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Feather's Miscellany: Keighley’s Museums

...I also went into the museum often by myself to reinforce what I’d been taught at school and to let my imagination run riot...

John Waddington-Feather tells of museums in his home town which fired his imagination and inspired his writing.

“The museum in Keighworth had started life in grand fashion. It had been the mansion of a mill-master, when the cold crack in the Pennines the town had crept into was filling with dirty mills and rows of mean terrace houses. At the beginning of nineteenth century, the great house stood in its own grounds a mile or two from the centre of the town.

No expense had been spared. It was still called the Mansion House by the older folk and stood foursquare solid. Large and grand, it had one attribute singularly lacking in Keighworth - refinement. An Italian architect had designed the Mansion House and it was beautifully proportioned. Its drive swept up to a portico and pediment supported by four Ionic pillars. Built to impress, it was still impressive.

The old parkland round the mansion had gone under a rash of terraced houses and mills down Garlic Lane, where Hartley had been born and reared. What remained was named Albert Park and the Mansion House became the Keighworth Borough Museum, a depository for every knick-knack collected by Keighworth’s Victorian upper-crustians on their world tours. Their offspring and antiquarians dumped entire collections in the museum, so that it was stiff with abandoned heirlooms.
From boyhood the borough museum had fascinated him, had become the Revd Detective Inspector Blake Hartley’s second home. A place where his growing imagination was stretched, reaching beyond Keighworth to places across the globe and far back in time. There, realities became dreams.

Rows of moth-eaten big-game trophies stared down glassy-eyed from the walls. Heads of lions, tigers, bison, grizzlies, elephants rhinos, crocodiles - enough to give conservationists nightmares. Beneath was ranged a display of their human counterparts: a grisly selection of shrunken heads from Borneo. In neighbouring cases were murderous aboriginal weapons: clubs, poisoned arrows, blowpipes. Enough to keep small boys staring wide-eyed for hours.

There were other displays: military uniforms, birds’ eggs, moths, musical instruments, stuffed birds. All interesting in their own way to the youthful Blake Hartley, but none as magnetic as the shrunken heads. By the time he was twelve, he went round the world and back every time he entered the museum, without leaving dear dour old Keighworth.

The prize exhibit, the very jewel in that serendipity’s crown, was the mummified body of an Egyptian princess, the daughter of a Pharaoh. She’d been lifted from her tomb years before by Sir Joshua Whitcliff, the eccentric owner of Whitcliff’s Mills at Ingerworth, the other side of town, not far from where Blake Hartley lived. He’d been an enthusiastic archaeologist, and spent years excavating Egyptian sites. After one of his expeditions he turned up with an Egyptian wife, the priestess in a secret sect he’d joined, followers of some ancient Egyptian goddess. The mummy, so they said, was her incarnated form.
She lay bang in the middle of the museum, between the shrunken heads and the birds’ eggs cases. Housed in a box with a glass top covered by black oil-cloth to protect her from the sunlight. Overhead, a glass canopy ran the length of the room, once the ball-room of the old mansion. As a result, the animal heads and displays had faded visibly. The tiger had almost lost his stripes and the lion was the colour of Morecambe sands after a dry spell.

The mummy was fading, too, yet she still had the power to pull. Generations of Keighworthians had stared at her painted wrappings with their mysterious hieroglyphics. But time had begun to have its effect. The remains were crumbling and already one brown toe bone had broken free and lay like an abandoned hazelnut in a corner of the case. The mummy was scary. Straight out of a horror film. There was something cruel, fascinating, about those painted eyes and mouth. No one lurked there when dusk fell.

But it was shortly after dawn one Monday morning when Ernie Hodgson, the janitor, discovered another body on the floor next to it; rather younger than the mummy it lay alongside. Younger by some millennia and freshly murdered.

Ernie had just begun sweeping the aisles, when he was brought up short at the egg display. His brush hit an obstacle, a pair of feet, and Ernie found himself staring into the very dead eyes of a man on the floor. He’d been garrotted and lay as glassy-eyed as the animal heads above him on the wall.
“What the bloody hell!” exclaimed the janitor, as he saw the weal round the dead man’s neck still oozing blood. He dropped his brush and fled. Back to the office to phone the police.”

So opens my crime novel, “The Museum Mystery”, an opening inspired by the old museum in Victoria Park in Keighley, later transferred a mile or so away to Cliffe Castle.

I think it’s fair to say that these two museums were among the first in Britain to pioneer and develop the educational function of museums as well as their antiquarian. Certainly within them were held exhibits which spanned the full range of Keighley’s history, flora, fauna and geology. Case upon case displayed the past: from Stone Age implements through to more recent examples of local crafts like nail-making and handloom weaving. Then there was a display of army uniforms from the Napoleonic wars through to a 1950s National Service and Territorial Army officer’s paratrooper uniform, complete with denizen smock and helmet – mine! Another display held early musical instruments such as the serpent and viol. While right next to them in another case were early medical and dental instruments, which made you go cold and your teeth ache just looking at them.

In another part of the museum was a collection of fancy pigeons bred in the town: pouter and fantails and their like, for Keighley was a great town for pigeon fanciers. And next to them was the original Airedale Terrier, bred in the 19th century but taking his place in the 20th as bright as ever.

The opening of my novel goes into more detail of the musuem’s contents which were transferred to Cliffe Castle Museum and Art Gallery in the 1960s, a move not without controversy. The Castle had been built in the 19th century by the Butterfields, a family of wealthy entrepreneurs who started life modestly enough but soon amassed great wealth, selling their goods all over the world especially to America.
By the middle of the century, they’d enough wealth to build themselves their own castle, a huge pile in the Scottish Baronial style standing in acres of land which had once been a farm. At intervals along its frontage and inside, they set their own newly acquired motto: “Unity Fortifies Strength.” - in Latin, of course.

And they certainly stuck together as a family and married into more money. A family group was depicted in a stained glass window in the newly built Castle dressed in Tudor costume, just to lend antiquity to their new status. In time knighthoods were given to some of the family for services rendered and the Butterfields moved up and up in the world. Some were even presented at the French Court to the Emperor Napoleon III, who features prominently in the collection of portraits in their newly restored drawing room.

They travelled frequently across the water to the States, where trade blossomed, and two of the Butterfields married rich American heiresses. During their stay at the castle they entertained lavishly and added new wings, now part of a superb museum and art gallery currently directed by Daru Rooke and well supported by the Friends of Cliffe Castle.

Two men laid the foundations of both museums as educational centres: Maurice Longbottom, who directed the earlier museum in the 1930s and 1940s. I was at primary school then and taken round the museum as a ten year-old and younger by my teachers to learn about local nature and history. Living nearby I also went into the museum often by myself to reinforce what I’d been taught at school and to let my imagination run riot there like the young Blake Hartley in my novel.

John Ogden was the other director who saw the transfer to Cliffe Castle and was instrumental in extending the museum’s educational role. He offered me a post there when I graduated from university. I didn’t accept it but went into teaching yet I owe much to his encouragement.

Keighley in my youth as well as having a fine museum and a Carnegie Public Library was rich in cultural societies. It had its Natural History and Literary Society, a thriving town Little Theatre among other drama groups, an orchestra, a prize silver band, an art club and a fine vocal union. Little wonder it produced men and women of outstanding quality in the professions and industry and is held dear in the hearts of those who benefitted from it.

John Waddington-Feather ©


Feather’s Miscellany No: 5

John Waddington-Feather
(Published by Feather Books, P.O. Box 438
Shrewsbury SY3 0WN, U.K.)

An annual collection of short stories, poems, music and essays, published on the internet by the Open Writing journal and in other magazines throughout the world.

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