Cabinet of Curiosities: a new way to inspire research in Special Collections

Stuck for an original research proposal?

From a letter written by Mary Shelley to a pair of socks that were presented as evidence in a Scottish murder trial, the drawers of our new Cabinet of Curiosities reveal the great range of materials we hold and the ways they can inspire and inform your research. Hover over the cabinet drawers to open them. Learn about the items and how they came to be in our collections as well as contextual information and suggested avenues for related research.

If you find something that piques your curiosity, why not consider using Special Collections’ archives and rare books as evidence in your essay or dissertation? You can head over to our research planner which will guide you through the process of using primary sources in your work.

The new Cabinet of Curiosities.

Jim Beirne and the Live Theatre – April 2021

For Jim Beirne, MBE, April 2021 marks a 21 year career milestone as he steps down as Chief Executive of Live Theatre. 

Back in 1973, Live Theatre were a touring company presenting new material to new audiences in non-theatre venues. They toured the North East performing in social clubs, community venues and schools and offered what Emeritus Creative Director Max Roberts describes as “an authentic working-class experience that [he’d] never encountered in the theatre before”. A shift towards new writing started in the early to mid-70s when the company moved from its initial home in Gateshead to join Amber Films on the Quayside. Around this time, they started working with writers like Tom Hadaway, a fish-merchant and writer, from North Shields who started to write plays for the Company. Live Theatre moved away from creating their own work and became writer-led in their approach to theatre. Tom Hadaway was the first of many esteemed writers to become a Writer in Residence at Live Theatre, the ranks of which include C.P. Taylor, Lee Hall, Julia Darling and Sean O’Brien.

By 2000, Live Theatre excelled in supporting new writers, but its financial future was uncertain. Jim Beirne joined the company in 2000, and his time as Chief Executive saw him develop a ‘new vision, new direction and a new business model’ for the theatre, and oversee ‘an outstanding programme of work that celebrates and is dedicated to presenting new stories with a strong social and political focus’ ( Beirne saw the theatre undergo a full refurbishment which was completed in 2007, and the opening of a series of new developments including St Vincent’s café and The Broad Chare pub, as well as The Schoolhouse, Live Works, Live Tales and Live Garden to create the Live Quarter in Newcastle Quayside. In 2011, Jim received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Northumbria University and in 2012 he was awarded an MBE for his service to theatre. This month, Jim Beirne leaves Live Theatre as a cultural institution with an international reputation as a new writing theatre; known for producing new plays and nurturing creative talent.

More details on our Live Theatre archive, which includes play scripts, photographs, correspondence, and papers relating to the growth and development of the Theatre at their Quayside location, can be found here.

Live Theatre programme for The Night of the Snapped Suspender by Leonard Barras

Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – February 2021

The book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was one of the first English-language children’s book to discuss male homosexuality and inadvertently played a significant role in one of the most difficult and controversial episodes in the history of the struggle for equality for LGBT people in the UK.

Written by Danish author Susanne Bösche and first published in Danish in 1981, the book was published in English in 1983 by Gay Men’s Press, intended to help reduce anti-gay prejudice and to be a resource to facilitate discussion with children about homosexuality.

Front cover of the Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin book.
Front cover of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin (Gay Men’s Press, 1983). (Alderson (Brian) Collection, Alderson Collection BOS JEN)

Special Collections’ copy of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin is held in the Alderson (Brian) Collection of children’s books, and demonstrates how a book may become politicised owing to its content and the context in which it is viewed, in this particular book’s case, having become a weapon in a war over the teaching of sexuality in schools.

The story describes a few days in the life of five-year-old Jenny, her father, Martin, and his partner Eric who lives with them. Jenny’s mother Karen lives nearby and often visits. It covers their various day-to-day activities, including going to the laundrette together; playing a game of lotto; preparing a surprise birthday party for Eric; and Eric and Martin having a minor argument and making up. There is also a conversation with a passer-by who expresses homophobic disgust when meeting the family in the street, the subject of a later discussion between Eric and Jenny.

Page 29 of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin containing text from the story and a photograph showing a young girl sat between two men at a table.
P.29 of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin (Gay Men’s Press, 1983). (Alderson (Brian) Collection, Alderson Collection BOS JEN)

That the 1980s was a time of rising negative sentiments towards homosexuality in the UK is well-documented. In 1986 a copy of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin was made available by the Inner London Education Authority in a teachers’ centre specifically for the use of teachers who wanted to know more about gay or lesbian parents. In response to this, various national newspapers inaccurately reported that the book was being made available in school libraries.

The ensuing controversy, including the condemnation of the book’s availability by the Secretary of State for Education, resulted in fear that the book was being used as “homosexual propaganda”, and made a major contribution towards the Conservative Government’s subsequent passing of the controversial Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade the promotion of homosexuality by local government and in schools in England, Wales and Scotland.

Attitudes towards sexuality and sexual minorities have shifted a great deal over the decades since the passing of Section 28, which was reviled by many far beyond the gay community itself. Now largely held to have been an unnecessary and unjust assault on civil rights, the legislation was repealed in 2003, and in 2009 the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron apologised publicly for it.

Page 32 of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin containing text and a large photograph of two men walking down a street with a young girl between them.
P.32 of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin (Gay Men’s Press, 1983). (Alderson (Brian) Collection, Alderson Collection BOS JEN)

Bösche, Susanne. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (Gay Men’s Press, 1983)

Shelf mark: Alderson Collection BOS JEN

Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs – January 2013

Diagram of a Japanese Fire Bomb from Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs:
Diagram of a Japanese Fire Bomb from Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs: The First ICBM
Henry Morris, Bird and Bull Press, 1982 (Rare Books, RB623.451 MOR)

Necessity is often said to be the mother of all invention. Sadly, with war, this often came in the form of scientific advances devised to kill and spread panic with more efficiency and devastation. During World War II, Germany’s most important technical achievement was the development and use of the V-2 missile; an unmanned, liquid propellant rocket capable of reaching overseas targets and the first known man-made object to enter space. Completed by July 1944, they were responsible for the death of 2,754 civilians in England alone and had an even greater propaganda value as a weapon coveted by the allies and feared by citizens at risk. However, they were not the only Axis power to launch such terrible initiatives, with Japan even outdoing the V-2 in terms of spanning continents to become the first truly inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), albeit in a less successful, more rudimentary way…

This annotated sketch, enclosed in a book explaining the history behind them, depicts a prototype fire bomb or füsen bakudan, which Japan developed during World War II as a means of spreading terror, starting fires and inflicting casualties on North American soil. After the disastrous defeat of their Navy at the battle of Midway (4 – 7 June 1942), the Japanese Military were intent on causing a similar psychological victory over the U.S. Over the next two years, the Imperial Japanese Army’s elite Noborito Laboratory, staffed by over 1000 of the country’s top scientists, engineered and tested incendiary and anti-personnel devices attached to 32 foot balloons made of Japanese handmade paper. These were capable of travelling on the trans-Pacific upper wind currents or ‘jet streams’ over the Pacific Ocean.

Considerable research was carried out to allow the balloons to maintain the minimum altitudes needed during the estimated 60 hours and over 6,200 miles it took to reach America. An aneroid barometer detonated explosives to release sandbags when they descended too far. When all these ballasts had dropped, the weapon was presumed to be over its target and the bombs were released. Rubberized silk was trialled for the balloons, but found to be much too heavy, whereas the light but exceptionally strong paper was more successful.

From November 1944 to April 1945, more than 9000 füsen bakudan were launched. It is estimated 1000 reached America; roughly the success rate of 10% predicted by Japan. However, the U.S. authorities, fearful of the panic they would spread and not wanting the Japanese to know how successful they had been, ordered radio stations and newspapers to give no publicity to such incidents. Although damage was minimal, six Americans, a pregnant Pastor’s wife and five Sunday school children did lose their lives in Oregon on 5th May 1945 when they investigated a downed balloon and the still attached bomb exploded; the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II. Ironically, this tragedy took place on land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Company, who were papermakers.

This diagram and the accompanying book was one of only 375 copies printed at the Bird and Bull Press, Pennsylvania, founded by Henry Morris, a printer and papermaker, in 1958, specializing in the art, craft, and history of papermaking.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales – December 2012

Fairy tales by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm; illustrated by H. E. Butler, c.1910
(Burnett Collection, Burnett 20)

The first collection of folk tales compiled by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm was entitled Kinder-und Hausmärchen or Children’s and Household Tales. Published 200 years ago, on 20th December 1812, they were based on German folk tales, which were widely-known in oral tradition but had never been written down as a complete collection. The brothers’ aim was to gather the traditional folk tales of the common people together and for them to be accepted and read by the rising middle classes. However, they have been criticised for changing characters and meanings in order for the stories to appeal to an audience that valued hard work, patience and obedience. Kinder-und Hausmärchen was the second most popular book in Germany during the Twentieth Century, second only to the Bible.

These images are from an early twentieth-century edition of the original tales. The illustrations were completed by Herbert Edward Butler (1861-1931). Butler trained at the Royal Academy, where he also exhibited in 1909. He and his wife, Sophia, lived in Polperro, Cornwall where he had a painting school. He specialised in large oil canvases, although after the First World War he began painting smaller watercolours and illustrating books.

Despite their misleading title, Grimms’ fairy tales were not originally intended as stories for children. It became increasingly popular for parents to read them to children, and the tales were revised in order to make them more morally acceptable, often removing references to sex and violence. The sanitised stories we assume Walt Disney was responsible for creating, were in fact products of the Grimm Brothers themselves who set about ‘cleaning-up’ the tales. Below are some of the most interesting changes that have taken place in the classic fairy stories since their first publication in 1812:

  • The first-edition versions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel featured the children’s birth-mothers as the villains, but this was later changed to the step-mothers, possibly to mitigate the violence of the stories.
  • In Rapunzel, her relationship with the Prince was sexual as, after his evening visits, she noticed her clothes getting tighter; she was clearly pregnant. In this edition it is not included but their sexual relationship is still alluded to as the Prince discovers her living with their twins at the end of the story.
  • In Snow White, the original tale ends with her step-mother, the wicked Queen being forced to put on red-hot iron shoes and dance until she fell down dead.
  • In Cinderella the sisters cut off parts of their feet in order to make the slipper fit and trick the Prince into marrying them. In the end they get their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

The re-writing of fairy tales has been constant and continues today. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries the idea of Christian meritocracy was introduced into fairy stories, particularly in Britain and the US. God was portrayed as being on the side of the hero and religious paraphernalia was incorporated into illustrated editions of the fairy tales, such as bibles placed on bedside tables. In Nazi Germany, traditional folk tales were considered to be holy and sacred and were promoted by the government from 1933 onwards. The Nazis said that Kinder-und Hausmärchen was a book that every household should own and used the stories to create feelings of nationalism. They embraced the traditional folk ideals of purity, loyalty, maternal sacrifice and male courage and used the stories to socialise children. It can be argued that the close association of the Nazis with the traditional fairy tales was the cause of the accusations of anti-Semitism that plagued Walt Disney during his lifetime.

In February this year many of the national newspapers ran stories claiming that parents are no longer reading fairy tales to their children. Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood were considered to be too scary; Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was seen as inappropriate because of the use of the term ‘dwarves’ and Goldilocks and the Three Bears for condoning stealing; and Cinderella apparently sent an outdated message about women being responsible for doing housework. Conversely, fairy tales have been popular for 200 years and the habit of reading them to children is well-established. The common themes of growing-up, familial struggles and fear of the unknown continue to make the stories relevant today. In addition they teach children important lessons about not trusting strangers, obeying their parents and loyalty. Will fairy tales die out? It’s doubtful, after all everyone loves a happy ending…

Fairy tales by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm; illustrated by H. E. Butler, c.1910
(Burnett (Mark) Collection, Burnett 20)

Robert Spence Watson – February 2011

Image of Robert Spence Watson

2nd March 2011, marks the centenary of the death of Robert Spence Watson (1837-1911). This image of Spence Watson is pasted into the front of a copy of one of his publications, The Reform of the Land Laws (1905), contained in the Spence Watson/Weiss Archive (SW 10/9).

Robert Spence Watson was born in Bensham on the outskirts of Gateshead. His family’s house there, Bensham Grove, remained his home for all of his life. Born into a Quaker family and a lifelong Quaker himself, Spence Watson was aware from an early age of the presence of injustice in the world and the efforts made by those who strove to redress the balance. His father, a solicitor, was a campaigner for the first Reform Bill, an advocate for Catholic Emancipation, and northern secretary of the Anti-Corn Law League, and at the age of seven the young Robert reportedly heard the famous Quaker radical and Liberal statesman John Bright speak from the hustings at Durham.

Although he became a solicitor by profession, Spence Watson’s interests were many and varied and his work and achievements in the spheres of politics, social reform, philanthropy and education gained him a position of great influence and esteem in his native Newcastle and beyond. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography states that he “represented the Quaker tradition of public action at its sturdiest”.

He was passionately interested in education and saw it as a means of improving an individual’s social condition. Amongst his many accomplishments in this area, he was Chairman of the first Newcastle school board and a pioneer of the Newcastle Free Public Library, ran working men’s Sunday classes and pioneered a system of adult schools. He was heavily involved in the foundation in 1871 of the Durham College of Science, later Armstrong College, which eventually evolved into Newcastle University, becoming its first President in 1910. He also served over a period of many years as Honorary Secretary, Vice President and later President of the Literary & Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil) in Newcastle.

A founder member and later President of both the Newcastle Liberal Association and the National Liberal Federation, Spence Watson was a lifelong adherent of the Liberal Party. Although he had no desire to enter the House of Commons, he was one of the most influential Liberal figures outside parliament. He had many high-profile political friends, many of whom he and his wife Elizabeth entertained at Bensham Grove, including the local Liberal MP Joseph Cowen, the afore-mentioned John Bright, Earl Grey and William Ewart Gladstone.

Spence Watson also cared deeply about the causes of those living under oppressed regimes. In particular he supported Russian political exiles in England, including Stepniak and Kropotkin. He was also well known in the North of England for his work as an arbitrator in trade disputes, which he undertook voluntarily, while he possessed a keen interest in literature and the history of the English language, and wrote a biography of his friend the pitman poet Joseph Skipsey.

One of his most high-profile acts of public work came in 1870 when he was appointed by the Society of Friends (the Quakers) as one of the commissioners of its War Victims Fund, travelling to Alsace-Lorraine to oversee the distribution of relief to non-combatants in the French-Prussian War, many of whom had been left homeless, destitute and bereaved by the ravages of war in the region. When he returned to France in 1871 to carry out similar work for the French Government, he wrote this touching letter home to his four-year-old daughter, Ruth. In the letter, which is held in the Spence Watson/Weiss Archive (SW 3/10), he told Ruth of his work in France. Although he wrote with the gentle tone of a father to his daughter, it was clearly important to Spence Watson that his children were aware of the hardships suffered by those less fortunate than themselves, just as he himself had been aware as a child. The first page of the letter is shown below. He wrote:

“Dear little Ruth
I promised to write you a letter whilst I was in this beautiful place, & now I begin in such a large office, far larger than that which I have at home, and close to the place where we are going to put the clothes and food for the poor people. We have a soldier with a gun & sword walking up and down before our door, but he is very kind to me, & says “Bon jour Monsieur” whenever he sees me… you would like to see the wonderful dolls in the shops, dolls which walk & talk, & do many other funny things. But you would be sorry to see so many ladies all dressed in black, & to hear how many little children died here during the long cruel siege… I want much to get home to dear Mamma & you, but I cannot come until I see that their clothes & food have reached here quite safely.”

Letter from Robert Spence Watson to Ruth Watson
Letter from Robert Spence Watson to Ruth Watson (Spence Watson/Weiss Archive, SW 3/10)