Following up on the recent blog about the Morfitt family and the plough pebbles given to Prof.William Boyd Dawkins for the Manchester Museum collection, it occurred to me that I’d only told part of the story. Thomas Sheppard (1876-1945) was the Curator of Hull Museums. Appointed in 1901 as curator of the Municipal Museum on Albion Street, he was advised to arrive at 10am, smoke a cigar, read the newspaper and take anything that was given…
It’s hard to imagine anyone working in a local authority being told to do this as part of their induction nowadays! Sheppard, fortunately, disregarded his instructions and, when he retired 40 years later, he’d created seven new museums in Hull, some of them the first of their kind, such as Wilberforce House (1906) commemorating the campaign to abolish British slavery, the Fisheries and Whaling Museum (1912), and the Transport and Commerce Museum (1925). He was full of energy and was a passionate advocate for museums.
Sheppard achieved all this not only through hard work and determination but also by generating publicity. He was always putting snippets in the local and regional newspapers and sometimes he’d disagree publicly about some point of detail in a report. This wasn’t simply correcting things ‘for the record’ but a way of stimulating a little controversy which made people sit up and take notice.
So it was that about 1908 when William Boyd Dawkins of Manchester Museum visited the sleepy village of Atwick in Holderness to see some archaeological sites known as pit dwellings, Sheppard was involved in a very public disagreement with Dawkins’ good friend, Revd William Gatty, and Canon William Greenwell, who claimed the pit dwellings were prehistoric and thousands of years old. The sites had been discovered by the Morfitt family. Sheppard said he’d found a piece of broken Wedgwood pottery in one of the pit dwellings, so they couldn’t be very old at all.
Sheppard seems to have had a good point but the tone of his comments contrasts very markedly with what he said a few years earlier when he was a regular visitor to Charlotte’ Cottage, home of the Morfitt family and the ‘East Coast collection of antiquities’. Sheppard congratulated the family on the recovery of a red deer skeleton on the Holderness Coast:
‘The care that has been taken in putting the numerous pieces together is characteristic of Messrs Morfitt, and the greatest credit is due to them.’
This was in 1898.
William Morfitt’s sons, Aaron and Beaumont, had gone out at low tide and recovered the skeleton as the water rose about them. Is this extreme archaeology or what? And Sheppard often led guided tours of the Holderness coast in his capacity of secretary of various scientific societies. No visit was complete without seeing the Morfitt collection in Atwick. After 1903 that stopped. All Sheppard’s comments thereafter are critical of the family, belittling them and their collection. So what went wrong? What soured the relationship?
To answer that question we have to consider Sheppard’s reputation as a collector, summed up in the cartoon above. Sheppard is depicted as a highwayman ‘sticking up’ the local antiquities dealer’s! He didn’t create six new museums without being very acquisitive. His mania for collecting was legendary.
He also had a great sense of humour. Sheppard himself encouraged the portrayal of himself as a highwayman, the ‘snatcher man’ and a burglar. “The most scandalous stories come from his own lips” said Mary Chitty. It was how he marketed himself. He was the man who could snaffle an exhibit for the Hull Museums from under the very noses of rival collectors. A quick response by telegramme often secured the specimen for Hull before rivals had woken up to the fact that they were going begging. This, understandably, led to tension with other collectors. One was Canon William Greenwell of Durham. Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a falling out over collecting between Sheppard and William Morfitt. There is a fascinating line in one of Canon William Greenwell’s letters (dated 30th December 1903) that refers to a violent encounter between Sheppard and old William Morfitt:
‘Mr Jeff told me in a letter received a few days ago that you had tackled Sheppard and given it him hot. I am glad to hear that you applied the stick to his back which I hope still smarts under it!’
This could just be a figure of speech but the implication is that old William Morfitt assaulted Sheppard. Perhaps he felt the Hull Curator had been disloyal or disingenuous and was trying to obtain antiquities that Morfitt felt were ‘on his patch’. Was the occasion when the wily Sheppard got caught out? If this is what happened then the reason for the sudden change in Sheppard’s attitude to the family becomes apparent.
We can see an example of this different attitude in the report of the acquisition of an Iron Age gold coin for Hull Museums which appeared in one of the Hull Museum Publications. William Morfitt had also found a gold coin at Atwick about the same time. This is a photograph. It is in the British Museum.
This is what Sheppard wrote about the coin he’d acquired for Hull Museums:
‘Another somewhat similar though not quite so fine’ I believe is an oblique reference to William Morfitt’s coin. Sheppard shows he’s aware of the discovery but he doesn’t acknowledge the finder, thereby denying him the ‘oxygen of publicity’. ‘Near Hornsea’ becomes a coded reference to the Morfitt family at Atwick. What do you think?
In a future blog I’ll show how Sheppard’s animosity towards the Morfitt family was expressed in a far more damaging way over the so-called Holderness harpoons during the early 1920s…