Rediscovering Roman St Neots

We’re preparing to Meet the Romans at the museum in March, so here’s a short blog from our curator on St Neots’ Roman past.

What was life like in Roman St Neots? Well, thanks to major road building schemes along the A14 and the A428, coupled with new housing developments across the region, we’re discovering fascinating new information to help us build a better picture of  our town in the Roman period, 43 – 410AD.

A nail driven through the heal of a male skeleton found at Fenstanton, potentially a sign of crucifixion. Image: Albion Archaeology

Recently published discoveries at Fenstanton (only eleven miles from St Neots) include the skeletons of both men and women who are thought to have been slaves working in a meat processing factory. One male skeleton in particular has been drawing international attention. Found with a nail through his heal, he is thought to bear evidence of crucifixion, the first example of this punishment ever recorded in the UK!  Three other skeletons also showed signs of traumatic injury, having had both legs broken at some stage in their lives, another punishment usually reserved for slaves. The man who had been crucified also had wasted leg bones, suggesting that he may have been forced to wear leg shackles that limited his movements. What must local people have thought about the way people were being treated only a few miles away?

A patchwork of settlements

Over the years, local finds have revealed that the area around St Neots was a patchwork of small farms and growing settlements during the Roman period. New archaeological finds at Wintringham, just east of the old historic centre of St Neots, have revealed a network of tracks and Roman roads linking local people together, including a road to the important local Roman town of Durovigutum, (now Godmanchester). At Wintringham, archaeologists have excavated over 3,000 sherds of Roman pottery, as well as the bones of many farm animals, including cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses.

The Kimbolton Coin Hoard. Image Copyright St Neots Museum

Historic archaeological excavations in the 1960s provided early evidence that this area was increasingly densely settled by the Roman period. Iron Age buildings and Roman pottery found in the town centre of St Neots (on a site behind Cambridge Street, where Church View stands today) confirm that local Britons were already living here in their traditional round houses by the time of the Roman invasion in AD 43. Other early discoveries include a Roman villa with underfloor heating discovered close to the Conygeare in Eynesbury, and three stone coffins found in 1968 near the Duloe Road (Bilberry Close, Eaton Socon). The stone coffins reveal that some local families were wealthy enough to afford lavish burials.

Other finds in the villages surrounding St Neots reveal the growing local population during the Roman period, and include a substantial villa outside Great Staughton, and the Kimbolton Coin hoard of sixty-seven gold staters, both further evidence of the wealth of the area.

Read more about the coin hoard HERE, and find the Fenstanton article HERE

Come and ‘Meet the Romans’ on Saturday 12th March at the Friends of St Neots Museum family open day. Meet members of the Longthorpe Roman Legion, resplendent in their replica armour and find out what life was like for a Roman soldier. Try on armour, discover the work people did, the clothes they wore, and the cosmetics they used.

Book your tickets for timed entry HERE

Market Square in 1855

A brief history of photography

This month, our curator delves into the history of photography and takes a look at the early photographs taken of St Neots.

The first temporary exhibition of 2022 is ‘What a Beautiful World’ a photographic exhibition by local amateur photographer, Peter Hagger.  Today, almost everyone in the UK carries a camera as a feature of their mobile phone, but just when were cameras invented, and what do the earliest photographs of St Neots show? Here’s a brief history…

Camera Obscura

The early days

The camera obscura, which utilises light passing through a tiny hole into a dark room to produce an image of an outside scene, has been used for at least two thousand years, but the ability to preserve the image by fixing it permanently to another surface was only discovered in the early 1800s

The invention of the Daguerreotype in 1839 made possible small photographic portraits on metal, and these quickly became popular despite the slow production process, and the need for the subject to remain totally still while the photograph was taken! By the early 1850s, a new process using a glass plate to create a negative from which a positive picture could be printed, had been invented and soon grew in popularity. By December 1854, the photographic portrait had arrived in St Neots. Records show a Richard and Ann Spring of Peterborough visited the town and advertised ‘30 second portraits with frame for five shillings’. This new, simplified photographic process meant that wealthy enthusiasts were now able to photograph their local surroundings, and enterprising traders, often chemists who had the technical know-how, set up photography studios.

The first pictures of St Neots

Market Square in 1855

Market Square in 1855

The earliest known photographs of St Neots are to be found in editions of Gorham’s ‘History of Eynesbury and St Neots’. This was first published in 1820, but later rebound editions contain additional information and images, including early photographs of the town dating from the 1850s. A photograph of 50 – 52 Market Square (currently Caffe Nero) shows the building between 1848 and 1855 when David Tomson, Printer and William Mole, Chemist and Druggist occupied parts of the building (before Mr Mole moved to 30 Market Square in 1855.) Other early photographs in the book show St Neots in 1863. This was the year that Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark on the 10th March, and the entire

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII's wedding celebrations

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII’s wedding celebrations

country celebrated the happy event with a national holiday. Local surveyor, architect and photographer, William Jackson of Eynesbury photographed the St Neots street decorations and so gives us a glimpse of the main streets of the town. The photograph of the Cambridge Street decoration shows a large cedar tree, which must be one of the trees that gave the later school and the current doctor’s surgery in Huntingdon Street its name.

During the 1860s, camera ownership was still limited to wealthy families, but photographic studios gave almost everyone access to a photographer, and studios were soon recording weddings, children, sports teams and local events, such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee celebrations of 1897. In the 1860s, police forces began to get in on the action, recognising the ability to capture portraits of criminals. From the early 1870s, every prisoner entering Huntingdon Goal was photographed, giving us some of the earliest local images of working people.

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Picture postcards

Postcard from the museum Wills Collection, c.1915

In 1894, the British Post Office decided to accept picture postcards as letters, and the ability to send a postcard for only half a penny made them hugely popular.  In 1902 the divided back postcard arrived, and photographic studios began printing photographs readymade to send as postcards. Postcards became the text messages of their day, with millions of cards sent over the next decade, fuelling an explosion in local views, comic scenes and portraits. Hundreds of St Neots postcards in the museum’s Wills Collection date from this period.

Photography hits the mass market

In the late Victorian period, George Eastman of New York developed photographic film, and in 1901 he launched the Kodak Brownie camera. This introduced photography to a mass market, although general camera ownership did not boom until wages rose in the 1950s.

Portrait of Tom Eayrs 1915

It was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that ended the boom in postcard sales, but created a huge demand for portrait photographs. This was fuelled by the wishes of millions of ordinary people to have a photograph of their loved ones whilst separated from them by the war. Millions of families still have these treasured portraits in their photo albums and the museum has a number in its own photographic collection.

This surge in demand for photographs enabled photographic studios to prosper, and James and Sarah Phillips ran photographic studios in both Biggleswade and St Neots. Ernest Albone took over their St Neots studio in 1920 and continued in business for the rest of his working life. Both Phillips and Albone produced photographs of people and places, as well as postcard series of St Neots, which show the town growing across the decades.

The rise of amateur photography

Carnival Queen Denise White, 1970s

The production of a wide variety of cameras for the mass market in the 1950s led to a new era of amateur photography and the introduction of colour film for the general public. Photographs in the museum’s collection from this era show everything from local views to the St Neots Carnival, which took place every summer from 1948 to 2008.

Today, the world has moved on from film cameras to digital cameras and a new way of capturing images has emerged. Research into digital images begun in the 1950s, and the first digital image was sent over the brand new world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1992. The first mobile phone with a camera did not arrive until 2002, when the Nokia 7650 was launched. Today, photography has lost some of its novelty, but photographs remain a precious way of recording our loves and loved ones – yet another debt we owe to the remarkable Victorians!

See our latest photo exhibition in the museum until the 12th March 2022, and join us for Meet the Photographer sessions on Saturday 19th February and Saturday 12th March.

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger

Building St Neots

In this brief blog, our curator takes a look at the history of building work in St Neots…

January is often a time of new beginnings and new projects. Following the impact of the pandemic, this year more and more of us will be turning our attention to our homes in an effort to create a fresh space in which to inhabit! The phrase ‘build back better’, apparently coined in 2015 by the United Nations in relation to disaster relief, has also been in heavy use. All of this combined, led me to thinking about the amazing mixture of buildings and building styles that have graced St Neots throughout its history, much of which can still be seen today.

A photo of 42 High Street, taken in 1975

Past building fashion

The oldest buildings still standing are timber framed buildings, the most notable of which is 42 High Street (currently the Kodak shop), which dates to the late 16th century. A quick trip around the area reveals many other such buildings in Eaton Socon, Eynesbury and in local villages. Some periods in history are well known for the ‘building booms’ that took place. A ‘great rebuilding’ of domestic housing was said to have taken place in England between 1570 and 1640, replacing old medieval buildings with these sturdy new timber ones.

Lovett Lettings Agency, with its Georgian brickwork -St Neots Market Square

Another period of major rebuilding and refurbishment took place during the Georgian period in the 1700s, and again, this can be clearly seen in St Neots. Stand in the Market Square, and many of the buildings you can see were either built or re-fronted in the Georgian period. Their smart red bricks and large windows, so recognisably Georgian in style, tell us that local people could now afford to rebuild in this new style to celebrate their prosperity. Both the Cross Keys Inn (now the shopping mews) and Lovett Estate Agents (24 Market Square) are older buildings, which were re-fronted in new red brick in the 1700s. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a high point in the use of brick, with improvements in their manufacture leading to greater quality and consistency in shape and size.

The builders behind the scenes

Bellamy builders, Kings Lane, 1937

Sadly, we know nothing about the builders who transformed these early properties, but as we come forward in time, we know far more about more recent local builders. One very well-known local firm, who helped to shape the town between the 1860s and 1980s, were Wrycroft & Sons. They were responsible for the Flour Mill in Bedford Street, rebuilt after a fire in 1909, and the new St Neots Post Office completed in 1913 (now the Weeping Ash public house). Other local builders, such as the Bellamy family, concentrated on domestic housing, and the house they built for themselves at 16 Kings Lane is a good example of a 1930s family home. More recently, Mr Twigden created a highly successful building company and built many local homes in the 1980s and 1990s.

Advert for George Wrycroft Builders, c.1912

Today, we are experiencing another building boom, although the link with local builders has been sadly lost, and new housing estates at Loves Farm and Wintringham are being built by national companies. Eventually though, they too will become part of the history of the town, reflecting the fashion and trends of our own time.

If you’ve been inspired to explore the old buildings of our town yourself, then why not download our Town Trail, and learn a little about St Neots’ history as you go! Just click HERE to download.

‘Make do and mend’ – St Neots’ handmade Christmas

Upcycling and reusing are now fully on trend, but turning old into new is not a recent phenomenon by any means…

What sort of Christmas presents will you be giving this year? In line with a government initiative, people in Huntingdonshire are being urged to ‘Shop Local’ to help local businesses recover from the pandemic. St Neots Museum has always sought to champion local artists and makers, and as usual, we’re hosting our annual Winter Craft and Gift Fair, which showcases locally made items including jewellery, paintings, ceramics, crochet and delicious scented candles (have we tempted you yet?..)

The ‘Shop Local’ initiative is by no means a new idea, so how did people respond to similar schemes in the past? The Curator has taken a look back at magazines and newspapers in the museum’s collection to find out…

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916 detailing how cotton fabrics could be re-used

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916

‘Make do and mend’

The Victorians were pros at homemade toys and presents, and the tradition of gifting a homemade Christmas present carried on into the First World War. The Home Companion of 1916 recommended that when the ‘season for cotton frocks is ended’ the embroidered parts of an old summer dress could be made into a teapot cosy, a tray cloth or a nightdress case, fancy! Alternatively odd pieces of stripped silk could be used to make a new collar for a dress.

During the Second World War, the people of Britain were plunged into a fresh crisis, limiting supplies of all raw materials to the UK. Once again, people had to reuse, recycle and repair as they had done in the past. The government launched its ‘make-do-and-mend’ campaign in 1943, and in the St Neots Advertiser of June 1945, Mrs Sew and Sew urged everyone to patch their clothes carefully to make them last longer (and that’s not a face we’d want to disobey!) Cotton and wool were considered particularly valuable, as vast supplies were needed for military aircraft and uniforms.

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

In the Christmas 1942 edition of Woman and Home, the magazine gave simple instructions for making a wooden boat as a child’s Christmas present. In 1944, instructions were given for making a doll’s pram from a wooden packing case, with a pillow and ‘coverlet’ made from fabric ‘unsuitable for salvage’. The magazine also suggested making a dolly for the pram from an old stocking!

Shopping local

However, if your ingenuity didn’t quite stretch to remaking your old clothes into new costumes, or giving a new lease of life to a wooden packing case, then you could always turn to the newspaper to find out what local businesses had to offer.

St Neots Market Square’s drapers shop, Armstrong’s (now Haart’s estate agents), advertised Christmas gifts in December 1921, including ladies tan leather gloves from 5s 11d (30p!) and pretty ‘crepe-de-chine’ (a lightweight fabric, normally silk) jumpers in all colours. Larkinson’s on the High Street (now Molby’s) claimed to have a suitable gift for any member of the family; from toys, books and fancy goods to calendars, china and glass. In their window they also showcased a magnificent display of ‘Meccano’ models, built by the boys of the St Neots Meccano Club – how do we join?!

Instructions for making a wooden doll's pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

Instructions for making a wooden doll’s pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

If you were looking for a turkey or goose for Christmas lunch, then the place to go was Ekins livestock auction yard in New Street, who held their Christmas sale on Thursday 15th December, 1921. The prize show and sale featured bullocks, sheep, pigs, and of course, turkeys, hens and geese.

Plum and Son, the High Street bakery and café, offered their customers ‘a splendid assortment of chocolate boxes’, crackers, plum puddings, Christmas cakes and mincemeat (we’re hungry just reading about it!) Alternatively, the International Stores (now Costa Coffee on St Neots High Street) were selling ‘good things for old and young’ including; dates at 1/- (5p) per box, mincemeat at 1/1d (6p) per jar, Christmas cake at 2/6 (12p) and crackers from 1/- to 5/6d (5p – 27p).

Plum & Son's Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

Plum & Son’s Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

By December 1940, Barratt’s store offered ‘useful’ presents including: gloves, scarves, socks, overalls and aprons; while jeweller C. C. Spencer urged locals to ‘say it with diamonds’, with gifts priced from 30/- (£1.50) up to £50!

And today…

This Christmas, we don’t find ourselves with a war to contend with, instead we find ourselves facing new global emergencies. A worldwide pandemic, driving us all to focus more on local community, and the ongoing threat of global warming, brought about by world industrialisation and our own over-consumption of vast amounts of ‘stuff’. This year we can all try to shop more locally, or, perhaps, be inspired to make our own handmade gifts. If it all goes pear-shaped, you can ALWAYS drop-in to St Neots Museum’s Winter Craft and Gift Fair to save the day!

Happy making!

Barrett's Christmas Advert - St Neots Advertiser 1940

Barrett’s Christmas Advert – St Neots Advertiser 1940

5 historical misinterpretations that had quite the impact

From biblical personalities sprouting horns to life on Mars, here’s five instances that historical misinterpretations and translations have impacted history

A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about unicorns (yes, we’re adults!) and how a mistranslation of the old Hebrew text, even led to unicorns being mentioned in some versions of the bible (resulting from a supposed error when translating the Hebrew word for ‘ox’. You can read more about this in our ‘Unicorns – a brief history’ blog!)

With this fresh in our minds, we thought we’d write a follow-up piece on how other historical misinterpretations have had quite the impact…

Section of stained glass window in church of St Neot, Cornwall, depicting miracles performed by the Saint.

The small matter of St Neot

Starting off close to home… If you read about St Neot, the chances are you’ll come across references to him as the dwarf or pygmy saint (something which infuriates our curator!) Though St Neot may well have been short in stature, the legend quickly escalated, exaggerating rumours of his height until he became just 15 inches tall! The tradition seems to originate from a particular ‘miracle’ associated with the saint, known as the miracle of the ‘high door lock’ (we know, sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?) What the miracle boils down to is that once, during the monks’ rest time at church, St Neot was roused from his sleep by a banging at the church door. When he arrived to answer the door, he found that due to the door being situated on a step, he was too short to reach the lock. At this point, the lock on the door miraculously lowered itself to the level of his monastic sash, enabling him to open the door. We’re told that the lock remained that way for a long time afterwards… Not the most exciting of miracles we grant you!

From this legend, the references to St Neot’s extreme short stature may well have stemmed. Disregarding the fact that the door was set above ground level, or the notion that the lock may have been particularly high, the tale has instead been interpreted and retold time and again to present St Neot as abnormally short. There’s even a suggestion by Rev. John Whittaker in his ‘Life of St Neot’ of 1809, that the lock was actually lowered by church devotees to help give strength to the legend. The trick obviously worked, as his extreme shortness is still the popular belief to this day!

Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tomb (1505-1545) for Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome)

Moses the ‘horned one’

If you’re familiar with your art history, you’ll know that for a period of time Moses was depicted with horns growing out of his head! Most famously in Michelangelo’s Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. As with many things, this was due to mistranslation of the original Hebrew text into Latin.  The Hebrew word karan or qaran for ‘radiant’ or ‘shining’ bears a close resemblance to keren or qeren, which, you guessed it, means ‘horns’. According to the Torah, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face was glowing with radiance. One slip in the translation meant that poor old Moses sprouted horns instead…

Giving up the ghost

Sticking with the bible, another slightly sloppy translation that appears in the King James Bible in the early 17thC, is the term ‘Holy Ghost’ rather than the more accurate ‘Holy Spirit’. The Greek word pneuma that it’s translated from, is closer to ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ in meaning, and less a supernatural entity. The use of ‘ghost’ in the King James Bible led to the origin of the phrase to “give up the ghost”, meaning to expire or die, and therefore adds an unfortunate touch of comedy to passages like Acts 12:23: “And he was eaten up of worms, and gave up the ghost” and Mark 15:37: “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.”

The (accidental) father of Sci-Fi

Mars twin canals by Schiaparelli

When Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in 1877, he labelled what he thought were natural channels in the planet’s surface with the Italian word canali. Understandably, this was later interpreted as ‘canals’, the meaning of which suggests a purposeful, manufactured origin. This sparked the theory that there could be intelligent life forms on Mars. In 1894, Percival Lowel, a Boston based astronomer, concluded that the canals were indeed artificial, and dedicated much of his career to mapping them. He believed the canals were created to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions of the planet, supporting the life forms that lived there. The idea that there could be life on Mars, has preoccupied humanity ever since!

The Abominable Snowman film – 1957

Not quite the ‘Abominable Snowman’

According to the OED, the phrase ‘abominable snowman’ dates back to 1921, translated into English from the Tibetan term metoh-kangmi by a journalist named Henry Newman. Newman was stationed as a reporter for The Times newspaper in Darjeeling, India, where he had the opportunity to interview members of an expedition to Mount Everest, led by explorer C. K. Howard-Bury. Whilst on the mountain, the expedition team had apparently spotted enormous humanlike footprints in the snow. The local Sherpa guides recognized these as belonging to a legendary creature they called the ‘wild man of the snows’. However, Newman mistook the word metoh, meaning ‘wild’ for a similar word metch meaning ‘dirty’ or ‘dishevelled’, and in his report, single-handedly turned the ‘wild-man’ into a snowman in real need of a bath! The legend of the ‘abominable’ (as Newman named it) snowman became hugely popular, launching an obsession with the creature (also known as the Yeti) that continues on to this day.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not try our ‘Unicorns – a brief history’ or ‘Unfortunate royal epithets‘ blogs.

A ‘sinister’ blog for Halloween

We live among you, we go to your schools, share your offices, and shop in your supermarkets. We make up 10% of the population, and throughout history we’ve been considered as deviants and ‘sinister’. Yes, we are… the left-handers!

It’s Halloween, a time for ghoulish antics and sinister goings-on. Today, the word sinister is used to describe something ominous, threatening or evil, but it hasn’t always been that way! The word actually derives from the Latin sinistra, meaning ‘left’ or ‘on the left side’, whereas ‘dexterity’ derives from the Latin dexter for ‘right’. In contrast to sinister, dexterity is now used to describe someone who’s skilful or good with their hands. So, what on earth lead to sinister taking on this altogether negative meaning, taking us left-handers down with it? Read on to find out…

It wasn’t always this way

Da Vinci’s Study of Hand c.1480. Da Vinci himself is a famous leftie.

Firstly, ‘the left’ hasn’t always been associated with negative attributes. Before Greek influences took hold in ancient Rome, Roman augurs (religious officials who interpreted signs in nature as portents for the future) faced South when taking these readings or ‘auspices’. They considered their left side (the East, associated with light) to be auspicious or favourable, as opposed to the right (the West, associated with darkness) which was inauspicious. The Greeks flipped this on its head however, by facing North when undergoing this practice, swapping the positive and negative connotations around and ruining it for us lefties!

The ancient Celts were big fans of ‘the left’, worshipping it for its association with fertility and femininity in their culture. The Greeks too associated the female with the left side, presenting men and women as opposite pairs, with men representing the right. The association of the right-hand side with the perceived ‘dominant’ sex, and the left with the so-called ‘weaker’, is where things start to go south for left-handers.

Why is right perceived as dominant?

Well, around 90% of people in the world are right-handed, and so for the vast majority, the right hand IS the stronger side. Left-handers therefore make up the minority, and if there’s one thing humanity has all too often demonstrated, it’s that minority groups aren’t traditionally treated with equality and celebrated!

If we look at the etymology of the word for ‘left’ in different languages, we can see that this view was widely shared. The English world left comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft, meaning ‘weak’; the French gauche can be used to mean ‘clumsy’, and in English means ‘to lack social grace’. In German, links means ‘left’ or ‘underhanded’ and ‘questionable’, and linkisch means ‘awkward’ or ‘clumsy’.

William Blake’s The Day of Judgment printed in 1808

Religion and ‘the left’

Religious texts also have a lot to answer for, for stirring anti left-hander feeling. Judeo-Christian religions continued to associate the left with femininity, but with a strong focus on the ‘inferiority’ of the sex. Right from the get go, Eve is always depicted on Adam’s left – as it’s her transgression that causes them to leave the Garden of Eden, ‘the left’ is also implicated in this act. In the Gospel of Matthew, a description of Judgement Day states that the ‘sheep’ on the shepherd’s right will be saved, whereas the ‘goats’ on the left will be “cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels”. Seems a bit harsh!

In fact, the Devil himself is considered to be a ‘southpaw’, and it was believed that he and other evil spirits could be conjured by left-handed gestures. It’s partly for this reason, that left-handers were more likely to be accused of witchcraft in medieval Europe and later. Being part of a minority group also played its part in the accusations; outsiders and those perceived as different to the ‘norm’ were easy targets for such allegations.

In Islam too, the right is referred to as the ‘honourable’ side, whereas the left hand is considered ‘unclean’. In many Islamic countries today, people are forbidden to eat with their left hand. Similarly, Hindu rituals insist on the use of the right hand, with use of the left hand considered as a bad omen. Traditionally, the left is reserved for ‘dirty’ tasks like cleaning of the body or wiping one’s posterior!

Left-handedness as a defect

Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720)

At the turn of the 20th century, anthropologists and psychologists began to identify left-handedness with behavioural defects and abnormalities, associating lefthanders with a higher proportion of deviant acts. Cesare Lombroso — often considered to be the father of criminology — believed that those who favoured the brain’s right hemisphere (and therefore wrote with the left hand) were ‘primitive’ (charming!), while those who favoured the left side of the brain and wrote with the right hand were more ‘civilized’ and less inclined to criminality. It was believed that this could be corrected with certain types of behavioural reinforcements, which is why (until relatively recently in the UK!) left-handed children were often forced to write with their right hands.

Despite these theories being debunked, cultural preferences for right-handedness are still prevalent today, particularly in countries such as China where even the writing of Chinese characters often requires the use of the right hand.

Were there any upsides to being a ‘leftie’?

Was it all bad? Well, being a left-hander might have had some advantages. A theory exists that spiral staircases in castles usually turn clockwise as you ascend, in order hinder right-handed attackers. The reason being that it would make it more difficult for right-handed people to draw a sword – clearly, they didn’t foresee an army of left-handers!

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1938)

It’s also believed that the humble handshake originally developed in 5th century Greece as a way for each participant to demonstrate that neither of them carried a weapon in their right hand. Popular belief attributes the shaking element developing in Medieval Europe, in order to further ‘shake out’ hidden weapons. Deviant left-handers were therefore not to be trusted, as they could happily carry out the action with their right hand whilst lashing out with their dominant left.

Though these might seem like two pretty neat advantages, throughout history left-handedness certainly hasn’t been the most advantageous genetic trait to possess. The sad truth is that widescale distrust of, and prejudice against, lefties is ultimately to blame for ‘sinister’ taking on its ominous new meaning.

Have a sinister Halloween! If you enjoyed this blog, why not check out our other blogs on ‘Seasonal Treats – Why certain foods are associated with Halloween‘ and ‘Samhain – the precursor to Halloween

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