11 December 2016

Edward VIII pillar box

Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor was King for less than a year, from 20 January 1936 till his abdication on 11 December that same year. It should come as no surprise then that items that carry the Edward VIII name, insignia, portrait (like coinage) or emblem are few and far between. So, I was rather pleased to get a photo of this pillar box carrying the royal cipher of Edward VIII, one of only two known to exist in Wales.

According to a list I found online, there are around 170 known Edward VIII pillar boxes, most of which are in England. Apparently, more still exist that were manufactured and put in place during Edward VIII’s short reign but their doors were changed to display the cipher of George VI after Edward’s abdication. Images of some of the other extant Edward VIII pillar boxes can be found on Wikimedia here,  

I am not alone in having a fascination for such things: the Humbugshouse blog has a great post with lots of photo of many of the English boxes, and there is even a Letter Box Study Group, whose aims are ‘to encourage research, preservation, restoration and awareness of letter boxes and the definitive description and documentation of their types and locations.’  

For pillar box aficionados, I have blogged previously about some of the other pillar boxes I’ve found, and my local Edward VIII pillar box can be found in Heol Don, in the Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch. Its importance is obviously well recognised as the fence of the house behind it has been altered to accommodate it.

21 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: Shackleton’s Penguin

Though the Explore Your Archive event at National Museum Cardiff last Saturday was about the Wonder Women of Wales (like our dedicated naturalist Dr Mary Gillham), the thing that initially attracted the attention of passers-by to our stand was this penguin. And it was every inch the star attraction.

It’s a King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicusthat was presented to the museum by renowned Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton

Standing around 90cms tall, the King penguin is a most impressive bird and proved taller than many of the small children who admired it standing proudly in its glass case. 

As the chart below, from Mary Gillham’s book Instructions to Young Ornithologists: IV Sea Birds (Museum Press, 1963) shows, the King is second only in size to the Emperor. 

Strictly speaking, it’s not actually an Antarctic penguin as it prefers slightly warmer climes and it breeds on the sub-Antarctic islands that are dotted around the globe below New Zealand and Australia, Africa and South America.

The Nimrod, Photographs of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton; image dated 1908; source: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. This image is in the Public Domain.
The penguin was collected on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1908-09 Nimrod expedition. In its archives the museum still has a letter about Shackleton’s gift of this penguin, sent to The Director of the National Museum of Wales on 17 March 1910 from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907 HQ in London and signed by Shackleton:

Dear Sir,
In reply to your letter of yesterday’s date, I beg to say that I have much pleasure in presenting a King Penguin to the National Museum for the Principality of Wales. I have instructed Messrs Rowland Ward, Piccadilly, London, to send one on to you.

Rowland Ward Limited was a well-regarded firm of taxidermists that processed many of the dead creatures that made their way back to Britain from world explorations of the Victorian era and later, and the company also specialised in game-hunting trophies and in manufacturing bizarre items made from animal off-cuts, like zebra-hoof inkwells. Perhaps surprisingly, the firm is still trading, though is now based in South Africa.

From left: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, on their return to the Nimrod from their Antarctic explorations; Photographs of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton; image dated 1908; source: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. This image is in the Public Domain.

Have you worked out yet why we had Shackleton’s penguin alongside our stand at the Wonder Women event? Well, Shackleton and his crew aboard the
Nimrod returned to Britain via the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, one of the places where King penguins live and breed, so it’s highly likely this penguin was collected during that stopover. And Mary Gillham was one of the first four women ever to enter the Antarctic region, spending a month on Macquarie Island over Christmas 1959 – New Year 1960. As well as studying Macquarie’s flora, Mary conducted scientific research into the island’s bird life including, of course, King penguins.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project will be blogging about Mary’s Antarctic adventures in December so keep an eye on the project website for those posts. And you can read more about this and the other penguins in the National Museum Cardiff’s collection here.

19 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: The story behind the story

Today marks the beginning of Explore Your Archive, a campaign co-ordinated jointly by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association that ‘aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories’.

From my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project, helping to decipher and digitise, record and publicise the life’s work of naturalist extraordinaire, Dr Mary Gillham, I know from personal experience how exciting it is to read diaries about everyday life in my native New Zealand in the 1950s and how our work with Mary’s archives is revealing the amazing stories of her adventurous life.

So, to celebrate the start of Explore Your Archive, here’s my story of Mary’s story behind the newspaper story.

This newspaper article about Mary appeared in Britain’s Daily Mail on Friday 22 November 1957.

Dr Mary spends a fuming week-end
An English woman botanist returned to Tauranga today from a week-end spent in one of the world’s loneliest spots – a fuming island-volcano.
She is Dr. Mary Gillham, whose parents live at Ealing, W. She left England a year ago to study the effects of salt spray and seabirds on the plant life of the world’s islands.
She accompanied 19 Maoris to White Island, the crater of a volcanic mountain rising from deep water 27 miles from the coast.
The Maoris go there once a year to collect mutton birds (sooty terns), a native delicacy.

In her New Zealand diary, Mary records her meeting with the reporter:

Wednesday 20 November 1957
The boat nosed in, without tying up, heaving clumsily, and I leapt the gap while the pilot handed the luggage aboard. And so once more to Tauranga where the sub editor of the ‘Bay of Plenty Times’ awaited me on the wharf but missed me, coming instead to the Masonic Hotel at breakfast time next a.m. He had, however, been forestalled by his editor, Lachi McDonald, 20 years on the staff of the Daily Mail and their Far East war correspondent. The chappy came in and interviewed me at length just as I was finishing a session with Ken Fraser in the Masonic Lounge. It seemed that my adventures were front page news as (a) landings were only effected on White Island 4-6 times a year and (b) the Motiti Maoris were very conservative and seldom received a pakeha in their midst.

This additional note has been written in the diary at a later date:

McDonald cabled Daily Mail, London with my story and on 21 November my parents were visited for a photo. They gave me and the tuataras, and on 22nd I hit the British headlines and it seemed my acquaintances throughout G.B. buzzed with interest. Particularly topical as there were 2 BBC broadcasts on White Island that same week. Upshot: Letter from F. Muller, Fleet St publishers, saying they would publish a book of my travels if I cared to write on my return!!

As it turned out, the book, A Naturalist in New Zealand, was not published until 1966 and then by Museum Press in London, with a co-edition by Reed Books in New Zealand. Mary was on her way to becoming famous!

For the full story about the Mary Gillham Archive Project, check out our website, and follow our progress on Facebook and on Twitter.