamshire, and the family seat was at Rufford Abbey, we can guess he wanted some of the finds to be part of the civic museum collections of the time.
What do they tell us about archaeological methods at the time the finds were discovered?
In order to excavate the Nemi site, Sir John secured a licence in 1885 from the landowner Prince Fillipo Orsini with the agreement that 50% of the finds recovered would go back to the landowner. A guess is that something similar would have happened with the site at Lanuvium. Once Prince Orsini realised how valuable the Nemi findings were, he wanted to go back on this agreement and keep them for himself to sell them to various collectors. The interesting aspect here is that Sir John stopped work as he didn’t want the finds just to be sold off piecemeal for profit and scattered widely. It was unusual at the time to see the value of keeping finds intact, cataloguing them and keeping them in the public domain. Perhaps Sir John was forward thinking in keeping the collections he donated intact so that people could focus on everyday objects to understand the past?
The 19th century saw the development of municipal museums in the UK. Leeds’ early collecting focussed on natural science, as well as archaeology. As cities like Leeds grew in importance, so did the museums, and collecting practices developed. Working on transcribing the inventory of finds from Lanuvium which were on display and damaged in the Blitz has led us as volunteers to consider bigger questions.
As the museum celebrates its 200 year anniversary, do we have the right to keep these collections in Leeds?
By Jane Collins and Caroline Elvin