The Harrison Collection at the Ryedale Folk Museum
Many people accumulate things as they go through life: I have to confess to struggling with an ever-growing hoard of books. But Richard and Edward Harrison took collecting to a new level, as, over about fifty years, they amassed a social history collection running to over 10,000 objects.
They could do it, says Richard, because they lived in a remote farmhouse – and as the older buildings became redundant for farming, they used them to house their collection.
The focus of their collection is social history: everyday objects spanning around 500 years of English life. David Stockdale, whose job is now to curate the collection, says, “This is everyday stuff, not a fine country house collection. Some items are mysterious, because technologies have changed.”
David is entranced by the craftsmanship of many of the items. They were made for everyday use, and many are now rare simply because they wore out, or were thrown out when they became redundant. So, says David, “What has survived is due to the power of good craftsmanship. We’ve got a horn book that’s 200 years old. You can’t imagine an exercise book or a computer programme from a school today lasting for 200 years.”
Edward and Richard began collecting at an early age. They started on fossils picked up around the farm, then moved onto stamps and coins. Then, their father began taking them with him to sales and antique shops. He was looking, explains Richard, for decent furniture for the house. “They married shortly after the War, and had to furnish the house with what they could get.”
Going to these sales, says Edward, “Kindled an interest in things people used in the household.”
In adult life, the brothers worked to build a systematic collection. But now it is so huge that asking them about it results in a two-man outpouring of a bizarre selection of objects.
Edward says, “We’ve collected to categories, such as writing, smoking, costume, advertisements and bills, toilets, apothecaries, scientific instruments, weights and measures. We’ve got small farm tools, and things like bird callers and traps.”
Richard interjects that there are traps are for birds or fish – but some are for catching men.
More comfortingly, he says, “We’ve got a huge amount of down-hearth cooking equipment. The down hearth was before the grate was invented in the late 18th century. Before that, the only way of getting a draught to burn the fire was with firedogs. It’s why early cooking pots had 3 legs – to stand them in the fire.”
Richard: “We’ve got dog tongs for removing fighting dogs from Churches. They’re great big wooden things.
Edward: “I bought a ‘warped’ cricket bat on eBay, but it’s a very rare 17th century cricket bat.”
He jumps from sport to medicine: “We’ve got surgical tools.”
Richard: “We can remove your leg- “
-Edward: “-And give you a new one – or a hand.”
For less painful bodily enhancements, he adds, “We’ve got an eighteenth century hairpiece with curls attached to the bonnet.”
Richard: “We’ve got wigs and wig making tools – we’ve even got a bone hand for scratching the vermin on the scalp underneath the wig.”
Pressed to pick out favourite items, the brother struggle – how to choose among so many?
Edward is fond of a laundry tally board, with brass dials. He says, “It’s mid 17th century. It would have been from a large house which had a separate laundry. The head housekeeper had to keep a tally of what was sent to the laundry. So above each disc is the name of the item of clothing: ruff, handkerchiefs and so on. The discs are moveable dials to show the number.”
Each man has a reason for liking the laundry tally: Edward says, “It sums up part of social history, and it’s rare.”
Richard: “It’s illustrated in Pinto’s book” [Treen and other wooden bygones, by Edward Pinto]
David: “It relates back to real people. And it wasn’t made as a decorative item, but it’s beautiful in itself.”
Edward comments, “There are other laundry tallies – one’s in leather, which is probably rarer. I think probably leather ones were once more common, but haven’t survived. Ours has the names down the side, and holes with pegs for the numbers. Probably they were made in wood too, but haven’t survived.”
David says, “Leather ones could probably be made in the household, but this brass one would have been made by a craftsman.”
Edward likes shops – even as a small boy, he loved the Victorian shopping street in the Kirkgate Museum in York. But his shopping collection goes back further. He says, “I’ve got 17th century shop signs. All shops had their signs, but most were banned in the early 19th century when complaints were received from travellers on the top of horse driven coaches – that they were frequently knocked off by the signs. The most common sign to escape the ban was that of the tavern.”
“One of my favourites is a 17th century shop sign of wrought iron in the style of Tijou, who worked on the Royal Palaces. It’s magnificent – very decorative, and beautifully made.”
“I’m also fond of moulds. I’m fascinated by the art of reverse carving – they had moulds for sugar, for ginger bread, and plaster.” He shows one that he thinks was used for gingerbread. It’s carved in wood, with the name of George Rex, dated 1797.
Richard says, “A lot of moulds were sold at country fairs. They didn’t go into the oven – the gingerbread was made with ginger, breadcrumbs and liquorice, pressed into a mould and set. There were many different recipes, but all completely different to gingerbread today.”
Richard also showed a stay busk. It’s a slip of wood that sixteenth century women tucked down the front of the corset – then termed a ‘stay’. The one that Richard showed me had been intricately carved, and engraved with a verse.
Edward says, “I think this one was carved by a professional, for a sailor to give to a lady friend. It’s carved with a tulip, which is a play on the words ‘two lips’, and with a heart.” The verse ends with the words, “…though we are a great way part, I wish you well with all my heart.” It is dated 1783.
Another favourite item is a turned wooden box holding a set of wooden roundels. Richard explains, “They’re Elizabethan place settings. At the end of the meal, they’d have eaten cheese or marzipan from the reverse side. Then they turned them over, and sang the verses painted on them. Hence the ‘singing of roundels’. But you wouldn’t find these in a cottage – they’d have had wooden trenchers.”
The Ryedale Folk Museum
Having spent a lifetime building the collection, the Harrisons realised that they had built a picture of social history that was of national importance. So they looked for a home that could keep the collection together, and make it available to the public. They also wanted to keep it in Yorkshire, as, they say, to see anything comparable, they would have to travel to London.
So they decided to donate their collection to the Ryedale Folk Museum, where it complements the existing collection of historic houses and farm equipment. David Stockdale is the devoted Project Curator for the Harrison Collection. He is overseeing the cataloguing of the artefacts, and the housing and display of them.
They’ve converted a barn to put highlights of the collection on show, and are fundraising for an extension to house rotating exhibitions of the rest of the stock. There will be a library for research, and the Harrison Brothers are making their considerable knowledge available to the Museum.
The use of many objects has fallen out of living memory, and the Brothers have invested a lot of research into discovering what the objects were used for.
They are important not only for what they were, but also for what they tell us now. Richard comments, “They show us how hard it was. Take washing, for instance. Now we just put things in a machine and press a button. But then, it was tremendously hard work for people to keep themselves respectable. So a lot of households couldn’t exist without domestic help. Now we have electric motors to do it.”
Edward is also interested in how these objects have influenced our language. He says, “For instance, the word laundry is from ‘lavenderer’, because the washing used to be done in lye – from wood ash – and dung or urine. So lavender was used to make clothes smell nice.”
“And ‘Pulling the wool over his eyes’ came from highwaymen pulling wigs over eyes so that people couldn’t see who was robbing them.”
“Lots of phrases are to do with the sea. Phrases evolved from a process that actually happened. For instance, when a ship came into harbour, a skeleton crew stayed on board for maintenance, and their women visited them. If a pregnant woman went into labour, the only space for her was on the floor between the canon. If it was a difficult birth, they fired the canon – hence the saying ‘son of a gun’.”
Richard says, “A Square meal came from a square trencher, with a depression for salt – salt was very valuable, as a preservative and flavour enhancer.”
David is delighted that the collection has come to the Ryedale Fold Museum, and says, “I think it’s a good fit, as we already do everyday life. People see the houses, have an introduction into how people used to live, then see these objects. And we think it imperative that the collection is put to use for learning.”
Visit the collection at http://www.ryedalefolkmuseum.co.uk/harrison-collection/
Sponsors for the Harrison collection include Ryedale District Council, DEFRA, Yorwaste, Leader, private charitable trusts, and many private individuals.
Read about what it was like to spend 50 years living with the collection in Dalesman Magazine, available in print only.