By Morgan Bell (@CamTechMuseum)
This set of tools was made in Cambridge over sixty years ago by a 16-year-old called Derek Pickett. Derek finely crafted each one by hand during his apprenticeship at Cambridge Instrument Company.
It is well known that Henry VIII was not fond of paperwork. In 1519, he admitted to Thomas Wolsey that he found writing ‘somewhat tedius and paynefull’. Yet throughout his reign he was required to sign off financial accounts, grants, letters, and official orders. Shortly after Henry’s accession to the English throne in 1509 an expedient solution for the more mundane of these duties was found: the creation of a stamp to imprint a facsimile of the king’s signature. The stamp itself does not survive, but there are many extant examples of its usage.
By Eleanor Warren (@elmwarren)
I was shown this sculpture by the local key-holder on a visit to Stanwick Church in 2014. It was a surprise and a joy to see this sculpted stone, which was not on display but languishing in a cupboard in the church vestry.
The stone is the head of an early medieval cross, depicting an image of the crucifixion on one face, and interlaced foliage on the other. Christ’s arms end in three-fingered hands with the thumbs held apart, and a line across the left arm suggests he is robed. The centre of the cross is marked by a boss. Figural representations are the rarest surviving category of pre-Conquest sculpture, but the iconography is similar to a small group of other cross heads from Yorkshire and displays an Irish-Scandinavian influence. It is likely to date from the late ninth or early tenth century. The crude carving shows a low level of skill and a lack of iconographic knowledge from the sculptor, and this, alongside the number of surviving cross fragments found in Yorkshire, suggests that sculptures in this region were produced for secular patrons with varying degrees of wealth and education.
By Emily Redican-Bradford (email@example.com)
The first ‘toothbrush’ is thought to have been invented in China in the 1400s, when bristles from the necks of pigs were fixed onto bone or bamboo handles. Before that, twigs were chewed on or split to form brushes and different flavours were used for freshening breath. The ‘modern toothbrush’ was invented by William Addis, who, whilst in prison in c.1780 in England, decided to improve on the traditional rag method used to clean teeth at the time. He carved a handle from a bone, proceeded to make little holes in it and then attached pig bristles onto it. When he left prison, Addis began producing toothbrushes and they were manufactured in England and aboard. More expensive designs were soon expected for the wealthy, with Napoleon Bonaparte owning a brush with a silver gilt handle and horsehair bristles. It was H.N Wadsworth in 1857 who received the first patent for a toothbrush and, in 1938, the first nylon fibre brushes were made.
Image: Napoleon’s toothbrush, c. 1790-1821, made available under a Creative Commons licence.
 Valerie Strauss, ‘Ever wondered how people cleaned their teeth before they had toothbrushes?’ The Washington Post (2009).
 Museum of Everyday Life, ‘Prison, Suicide and the Cold Climate Hog’.
 Science Museum, London ‘Napoleon’s Toothbrush, Europe, 1790-1821’, Wellcome Collection.
 Museum of Everyday Life, ‘Prison, Suicide and the Cold Climate Hog’ and Made Up In Britain, ‘Tootbrush’.
By Georgia Oman
In May 1876, Margaret Merrifield wrote a letter home to her mother from Newnham College, Cambridge, where she had arrived as a student the year before. The College itself had only been founded a few years earlier, in 1871, with five students living in a rented house in Regent Street, Cambridge. In 1875, the first permanent buildings had been constructed on a piece of land near the village of Newnham, suitably removed from the men’s colleges in the centre of town, and surrounded by expansive grounds, perfect for taking exercise. It was about this that Margaret wrote to her mother.
The British Embassy in Stockholm, 1956: Jane Holliday was considering her resignation from the Diplomatic Service. Precipitated by her anger at the treatment of women and a burgeoning romantic relationship with a senior diplomat, Holliday felt it was time to work elsewhere. Having spent some time in Sweden as a secretary and mastering the language, she came back to Stockholm after joining the Foreign Office. She arrived as the Personal Assistant to the Air Attaché and then worked for the Counsellor (No. 2 in the Embassy hierarchy). That very Counsellor ended up, as Holliday recalled ‘my future husband (though I didn’t know it at the time)’. The Embassy was a space of mixed emotions.
Despite her linguistic talents, Holliday was often asked to venture beyond her job description. The Counsellor in question – who had been married twice with a son – felt the burden of being a bachelor and asked Holliday on numerous occasions to serve as his hostess at formal dinners. Yet the Foreign Office soon sent him to Laos. The Queen was due to make a State Visit to Sweden and Holliday suspected the ‘squeaky clean’ Embassy removed the Counsellor as he was filing for divorce. Holliday decided that she would resign after the Royal Visit. She was responsible for preparing the ‘Ceremonial’; the lengthy programme of The Queen’s trip. The visit marked a personal accolade in Holliday’s career, prior to becoming a diplomatic wife. Granted an audience with The Queen, ‘who was charming’, Holliday was presented with ‘a signed photo and a solid silver powder compact’ for her services. Male colleagues would not have received gifts. Both objects were reminders of Holliday’s short but exceptional work in the Diplomatic Service. Only seventeen years later could talented women, like Holliday, serve Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service as wives and mothers.
 Jane Holliday, Cocktails and Cockroaches: A Diplomatic Memoir (Milton Keynes: Author House Ltd, 2009).
By Taushif Kara (@taushif)
Of the many ornate wooden doors spread throughout Zanzibar’s ‘stone town’ – and there are many – the one I find the most intriguing, and indeed the most beautiful, is the door to the Khoja caravanserai, built in 1892. The door itself opens to a musafarkhana, a hostel of sorts, meant to house Khoja travelers (a trading community from western India) who would arrive in Zanzibar from around the Indian Ocean littoral. Countless migrants and their families would pass through this door upon arrival, usually after what was often a long and treacherous journey by sea. Crafted in a style that is quite unique to the island, with intense floral carving juxtaposed with beautiful calligraphy and ominous brass studs, the door is at once both welcoming and intimidating. Arabic inscriptions exist alongside Gujarati and English, a testament to the polyglot and diverse nature of the island.
While it is indeed very beautiful, that’s not really why I chose it; in fact, it is quite mundane – doors are everywhere! This one, however, despite its ornamental grandeur, was meant to do something relatively humble: provide a space of shelter to those on the move.
Image: Door to the Khoja caravanserai in Zanzibar, author’s own photograph.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
The historians’ job is akin to the detectives’: we ferret out clues, evaluate evidence and make deductions. But what do we do when trails run cold? My doctoral research is on the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Sometime between 1820 and 1830, the painter Hippolyte Silvaf made twelve water-colours of the fishery in Ceylon. As sources, these paintings would have offered incredible visual insights into the industry long before the advent of photography. Unfortunately, in 1989, all the paintings were stolen from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) where they had been held since 1908. No one has been able to track them down since. But perhaps we needed to broaden our search.
On 25 May 1868, Captain James Steuart donated a box of 11 oyster specimens to the British Museum. Although the box is rarely consulted by historians, mounted on the inside lid of the box is a painting of the fishery titled ‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March’. * Although it is unsigned, we can compare it with Silvaf’s oeuvre and with the description of his paintings recorded by RCS librarians to deduce that this is a copy of one of the lost paintings, ‘Scene at Silawatorre: boats returning from the Pearl Banks’. The box of specimens, which, bound up with colonial practices of collection and documentation, has ensured that at least one of these remarkable paintings survives today!
*My thanks to Tom White at the Museum of Natural History and Rachel Rowe at the Royal Commonwealth Society for their help putting the pieces together.
Image: Edwin William Streeter, ‘Auction of Pearl Oysters in Ceylon’ from Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By Sarah Sheard, Artist, Edinburgh (@sarahofthenorth)
I did not like History at school. Maybe it was the way it was taught, but if that were true, I wouldn’t like Art either, and now that is what I do– I am an artist in Edinburgh. I remember visiting the Tate Britain and seeing Mark Dion’s Tate Thames Dig – a two-sided cabinet filled with items he and a team had collected while mudlarking (scavenging in the river’s banks for items of value). I loved these collections because of what they looked like together – and because these fragments were now items of value – not for what they told me about the history of the Thames. I found my own collection of fragments of clay pipes, which I keep under a bell jar. Whether it is through this collection, or my assortment of 50 pence pieces, or all the art I have ever made, maybe I like history after all. Maybe all I am trying to do is create my own history.
Image: Collection of fragments of clay pipes, author’s own photograph.
The pomegranate has had many religious, mythical, and political connotations. It was associated with Katharine of Aragon due to her position as a Spanish princess. Born in 1485, she was a child when her parents, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, conquered Granada, which is the Spanish word for pomegranate. The fruit was officially acknowledged as her personal emblem when she married Henry VIII in 1509. A manuscript presented by Thomas More to honour their coronation featured a Tudor rose and a pomegranate under a crown.
By Stephen Preston, Heritage and Cultural Coordinator at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh (@StGilesHighKirk)
The National Covenant of Scotland of 1638 was a document designed as a nationwide petition to King Charles I of England and Scotland, requesting that he cease trying to impose Anglicanism on Scotland and leave it to be Presbyterian. This, at a time when both England and Scotland’s reformations were less than 100 years old and Anglicanism was still a little too close to Catholicism for some. In this context, the authors of the Covenant attacked Anglicanism with some pretty damning language. Phrases such as ‘…his five bastard sacraments…’ and ‘…blasphemous opinion of transubstantiation…’ but also ‘…seeing that many are stirred up by Satan and that Roman Antichrist…’ perhaps hint to the feeling against Anglicanism in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Covenant did not have the desired effect. Whilst the Covenant clearly attacked the King’s policy, the Covenant never questions the King himself, the Scottish lords ‘…stand to the defence of our dread Sovereign the King’s Majesty …’. Charles appears to have ignored this olive branch from the Covenanters, and pressed ahead with the imposition of the Anglican Church in Scotland.
Image: Photograph by Stephen Preston
By Laura Achtelstetter (@Laura8tel)
In my research, the Napoleonic Wars – or Wars of Liberation (1813-15) as they are called in Germany – are a central event. Nearly all of the people I am focusing on fought in these wars, many of them got wounded, lost friends and family members. In testimonies from this time, one object is central: The Iron Cross (IC).
Sometimes doing history feels like you are beginning with a completed painting, quilt or jigsaw and trying to go back to the start to figure out how the paint got on the canvas, or where the thread came from, or whose hands completed the jigsaw. Was it one person or a group of people? How long did it take them? I study global humanitarianism during the Great Irish Famine and lots of the things I discover lead me to ask these kinds of questions. How on earth did a ship sailing from Hawaii to British Colombia donate money to Ireland during the Famine? I know that this happened, but I don’t know how. I am now trying to figure this out. In fact, most of these things happen because of people’s relationships with one another and the wielding of power and profits. The British Relief Association was the largest organisation involved in famine philanthropy, amassing hundreds of thousands of donations from people across the world. I have been researching its committee-members, one of them is named John Prescott, a banker. I found his old bank cheque from 1871 and bought it for £4. It is not a piece in the particular jigsaw I am trying to disassemble, but holding it in my hands feels as though, at least, I am not holding nothing.
Image: Bank Cheque, Messrs Prescott, Grote, Cave & Cave, 1871, author’s own photograph.
By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)
During my research trip in Verona, I came across a striking document among the letters from the Lazzaretto in Verona to the Chancellor of the Health Office of the city. The letter, written in 1738, was not important for its content, but rather for its aspect: the colour of the paper was brownish yellow with a lighter part in the middle, which seemed to be the imprint of an object. This made me question why there were only a few letters with these marks. The reason, it turns out, lies in the complexity of the protocols of the lazzaretto and in the Early Modern theory of contagion.
One of the main methods by which accused parties were summoned to appear before central English law courts in the early modern period was the privy seal writ. Issued from the royal Chancery at Westminster to the litigant (for a fee), this writ was a small document in Latin or English, folded into a bound packet. A wax seal measuring around 1 ½ – 2 ½ inches depicting the seated monarch and the royal arms (denoting it as the monarch’s ‘private’ or personal seal) was affixed to the outside. Testimonies given by messengers and plaintiffs to the courts throughout the sixteenth century describe, in detail, the delivery of these small but imposing items in public spaces and in the presence of witnesses. Owing to the vague nature of the text of the writs – which usually identified only the recipient’s opponents, and not the matter for which they were being summoned – reactions to being handed one could be extreme. Though the writs came with a financial penalty if ignored, those on the receiving end might ‘throw [the writ] on the ground’ or otherwise ‘violate’ the document and the seal whilst uttering ‘opprobrious words’, and some went so far as to unsheath their weapons. More unusually, one defendant in 1525 threatened to make the bearer ‘ete the said letters’. In the 1510s, a litigant’s servant actually was caused ‘to have eten all [the] seid prive seale with the wex and… swallow it doon’. In the increasingly litigious society of early modern England, this was a gift no-one wanted to receive.
Image: Court of Chancery, made available under a public domain licence.
By Anna Gibbons
This picture depicts the first permanent home of the ‘invisible college’ of Cambridge. The National Extension College (NEC) was set up in 1963 by Michael Young. He wanted to help adult learners who needed a ‘second chance’, the generation who had had their educations disrupted by the Second World War. He envisaged the NEC as a pilot for a ‘University of the Air’ – what would become the Open University – a novel experiment in distance learning. The limitations of education through formal institutions, the inflexible time constraints, could be overcome.
By Christopher Whittell (@ChrisWhittell)
The object for today’s calendar is this entry ticket to the ceremony of the Healing of the King’s Evil, issued during the reign of Charles II. Due to the very high demand to attend the ceremony, it was given to invited guests, whom were sufferers from a disease called scrofula, as proof of their invitation. At the time, it was considered only curable by the gift of the healing powers of the king, who during the ceremony also gave the sufferer an angel, a gold coin or token with an image of an angel imprinted on it, to wear round their necks. Although some consider it to be genuine, as it has the appearance of a one-time detector or River Thames find, the weight disparity between this one and other examples, could mean that this is a very rare, unique example of a contemporary counterfeit, a devious way for someone to meet Charles II and receive his gifts.
Image: A Ticket to Attend the Royal Touching Ceremony of Charles II, author’s own photograph.
This map, from PopulationsPast.org, shows the sex ratio among working-age adults in 1891, calculated from census data. Areas in red have more men than women and areas in blue have more women than men. Geographical differences in the sex ratio reflect nineteenth century migration patterns and employment opportunities which pulled people towards or pushed people away from particular areas. The mining areas of South Wales, Durham/Northumberland and the Yorkshire/Derbyshire coalfield were particularly attractive to young men. Military and Naval bases in Hampshire and the Thames estuary also turned those areas red. Low sex ratios in some of the blue areas were also due to a job-market which was more favourable for one gender, but this time for women. This can explain the blue blush to the west of London, where there was plentiful work for women as domestic servants, and the area around Manchester where many women were employed in textile factories. Low sex ratios in rural areas, however, are more likely to have been produced by higher migration of men away from such places. Finer geographical detail and a range of other variables and years can be found on the interactive atlas website www.populationspast.org.
Image: from www.populationspast.org, used with the permission of Dr Alice Reid (Principal Investigator)
In the first decades of mass schooling in late nineteenth-century Britain, attendance was a persistent issue. Parents often resented having to send their children to school, which for many meant forfeiting much-needed income. To improve attendance levels, education authorities rewarded children who had spotless attendance records with medals. A year without any absences would earn a child a medal. Particularly keen students could rack up a whole collection over their school career.
By Chioma Vivian Ngonadi (@ChiomaNgonadi12)
The process of precolonial metalworking is recognised by the presence of material fingerprints such as slags, remains of blooms, or finished objects (Chirikure 2013). In Lejja-Igboland, southeastern Nigeria, iron smelting is an indigenous craft specialization that flourished on an industrial scale from around 2000 BC (Eze-Uzomaka 2013). Evidence, in the form of relic furnaces and extensive slag and tuyere remains, are widely visible in the landscape today. The vast number of slag blocks on the surface reveal that iron working in this region was a highly sophisticated, long-lived and well-developed tradition with techniques that involved relatively large-scale metal production (Ngonadi 2017). The main village square in Lejja contains over 800 slag blocks weighing between 34 and 57 kg (Eze-Uzomaka 2013).