Research & Writing

Picture: Voyage of the Joseph Sprott 1870-1871 Manila to New York wrecked on the Long Strand, Rosscarbery, County Cork Ireland.

Chasing Hares

‘Chasing hares’ is how John Bensusan-Butt, artist and historian, described researching the 18th century locals of Colchester.  John was clearly an addict. He loved his searches, and he chased hares for over forty years. Delving into the archives, he retrieved the records of over 1,000 ordinary people, building an unrivalled picture of living connections in an 18th C British town.

Now chasing hares is fun. I agree with John.  It is a vital part of historical research, but for me there is always a question, something burning in my head that I have to find out. As I collect information, a proposition builds to solve the problem.  Each new piece suggests a scenario, another way of thinking. Whole lives pop into view, secret affairs, dodgy dealings. One minute with 1870s fur traders on a ship from Alaska to Kamchatka, down through Hong Kong and round the Cape towards Helsinki; the next in a dusky boarding house in Manila, looking at a cigar packet left by the bed.

To follow the trail you have to think like the person you track. The world they know is the one you must come to know. Absolute evidence is meaningless without the context from which it arose. Thus I read around the bigger picture, then details make sense and new leads appear; but in research finding out what could not have happened is also useful. More interesting to me than the erratic dance of the hare, is the web of global activity at a single moment in time. My research may begin with one story but the world it plays out in is my subject. The story is its voice.

In the course of my museums work I have researched many histories to be able to invite others on the journey. Often the subject is known but only among academics, and my task is to pull together an account from scattered sources to write for exhibitions, interpretation, and publications.

As an artist and writer I have my own tales to tell. Here are a few of my projects.


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On February 19th 1871 the Joseph Sprott, a 600 ton barque returning from the South China Seas, was driven ashore on the Long Strand, Clonakilty in the earliest dark hours of the morning. The coastguard arriving by 5.00 am could discern no-one on board.  A police patrol on the road from Milltown picked up two wreckers carrying a box from the beach. By dawn the ship had entirely disintegrated and the Board of Trade Wreck Returns recorded a total loss of life.

It was the third ship to be lost on the Long Strand that month. Most attention was given to the steamer the Crescent City that had sunk with crates of silver dollars. A question was raised in the House of Commons, and a lighthouse built on the Galley Head. But of the Joseph Sprott, after a couple of newspaper reports in the Cork Examiner, nothing more was said.

My search for the truth has led me through shipping records, newspapers, colonial developments and business letters in the South China Seas; Burke’s peerage, Irish landownership and tenancies; baptism records, trade directories, and wrecking enquiries. There is but a little further to go to tell the full story of the Joseph Sprott but I am nearly there.

The Galley Head protrudes into the Atlantic like a stranded foot fringed by serrated rocks. The tides and currents swept tall ships into bays either side and the wrecks buried under their sands are uncountable. In good weather and calm nights, for local people it was most useful, in bad it could offer up rewards.

The Wrecking of the San Francisco, Duneen, 1867

The Victorian Dream

IMG_1002 j 1038 st peter'sWhen the 13th Earl of Eglinton put on a Medieval Tournament at his Scottish Castle in 1839, he was re-enacting a scene for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe.’ Only the best in society took part. As the aristocracy and princes of Europe thundered into the lists so did the Argyllshire weather. Everyone slid through the mud and the ladies were drenched, but no-one cared. Over 1,000 of the public turned up to watch and the ticket touts made a fortune, not so the Earl who lost his. Thus began the Medieval Madness of the Victorians.

The Victorian Dream tells the story of how medievalism drove the Gothic revival in church renovation and building, through the material evidence of a dozen English churches.  From the Cambridge students  who sent the public sleuthing to spot the gothic, to Sir George Gilbert Scott reinventing the 14th century to his own ideals, to the ferocious defence of the authentic by William Morris – it is an entertaining story. The churches are worth a visit, they are amazing.

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Widger’s Dig

In 1865, a Devon tailor began to dig back through time in the nearby caves. He was searching to discover the age of the world.

James Lyon Widger dug alone in the dark for twenty years, uncovering the remains of animals right back to the second to last Ice Age. That is 200,000 years of British wildlife, the most perfect sequence ever found.

Cave Hyena foot, upper & lower views, found by Widger 1866. A Monograph of British Pleistocene Mammalia, by W Boyd Dawkins

When he found the teeth and bones of over 600 hyenas mixed up with woolly rhinos and baby hippos, James thought them evidence of Noah’s Flood, for he was trying to prove the Bible right and Darwin wrong. His astounding discoveries achieved the reverse.

The story of James Lyon Widger and his dig is known only amongst palaeontologists. In his own time he was the wrong class and working from the old view, just as the battle boiled for the ancient age of the world. William Pengelly, the leading expert in excavation, ignored him.  James died impoverished, his collections mostly lost.

I pulled together sources from museums, recent excavations, and the short biography of Widger (Walker and Sutcliffe); and connected them to the history of Ice Age theory, the evidence of glaciations, and the fauna timeline for the Cattedown Bone Caves from the Devon Karst Research Society. Professor C. K. Brain’s study of hyena predation in African Cave Taphonomy, which begins with a discussion of Widger’s finds in the Torbryan Caves, gave insights into who was hunting who in Torbryan.

What did we do with all that? Created interpretation in Torbryan Church so that all visitors and locals today can discover Widger’s Dig. Widger’s Dig

NB No access to the caves, SSSI protected site.

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