Sent to Nottingham: the diary of a nineteenth-century curator

While looking through an accession of records deposited by the National Art Library in the V&A Archive I came across a diary written by a member of staff who was sent to Nottingham with a travelling exhibition in 1865. In it the writer records his time in Nottingham, including the routine tasks of writing object labels and ordering the printing of exhibition leaflets to dealing with the effects of a town riot!

The diary begins on 23 May 1865 and the last entry is on 10 October 1865. In a series of blog posts over the next few months I hope to be able to share with you highlights from the diary and to discover more about the author, the exhibition he was looking after and what it was like being a curator in the 1860s.

Extract from Diary for 23 May 1865.

May 23rd 1865
Art Library.  SouthKensingtonMuseum
Received first instructions of journey to Nottingham from Mr. Owen, with directions to wait on Mr. Wallis who informed me as to the nature of the intended exhibition to be opened at Nottingham on Monday June 5th.” 

Philip Cunliffe Owen (1828-1894)

George Wallis, FSA, (1811–1891)

“May 30th 1865
…… Received from Mr Simkins £20 Impress on account of expenses of carriages and personal expenses while at Nottingham.”

Mr Simkins was the Museum accountant. In June 1871 the Audit Office found some accounting errors in his records and announced that they would be visiting the Museum to investigate, at which point Simkins absconded. It was later found that he had embezzled £7703 15s 7d from the Museum funds (the equivalent of over £330,000 today). As Director of the South Kensington Museum, Henry Cole was also officially Accountant for the Department. The Treasury Office was headed by Robert Lowe who had sought to curb Cole’s spending and this incident was used to push for Cole to be removed from office. Cole claimed he was being made a scapegoat and when he testified before the Commons Public Accounts Committee in 1872 the Ministers refused to sack him. Cole retired at the end of July 1873.

Back to our curator …. After receiving his initial instructions, he spent the next couple of weeks loading the vans and arranging for their transportation by railway to Nottingham from the Great Northern Station (King’s Cross station). In the image below you can just make out a row of transport vans, like the ones our curator would be used, parked under the lean to at the side of Brompton Park House.

View of Brompton Park House with transportation vans parked under the lean to at side of building

Extract from Diary for 3 June 1865

“June 3rd
Left Drayton Grove at 6.30am it being racing time I could not get a cab at that early hour so I got a carriage in the Old Brompton Road and paid 6/6 for the same – for which I charged the Department only the usual cab-fare 2/6
On arriving at the station I paid £6.5 for the carriage of the two vans containing the collections – being 6 ea per mile for 125 miles and obtained voucher for the payment.
Left station by 7.40 am train and arrived at Nottingham about 12.25 noon.
Lodged vans in the Town Jail under the care of the Governor
Called at Mr Birkin’s offices did not see him – afterwards to Mr Richards (Secretary) and arranged to meet him at the new building for the school on Monday at 9am – he mentioned the probability of the exhibition being deferred for a day or two and undertook to communicate with Mr Wallis on the subject – Visited the School of Art and inspected the rooms intended for the exhibition – paid cab fare 3/- and Railway fare 17/-.  Went to my lodgings and having obtained from Attendant Callow his address – wrote to Art-Division Keeper reporting arrival and proceedings.”

The Mr Birkin mentioned in this diary entry is Richard Birkin (1805-1870). He was the son of a calico handloom weaver who went on to become a pioneering lace manufacturer and three times Mayor of Nottingham. He was involved in the promotion of Nottingham textiles and the V&A’s National Art Library has a copy of “An address by J.A. Hammersley, Esq., Principal of the Manchester Government School of Design, on the preparations on the continent for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the condition of the continental schools of art” (NAL reference: EX.1851.244). Birkin was the Chairman at this meeting.

The author of this diary does not name himself, but the Abstracts of Correspondence held by the V&A Archive contains the following entry: “Memo from Cunliffe Owen suggesting that Mr. Vernon take charge of traveling collection at Nottingham, 23 May 1865” (archive ref. RP/1865/12183). There is another reference to Mr H Vernon sending a report on the Exhibition at the Nottingham School of Art in 1865 (archive ref. RP/1865/24603)

Our records only reveal a few facts about Vernon’s employment. We know from the Precis Minute book covering 1852-1861 (archive ref. ED84/35) that H. Vernon was appointed as clerk in the Art Library on 9 August 1860 and was paid 1s an hour. In January 1863 he received a gratuity of £40 on account of extra services for the Loan Collection (approximately £1700 today).

From his diary, we know that Vernon lived on Drayton Grove and you can see the road on this map of London from 1865. The British History Online website states that this street was renamed Drayton Gardens in 1884.

Now that Vernon has arrived safely in Nottingham I think we can leave him there to settle in before we catch up with him again on 5 June 1865 when the vans are unpacked and the exhibition begins to take shape.

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