Playtime at the museum

This summer, the museum is bringing back the popular ‘Marble Mania’ installation! And, to tie in with the theme of play, we’ve also added a new toy display upstairs. Read on to learn more on the history of playtime…

If you didn’t catch our giant magnetic marble run in 2019, then here’s a second chance to come and play! Have a go at making a marble run along the gallery wall, and then test your creativity by letting those marbles loose!

Mehen board & marbles | The British Museum

Did you know, the humble marble has been a popular children’s toy for thousands of years? There’s no conclusive evidence for where marbles actually originated, but they have been found in various forms worldwide. 4,000-year-old small clay marbles have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, likely used as game pieces in the ancient game of Mehen, meaning ‘coiled one’, named after a snake deity. The playing board itself took the form of a coiled snake! Greek and Roman children are also known to have played with marbles in a game known as ‘Nux’ or nuts. Sadly, the game rules have been lost to us, but we know that, often, nuts themselves were used to play.

Homemade play

Peg doll bride, c. 1910

While you’re visiting the museum, you can also head upstairs to see a new display of local children’s toys dating from the early 1900s to the 1950s. The toys include a charming doll’s pram, complete with a china-headed doll, that belonged to a young girl who grew up in New Street, just a short distance from St Neots Museum. Also on display is a small peg doll dressed as a bride. She dates from around 1910 and is actually made from a wooden ‘dolly’ peg, used to hang washing on the line! The term ‘doll’ is thought to derive from a shortened pet name for ‘Dorothy’, which gradually began to be associated with any human like figure (which may also be where a ‘washing dolly’ gets its name from, due to its (albeit vague!) resemblance to a human.)

Peg doll with her pipe-cleaner arms!

Peg dolls were popular during times of hardship, such as wartime Britain, when people had little to spend on toys. This particular doll is dressed in cotton lace with a veil, and silk fabrics stitched to the peg underneath to form her undergarments and booties. Her arms are made from pipe cleaners, which enables her to carry her delicate real dried flower bouquet. Sweet!

Another example of an Edwardian homemade toy is the wooden ‘jumping jack’ sailor, who moves his arms and legs when you pull down on his string. Just like marbles, toys like this have also been found dating as far back as ancient Egypt. They were particularly popular in 18th century France, where the toys (called ‘Pontins’) were highly collectable and sought-after items, particularly those that imitated popular public figures of the time. In the Victorian period, paper ‘jumping jacks’ were popular, as they were easy to make and provided a low-cost option for poorer families.

Close up of the peg doll’s bouquet

Mass-produced toys

Other toys on display include a small selection of lead soldiers. Toy soldiers also have a very long history dating back to prehistoric times, including (you guessed it), in ancient Egypt! Tin soldiers were the first kind to be mass-produced in Germany in the 1700s. In 1893, the British toy company ‘William Britain’ revolutionised production by devising the ‘hollow-cast’ method, making soldiers that were lighter (and therefore cheaper!) than their German counterparts. In the Victorian period, toy soldiers were also being made of lead; at this time, there was only a limited understanding of lead as a poisonous substance that could cause serious illness and even death. Certainly, the harm that lead-poisoning could do to young children was not fully realised until the 1960s, when laws banning the manufacture of toys containing lead came into force in 1966.

Edwardian ‘jumping jack’ toy

Our tin doll’s tea set is another example of the cheap and cheerful children’s toys produced for a mass market in the early 20th century. Early tea sets like these from the 16th century would have been made from copper or pewter, though porcelain was also an option for those with the money! The popularity of these sets really took off during the industrial revolution, when they became more easily produced, and, by the 19th century, England was one of the leading producers of tin tea sets in the world.

The final addition to our collection is a 1950s Meccano set, given to the museum by a man who grew up in Russell Street. Meccano was invented in Liverpool in 1898 by Frank Hornby, who had originally intended it as an educational tool for children to learn the basics of mechanics. Marketed as the “toy of the century” during the height of its popularity in the 1950s, Meccano enabled users to build models of structures, vehicles and engines, complete with moving parts and motors.

We love a toy in the museum! Do you remember these from your own childhood? Perhaps you had your very own doll’s tea-set, or were a real whizz with Meccano! We’d love to hear your memories, and, as always, would be glad to receive any local donations!

Now, off you go and play…

Weathering the weather – weather predictions in folklore

“St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, for forty days it will remain.” – or so says an old Scottish proverb…

The 15th July marks the feast day of St Swithin (sometimes spelt St Swithun), an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester from 852-862CE. According to folklore, the weather following St Swithin’s Day is dictated by the characteristics of the weather on the day; as noted in the popular Elizabethan verse (best read in strong Scottish accent):

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain.
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare.

Some versions of the folktale are more specific, stating that the rain must fall on St Swithin’s bridge in Winchester for it to continue for forty days. So why the association with the weather? Well, first a little background is needed.

St Swithin shown in the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, Winchester, 10th century. British Library.

It all begins with Swithin’s end

It’s recorded that on his death in 862CE, Bishop Swithin requested to be buried outside the cathedral, rather than indoors, as was usual for those in his office. According to William of Malmesbury, a historian writing in the 12th century, Swithin left instructions that his body be buried outside “where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high”.

In the following years, his shrine was supposedly the site of numerous miracles, indicating, perhaps, that he was pretty pleased with his chosen resting place. There were reports of SO MANY miracles, in fact, that the later Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester ordered that all monks should stop what they were doing and head to the church every time a miracle happened. According to some stories, the monks soon got pretty fed up of this arrangement though, and began to ignore these orders. St Swithin, it seems, wasn’t best pleased about this, reportedly appearing in a dream to one or two monks, and threatening to stop the miracles if they didn’t start going again! You’d think that this story would have provided ample warning not to mess with the deceased saint’s plans, but…

St Swithin’s memorial shrine in the retrochoir of Winchester Cathedral

In 971CE the decision was made to relocate the saint’s body to a new shrine inside the cathedral. As the move began, folklore tells us that heavy rain began to fall – a sure sign that Swithin wasn’t pleased with the relocation! The story of this aptly timed rain shower (and its persistence for a further 40days!) became associated with the saint’s day forever more (or ‘forever mare’ if you’re Elizabethan).

Just tall tales?

As with many a good story, when we try to trace back to a factual origin we begin to run into some difficulties! Strangely, the tale about the rain can’t be definitively traced to one source, and chroniclers writing as late as the 12th century give no mention of such an event ever taking place. So where did the story of the rain come from? It’s possible that the legend springs from a particularly heavy rainstorm recorded on St Swithin’s Day in 1315, which came to be associated with the retelling of the story. It could also be that this was mixed in with long-standing pagan beliefs regarding the swift change of weather around midsummer; beliefs with some sound scientific basis as it turns out! According to the Royal Meteorological Society:

“The middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer, continental high pressure is able to move in, bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sticks further south, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate, bringing colder, wetter weather”

St. Medard from Les Images De Tous Les Saincts et Saintes de L’Année, 1636, by Jacques Callot. Metropolitan Museum of Art

In fact, St Swithin isn’t the only saint said to hold influence over the weather at this time of year. Across Europe, saints such as St. Medard and St. Gervase and St. Protais in France have similar weather associations on their days on 8th and 19th June, along with the Seven Sleepers’ Day in Germany on the 27th June, and St. Godelieve in Flanders on 6th July. So perhaps St Swithin just seemed the closest fit for our own understanding of this weather phenomenon…

Weather folklore in Huntingdonshire

We have our own folktales associated with St Swithin’s Day, as well as other more widely experienced weather phenomena. Behaviour of the sky, birds and mammals have also been closely studied as a method of prediction since ancient times. The Romans in particular looked to the birds to help predict favourable or unfavourable events. This practice was known as “taking the auspices”, leading to the words ‘auspicious’ and ‘inauspicious.’

Cuthbert Bede in his ‘Notes and Queries’ of 1852-1871 records that St Swithin’s Day was vital to the apple crop in Cambridgeshire, stating that “no apples were deemed fit to eat before this date, and when ripe, they would not keep unless St Swithin rained on them” (Bede 1865).

Tebbutt, in his fantastic book ‘Huntingdonshire Folklore’, records other weather-related folktales, including foggy mornings in March foretelling floods in May, a dark and moonless Christmas Day portending a fine harvest, and rhymes involving the moon:

Near full moon and misty sunrise
Bodes fair weather and cloudless skies.

Another rhyme from Glatton and Stamford centred on St Paul’s Day on the 25th January goes:

If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear
It doth betide a happy year;
If blustering winds do blow aloft
Then wars will trouble our realm full oft;
And if by chance to snow and rain
Then will be dear all sorts of grain.

Tebbutt also records the behaviour of certain birds as being an important omen in St Neots. It was said that rain would come following jackdaws sitting on the highest pinnacles of St Neots church, and that rooks building nests high or low foretold a wet or dry summer. Cats or dogs seen eating grass, and the call of a green woodpecker were also known to be foretellers of rain.

So, we’ll be keeping a keen eye on the rooks, jackdaws, cats and dogs next week as St Swithin’s Day draws closer! You can read more on the folklore of Huntingdonshire in our blog post on folk medicine

We’re celebrating Longsands School’s 60th anniversary

St Neots museum is marking the occasion with a dedicated exhibition on its history. Our curator’s been busy collecting your memories of the school, so here she is with a few recollections from the school’s early pupils…

In 1944, the ‘Butler’ Education Act raised the school leaving age to 15, and secondary education for all pupils from the age of 11 was introduced. Although the school leaving age had been raised to 14 after the First World War, most children would only have attended primary or ‘elementary’ school, leaving school aged 12 or 13 due to the need to find work. Fourteen years after the Act’s introduction, Bushmead Secondary School in Eaton Socon opened in February 1958, serving the Eatons and many local rural villages in east Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. At this time, St Neots’ residents were very disappointed that St Neots still had no secondary school, however, as plans to expand St Neots gathered pace during the 1950s, and the post war baby boom led to more children needing education, plans for a secondary school in St Neots began to develop.

The first day

Longsands Staff, 1967

Longsands School was still being built as the first eleven year old pupils were welcomed to their classrooms on a grey rainy day in September 1960. Understandably, some of the past pupils still have vivid memories of that day. As first days of school go, at Longsands it seems it was particularly chaotic! Here’s some of their recollections:

‘The first day was a rainy day with water everywhere and pupils had to gather on the tarmac outside.’

‘School was noisy with the work of building still going on and muddy as part of a building site; it was several months before the school was finally finished. ‘

‘On the first day Longsands school was in chaos, there was mud everywhere, a couple of janitors were always cleaning and scrubbing the floors, as bulldozers had churned up the ground. It was just a muddle.’

A lasting impression

Longsands Under 13/14 Football side, 1968

Though the first days left an impression of chaos, the school itself had a huge impact on its pupils. Once inside the brand new building, past pupil Rodney Todman recalls that:

‘Starting as a pupil at the brand new Longsands secondary school, in a smart new uniform, was the dawn of a new era. It was a clean new start after the grey war years. Not only was the school building clean but, more soap and shampoo were now available and everyone used them more often as people had a bit more money.’

The school also impressed the local students who had come from the St Neots council school, with its warm air central heating and roller blackboards. The first headmaster of the new school also made a formidable impression:

‘The headmaster at Longsands when the school opened was Mr Whiting, a rather frightening man, his black academic gown would flow out behind him as he marched down the school corridors and pupils would stand aside, backs to the wall, to let him pass.’

Students modelling clothes made in needlework classes

In contrast to the headmaster, one of the PE teachers, Mr Hunter, was ‘a very popular teacher, a lovely man who never got annoyed’. Another teacher recalled by early pupils was the needlework teacher, Jill Handley. Three pupils can be seen here, modelling clothes made in her class by student Gaye Bocock. Ex-pupil Michael Murfin is modelling a dark turquoise leather jacket with orange and black herringbone tweed trousers; which he recalls were ‘rather itchy’!

Discover more on the story of the school from the opening day to more recent times in this new exhibition which runs until 7th August. We’re still collecting information and photographs for the exhibition, so if you have memories, photographs and items that you would be willing to lend, please do get in touch with us at


Deciphering our Celtic coins

From the realistic to the abstract, we take a look at how to decipher the imagery on our collection of Celtic gold coins.

We’re planning on reopening our museum doors on Tuesday 18th May, and we’re kicking things off with a treasure of an exhibition! The Celtic Kimbolton coin hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in 2010, and our museum is now the honoured custodian of this stunning collection or Iron Age currency. Minted around 2,000 years ago by the Corieltauvi tribe (whose territory lay north of St Neots, stretching from Hull in Lincolnshire and across to Leicester), the coins mostly date from 100BCE – 40CE, during the period of the Roman conquest of Britain.

Imagery on the coins

Apollo with chariot on the reverse of the coin, from the Kingdom of Macedon

The designs on the Kimbolton coins are fantastically abstract, but we know that they’re based on a particular coin issued by the Greek king, Philip II of Macedon, who ruled 369 – 336 BCE. On one side, this coin featured the head of the god Apollo, adorned with a laurel wreath headpiece, and on the other, a chariot pulled by horses. Though the Celts worshipped different gods to the Greeks, the imagery on the coins held significance to them within their own religion and customs. So, enacting the age-old theory of “if it aint broke, don’t fit it”, the Celts adopted this imagery as the foundation for their own currency.

Close up of one of the Celtic coins from the Kimbolton hoard, depicting a horse and chariot. Copyright St Neots Museum

At first, the Celtic coins were often direct copies of the Greek coins, maintaining the realistic imagery. However, over time the designs began to morph, becoming highly abstract as the Celts made the images their own. By the time the Corieltauvi tribe had redesigned their coins, they were a long way away from the originals!

Unless you know what you’re supposed to be looking at when you study the Kimbolton coins, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the designs were simply a mixture of shapes and pleasing patterns. BUT there’s more to them than meets the eye, and you might be surprise to learn that they do still depict the same images as the Greek coin above! Don’t believe us? Let’s take a closer look…

Deciphering the Celtic coins

Abstract horse, with rosette and spoked wheels. Image copyright St Neots Museum

Of the two sides of the coins, the horses and chariots are perhaps the easiest to visualise. The horses are constructed by a series of lunate (or crescent) shapes and a triangular head, which has been deciphered as both a harness or even a nose-bag. The chariot often remains solely in the form of a singular spoked or rosetted wheel, which, in Celtic mythology, had links to the sky or solar deities. The Celts worshipped the sun and often used the symbol of a wheel to represent the sun gods or solar calendar in their art. This deeper meaning attached to the wheel could be why it survives as the only original part of the Greek chariot.

The horse was also worshipped by the Celts and was very important in their society. It was used by elite warriors to ride into battle and as a status symbol by those who could afford to own one. Their appearance on the coins alongside pelleted or rosetted ‘sun wheel’ symbols are thought to be a reference to the god Belenos, a solar deity who was thought to ride the sun across the sky in a chariot in Celtic mythology.

An abstract representation of Apollo on the Kimbolton coins (Click to enlarge)

And what about Apollo?

Turning our attention to the other side of the coin, and what remains of Apollo is, err, slightly more difficult to make out! Now, all that’s left is a pattern of abstract dots and shapes representing his hair, face and laurel wreath. This can be hard to see on first appearance, but if we compare the coins with the earlier, more realistic representations, we can see which stylistic elements have been kept to symbolise key features, like his locks of hair, for example.

On the Kimbolton coins, the remains of the laurel wreath look rather like stylised depictions of ears of wheat, and may have been intended to represent the grain grown by local Celtic tribes and then traded with the Roman world – a source of great wealth and prestige for tribal leaders.

Tribute to the gods?

But why more focus on religious imagery on the coins rather than, say, the heads of tribal leaders? Well, it’s long been speculated, that as well as currency, coins were used as offerings to the Celtic gods, and often buried in the ground like the Kimbolton hoard. Offerings may have been more common in times of conflict as pleas for peace and stability, so could it be that the hoard was buried as an offering for protection against the Roman invasion? Or were they simply buried for safe keeping? Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s tempting to guess nonetheless!

For your chance to take a closer look at these stunning coins, drop in to the museum between 18th May and 5th June. You can also read more about the Kimbolton hoard by clicking HERE.

The Kimbolton Coin Hoard. Image Copyright St Neots Museum

Unicorns – a brief history

From ferocious beasts to friendly rainbow spouting mascots, it turns out that unicorns have been around in some form or other from the earliest of civilisations. As April 9th marks National Unicorn Day, we thought we’d take the chance to briefly trace some of their natural history…

Uncertain beginnings

The first dubious nod to unicorn mythology comes from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which, together with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, formed one of the three powerhouse civilisations of the ancient Near East c. 3000 – 1300 BCE. Imagery on seals belonging to elite members of society depict a horse like animal (shown in profile) with a single horn protruding from its skull. Granted, this early link to unicorns IS a tenuous one, and it’s much more likely that these are instead representations of aurochs – a type of large wild cattle that formerly inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa.

A case of mistaken identity

Indus Civilisation seal of a possible unicorn at the Indian Museum Kolkata.

The first written evidence we have for unicorns appears in ancient Greece, not (as you might expect) in writings of mythology but in ‘natural history’ writings, once again on the ancient Near East. The earliest accounts come from the writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. In his book Indika (On India) he includes one of the first references of a unicorn, describing them as a type of wild ass: “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black” – fancy! In the same writings, he also includes descriptions of the oryx (a type of antelope with similar colourings described above) so it’s likely that the two were one and the same.

In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder writes of a fierce animal he calls the ‘monokeros’ (or ‘single horn’, a word with etymological links to ‘unicorn’) which “has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length”. Not the usual imagery we’d associated with these majestic beasts, and no prizes for guessing the animal he was actually describing! Later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo would add to this unflattering description of a unicorn by adding that “they spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime” – hardly rainbows and sparkles!

Aurochs in a cave painting, Lascaux, France

Obviously, in each of the above cases we’re witnessing a great deal of mistaken identity, but, pieced together from all of these accounts, the myth of a single horned beast, known as the unicorn, was born.

Masters of evasion

Along with their physical description, Pliny is also amongst the first writers to describe the unicorns’ character traits, stating that they were amongst the fiercest animals in India and impossible to be captured alive – this would become a running theme to their mythology, particularly in the medieval period.

Writing in the 6th century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes (a travelling merchant from Alexandria), gives a wonderful account of the unicorn’s notorious ability to avoid capture. He tells us that all the unicorn’s power resides in its horn, and when placed in danger, a unicorn would happily throw itself from a cliff to escape, landing expertly on the point of its horn unharmed… Disappointingly, he’s silent on how it then unplugged itself from the ground. Shame.

Unicorns in Christianity

Unicorn from a 13th century church floor, Ravenna, Italy

It’s said that a mistranslation of the bible’s old Hebrew text, even led to the unicorn being mentioned in some versions of the bible. A supposed error when translating the Hebrew term ‘Re’em’ (ox) as ‘monokeros’ effectively changed the word ‘ox’ to ‘unicorn’.

In the 2nd century CE, a Greek Christian text known as the Physiologus (widely seen to be the predecessor of the popular medieval ‘bestiaries’, or ‘books of beasts’) further made popular the allegory that unicorns were strong, fierce, animals, adding that their horn could purify poisoned waters. The book also strengthened another popular belief that had developed, which was that unicorns could only be subdued with the cooperation of a virgin maiden, as unicorns were said to become loving and docile in their presence. This, along with their purifying characteristics, subsequently led to Christ himself being associated with the unicorn, and medieval artwork often depicted a unicorn as a metaphor for Christ.

The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino. Image from Alinari Archives/CORBIS

Symbols of chivalry

In medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol closely associated with chivalry, with heroic lovers and their lady companions often compared to the doting relationship between the unicorn and a virgin. During the Renaissance, in a move away from the Christian allegory, the unicorn became a secular symbol of chastity and loyalty.

From the 15th century, unicorns also started to become popular in heraldry, frequently depicted as a horse with a goat’s hooves and beard, and a delicate spiral horn. They’re often also shown as collared with a broken chain, perhaps as a nod to their immense power and ultimately untameable nature. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, innocence and power, and so became an obvious choice for Scotland’s royal coats of arms.

Healing qualities

Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms

The purifying qualities associated with the unicorn’s horn was such a popular legend that cups reputedly made of unicorn horn were highly valued by medieval nobility as a protection against poisoning. In reality, these cups were most likely made from rhinoceros’ horn or narwhal tusk!

AND unicorn horn as a means for protection didn’t end there… In the 17th century, London newspapers often contained advertisements for miracle elixirs made of “true Unicorn Horn”. These were said to relieve a full-on list of diseases from ulcers and scurvy, to melancholy and fainting spells.

From reality to mythology

‘The Lady at the Unicorn’ tapestry, from a series made in France circa. 1500 – this one representing ‘sight’

Sadly, by the 18th century, belief in unicorns began to wane, as more of the world was explored and traces of these majestic animals were unfounded. It wasn’t until the Victorian era when the now famous ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries (made around 1500, and widely considered to be amongst the greatest pieces of medieval art) were rediscovered, and romanticised by Victorian artists. From this point onwards, the unicorn as a glamorised mythical beast grew in popularity, leading us right up to the present day where the unicorn trend is booming! From unicorn coffees and bagels, to emojis and a whole plethora of accessories, the unicorn ‘brand’ is now inescapable.

It’s certainly come a long way from its ferocious origins!

The origins of the Easter Bunny

Spring is finally here, which can only mean that Easter is just around the corner… One way in which we’ll likely all be celebrating is by buying and eating a chocolate Easter egg, delivered by the Easter Bunny no less! But why are we eating chocolate eggs, and just where did this benevolent bunny spring from? Read on to find out…

As with so many of our ancient customs, the origins of the festival reach far back into the pagan past when our ancestors, as rural farmers, needed to make winter food supplies last until the first crops and animals were ready to eat. Early people believed that the sun went to sleep during the winter, and held celebrations (including the lighting of fires and eating special foods) in spring to welcome the sun back from its rest.

The Easter Bunny

Easter Hare, c.1910

The Easter bunny began life as the Germanic and Saxon goddess of the dawn and the spring, Eostre, whose sacred animal was the hare. The origin of her name comes from the Old English Ēastre, a word referring to “the rising dawn” and the sun rising directly in the east at the spring equinox, marking the time when the natural world comes to life again after the winter. Hares are of course just one of the many animals that breed in the spring – the way that female hares ‘box’ away over-eager males led to the idea of ‘mad March hares’ – but it was their strong association with the goddess that sealed their link with Easter.

Some experts believe that it was ancient confusion over the simple nests (called ‘forms’) that hares make on open ground, with the nests certain types of ground-nesting birds make, which led to the belief that hares laid eggs! Even once this belief was disproved, the idea and imagery clearly stuck!

The hare becomes a bunny

Coneygeare, Eynesbury

The brown hare is native to England and experts believe that rabbits, native to Spain and France, were introduced into the wild in Britain by the Normans after 1066. These rabbits soon multiplied, vastly outnumbering the native hare. Their skill for reproducing, perhaps, made them a more suitable symbol for fertility and rebirth.

We suspect that rabbits were being farmed in Eynesbury during the medieval period because an area close to the River Ouse is still known today as the ‘coneygeare’. Coney was the old name for a rabbit and a ‘coneygeare’ was a rabbit warren. These warrens were large earth mounds in which the rabbits could easily make their burrows and then be farmed for food by the warren keepers.

A Medieval rabbit warren

Very recent research conducted on a rabbit bone from Fishbourne Roman palace has also raised the intriguing possibility that the Roman family who lived there were keeping rabbits as pets. As wild rabbits were not known in England until the Norman invasion, it seems that they did a good job of keeping those bunnies in captivity! 

And what about those eggs?

Along with their misguided association with the hare, eggs are also a very ancient symbol of fertility and new life. Decorating and giving eggs to symbolise the rebirth of the world, lighting bonfires, feasting, singing and dancing were all ancient ways of celebrating the arrival of spring. As Christianity began to spread through the Roman Empire, older pagan practices merged with newer Christian ones and the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. In the Tudor period in England, ancient lore said that the sun danced with joy at the resurrection of Christ at Easter, linking the old and new beliefs together.

Cadburys Easter Egg, 1925. Image: Cadburys

In Germany, the Easter hare was said to bring a basket of painted eggs to good children, and these would then be hidden for the children to find. Queen Victoria, whose mother was German, organised egg hunts for her children at Kensington Palace and this helped to bring the tradition to Britain. The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in France at the court of Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) and it was not until 1873 that Fry & Sons made the first chocolate eggs in England, followed by Cadbury’s in 1875. These eggs were expensive and it was only after the Second World War that the price of chocolate eggs fell, making them a treat that everyone could afford.

Easter traditions around the world

Best bonnets at an Edwardian Wedding

Here’s a few more Easter traditions you might not have heard of… In St Neots it was considered proper, and also lucky, for women to wear new clothes when they went to church on Easter Sunday. From this popular custom (which is found across Europe) developed the idea of wearing a new hat or ‘Easter Bonnet’ on Easter Sunday, and in some parts of the world Easter parades developed.

In Sweden fireworks were set off at Easter to frighten away witches, and in Scandinavian countries people decorated branches and twigs with ribbons, as well as painting eggs and feathers.

In Germany there’s a tradition that an egg laid on Good Friday will last for 100 years! And back in Britain, an old Easter game involved rolling hard boiled eggs down a hill. This can still be seen at Preston in Lancashire, and in America where an egg rolling competition is held each Easter on the lawn in front of the White House in Washington. 

So whether you’re nibbling away at a choccie egg or decorating your own, we wish you a very happy Easter!


The Ides of March – a quick lesson on the Roman calendar

“Beware the Ides of March” – these prophetic words spoken by a soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, are often brought to mind each time the 15th March rolls around. But what actually are the Ides? And is there actually any reason for US to “beware”? Read on to find out…

Julius Caesar was famously assassinated on this day in 44BC, stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate by a group of conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. Today, and largely thanks to Shakespeare, the Ides of March now sticks in our minds as an inauspicious date.

What are Ides?

The word ‘Ides’ derives from a Latin word to divide, and was originally used in the Roman calendar to mark the full moon. For the Romans, the Ides was a day that came about every month, not just in March, but the ‘Ides of March’ marked the first full moon of the Roman year (you may recall from our previous blog post on ‘time’ that the Roman calendar originally began with March, with January and February added later).

Reverse side of a coin issued by Caesar’s assassin Brutus in the autumn of 42 BC, with the abbreviation EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis – on the Ides of March)

The Roman calendar month was originally based on the first three phases of the moon cycle, with days marked by counting backward from each lunar phase. The Roman month began with the new moon, on the day known as ‘Kalends’, and the following days (usually 2-6) were simply known as “X number of days” before the ‘Nones’ – the moon’s first quarter. The ‘Nones’ fell between the 5th-7th of each month, with the following days (8–14) being counted as “before the Ides” (the full moon), which fell between the 13th-15th of each month (still with me?) Afterward, the days were then counted as “X number of days” before the ‘Kalends’ of the next month, and so on.

As the lunar months were different lengths, there was a fair amount of variation on when the ‘Kalends’, ‘Nones’ and ‘Ides’ fell each month, and things quickly got out of whack. So, the Romans decided to fix the length of their months, and in doing so fixed the dates of these calendar days. In the months of 31 days, like March, the ‘Ides’ then always fell was on the 15th, and on the 13th for the remaining months.

Significance of the Ides

The ‘Ides’ were sacred to Jupiter, chief god of the Roman pantheon. On this day the “Flamen Dialis” (Jupiter’s high priest) would lead the “Ides Sheep” along the Via Sacra to, you guessed it, sacrifice. The ‘Ides of March’ specifically, also marked the festival of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year whose feast originally concluded the Roman new year celebrations (remembering again that March used to be the first month of the year before the calendar reshuffle!)

A panel thought to depict the Mamuralia, from a mosaic of the months, El Djem, Tunisia

According to John the Lydian (a 6th century Byzantine writer) in his work De Mensibus (a history of the different pagan festivals of the year), the Mamuralia also took place on the ‘Ides of March’. This less joyful calendar observance involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. It’s thought that the ritual may have represented the expulsion of the old year.

Any reasons to “beware”?..

Should we beware the Ides of March more so than any other day? Well, the short answer is no. As with ANY date in history, you can find a number of grisly events that have also taken place on this day – in 1360 the French attacked the English south coast and commenced a 48-hour spree of rape, pillage and murder; and in 1939 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia – but the date in itself heralds no more portents of doom than any other day.

So, unless your name is Julius Caesar, or you’ve been specifically warned by a Roman soothsayer, you can be pretty confident to approach the 15th March just like any other day…

Surviving the odds – the story of the St Neots Quads

The Miles quadruplets, Ann, Ernest, Paul and Michael, soon to be known the world over as the ‘St Neots Quads’, were born on the 28th November 1935 at 13 Ferrars Avenue, Eynesbury. They were the first British multiple birth babies to survive for more than a few days, and instantly became local celebrities. This is their story…

At first, Walter and Doris Miles, and their two-year-old son Gordon, believed they were expecting the addition of twins to the family. However, with just a few months to go before their birth, three babies were identified in an x-ray, and, as we all know, a fourth surprise was fast on its way!

A medical miracle

With their father Walter Miles, at Ferrars Avenue, November 1935

The babies were delivered just over seven weeks early by local GP Dr. E. H. Harrisson, District Nurse Mailing, and Mrs Miles’ mother; Ann weighing 3lb 12½oz, Ernest 3lb 5oz, Paul 3lb 7oz and Michael at just 2lb 13oz. All were typical premature babies; small, thin and incredibly weak. Their finger and toe nails had not yet developed and they were unable to maintain their body temperatures without assistance. Directly after the birth, Michael, the last to be born, had trouble breathing and had to be given artificial respiration for over fifty minutes before he began to breathe unaided. As they were so tiny, the babies could only suckle weakly and were initially fed sterilized water from a teaspoon by Mrs Miles’ mother.

The press goes quads crazy

The Daily Mirror front page, 29th Nov. 1935

The birth of the quads was an absolute sensation in depression era Britain, and attracted world-wide interest. The four babies became instant celebrities, and their every action was reported in the national and local press. The similar birth and survival of the Dionne quintuplets in Canada in 1934 and the Johnson quadruplets in New Zealand in March 1935 had fascinated the general public, and the quads were no different. Though they were born in Eynesbury, the quads were almost immediately renamed the ‘St Neots Quads’ by the press.

Dedicated medical care

Medical knowledge about how to care for extremely premature babies had come on in leaps and bounds since the early 1900s. Almost at once it was realised that the quads could not be cared for in their parents’ home, as they would need long-term specialist care. Their GP, Dr. Harrisson, decided that the best course of action was to move the babies to his home, The Shrubbery, in Church Street St Neots, where they could have their own dedicated nursery away from the press and well-wishers.

The Quads with Dr Harrisson and Mrs Miles

On the 30th November, they were moved to The Shrubbery, and installed in large south facing bedroom, which acted as their nursery. Here they were able to be to be kept free from infection, and in a warm (constant 25oc / 78F) and humid atmosphere. To ensure the babies had the care they needed, a team of four specialist nurses were sent from Great Ormond Street Hospital, free of charge, to care for them. For the first few weeks, the babies were not bathed, but were rubbed all over with olive oil. They were fed with milk fetched twice daily from Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London, that initially had to be skimmed and diluted by 50% to enable the babies to digest it!

Family life

At first the babies were identified by different coloured wool around their ankles

The high risk of infection, coupled with the need to keep the babies in a warm stable environment, meant that, in the early months, their parents were only able to see them occasionally. It sounds like an unbearable situation for Mr and Mrs Miles to be under, but it also meant that the pair were able to regain some balance and prepare themselves for life ahead. Understandably, Doris Miles needed some time to recover from the birth of her four babies, and Walter Miles was in full-time employment, which he needed to retain if he was to support his much bigger family! There was also Gordon to care for, who was still just a toddler and demanded all the attention that toddlers bring.

Christmas day with the quads

Time spent with the quads was cherished however, and the photo opposite shot by Gaumont British Films for a cinema reel, shows Doris and Walter visiting their babies at the Shrubbery on Christmas Day. Much like with the current pandemic era, face masks need to be worn to help prevent infection in the babies.

Supporting the family

Dr. Harrisson realised immediately that caring for the four tiny babies was going to be enormously expensive, and suggested that a fund should be started to help Walter and Doris Miles care for their children. He estimated that at least £5,000 would be needed, with the local paper noting that Mr Miles was earning just £3.00 a week.

Bounty of £4.00 from the Keeper of the Privy Purse

Existing support was available to the family in the form of a Royal Bounty, first established by Queen Victoria in 1849, for each child of a multiple birth “to enable the parents to meet sudden expenses thrown upon them”. Mrs Miles received a Bounty of £4.00 from the Keeper of the Privy Purse shortly after the birth of the babies.

From the 29th November the St Neots Advertiser opened a fund to help provide for the babies, and donations started to flood into the newspaper offices on St Neots Market Square, and at the homes of both Dr. Harrisson and Mr & Mrs Miles.  Many donations came from local people, but also from across the country, and were listed each week in the newspaper.

Brand ambassadors

The quads receive their first bath by nurses from Great Ormond Street

As the weeks went by, the quads continued to thrive, and on the 1st February the babies had their first actual bath with soap and water! Their lives continued to be carefully regulated and their diets were monitored daily. Gradually they were able to digest ordinary breast milk and then moved on to unsweetened condensed milk with added sugar.

Soon afterwards, the babies moved to Cow & Gate ‘Frailac’, followed by Cow & Gate Half-cream Milk, and this began a longstanding connection with Cow & Gate. The company supported the Miles Quads for many years including helping the family to build a nursery at their new home at 27 New Street, providing baby milk and weaning foods, giving them birthday presents, and finally a grand 21st birthday party in 1956 with other multiple birth babies raised on Cow & Gate Milk. The Quads appeared in many Cow & Gate advertising campaigns, with the income this provided helping Mr and Mrs Miles to bring up their miracle babies.

Image from a version of the card game ‘Snap’ by Cow & Gate


The quads benefited greatly from the external support of health-workers, media, and sponsors, but in the end, it was thanks to the care and love of their sensible and down-to-earth parents that they all grew up to lead normal successful lives. They remained local celebrities throughout their childhoods and were often asked to open fetes, attend special events and pose for photographs. In May 1944 they helped to launch ‘Salute the Soldier’ Week in Sandy, dressed to represent Britain, America, China and Russia.

And it wasn’t just the quads themselves that helped to benefit the community, as a newspaper article from September 1939 reveals. At the outbreak of the war in autumn 1939, Dr Harrisson was asked to help out at the new maternity hospital that was being set up at Paxton Park, Little Paxton. This grand Georgian mansion had been requisitioned as a safe place for expectant mothers to give birth, away from the feared air raids on London. Already by the date of the article, twenty babies had

The quads at the ‘Salute
the Soldier’ celebrations in May 1944

been born at the hospital and up to three hundred babies were expected to be delivered by Christmas day! The article reveals that Doris Miles had given the outgrown cots and baby baths used by the four Quads to the new maternity hospital, in order to help a new generation of babies. Today, St Neots museum has one of the cots (above) on display in the Home Life Gallery, and who knows how many babies may have used it over the years?

Wonderfully, all four of the St Neots Quads are still alive today, and we keep in regular touch with them at the museum. If you’d like to find out more about the quads, do stop in once we’re able to reopen! You can also take a look at these wonderful film reels of the quads growing up, available from British Pathé on YouTube.


Jeremy Bentham – Philosopher, utilitarian, eccentric

This 15th February marks Jeremy Bentham’s 273rd birthday. But, if you’re unfamiliar with the name, never fear! We’ve put together a quick summary of his professional life, along with a list of our top seven of his frankly brilliant eccentricities…

Born to a wealthy family on the 15th of February 1748, Jeremy was somewhat of a child prodigy! We’re told he studied Latin at the age of 3, and went on to attend Queens College Oxford at age 12 to study law. After completing both a bachelors and masters degree in the subject though, he grew to become disillusioned and frustrated with the intricacies of law and indeed of lawyers themselves! He later said of them that “lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished!”

Professional life

Bentham turned his hand to writing criticism of law, suggesting ways in which it could be reformed, and existing society institutions improved. He is most known for his association with the rise of ‘Utilitarianism’, the ethical theory that prescribes actions that ‘maximise the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. He spent his life working on society reforms that upheld this fundamental principle, offering improvements to subjects as wide ranging as religion, poor relief, and prisons. He was also a strong advocate for animal welfare, the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. He was particularly scathing of religion, criticising the influence it held over many societal foundations. He strongly opposed the idea of ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’ – both considered as ‘God-given’ rights – remarking that they were “nonsense upon stilts!” and later published an essay on the subject under the same name.

Plan of Bentham’s Panopticon Prison – Willey Reveley 1791

He also spent many years of his life designing a new prison system that enabled one guard to maintain control over multiple prisoners without the need for physical punishment. His ‘Panopticon’ (meaning “all-seeing”) was based on a circular design with the cells arranged on the outer wall and a central watch tower within. The prison inspector could look into the cells, unseen by the prisoners, at any time – sort of like 18th century CCTV! Bentham anticipated that the inmates would all ‘behave themselves’ under the ‘omnipotent eye’ of the prison inspector, in order to avoid physical punishment.

Bentham the Eccentric

Bentham died on the 6th June 1832 aged 84, but his fight against societal norms didn’t necessarily end there… Perhaps as a final rebuff against the church, Bentham chose a very different manor of funerary practice… Instead of opting for a burial, which would have forced him to pay money to the church, in his will Bentham wrote in detail what was to become of him:

“My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct … he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame…The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing… He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.”

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, UCL

This ‘Auto-Icon’ (or self-image) made from his own skeleton was then directed be housed in a cabinet, and every now and then, was to be ‘wheeled out’ to attend meetings of his utilitarian friends and colleagues. Bentham’s wishes were followed to the letter, and you can still visit him today at University College London!

But not quite all of him…

Originally, Bentham’s own head was intended to sit atop his body (as you might expect!), however the desiccation process went a little wrong, robbing the head of its facial expression and making it look, well, rather creepy! A wax replica head was affixed to his body’s frame instead, and for a time, his actual head was kept and displayed, rather unceremoniously between his feet! Later, the head was placed in a wooden box to give it a little more protection, and displayed in the cloisters of UCL. However, his head proved too tempting a prize for neighbouring students, who stole it and held it to ransom in 1975! (Don’t worry, his head was later returned for the princely sum of £10) You may be relieved to hear that today Bentham’s head is now safely housed in UCL’s conservation safe.

Top 7 weird facts about Jeremy Bentham

And now to our favourite part; here’s a quick list of some of the more unusual facts about Jeremy Bentham:

  1.  He had a pet cat called the Reverend Sir John Langbourne, who ate macaroni noodles at the table, and who Bentham described as “a universal nuisance” (we all know cats like that).  Bentham was a strong opponent of animal cruelty, arguing that “the question is not ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they talk?’, but rather, ‘can they suffer?'”
  2. He had a pet teapot named Dickie that no one else was allowed to touch, and had two walking sticks named Dapple and Dobbin, one of which (whom?) is still displayed with his Auto-Icon.
  3. He may have invented jogging, or ‘circumgyrating’ as he called it, described by his friends of a sort of ‘trotting step’. We’re told that he would rise at 6am and circumgyrate for 2 hours a day before work.
  4. Bentham once wrote to London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs in his front driveway with varnished, mummified corpses, which he said would be “more aesthetic than flowers” and would serve the purpose of de-mystifying death and conquering the human fear of mortality. It’s speculated that by requesting his own body to be preserved as an ‘Auto-Icon’ Bentham hoped to question the religious sensibilities of life and death.
  5. To complement his Panopticon Prison, he wrote a cookbook called ‘Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking’, containing a series of recipes providing the inmates with cheap, nourishing food.
  6. He was the possible inventor of underpants – the conservation itinerary for the auto-icon lists a pair of underpants and two sets of socks (got to keep those feet warm!), and these are now thought to be the oldest examples of underwear recorded.
  7. He invented a game called ‘battledore’ – sounds epic, but basically a game of ‘keepie-uppie’ with a shuttlecock.

February festivals

If the cold, dark days are getting you down, then here’s a blog from our curator Liz to bring you a little cheer!

During the gloomiest days of the year, when spring and summer seem a long way into the future and Christmas and New Year celebrations a long way in the past, it is good to know that February is a short month with several celebrations to anticipate!


The month opens with Candlemas Day on 2nd February. This early Christian festival celebrates the day, when the Virgin Mary went to the temple to be cleansed after giving birth to Jesus, and to present her baby to God. In the medieval church a special mass service was held on the day, which was marked with a candle lit procession, hence the name ‘Candlemas’.

Badgers take centre stage

February Festivals - European Badger

European Badger

February 2nd also marks the midpoint of winter, between the shortest day on 21st December and the spring equinox on 20th March, and this perhaps suggests the ancient farming roots of festivities on the day. It was also a day when traditionally the weather for the rest of the winter could be predicted. Cold and bright weather on the day was said to foretell a cold end to the winter, while mild and wet weather was said to predict a gentler transition into spring.

An alternative name for the day was ‘Badgers’ Day’, as it was believed in some parts of Huntingdonshire (and more widely across Europe) that badgers would wake up on that day, go to the entrance of their sett (burrow) and their actions would predict the weather ahead. If it was sunny, and they could see the shadow of their tail on the ground, then they would go back to sleep as it was a sure sign more cold weather was coming.  When Europeans emigrated to America from the later 1600s they took this belief with them. Then, observing that the behaviour of the North American groundhog was similar to that of the European badger, there the 2nd February became known as Groundhog Day.

February Festivals - Pancake Day

Quads at Pancake Day, 1940

Pancakes and penitence

February is also the month in the Christian calendar when Lent begins. This is the period of denial and fasting which begins with Shrove Tuesday, marking the lead up to Easter. Of course Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day when everyone uses up their milk, eggs and flour ready for fasting in Lent.  In St Neots, the day was marked by the ringing of the pancake bell from the parish church, which continued until 1914. It is obviously no accident that Lent used to coincide with a period when food supplies from the previous year’s harvest might be running low, and so for many people there would be less to eat in February.

February Festivals - Rural traditions

Local haymaking, 1930s

Like Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday (when you were ‘shriven’ or absolved of your sins) has its roots in ancient farming and fertility rituals. In the Roman calendar the festival of Lupercalia was held in mid-February to drive off evil spirits and purify the land, bringing health and fertility in the coming year.

Love is in the air

Also celebrated during February is St Valentine’s Day. The day is said to commemorate the martyrdom of a Roman Christian called Valentine on the 14th February AD269, but how this event became a day celebrating true love is unclear! Perhaps this is another case of an ancient rural tradition – one that states that birds would choose their mate on this day – being given a new Christian meaning by the early Christian church.  Whatever the truth of its origins, Valentine’s Day (and the associated sweet treats to go with it) is now another festival to look forward to in February.

And as for the second half of the month? Well, you’ll just have to hold on to the thought that Spring is just around the corner…