Margaret Pilkington: ‘Queen of Arts’


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Written by Angela Petyt-Whittaker and Lorraine Coughlan, Specialist Library Assistants from the Reading Room at The John Rylands Library.

Have you been to see the latest displays in the Rylands Gallery? We’ve had the pleasure of guest curating the two Manchester cases and are pleased to say we chose a fascinating subject in Margaret Pilkington (1891-1974) – a creative, innovative and generous woman, who had an influential impact on Manchester culture and charity. This blog gives us the opportunity to tell Margaret’s story in more detail.

During our research we discovered that Margaret was involved with many more roles than we at first realised! We found so much information in her archive (held here at John Rylands Library) that it was difficult to know what items to include and what to leave out, as the number of items per case and the word length of captions were limited. We were greatly inspired by Margaret and her family’s love of art and philanthropy – therefore we decided to divide the cases into these two themes.

Margaret was a talented and recognised artist in her own right, working in watercolour, ink and pencil. The archive contains several of her sketchbooks filled during her many travels in Europe, particularly in Alpine areas.

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Encouraged by her school headmistress, Margaret went on to study at Manchester College of Art. In 1913, initially without her parents’ consent, she attended Slade School of Fine Art to study painting. The following year, she enrolled in the Central School of Arts and Crafts to study wood engraving with Noel Rooke. She went on to produce over 100 wood engravings, many of which were used to illustrate books, some written by her father Lawrence.

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However, her art education was cut short by World War 1. During this traumatic time, Margaret felt her priorities lay in welfare duties rather than her artistic career. She became involved with girls’ clubs in the poorer local areas. She was also honorary secretary of the newly established Pioneer Club for business and professional young women in Manchester. These activities took up a large amount of her time and this social conscience influenced her daily routine for the rest of her life.

Pioneer Club presentation. Margaret Pilkington is in the audience. c1917

Pioneer Club presentation. Margaret Pilkington is in the audience. c1917 PIL/3/1/6/6

In 1920, inspired by the work of William Morris, Margaret organised an exhibition of wood engravers, which evolved into the Red Rose Guild. She was heavily involved with this group of talented artisans, including serving as chairman from 1952 until 1967. She also found time to be a member of Manchester City Art Galleries from 1925 and then became president of the NW Federation of Museums and Art Galleries from 1945. The Whitworth Art Gallery invited her in 1925 to join their council, beginning a long-standing and dedicated relationship. By 1936, Margaret stepped in when the Whitworth suffered financial and staffing problems, by proposing a rescue plan which saw her take on the role of honorary director, a post she held with distinction for over 22 years. This included supporting the gallery financially and donating works of art. Margaret felt that art should not be the preserve of the rich, working tirelessly to promote accessibility to art for everyone.

The outbreak of World War 2 brought more challenges for Margaret – firstly she oversaw the movement of many of the Whitworth’s works of art to safe storage in the National Library of Wales. She was also pivotal in establishing a rest centre in the Whitworth’s cellars to shelter those made homeless by the Manchester blitz, personally caring for those who had suffered.

In recognition of Margaret’s many achievements, she was awarded an honorary MA from the University of Manchester in 1942 and an OBE in 1956. In 1953, the Friends of the Whitworth (which she had founded to support gallery activities) commissioned a portrait of Margaret from Sir Stanley Spencer. In addition, when the Whitworth was refurbished in the mid-1960s, a new exhibition room was named after her.

Official photograph commemorating Margaret’s honorary MA degree, 1942

Official photograph commemorating Margaret’s honorary MA degree, 1942 PIL/3/1/6/10

In her later years, Margaret continued to be heavily involved with Manchester’s cultural scene, including serving as first woman president of both the Manchester Luncheon Club (1963-4) and Manchester Lit and Phil (1964-5). For her 80th birthday in 1971 an anonymous musical ode was penned in her honour, which celebrated Margaret’s remarkable life and achievements.


We have really enjoyed investigating some of Margaret Pilkington’s fascinating accomplishments for the exhibition – so much so, look out for our next blog, which will focus on her equally talented family and their life together. Watch this space!

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Imaging Team.

The Power of Asking



Rosie Garland, image credit: Jill Jennings

Rosie Garland, writer-in-residence at the John Rylands Library writes:

I’ve just been appointed the first writer-in-residence at The John Rylands Library. How did I manage this wonderful achievement? I asked.

Sounds easy.

It wasn’t. If you’re anything like me (and the longer I live, the more I realise I’m not alone), asking is far more difficult than it sounds.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Unless you were born with a set of silver spoons in your mouth (which is everyone reading this, right?), then you’ve worked out that opportunities don’t fall magically into your lap. You’ve had to work hard to get where you are.

I like what Julia Cameron (author of the inspirational ‘The Artists Way’ ) says: “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can.” It’s a reminder to put myself into the path of opportunities. The bus does not come to the front door. I have to leave the house, and darn well run for it.

I have to take a deep breath, and ask. So, why is it so difficult?

Here’s my take. I grew up with a spectacularly unhelpful dictum: Ask, don’t get. Don’t ask, don’t want. I shared this with friends recently, and was shocked to discover it’s very common. I end up stuck in a bizarre Catch 22 situation, thinking that if I have to ask for something, then I don’t deserve it. Or, that I must to wait for someone else to ask me. The most I’m allowed to do is stand around looking hopeful.

This lose-lose mentality is combined with a vicious internal critic. I call her Mavis (I’ve blogged about her here and run Anti-Mavis workshops). She never, ever says anything nice. If someone says they like my writing, Mavis jumps in and whispers ‘they’re only being nice.’ In fact, she can be neatly summed up by this great Savage Chickens cartoon:

Image by Doug Savage, Savage Chickens, 2012

Naturally, my internal critic undermined any notion that somewhere as amazing as The John Rylands Library would want the likes of me.

So – standing up and asking for what I want can be pretty damn hard. I’m swamped with fears of rejection, coming over as needy, an underachiever, someone who’s failed because they need to ask.

Luckily, this isn’t a poor-me blog.

Years ago I decided that I was not going to let fear of rejection stop me living a life that is too darn short as it is. I take inspiration from Jia Jiang, whose TED talk about dealing with rejection is well worth 15 minutes of anyone’s time.

So, however hard it is to ask, to put myself forward, to send that manuscript to a competition or agent – I take several deep breaths and do it. In the words of Susan Jeffers: ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

And here’s the good news. The John Rylands Library is delighted to have a writer-in-residence. Correction: The John Rylands Library is delighted to have me as a writer-in-residence.

I have told Mavis to put that in her pipe and smoke it.

Coming next – what I asked for, and how to ask for a residency.

Isabella Banks, ‘Orator’ Hunt and the Peterloo Massacre


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Dr Janette Martin, curator of our forthcoming Peterloo exhibition, tells us how the collections held at the University of Manchester Library deepen our understanding of Peterloo and its cultural impact on the city of Manchester:

The acclaimed Manchester author, Isabella Banks (1821-1897), was born two years after the Peterloo Massacre (1819) yet the tragic event captured her imagination.  The massacre was dramatised in her best-selling novel The Manchester Man (1870) and a young Henry Hunt featured in her later novel Glory (1877).  Like many female authors of the time, Isabella published under her married name: Mrs George Linnaeus Banks.

Isabella Banks was born above her father’s pharmacy shop in Oldham Street, Manchester.  Her parents were active in local politics. In such a politically charged household she must have heard about Peterloo as a child and most probably spoke to elderly eye-witnesses during her research into the massacre.  Her fictionalised account of 16 August 1819 owes much to Samuel Bamford’s recollections of Peterloo, recorded in his Passages in a Life of a Radical. She also read the verbatim accounts of that day recorded in Henry Hunt’s trial.

As a young woman Isabella was a member of the ladies committee of the Manchester-based pressure group the Anti-Corn Law League.  She was also a life-long advocate for women’s suffrage (incidentally Henry Hunt presented the earliest parliamentary petition for women’s suffrage).  Given her political interests it is not surprising that the life of Jabez Clegg, the chief protagonist in The Manchester Man, is told as a romantic melodrama set against a turbulent backdrop of Manchester’s socio-political history, in which Peterloo and the protests against the Corn Laws are given prominence. She paints a vivid picture of Henry Hunt:

‘Orator’ Hunt, as he was ironically dubbed by those who loved him not, was the very man to move the people as he himself was moved; his energy and fervid eloquence carried his hearers with him, and as he was wont to lash himself to a fury which streaked his pale eyes with blood and forced them forward in their sockets, no wonder the Manchester magnates were afraid of his influence on the multitudes, or that the Prince Regent should issue a proclamation against seditious meetings and writings, or the military drilling of the populace, then carried on with so fervid an orator to inflame them.

Extract from The Manchester Man, p. 154.

Isabella Banks’s fascination with Peterloo, and its hero Henry Hunt, continued into later life.  During the late 1880s she was involved in the campaign to repair a dilapidated Henry Hunt monument. Back in 1842 the Chartists had built a towering obelisk in the graveyard of a dissenting chapel in Ancoats to commemorate their hero Hunt. Chartism, like the ill-fated Peterloo meeting, advocated parliamentary reform as an essential step for improving the lives of working people. The Chartists were particularly numerous and well organised in Manchester (along with many other northern industrial towns and cities).  The Chartists sent three monster petitions to Parliament yet, despite its mass appeal, Chartism had largely fizzled out by the 1850s.  The Hunt memorial was similarly short-lived. While dramatic and eye-catching it cannot have been built to a sturdy design if it fell apart a little over forty years later.

NS Henry Hunt memorial

Northern Star, 20 August 1842. From Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition.

As this prospectus shows, by the 1880s Henry Hunt was no longer seen as a dangerous radical but was celebrated by the Liberal Party as a progressive thinker.  Isabella was part of a wider group who wanted to honour the Peterloo orator with a permanent memorial.

JRL18100083 - prospectus

Prospectus for a new Henry Hunt memorial, Manchester, 1888. Ref. Linnaeus Banks, Box 10. The University of Manchester Library.

From this press-cutting pasted into a copy of the Trial of Henry Hunt we know that the plan to re-erect the Hunt monument failed.  My theory is that the money collected was later used to pay for a plaque of Henry Hunt mounted on the wall of the Manchester Reform Club in 1908. Fittingly it was C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, who gave the address at the opening ceremony.

ancoats monument cutting A

cutting on ancoats memorial B

Press cutting (undated) on the 1880s campaign to save the Hunt Memorial. University of Manchester Library.

In 1896, the year before Isabella Banks died, a well-illustrated edition of The Manchester Man was published with forty-six plates and three maps. These included engravings of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and a fictionalised scene from Peterloo in which a mounted yeomanry officer slashes Jabez Clegg with a sabre as he tries to protect a woman and an old man.  Within our Linnaeus Banks collection is a handwritten note which records Isabella’s fear that one of her cousins behaved brutally, attacking the fleeing crowds on Oldham Street.

The Manchester Man was republished in 1991 and again in 1998. Its influence on Manchester is enduring. The recently closed Jabez Clegg, one of Manchester’s most iconic pubs, took its name from the hero of the book.  Locals still use the term ‘Manchester man’ to celebrate a self-made man and fittingly a quotation from the book is on the grave of Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records.

JRL18100084 note on Hunt

Handwritten note. Ref. Linnaeus Banks, Box 10. University of Manchester Library.


Mary Jane Clarke, an Unsung Hero


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Our current exhibition is celebrating some of the ‘Women Who Shaped Manchester’ and it will run until the 10th of March 2019.


Emmeline Pankhurst, Courtesy of Library of Congress via Wikimedia

Amongst those women celebrated is Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother of the radical suffragette movement.

Many of us will remember that it was fellow suffragette Emily Davison who was killed very publicly by the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913, but Emmeline also suffered a devastating personal loss in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Jane Donaldson has given kind permission to repost this blog that details her research into the correspondence of the Pankhurst family with Manchester Guardian editor C. P. Scott. In this post she focuses on the story of Emmeline’s sister Mary Jane Clarke who died in December 1910, just after her release from Holloway prison.

Jane Donaldson writes: As one of 3 volunteers working on the Guardian Archive project ‘What the Papers Say’, I am assisting in cataloguing the correspondence collection and my focus is Women’s Suffrage. The Suffragette movement was at its height during the early 1900s prior to WW1 and this is reflected in the correspondence of C.P. […]

via Mary Jane Clarke, an Unsung Hero — John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

From Motown to Mill Town: ‘Heads of State’ Press Release


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Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes his sixth blog post on the amazing Dave Cuncliffe Collection, acquired earlier this year:

The next item I’d like to highlight from the Dave Cunliffe archive is a 1967 press release from the ‘Heads of State’ which, alongside press cuttings from the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, outlines the arrest of numerous artists and musicians on seemingly trumped-up drugs charges. Amongst these were political activist and manager of the MC5 rock group, John Sinclair, whose verse appeared in Poetmeat earlier in the 1960s. So the interesting question is, how were two Lancashire small press publishers connected with prominent figures of the US counterculture?


John Sinclair arrested

In their search for innovative poetry Dave Cunliffe and Tina Morris made global contacts at a time in the early 1960s when communication was far more difficult than it is today. As most homes didn’t even have a telephone or TV, news and ideas took a long time to travel across even relatively short distances.  This was particularly true of anything outside the ordinary: the mainstream media were unlikely to cover the radical or experimental. Other than the prohibitively expensive telegram the only realistic form of communication for most was through the post. So sending letters or postcards was how you kept in touch with friends and relatives and was part of everyday life, helped by a cheap and efficient nationalised postal service making two daily deliveries (younger British readers may find this difficult to believe). Without the internet or social media, often the most difficult element of knowledge transmission was locating the address of the person you wanted to get in touch with, but the BB Books editors were helped by little poetry magazines’ review sections, detailing how to correspond with other editors and poets.

It’s worthwhile taking a moment to contemplate the nature of communication by letter. It gave writers the capacity to explore thoughts and feelings in greater depth and with it the opportunity to distribute complex concepts via the mail. Also the time taken for missives to be penned and then to travel allowed for a rhythm to develop between authors whereby new beliefs could be exchanged. With this culture in mind, correspondents traded revolutionary poetry in a period long before information was easily accessible, opening independent channels of transmission through which innovative philosophies could be fostered. This was news undiluted by the refracting prism of newspaper journalists or editors but rather first-hand accounts of what was happening on the ground from those who would become important countercultural figures in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and Cleveland. So alongside the poetry distributed by post came news of alternative philosophies and new lifestyle choices: thoughts about environmentalism, pacifism, gay rights and radical protest were swapped alongside avant-garde verse communicating similarly militant ideas.

It wasn’t easy to find people’s postal addresses but Morris and Cunliffe had a breakthrough when they reached New York poet Tuli Kupferberg who immediately responded with the contents of his literary contacts book. Amongst these, the editor of Interim books, Kirby Congdon, was key, sending the Blackburn pair the details of numerous US writers and later co-editing a special New York Poetmeat issue. Amongst this list was then nineteen-year-old lesbian Black Panther Pat Parker, her verse appearing in Poetmeat 5 but who is better known for co-founding the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council and the Women’s Press Collective in the States. Parker contributed to several works demanding women’s rights and, while working at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Centre, she published several poetry collections and books on feminism after which the Pat Parker/Vito Rosso New York library was partly named. Although Parker’s verse was out of print for several years, Sapphic Classics recently published an anthology which, covering the themes of race and violence, is now championed as both topical and inspirational at a time when the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns are exploring those same issues five decades later.

Other contacts included Julian Beck who co-founded the experimental Living Theatre in New York with his wife Judith Malena. Heavily influenced by the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who believed in shocking complacent theatre-goers and in breaking-down the barrier between performers and audience, Beck and Malena held shows in unorthodox venues, outraging spectators with sex and drug references leading to confrontational productions and arrests for nudity and obscenity. Beck wrote several volumes of poetry and contributed to Poetmeat from as early as 1964, building a regular correspondence with Cunliffe almost culminating in a UK branch of the Living Theatre moving to Blackburn.

Born Rita Marie Dragonetti in New York of Italian immigrants, Ree Dragonette was writing poetry by seven and was included in Poetmeat 6. Dragonette became a legendary Greenwich Village figure as a poet, teacher and political activist, vigorously opposed to the Vietnam War and the supporter of various left-wing causes. Friends with fellow poet and radical Robert Lowell, much of her writing remains unpublished and she is perhaps now best-known for jazz musician Eric Dolphy’s setting of her poetry to music.

Political activist, co-founder of the White Panthers and manager of the Detroit rock group MC5, John Sinclair gave the band their revolutionary edge in a brief career which included a performance at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention when thousands of protesters were attacked by the National Guard. Connected with the Yippies (Youth International Party), the group was one of the first to link rock and roll with militant politics, bringing a fervently left wing message into mainstream music via gigs which fused the showmanship of a James Brown revue to dialectic lyrics and between song diatribes. Earlier in the sixties, Sinclair worked as jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and wrote poetry heavily influenced by the avant-garde free bop of the period, contributing to Poetmeat from 1966. After several drug busts (including the one highlighted in the press release) and a ten-year prison sentence (of which he served two years), in the early-70s he moved to Amsterdam from where he still makes regular radio broadcasts and continues to write and perform poetry.

Avant-Garde Art and Alternative Lifestyles


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Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes his fifth blog post on the amazing Dave Cuncliffe Collection, acquired earlier this year:

Dave Cunliffe spent 1958–62 in the capital where he met writers, artists and radicals in Soho coffee houses, the Peace Café and a West London scene around Eel Pie Island. Cunliffe attended the Committee of 100 anti-nuclear protests meeting the artist Gustav Metzger, gaining a fascination in the avant-garde and a passionate belief in its transformative power. Metzger developed Auto-destructive art, painting with acid to reflect the violent threat he felt from nuclear weapons. Although Metzger isn’t now particularly well-known, his influence did reach mainstream pop culture through his art college tutelage of Pete Townsend, his theories lying behind The Who’s on-stage guitar trashing. Cunliffe certainly acquired a keen interest in burgeoning art movements, following with interest Austrian ‘Actionism’. The Actionists believed that static art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) was tainted by commercialism, the only pure culture being that created spontaneously at events or happenings. Otto Muehl took this a stage further by creating Vienna’s Friedrichshof Commune where residents lived out this philosophy under his control.


Cover of the AA Kommune Manifesto, 1973. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.


‘The AA Kommune: two points of view’, article by Ian Ross in Peace News, 23 January 1975. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

The next objects from the Dave Cunliffe archive are a 1973 manifesto from what had become the AA Kommune and a Peace News article by Cunliffe’s Blackburn friend Ian Ross about his 1974 visit to the collective. This blog then is about two documents relating to a traditional element of the counterculture – alternative lifestyles (Cunliffe having lived self-sufficiently, growing vegetables, brewing his own beer and cultivating ‘exotic’ plants for around forty years). Although there’s a long history of communal living in the UK (for which I recommend Communes Britannica by Chris Coates) it was in the 1960s and 70s that many new groups sought a future outside mainstream society by living collectively, often giving up possessions and even money. R D Laing’s Philadelphia Society group at Kingsley Hall in which patients and staff lived together, seeking new ways of looking at mental illness, was an important pointer towards the Viennese group. At the AA Kommune Muehl espoused regular Freudian therapy and psychoanalysis based on the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, no private spaces, access only to culture they created for themselves and, when his partner left the group, he inevitably decreed that no formal pairing be allowed. Evenings usually involved theatre, dancing and, after the acquisition of film equipment, the making of actionist movies.


Photograph of the interior of Amamus radical bookshop in Blackburn. Photographer unknown. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

Ian Ross managed Blackburn’s Amamus radical bookshop selling underground magazines, literary journals and political tracts while hosting the offices of countercultural groups and a poetry, music and theatre performance space in a room above. With Cunliffe he launched alternative newspaper the Blackburn Barker, using it to attack the activities of neo-fascists after their election to the town council. Although his article claims that he enjoyed his time with the AA Kommune the reality was somewhat different – he found the daily analysis gruelling, living without privacy intrusive and that Muehl became increasingly autocratic – the artist later convicted of abusing residents and consequently spending seven years in prison.


Blackburn Barker, no. 2, alternative newspaper. Dave Cuncliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

‘What a bright beam we had cast into their lives’: Exploring the Papers of Priscilla Staples (Beecham) 1947–2018


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Volunteer Anna Tomkinson writes about her work on the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers:


Photograph of Jeff Nuttall and Priscilla Staples (née Beecham). Photographer unknown. The University of Manchester Library.

Priscilla Staples née Beecham (stage name Rose McGuire) was born on 19 July 1947 and was the creative partner and long-term mistress of Jeff Nuttall. Beecham’s and Nuttall’s worlds collided in mid-1960s London when the capital was undergoing a countercultural revolution. Beecham was seventeen when she embarked on an eight-year relationship with Nuttall. During this time, Beecham studied English at Nottingham Univeristy from 1966-1969 at Nuttall’s encouragement. Yet it was outside of academia where Beecham made her mark, collaborating with Nuttall on The People Show and The Jack Show that exploded onto the underground scene in 1972-74, performing everywhere from Yorkshire to Amsterdam. (During this period she went by the name Rose McGuire which is how she will be described in the remainder of this blog.)  The People Show and it’s off-shoot, The Jack Show, was influenced by Surrealism, Dadaism and absurdity with a preoccupation with all things sexual and scatological and was conveyed with merry aplomb before a disbelieving audience. Theatre broke free from its buildings and went out into the streets, telephone boxes and public toilets. This was the era of the anti-theatre movement which broke all the rules by actively involving and provoking the audience.

The University of Manchester Library was fortunate enough to acquire the collection through Dick Wilcocks who, after visiting the Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground exhibition at the Library in 2016, gathered up fragmentary pieces of ephemera such as photographs and drafted scripts when he visited McGuire in 2017. The collection is fragmentary and repetitious in character, featuring multiple versions of the same script.  This usefully allows readers to witness its growth and progress. This collection is important as it gives women a voice in the countercultural scene, depicting them as active agents rather than simply muses.

The physical collections are complemented beautifully by the oral history interview that Dick Wilcocks conducted with Rose McGuire in 2017. The interview describes how when she initially met Nuttall she thought him a ‘pompous prick’ who looked like a character out of a Dickens novel, before she saw him again in a club, and changed her mind. A colourful picture is also painted of other countercultural figures. Alexander Trocchi was ‘gorgeous but all over the place’ and William Burroughs ‘looked like a lizard.’

The aim of 1970s performance art was to regurgitate society. More active than reform, it believed in evolution, focusing on how the imagination could make it possible to think beyond what Nuttall believed were the ‘bland’ politics of the day.  Better Books, an avant-garde bookstore managed by Nuttall’s friend, Bob Cobbing, was at the forefront of this movement, hosting exhibitions and happenings. In this hive of creativity, art was created that thought beyond societal norms and adopted a framework of the ‘aesthetics of obscenity.’ This explains the theory behind many of the pieces in this unique collection.

A prime example that exhibits the abandonment of aesthetic norms is a second-hand notebook which once belonged to a person called Annie Collins. It is a cloth-bound volume with writing from numerous owners overlapping, including everything from classic British recipes to algebraic equations to scrawled children’s drawings. Rose McGuire presumably used this book to work through ideas for her Jack Shows and other creative endeavours. Drawings include a red dancing monkey with birds, cats and trees all portrayed dancing in a way not dissimilar to a pagan ritual or cult. Another drawing depicts a face in which the nose is replaced by a yellow bird. The drawings often include motifs of animal which perhaps evoke carnal connotations.


Painted illustration from a notebook in the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers. The University of Manchester Library.

‘Annie Cousins’ notebook provides a space in which McGuire could explore various dark and surreal voices. In line with the Dadaist tradition that McGuire and Nuttall aspired to achieve in their art, the book highlights the importance of combining the perverse with the nonsensical to awaken society to its reality and strive to imagine change. Yet not everyone was ready to have their imagination challenged. A hand-written slip of paper in the collection appears to give a reaction to a Jack Show from the early 1970s. It demonstrates the opposition that they faced from audiences, in this occasion they are described as  ‘dirty, filthy homos’ who deserve to have ‘buckets of human (shit) [thrown] in [their faces].’  It is, of course possible, that the note itself was part of the show!

While the Priscilla Staples Collection comprises only a small box of material it vividly illustrates the compelling world of 1970s performance art, from hostile diatribes to bold artistic beginnings.


Letter found in the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers. The University of Manchester Library. It is not known whether this was a prop used in a Jack Show performance or a genuine response from someone in the audience.

Remembering Armistice Day 1918


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One hundred years ago today, on 11 November 1918, guns on the Western Front and other theatres of war fell silent. Fighting continued right up to the agreed ceasefire at 11.00 GMT, and it is estimated that over 10,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing on the last day of conflict, some succumbing to injuries sustained earlier – perhaps the most grotesque of all the grim statistics of the ‘Great War’. Countless thousands more would die of their wounds, both physical and mental, in the months and years ahead.

The papers of the Manchester historian T. F. Tout are an important source for the history of the First World War. Many of his former students joined the forces and corresponded regularly with Professor Tout, describing their experiences in the war. Thomas Seymour Hurrell matriculated at the University of Manchester in 1914, and completed part one of the history degree in 1916. He then enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until the summer of 1918, when he was transferred to Catterick in Yorkshire for officer training. A week after the Armistice, on 18 November, Hurrell wrote to Tout describing the celebrations: ‘The armistice was welcomed here with the usual ceremonies bonfires, volleys of blank ammunition, rockets, maroons and so on, and the bugle band and the Power Station siren had a competition as to which made the most noise.’

The Armistice resulted in an easing – in some cases a breakdown – of the rigid military discipline that had prevailed during the conflict. Hurrell reported that the armistice ‘has had the immediate effect of turning our affairs into absolute chaos’ (letter to T. F. Tout, 23 November 1918, TFT/1/560/45). A Staff Officer told the cadets at Catterick that no further officer commissions were to be issued and that on discharge they would not receive an officer’s gratuity, worth £200. Unsurprisingly, the ‘brass hat’ got ‘what might be mildly described as a most unsympathetic hearing by a frankly hostile audience’.



Another letter from T. S. Hurrell to T. F. Tout, 27 November 1918, describing life at Catterick camp. TFT/1/560/46.

Tragically, having survived the war, Hurrell died in the influenza pandemic in December 1918. He was buried in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery and is commemorated on the Victoria University of Manchester’s war memorial in the Main Quad, alongside 510 other students and staff members.

Another student was more fortunate. Walter William Spedding from Bolton won a scholar to read history at the University in June 1915 and completed just a year of his degree course before enlisting in 1916. He served as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force, but was attached to the 3rd Canadian Heavy Artillery Brigade to facilitate liaison between the artillery and reconnaissance aircraft. After the Armistice, censorship of letters was lifted and on 18 November Spedding was able to report to Tout that he was billeted at Boussu, ten kilometres from Mons:

I have been on the Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes advances, or rather sectors, and it has been extremely difficult for heavies [heavy artillery] to keep within range of the Hun, so fast has he retired. We pulled into Boussu on the Sunday morning (10th) after the Hun left on the previous Friday afternoon, and our reception was extremely cordial. As the armistice was signed the following day (11th) that has ended our pursuit, and as we are still here and likely to remain, I fancy we are forgotten, or else we are not mobile enough to follow on.
Letter from W. W. Spedding to T. F. Tout, 18 November 1918, TFT/1/1132/2.



Letter from W. W. Spedding to T. F. Tout, 18 November 1918, TFT/1/1132/2.



Spedding’s then directs thoughts towards his return to civilian life. He told Tout that he wished to resume his studies at Manchester, and wanted to know whether his Hulme Scholarship would continue. Spedding was demobilized in early 1919, and he did indeed return to his studies, graduating in history from the University of Manchester in 1921. The details of his subsequent career are unknown.

The events leading up to the signing of the Armistice at Compiègne are of course well known. However, the Library holds a fascinating and rare published account of the circumstances of Germany’s defeat. This was originally issued by the German Chancellor in 1919, as Vorgeschichte des Waffenstillstandes, and was translated into English by the director of military intelligence at the War Office in London. A History of Events Immediately Preceding the Armistice reproduces documents and discussions between the German Government and the military headquarters, after the generals had concluded that ‘it was no longer possible, in spite of the mighty achievements of our armies, to obtain a victory over the enemy and compel him to make peace’. The History was intended to counter the many ‘legends’ and ‘misrepresentations’ surrounding the events, in particular the accusation of defeatism. The History argues that by Autumn 1918 the military situation was hopeless, and that the Armistice saved the remnants of the German army from complete disaster. It also reveals Germany’s resentment at the Allies’ broken promises, presaging the later rise of Nazism: ‘These promises are thus broken; but they remain as a legal foundation for the immutable demand for a revision of the peace treaty.’

History of Events Immediately Preceding the Armistice 1918

History of Events Immediately Preceding the Armistice, translated by the director of military intelligence at the War Office (London, [1920]). First World War Pamphlet Collection, no. 1095.

Visit to William Cowley Parchment Makers


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Mark Furness, Senior Conservator in our Collection Care team, writes:

A rare opportunity came up recently to take a tour around William Cowley Parchment Makers, the UK’s sole remaining maker of parchment and vellum. The visit was organized by The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections (AMARC), of which The University of Manchester Library is a member. The tour was run twice in one day, each tour taking about two hours, with lunch and the AMARC AGM slotted between.

Completed batch

A finished batch of parchment at William Cowley’s

William Cowley began making parchment in the 1860s, establishing premises in 1870 next to the River Ouzel in Newport Pagnell where they continue to operate.  They retain a license to draw water directly from the river for use in their production process.

The method of production has changed very little in that time, or indeed in the last 2000 years. In fact, Cowley’s is reputedly the most authentic production facility in the world, the one concession to modernisation/mechanisation being the use of motors to churn the liming vats.

Cowley’s employ half a dozen members of staff. Each is a master of a particular part of the process, but most know all aspects of the business so that they can fulfil orders throughout the year, covering illness, holidays and  periods of high demand.  Their most recent member of staff is an apprentice, learning all aspects of the craft to continue the tradition. Although it is not a job that would appeal to everyone, competition for the post was fierce.

A quick note on smell: it’s not bad, a bit peculiar perhaps, but not assaulting the senses; similar to a butcher’s shop, but milder.  Considering this was on a hot day in June, it would be unlikely to get any worse.

The process begins with the selection of skins. Calf, goat and sheep are used and sourced from a local abattoir.  Several staff make the selection, looking for skins that are unblemished by scars or cuts. The skins would otherwise be discarded as a waste product: no animal is reared exclusively for its skin.

The skins must first be de-haired. They are first salted to draw out moisture, and then washed and soaked in a lime solution for about two weeks.  This loosens the hair which can easily be scraped clear with a blunted draw knife, removing excess fat and sinew.


Scraping the hair off the skin

The skins are then put on a frame and stretched while being kept wet.  The frames are stout wooden constructions with pegs arrayed around the perimeter.  Cord is wrapped around the pegs with the other end attached by a slip-knot to spaced points around the skin.  In monastic production, a small pebble, a pippin, was pressed into the edges of the skin and it is around this that the knotted cord was cinched; a small ball of crumpled newspaper is used in place of a pippin these days. The pegs are then tightened with a specialised spanner, a rounded rectangular socket to turn the pegs at one end, at the other a notch to keep the slip-knot tight.

First Stretch and scrape

First stretch, the skin secured to the frame with pippins.

Specialised spanner

Specialised tool to tighten the skin.

It is important to keep the skin moist as it is stretched; stretching and drying set the nature of the parchment. The stresses and strains that once existed in the skin when it was wrapped around an animal’s body are transformed and set into new orientations to create a flat surface. If the skin gets wet once released from the frame, those stresses will be released and try to form back towards their original place and shape.

The stretching also reduces the thicker areas of the skin that were once at the shoulders, neck, haunches and spine of the animal. If left untreated these areas would become transparent and ruin the finished product.

With the skin in the frame, the first round of scraping occurs; the parchment maker will run a lunar across the surface of the skin about three times, removing any deposits of fat and sinew that will mar the surface when finished. The cords staking the skin out will need to be re-tightened throughout the process and the pressure of the scraping will stretch out the skin more.

Lunar blade

‘Lunar’ curved knife to reduce the thickness of the skin.

A lunar is a specialised tool for parchment making, named after the half-moon shaped blade that is the central piece of the tool.  Perpendicular to the blade, a handle protrudes above and below, and it is held with one hand beneath, the other on top, with the thumbs of both hands on the handles toward the blade, so the top hand will feel upside down.

The blade has wooden pegs that wedge between handle and blade to keep the blade secure; it also serves to indicate the orientation of the blade with the pegs on the bottom of the blade.  The blade of the lunar in the first scraping is blunt. For the next operation it needs to be sharp, though instead of being sharp along the outward facing curve of the blade a burr extends along the lower edge of the blade and will act like a scoop to remove successive layers of scraped parchment rather than simply slicing into the surface.

The pegged and framed skin is like a sheet of elastic, more so when damp; push on it and the skin will stretch against that pressure, pushed away by the parchment maker.  Scraping a straight blade across such a surface means the ends of the blade would catch, nicking or slicing the skin.  The lunar’s curved blade avoids this, allowing the edge to run across the skin’s surface as it bends along the curve of the blade.  The lunar does have curved ends but the skin should be kept taut enough that it won’t stretch over more than half the blade’s length.

After the initial scraping the skin is left to dry in a heated room for 24 hours.  Once dry, the individual patterns of the skin can be seen. Cows today typically have a mottled black and white coat. This patterning extends into the skin, and whilst it has its own appeal, customers tend to require smooth, clear sheets and so the pattern must be removed.  This is achieved through the scraping: successive layers of the parchment are peeled away, the individual skin guiding the amount of pressure and speed used to best effect.

Patterned Skin

A skin with veined patterning caused by a natural death.

Other patterns in the skin cannot be removed. Although most skins are sourced from the abattoir, Cowley’s also obtain skins from local farmers who, inevitably, have livestock die on the farm.  Because these animals have died without the blood being immediately drained, the pressure of the carcass lying on one side causes the blood to stain the pattern of veins into the skin. This cannot be removed as it penetrates throughout the skin, but it does provide an interesting and unique pattern that appeals to some clients.

Once scraped to the correct thickness, the skin is left to dry fully. The end use for the skin may require further processes. For instance, if the product is intended to be used for calligraphy, manuscript production or some similar purpose, then the surface needs to be perfectly smooth and is prepared using a substance called Kelmscott, presumably named after William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.  This substance is prepared from the shavings of the parchment making, powdered and mixed with… something (presumably water but Cowley’s must retain some of its secrets) to create a white paste that is applied to the skin, allowed to dry and then buffed smooth.

Skins drying

Skins left to dry on their frames.

The entire process from raw skin to parchment sheet usually takes 4-6 weeks. Once complete, the skins are graded and stored, unless they were created for a specific order.  Cowley’s can also colour the parchment for specific requirements.  Using vegetable dyes the staff at Cowley’s record every recipe they create to achieve a colour. If there’s nothing suitable, they will try and make something to meet your needs.  Each skin has its own patterning and individuality; dyeing will not result in an even colour across the surface but adds a depth to the skin’s characteristics.

After that, it depends on the customer’s needs. Each order is treated with an unusual level of attention to detail, understandable given the cost of parchment and vellum, but it also shows the level of interest and pride the company takes in meeting an order.  The price itself is a reflection of the skill, time and quality of the product.  Skins can be sold whole or cut to size and specification of grade.  All orders are looked at under natural light to get a correct sense of the parchment’s individual qualities, and it may not be until the finished product is so scrutinised that a flaw is discovered, perhaps a small insect bite, pin prick, or the mark of a knife during the scraping process.

Dyed parchment

Parchment sheets dyed to order.

Interestingly, one of Cowley’s main sources of business now is the creation of parchment panels for interior decoration or customised orders for covering and decorating furniture.

Rapture and Reason Revisited


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Dr Gareth Lloyd writes:


‘Monster at Finsbury Fields’, 18th-century satirical print mocking the emotional response to evangelical preaching, by Samuel Wade, engraved by Charles Grignion. Image no. jrl16040782.

In September 2016 the University of Manchester Library digitised and placed online a collection of 153 manuscript testimonies written by people from all backgrounds who had converted during the 18th-century Evangelical Revival (see the Rapture and Reason website). These narratives, sent to the Methodist leader and hymn-writer Charles Wesley, contain personal stories from a movement that gave birth to leading 21st-century Christian denominations, including Methodism, the Holiness family of Churches and the evangelical wing of the Anglican Communion.

This first phase of the Rapture and Reason project (so-called because of the charismatic nature of evangelical spirituality) promoted and broadened scholarly access to an important cross-disciplinary resource. It also highlighted potential use of the testimonies by contemporary faith groups seeking to explore the roots of evangelical Christianity.

As a next stage of project development, The Methodist Church in Britain recruited volunteers from local congregations to transcribe the testimonies. These transcripts, totalling 165,000 words are now available online alongside the digitised images of the original documents, via the Rapture and Reason site.

This collection is a wonderful resource that crosses lines of gender, education and class. Spirituality and everyday life merge to provide unique insights into the most important mass movement of the 18th century. Subjects covered include marital abuse, capital punishment, psychology of religious belief, the Georgian workplace and abortion. These documents, never intended for publication, provide an intimate glimpse into a society undergoing rapid transformation.


Extract from the testimony of Margaret Austen, 19 May 1740. Ref: EMV 501-1.

The collection is freely available for anyone to use, subject to the terms of a creative commons licence held by The University of Manchester. There are also opportunities for members of the public to volunteer to contribute to further project development, which will probably include annotation of the transcripts with biblical references and other background commentary.

For more information about the collection or volunteering opportunities, please contact Dr Gareth Lloyd, Curator of Methodist Archives and Manuscripts (Gareth.lloyd[@]