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9 of the Best Finds at the Nottingham Castle Museum

23 July 21 words: Ashley Carter
photos: Curtis Powell

Nottingham Castle’s museum has been given a good sprucing as part of their extensive renovation and, after getting a sneak preview, we can attest that they’re looking bang on. Capturing elements of Nottingham’s artistic, industrial, military, social and rebellious history, the new exhibitions do a great job of providing an insight into the city’s eclectic, eventful past. To celebrate their reopening, we took a nosey around to find nine items that caught our eye...

Execution block

1. World War I PH Gas Helmet - Museum of the Mercian Regiment

The British Army issued this early example of a gas mask during the First World War in order to protect troops against the various types of deadly chemical weapons being used during trench warfare. Rather than acting as a filter, as was the case with later developments of the gas mask, the PH Gas Helmet was dipped in sodium phenate, a chemical that neutralised the effects of some gasses. The use of deadly gas, including chlorine, phosgene and tear gas, was a new development in warfare at the time and, by the end of the conflict, had killed an estimated 30,000 men, permanently injuring a further 500,000.

Gas mask
Taxidermied sheep

2. Private Derby - Museum of the Mercian Regiment

Far more than just an ordinary ram, Private Derby is a serving soldier in the Mercian Regiment, has his own bank account and even accrues holiday. As the mascot of the Mercian Regiment – a British Army infantry regiment drawn from the five counties in Central England – Private Derby is an old and cherished tradition. While the 32nd version of Private Derby is alive and well, Nottingham Castle is home to a beautifully taxidermied previous iteration, which served as the mascot during its time. Whisper it quietly, the Ram is even mascot at D*rby County games around Remembrance Day. 

3. Salt-Glazed Monkey Figurine - Early Nottingham Craft Gallery

The process of salt-glazing originated in the Rhineland of Germany around 1400, but became widely practiced in Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when Nottingham established itself as producers of some of the highest quality and highly sought after salt-glazed items. The process, which involves adding salt to the kiln when it reaches its highest temperature, creates a glossy, orange-peel-like texture that is also much more durable. This particular example from 1767, which takes the shape of a monkey and has openings in its humped back, shoulder and mouth, is said to have been used as a pipe holder.

Salt-glazed monkey figurine
Windshield with bullet hole

4. Albert Ball’s Bullet-Pierced Windscreen - Museum of the Mercian Regiment

As one of the most decorated fighter pilots in World War I, Albert Ball’s legacy is widely celebrated in Nottingham. At the time of his death in combat, aged just twenty (Ball was only seventeen when he first joined up), he had 44 confirmed victories to his name, which saw him posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross – the highest British military honour. This windscreen, manufactured by AVRO, was pierced by an enemy bullet and taken from one of Ball’s aeroplanes in 1917. It’s a visceral reminder of the horror of war, and the close margins by which each soldier, pilot and sailor lived and died during those four years of fighting.

5. The Flawford Figures - Early Nottingham Craft Gallery

Sometimes, the stories behind how artifacts end up in a museum are as interesting as the items themselves. These stunning alabaster statues are rare survivors of Henry VIII and his Reformation, when England broke from Rome to become a Protestant nation, and almost all Catholic sculptures, images and books were destroyed. Having been discovered by chance in 1779, these statues of Virgin and Child, A Bishop and St. Peter as Pope – which all date from the late fourteenth century – were amazingly used as garden ornaments before finding their way to the Castle.

The Flawford Figures
Safeguard Lace Badge

6. Safeguard Lace Badge - Nottingham Lace Gallery

After World War I showcased the strategic importance of certain industries to the country, the government made moves to protect British industry with a series of policies aimed at shielding them from foreign competition. As Nottingham’s prime source of manufacturing, the lace industry was at first not considered for safeguarding, ensuring that the lacemakers of the city headed en masse to Hyde Park in London on specially laid out trains to protest in 1930, wearing these badges as they marched. A chance discovery in a charity shop, this badge is thought to have been worn during those protests.

7. Lace Evening Dress and Jacket - Nottingham Lace Gallery

As one of the standout pieces in their impressive collection celebrating Nottingham’s lace history, this dress and jacket were created for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Worn by Lady Bragg, the wife of Nobel Prize recipient Sir Lawrence Bragg, its intricate design was based on the recently discovered crystalline structure of the mineral Beryl. It was manufactured by A.C. Gill, a lace firm based on Warser Gate in Notts, and founded by Albert Charles Gill who was a key figure in the city’s lace industry before emigrating to Australia, where he died in 1918.

Lace evening dress and jacket
statue of a horse leg

8. Horse Leg Statue Fragment - Rebellion Gallery

This bizarre object throws up as many questions as answers. Let’s start with what we do know: it’s part of a horse’s leg, made of wood and taken from a statue of the First Duke of Newcastle which was on display on the Palace’s Eastern front. It was taken as a souvenir in the 1831 riots, during which the Castle was burnt down. But why is it made of wood? Was it a replacement for some earlier damage to the statue? Who took it with them? And how did it end up back at the Castle? History, you are as fascinating as you are frustrating.

9. Jeremiah Brandreth’s Execution Block - Rebellion Gallery

One of the most poignant elements of the Castle’s brilliant new Rebellion Gallery, this large wooden block was used in the execution of Jeremiah Brandreth, one of the last men in Britain to be executed via the method of beheading by axe. Brandreth, also known as The Nottingham Captain, was an out-of-work stocking maker from Sutton-in-Ashfield who was one of the suspected leaders of an 1817 Luddite march on Nottingham. The display is a visceral reminder that Brandreth paid the ultimate price for his participation, but is still remembered as a hero of the worker’s cause, and a true Nottingham rebel.

Jeremiah Brandreth's execution block

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