Lancaster Museum

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Lancaster was only made a city in 1937 but its story can be traced back to the Romans who established their ‘castrum’ or fort by the ‘Lon’ or river Lune.

I am familiar with Lancaster but until very recently had never visited the city Museum, a modest building which one could easily walk past without noticing. It isn’t grand or ornate, but typically of Lancaster buildings it is constructed from stone and blends in with its surroundings. Ironically, it came to my attention on my most recent visit due to the scaffolding, plastic sheeting and forlornness which surrounded it. Thinking it had closed, I carried out a closer inspection, and at the bottom of a polythene walkway found a way in and a warm welcome. There began an hour long exploration of kings and castles; Saxons and stone carvings; industry, craftsmanship, culture and conflict.

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This Roman milestone stands in a somewhat incongruous position at the top of the staircase where the chintzy curtains and electrical wires appear at odds with this object of antiquity. It was made during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (builder of the border wall between England and Scotland)  between AD 127 and 138 and informs onlookers that it is four Roman miles to Lancaster from the spot in Caton where it was found in 1803. Here are some more relics of Loncastrum life….

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An altar dedicated by one Julius Januarius (great surname!), a retired soldier. This home altar was dedicated to a meadow god associated with the river Lune.
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A tomb stone discovered in 2005 near to the main Roman road leading into Lancaster
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Third century carvings which were probably part of a shrine. The heads represent the four winds

Moving on a few strides and several centuries we find ourselves in Lancaster of the middle ages. There are many examples of Celtic and Saxon crosses in ancient church yards all around England, especially in the north. The two below were found during excavations of Lancaster Priory Church.

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Most interesting to me were the informative displays about Lancaster during the industrial revolution, and its development as a centre of stained glass manufacturing.

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At the height of its fame in the late Victorian era, the company of Shrigley and Hunt ranked among the leading designers and manufacturers of stained glass in Britain, rivalling the better-known contemporaries such William Morris and Company
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John O’Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

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The skill of glass making flourished in Lancaster from about the 1870s in response to the growth in church building and the number of prestigious homes which boasted luxurious stained leaded windows.

James Williamson, Lord Ashton, was a leading industrialist and one-time mayor of the city whose family firm produced linoleum (see my blog on Williamson Park). Some fine examples appear in this display cabinet. A few of these fine specimens have cool retro appeal. Oilcloth and linoleum were big business in Lancaster for over a hundred years from the 1840s until the second world war and at the industry’s height it employed over half of the city’s work force.

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Examples of the city’s metal trades are also showcased

What local museum is complete without a badly turned out mannequin or two…or three…or more…? Lancaster has not fallen short and my particular favourite is the lady below undertaking wash day duties. I have early childhood memories of my own grandma having a dolly tub in her out house, decades after it had seen its last load of laundry.

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Lancaster has a proud military history and a section of the Museum celebrates this. I was very interested in looking at the various exhibits which had belonged to real men who had fought in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, some who died and others who survived to tell their stories. Some of their personal possessions have been donated by family members still living in the Lancaster area.

I was fascinated by the fabric and sewing detail on these uniforms and the fact that some of them looked so small, clearly worn by slim soldiers. It’s difficult to gain a sense of the proportions from this photo.

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On the left we see a regular officer’s coat of the Fourth King’s Own Royal Regiment from around 1820. In the centre is the coat of an officer of the First Royal Lancashire Militia from 1794 – 98 .To the right is the tunic of an officer of the 10th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.

 

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A German snare drum embellished with the red rose of Lancashire
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This beautiful Coptic bible was the personal proper of Lieutenant Bray and was donated by his family.

 

More mannequins model military attire and weaponry of different eras. In the first picture a kilted Scottish rebel awaits his fate.

This little museum has no cafe, gift shop or any of the multi-media and interactive attractions we have become used to nowadays, but it’s well worth a look if you’re in the city and want to learn more about the story of Lancaster.

 

 

 

 

Williamson Park and the Ashton Memorial, Lancaster: The Lino King’s folly and a view to die for

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The wildflower garden taken during a summer visit to the Park

 

Lancaster is the county city of Lancashire and is a place steeped in history. It’s only a small city but has many buildings of historical interest. The city is on a hill, and that, along with access to the river Lune (and from there to the Irish sea) made it an attractive prospect to the invading Romans who bestowed upon it its name – the fort near the Lune. Looking down on the city from near to the top of the hill is the Ashton Memorial, instantly recognisable on the Lancaster skyline even on a grey day in December.

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The Ashton Memorial has been compared to the Taj Mahal, not necessarily suggesting that it is grand or exotic, but because it was built as a shrine in remembrance of a much-loved deceased wife.

James Williamson, or the Lino King, was a very rich and successful business man and philanthropist from one of the city’s most eminent mercantile families. He was also one-time Mayor of the city. The family firm specialised in producing oilcloth and linoleum which they exported all over the world, hence the moniker, The Lino King. Another more formal title bestowed upon James Williamson was that of Lord Ashton. The granting of this baronetcy was always controversial as rumours ran rife that the great man had oiled not just cloth, but the palm of the then Prime Minister to secure the title. Williamson always strongly denied this, but the mutterings continued throughout his life time, leading him in the end to fall out with his home city and become a rich hoarder recluse in London.

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James Williamson, 1st Baronet Ashton

Lord Ashton commissioned the 150ft folly to be built after the death of his wife, Jessie, Lady Ashton. It was designed in the Edwardian baroque style by architect John Belcher and construction started in 1907. Ironically, by the time the Memorial was completed two years later Lord Ashton had remarried.

The grand copper dome of the folly can be seen from far and wide; you are sure to spot it when travelling north on the west coast main line or driving northbound up the M6 motorway. Around the outside of the dome are sculptures which represent commerce, science, industry and art, whilst the same are represented in the form of allegorical paintings on the inside. Unfortunately (for me, not for the people within), an event was taking place at the time of my visit, so I couldn’t peer in through the windows to take photographs of the interior. The folly is a popular venue for weddings and exhibitions, though it wasn’t clear what was taking place on this occasion. I can confirm that though my view was restricted, I didn’t spot any lino whatsoever on the floor.

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The Ashton Memorial affords wonderful views of the city of Lancaster spread out below, and of Morecambe Bay beyond.

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These wonderful views would have been the last thing on the minds of the many convicted criminals who were sentenced to hang on the gallows which stood on the same spot centuries earlier when it was moorland. Long before James Williamson’s time, this place was known as ‘Hanging Hill’ where saints and sinners alike were taken to their fates after trial at Lancaster Castle. Some of those hanged here during the 17th century include the Pendle witches and Catholic martyrs who were later made saints such as Edmund Arrowsmith and Ambrose Barlow. There is no notice or tribute near to the folly, though one exists at another location outside of the Park grounds.

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Williamson Park is a popular place for relaxation and recreation and includes a butterfly house (which I didn’t visit), a café and lots of lovely pathways through wooded areas and lush gardens. The estate was eventually bought by the city of Lancaster for the enjoyment of residents and visitors like me. I find that quite fitting as the land belonged to the city long before Lord Ashton and it’s a lovely place to spend some quiet time.

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