Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities November 2017

Curiosity: Small boxes of different materials

(from the F. W. Rudler collection)

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Prof. F.W. Rudler, (Chemistry, 1875-1879).Frederick William Rudler (8th July 1840 – 23rd January 1915)

Frederick William Rudler was born in London in 1840. He studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic where he attended Science and Art classes. During this time, he was awarded two gold medals in one year. In 1861, he was appointed Assistant Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London. He remained there until, in 1876, he was offered to become a lecturer in Natural Sciences at the University College of Wales (now Aberystwyth University “AU”). He taught Chemistry and also became one of the AU’s earliest Geology Professors. In addition, he founded the university’s museum and was its first Curator. When the Curator of the Museum of Practically Geology, Trenham Reeks (1823-1879), died Rudler took Reeks’s position and the roles as Librarian of the museum and the Registrar of the Royal School of Mines, now part of Imperial College, as well. He remained Curator at Jermyn Street until his retirement in 1902. The same year he received the Imperial Service Order from King Edward VII for his services to science.

image001 (1)
Contemporary museum report

(Click on ‘Contemporary museum report’ to open a larger PDF.)

Rudler was an assiduous writer. He was assistant editor to Ure’s Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures (1875 edition) and contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Thorpe’s Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, Muir’s Dictionary of Chemistry and the Anthenaeum. In addition, he wrote the Guide to the Museum of Practical Geology and the Catalogue of Pottery and Porcelain. His lectures were very popular and he presented a series, for example, for the Society for the Extension of University Teaching. His friend Edward Brabrook comments in Rudler’s obituary that he had “a clear voice, a distinct enunciation and a marvellous memory.” Another obituary mentions that “as a mineralogist Mr Rudler was most accomplished, being able to identify and name any mineral specimen at sight, and could state its properties and locality with wonderful precision.”

Rudler at Aberystwyth University

Apart from his jobs, Rudler held a great number of positions in various organisations. I did my best to put them in the correct order and not to get mixed up with the very similar names. I might have omitted some roles, but all in all, I think the following list gives a very good idea of just how busy Rudler must have been:

1869 Assistant Secretary and sub-editor for Journal, Ethnological Society, London; joined the British Association (1872-79 Secretary of the Association’s Anthropological Department and 1880 President of the same)

1870 Fellow of the Geological Society (Lyell Medal 1903)

1871 Fellow of the Anthropological Institute (1873 elected Council member; 1875 Director, jointly with Edward Brabrook; 1880-81 Vice President, 1898-99 President)

1874 Joined the Geologists’ Association (1887-89 President)

1888 Honorary Treasurer at the Fourth Session of the International Geological Congress, London

1901 Chairman of the Conference of Delegates of Corresponding Societies, British Association

1903 President of the Essex Field Club

1904 President of the S E Union of Scientific Societies

F. W. Rudler had expert knowledge in and lectured not only on Chemistry and Geology, but also in Physics, Botany and Zoology. Further interests included the history of British and Japanese pottery making, and he established an important collection of British ceramic art. His aim was to found a Welsh national museum in Aberystwyth, and with the help of donations and exchanges with other museums, he managed to gather a great number of botanical, mineral and paleontological material. The mining industry was a matter he particularly focused on, and he collected many specimens of copper, iron, lead, silver and tin. In addiction, Bryce Wright of London contributed ethnological items such as clubs, spears and paddles from Polynesia and Africa. In 1879, the year Rudler left AU, George Powell of Nanteos started giving objects of his collection to the museum as well. Even after taking up his role as Curator at the Museum of Practical Geology back in London, he stayed in touch with AU, and when he died in 1915 (in Tatsfield, Kent), his own collection was offered to the university to purchase.

Professor O. T. Jones’s report of Rudler’s collection is included in the university’s annual report (probably 1915-16). Together with Mr. Alfred T. Davies of the Welsh Department of the Board of Education, he travelled to Tatsfield to meet Rudler’s brother, Mr. S. G. Rudler, and go through the vast amount of material to find out whether it would be useful for the AU museum. It comprised mineral specimens, gemstones, coins, medals, plaster casts of coins and medallions, hundreds of archaeological pieces, maps, pamphlets, journals, books and scientific instruments. It seems that Rudler was quite an obsessive collector and curious about everything. Jones recommended in his report that the collection should definitely be bought, as it included many interesting and valuable objects; his advice was duly followed.

Among the acquired objects was a large number of, what Professor Jones listed in his report as ‘Curios’. I suppose that included our assortment of little boxes we still have in our ‘treasure trove’ at the School of Art today. My learned colleagues, Head of the School of Art and Keeper of Art Professor Robert Meyrick and Senior Curator Neil Holland, assume that Professor Rudler collected them as examples of different materials and processes of manufacture. Exemplars are made, for example, from wood, horn, celluloid, lacquer and raffia work. To specify each of them would take pages and pages, so I decided to zoom in on some of them that seem to have the most interesting stories to tell.

Relic of the HMS Royal George

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

This booked-shaped piece of iron was apparently salvaged from the 18th century warship the HMS Royal George. Built at Woolwich Dockyard, the first-rate ship was launched on the 18th February 1856 right in time for the start of the Seven Years’ War against France and its allies. It had originally been laid down as the Royal Anne, but in honour of the reigning King George II, it was renamed. Exceeding 2000 tons burden, it was the largest warship in the world at the time and had 100 cannons. It served in the Battle of Quiberon (November 1759) and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (January 1780).

Sinking of H.M.S. Royal George at Spithead Augt 29 1782, etching, no date, Royal Museums Greenwich (Wiki Commons)

In August 1782, she was moored at Spithead and supposed to undergo maintenance before taking provisions and ammunition to Gibraltar. On the morning of the 29th, many workmen, such as shipwrights and plumbers, were on board, and families were visiting the sailors. Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82) and her Captain, Matthew Waghorn, were also on board. In order to execute the repairs, the ship was heeled, slightly leaned over to one side. It was noticed some time after that water came in through the gunports with the result that the ship capsized and sunk rapidly. The majority of people on board could not be saved; between 900-1200 lost their lives, including about 300 women and 60 children. The story goes that one little boy survived by clinging to a sheep. It is difficult to establish an exact number due to the innumerable visitors and workers on board. An eyewitness, an officer on board the Fleet, wrote a sad letter to an acquaintance in town on the day describing the heart-breaking scene:

“Admiral Kempenfelt was on board, and we are not certain yet whether he was saved. The Beach, and Houses about the Point, are now filling with the dying and the dead, Men and Women promiscuously tumbling in a Heap; nothing is to be seen but Objects of Woe, and Images of Dejection; and as the Benefit of the humane Society is little known or practiced here, few of the Sufferers, it is feared, will be save, beside the Loss of so fine a First-Rate in so simple a Way, I am now in great Haste and Confusion, having been for these two hours assisting the unhappy Sufferers.”

The cause of the Royal George’s sinking as mentioned above is assumed to be correct; however, the subsequent court-martial decided that the ‘general state of decay of her timbers’ was the reason, thus exonerating the officers and crew, most of whom had died in the disaster.

“Spithead, with the exact situation and appearance of the “Royal George”, wrecked – with above 600 people on board – 29 August 1782.” source and date unknown (Wiki Commons)

The masts of the ship were still visible afterwards, just outside the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour; a lasting reminder of the tragedy. Many proposals were put forward for salvaging the Royal George. Diving pioneers Charles Anthony (1796-1848) and John Deane (1800-1884) undertook a series of dives between 1834-36 and managed to recover 30 guns and many other objects from the vessel. (During that time, they also discovered the remains of Henry VIII’s famous flagship, the Mary Rose, which had sunk on the 19th July 1545.) The salvaged warship objects were exhibited in Regent Street, London, in 1835. The wreck was finally cleared and blown up by Colonel Sir Charles William Pasley (1780-1861) between 1839-1844. (The collection’s relic’s plaque states that the iron was recovered in 1839.) Pasley salvaged many bronze cannon, some of which were melted down to form the base of Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Other recovered objects and timbers were also turned into relics, such as snuffboxes, commemorative coins, and sold. It is still possible to find some of them today on online auction websites.

Wreck of the ‘Royal George’. Frederick Whymper, 1883, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington (Wiki Commons)


Relic of the HMS Victory 

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Just like the HMS Royal George, the HMS Victory was a first-rate warship with over 100 guns (The sources I used for this blog entry are quoting anything between 100 and 116 guns.) and designed by Sir Thomas Slade (1773/4-1771). She was built in at Chatham Dockyard from 1759 onwards and launched in May 1765. Apparently, over 2000 oak trees were needed for her construction, she had 27 miles of rigging and four acres of sail; the total cost was over £63,000 (over £50 million today). However, she first experienced active service only in 1778 during the War of American Independence (1775-83) against the French fleet in the Battles of Ushant (Brittany, France), in 1778 as the flagship of Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725-86) and in 1881 as that of Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-82).

During a period of peace, the Victory had some repairs made and was commissioned again in 1793, this time in the Mediterranean and was involved in the sieges of Toulon (1793) and Calvi (1794). During the battle of Cape St. Vincent (February 1797) she was badly damaged and sent home. She was converted into a hospital ship and would have almost ended her days as a prison hulk. However, the loss of the first-rate ship HMS Impregnable in 1799 saved her from that sad lot. She had a major refit at Chatham Docks between 1800 and 1803. It was then that she received her famous black and yellow striped coat.

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1799, National Maritime Museum (Source: Wiki Commons)

On the 14th May 1803 Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, two days before war was declared against France; on the 18th, Nelson hoisted his flag in the HMS Victory. On the morning of the 21st October 1805, the Victory hoisted her famous legendary signal ‘England expects every man will do his duty.’ and the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and allied Spanish fleet commenced. Nelson was badly wounded by a musket-ball shot from the French Redoubtable whilst walking the quarterdeck in the early afternoon and died a few hours later below deck in the cockpit. The Victory had been badly damaged fighting the French flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable and was towed to Gibraltar after the battle. However, the crew insisted on taking Nelson’s body home to England. He lay in state in Greenwich Hospital and was finally buried on the 6th January 1806 at St. Paul’s, London. His crew of the HMS Victory carried her battle ensigns and, when he was laid to rest below the dome of the cathedral, they tore them to pieces to keep as mementos rather than placing them with the coffin.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, J. M. W. Turner, 1806-08, Tate (Source: Wiki Commons)

The HMS Victory was repaired again and served until 1812 when she was put into reserve in Portsmouth. Another major repair took place between 1814 and 1816. From 1823 she lay permanently at Portsmouth and became the flagship of the Port Admiral in 1824 and from 1889 of the Commander-in-Chief. She was permanently moved to a dry dock at Portsmouth in January 1922, and restoration works were carried out. Due to her connection with Nelson, she has always had a great place in people’s hearts and been kept in good order. The Ministry of Defence transferred the custodianship to the HMS Victory Preservation Trust in 2012. Still a tourist attraction, she is, according to the Royal Navy website, still flagship of the First Sea Lord & Chief of Naval Staff, and thus the oldest commissioned warship in the world. She is staffed by Royal Navy seamen and staff of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

As with the relic of the Royal George, we have no way of knowing whether this object was really made from the wood of the warship. Souvenirs of both were very popular, and enterprising ‘men of business’ most certainly jumped on the bandwagon and produced fake relics which they sold as mementos to an eager clientele.

Hms Victory South Gland Portsmouth
HMS Victory, Portsmouth (Source: Max Pixel)

Copper snuffbox of Christmas Evans 

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Christmas Evans (1766-1838) was born the parish of Llandysul, Cardiganshire on Christmas Day. His father died when he was only about nine years old, and he went to live with an uncle in Carmarthenshire. Four years later he became a farmhand and worked for David Davis (1745-1827), who was an Arian minister of the Arminian congregation at Llwynrhydown. Evans converted and became a member of the church in 1783. He was educated by Davis and learnt to read Welsh and to speak some English. In addition he learnt some Greek, Hebrew and Latin during his life, and knew sufficient English to preach in the language and read texts that were important for his role. He started preaching at cottage meetings but lacking an academic education, he could not become part of the Presbyterian ministry. Thus, he joined the Baptists and was baptized in 1788 in the river Duar in Carmarthenshire by Timothy Thomas (1754-1840) and became a member of the Baptists in Aberdyar.

Christmas Evans, William Roos, 1835, oil on canvas, National Museum Cardiff

1789 proved a very important year for Evans; he was ordained at Salem, Ty’ndonnen, married Catherine Jones and had a spiritual revelation about the wonder of the Grace of God that caused him to preach more passionately and livelier than before. He became a very influential preacher who drew in large crowds. Having a great imagination and a talent for observing people, he would turn his sermons into dramas that would spellbind his congregations. An accident had cost Evans an eye, but fellow Baptist minister Robert Hall (1764-1831) said the remaining one ‘could light an army through a wilderness on a dark night.’ Throughout his career, he also published, for example, sermons and Welsh hymns.

In 1791, he moved to Angelsey and was minister to all Baptist local churches. During his time there he built chapels and went on preaching tours, but the Angelsey churches resented his authoritative and orthodox ways so in 1826 he moved to Caerphilly, Glamorgan, when he was offered the ministry of Tonyfelin Chapel. Whilst in Caerphilly, he married his second wife, Mary Jones, his first wife having died in 1823. After problems with his parish he relocated to Cardiff in 1828, but again, his dominating ways were not met with approval. Hence, he moved to Caernarfon in 1832. He died unexpectedly in July 1838 during a tour in south Wales and was buried on the cemetery of Bethesda Welsh Baptist Chapel, Swansea.

Celluloid boxes     

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

The term ‘celluloid’ was coined by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), who, with the help of his brother Isaiah, had successfully created and patented an urgently needed substitute for ivory in 1869. He based his research on earlier finds by the English chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) who had experimented with cellulose nitrate in order to find a better insulator for the electrical industry. Cellulose nitrate was (and of course still is) highly inflammable, a danger that he reduced by including camphor in the process. Parkes called his invention ‘parkesine’ and patented it. However, he failed to commercialize his idea with his Parkesine Company, founded in 1866 in association with George Spill & Co. (a company producing waterproof textiles in East London), already being liquidated in 1868.

Hyatt, on the other hand, managed to develop and successfully market a process with cellulose nitrate and camphor that would create a material suitable for all kinds of objects, such as knife handles, toys, false teeth, piano keys and billiard balls. The last two in particular had been made from ivory in the past, which even in those days was becoming already more scarce due to the incredible high demand for it. Hyatt and his brother set up the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870, and a year later the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was founded. Parkes and his new firm British Xylonite Company Ltd, also backed by George Spill & Co, sued the Americans, because Parkes had put in patents before them for his inventions – without success.

When other forms of plastic where developed celluloid lost its significance, because the new products were less flammable. These days, it’s apparently only used in the manufacture of table tennis balls.

I leave the last word to Frederick William Rudler who wrote in the March 1882 issue of the AU College Magazine:

“Horace Walpole defined a museum as a “hospital for everything that is singular”. But many an object, without being in any way singular, is yet well worthy of a place in a museum. It is the educational value, rather than the singularity, of a specimen which recommends it to the attention of an enlightened curator. […] Far be it from me to advocate the accumulation of miscellaneous curiosities, like Captain Grose’s “auld nick-nackets”. And yet I believe that there is scarcely any object from which, if properly studied, instruction may not be evolved. The old coin, the autograph, or the potsherd may teach more of real vivid history than an ordinary student can learn from many pages of his text-book.” (College Magazine, Vol. IV, March 1882)


Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997. Print.




























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