The Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society
The origins of the Museum lay in a society known as the Warwick and Leamington Spa Phrenological Society which was established in 1834.
This society changed their interests and purpose to natural history, geology and archaeology. Hence the establishment of the Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society in 1836. One of the leading men was Dr John Conolly, an eminent psychiatrist, who became the first secretary for the Society.
Initially the Society only employed an attendant and cleaner and relied on Honorary Curators in their various interests to care for and display the collections. This caused some difficulties. In 1889 the committee allowed a newly appointed attendant, an artist, to do his art work ‘if he have leisure after duly and properly attending to the necessary work of the place’.
The museum’s collection grew from gifts and donations of various kinds from local supporters. Members of the Society also actively collected specimens through fieldwork. One notable addition was an ancient Egyptian Mummy, donated in 1850 and publicly unwrapped for curiosity – something which would not happen today.
Committee reports show that the Society was very popular from the outset. They also show how the Society struggled to keep up with the costs of maintenance and increasing need for new display cases.
Phrenology claims to be able to determine character, personality traits, and criminality by the shape of the head. It was developed by a German physician, Franz J. Gall at the beginning of the 19th century, and became very popular. It has since been dismissed as a pseudoscience.
The Market Hall Museum
The Market Hall was built in 1670 and originally had open arches for market stalls with meeting rooms above. The ground floor arches were infilled in 1879 as the museum expanded and the whole building was taken over by the Society.
In the early 19th century there was considerable public interest in the structure of the natural world, natural science and archaeological collecting.
A group of local men decided to form the Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society. At the Society’s first meeting on 24th May 1836 the foundation of a museum was identified as one of its primary aims.
The Society hired some rooms in the 17th century Market Hall in the centre of Warwick, now the headquarters of Warwickshire County Museum Service. There they displayed archaeological, natural history and geological objects, many collected locally from Warwickshire. Through field collecting and gifts from individuals, the society’s collection grew quickly. More display space was needed and by 1840 the whole of the top part of the Market Hall was in use.
The museum was initially only open to subscribers and their families, with each subscriber having the privilege of bringing a friend to the museum. Non-subscribers had to pay one shilling; a significant amount in those days. This must have excluded the majority of the local population. Eventually the museum opened its doors to the general public for free from Whit Monday 1847. The museum committee reported that ‘Hundreds of visitors conducted themselves with the utmost decorum’.
The Society collected a wide range of materials, including zoological, botanical, rocks, minerals, fossils and archaeological objects and skeletons. This was not limited to any geographical area. This policy of collecting had changed over the years to only accepting objects with Warwickshire connections.
Bad Times for Warwickshire Museum
The Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society had benefited from the enthusiastic support and membership of the local gentry. It particularly flourished under the influence of the eminent geologist Rev. Peter Brodie. However, in the late 1880s its supporters were dwindling and this brought financial problems.
The museum appealed to the public for support, but the 1882 Committee reported: ‘although a recent appeal to the rich and influential residents of the County has been made, the Council regrets to say that as a result of 200 applications, only £1 and 1 shilling has been received’.
With the lack of financial and public support the museum declined. At the same time the Society lost one of its most influential Honorary Curators, Brodie, who died in 1897. From the late 19th Century, the museum was saved by the efforts of William Gibbins, a local landowner and a Quaker. He paid for repairs of the Market Hall and the redisplay of the collections. In 1932 the Society offered the collections to Warwickshire County Council. By accepting this offer Warwickshire became the first council in Britain to take responsibility for a museum service.
The county’s museum had its first permanent curator, whose task was to remove the collection from the Market Hall for refurbishment. When the Second World War began in 1939 the building was taken over by the army. The collection was then stored for the next ten years and left without proper care. Disillusioned, the curator resigned.
A new curator was appointed in 1948, and the museum began to be revived. Local support for the museum was poor. Newspaper articles were negative: one councillor commented on the museum collection as a ’tremendous lot of junk’. However, the museum did have some people fighting its corner and it was refurbished and opened again after 10 years.
From the museum’s days as Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society it has developed, with its ups and downs, into the extensive countywide service it is today.
Reverend Peter Brodie
Brodie was born in London 1815 and attended the Royal College of Surgeons. His passion and fascination for natural history and geology started at an early age. In 1834 Brodie studied Divinity at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. During this period he conducted his own natural history and geological field studies of the area. It was from these studies that he later published a paper entitled ‘A notice on the occurrence of land and fresh water shells with bones of some extinct animals in the gravel near Cambridge’. This was his first publication.
Brodie was ordained as a deacon in 1838 and the following year he became a priest and lived in Buckinghamshire. In 1851 he was appointed Vicar at St Lawrence’s Church in Foleshill, Coventry and so he moved to Rowington.
His enthusiasm for geology and natural history never ceased. He joined the Warwickshire Natural History and Archaeological Society and was soon made an Honorary Curator of Geology. He founded the Warwickshire Naturalists and Archaeologists Field Club and donated many of his privately collected specimens to the Society.
Brodie died in 1897. His personal collection numbered some 25,000 specimens. Over the 30 years he was Honorary Curator for the Society he had built the geological collection up to around 10,000 specimens. Many of these can be clearly identified amongst the museum’s present-day collection.