Posted on 6 June 2012
However, initial movements towards this particular intern placement at York Minster were speculative at best, and following an introductory tour around the Minster explaining what the internship would involve I was unsure as to whether I could offer anything to it. The task set out was to research an object which is housed inside the Minster. The IPUP interns would produce a research report for future curators and researchers, information for tour guides, and a new object webpage and interpretation label for visitors to read. This in itself was not an issue, indeed, it was a positive, but, having an academic background firmly rooted in modern history and politics, I felt as though I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the artefacts in the Minster. Walking around with the other IPUP interns who were mostly medieval historians, archaeologists and history of art students didn’t help my confidence, because I wasn’t sure whether a political historian who rarely dabbled outside the twentieth century was really suited to the task.
However, I had underestimated the ability of the Minster to offer something to which I could turn my hand, and along with IPUP’s willingness to go with something relatively out of the ordinary, I soon found my feet. I had noticed on a previous visit a small model of a miner placed near the stairs to the crypt, a donation to the Minster and seemingly out of place in terms of what one would expect to find there. During the introductory tour we had been shown chalices, vestments and stained glass, all impressive, but all a little beyond my expertise. This model, however, seemed more akin to myself; crudely made, easily missed, and a little dusty.
It is tucked away and set at ground level, it is dull in colour, naturally enough given its subject matter, and is easily passed by. It is not a fine carving, it isn’t hundreds of years old, and it isn’t overtly connected with the Minster in its depiction. Yet these were precisely the reasons why it had intrigued me. Practically, it offered me a research object in a field I knew fairly well, but aside from that it raised questions few other objects inside the Minster could; its very reason for being there was a mystery, after all, what did mining have to do with York Minster? Its label, ‘Barnsley Main Seam: An offering to the Minster from the Miners of Yorkshire. Modelled and presented by George Hector, 1959,’ offered little in the way of answers. This was an object choice which circumstances may have led me towards, but had I felt that I could have chosen any object inside the Minster, I doubt there would have been another that would have intrigued me as much.
Given that this IPUP internship would take place over a matter of months of my Wednesday afternoons, as opposed to over few weeks, this blog will be more thematically arranged, rather than chronologically. My IPUP intern group were given a very flexible schedule, and this was a great positive. The advantage of this approach, for me personally, was that I could set the internship aside at the times when there was particular pressure from my course, but this also meant that in quieter periods I could dedicate more time to the internship. The downside of this was that when it comes to writing a blog, the chronology isn’t particularly clear, and so a thematic approach is probably the best way to proceed, even if it isn’t strictly a diary of my experience.
Similarly, whilst other IPUP internships whose blogs you can read here involved varied activities which in themselves are of interest, this internship was heavily based around research and it is my opinion that the activity of researching in itself isn’t inherently interesting, it is what is found out that makes it so. As such, whereas other blogs may take the form of ‘on this day I did this’, this blog will not because it is not what I did, but what I found out, that is of interest.
A brief word on how I conducted my research is perhaps necessary, but I feel its brevity is worthwhile. My research took a fairly standard form. The first steps I took were those which any current researcher, who values a close proximity to their own kettle over a lengthy walk to a library, would take; I Googled. I knew the Minster Library was where I would ultimately end up, but there is a lot to be said for a speculative Google search, and this way I could drink as much tea as I liked. Perhaps surprisingly, I turned up some interesting finds, and it was through these searches that I discovered information and materials which were completely unexpected to me and these will be discussed later. I utilised the website of the British Film Institute, sent e-mails to the Barnsley Star newspaper and Buckingham Palace (without success), found a disaster report relating to the mine and also used the 1911 census. Aside from a thorough Googling, I also took the more traditional approach of visiting the York Minster Library and Archives at the Old Palace, and whilst Google gave me the more unexpected finds, tradition won out in giving me a thorough background to the model and fleshed out my research to an extent the internet could not.
There were five areas of interest which eventually gave themselves as titles in my research. The first three were fairly clear to see from the outset; the Model, the Modeller, and the Mine. The final two came about through further research, and these were concerned with references in literature and remaining questions.
The first area of interest didn’t take too much effort to work out: the model itself. The image depicted is that of a miner working at the coal seam. He is holding a pick, and behind him are a shovel and a sledgehammer, his oil lamp is hanging on the middle of three pillar supports. The model is contained within its own frame, upon which there is a plaque which reads; ‘Barnsley Main Seam: An offering to the Minster from the Miners of Yorkshire. Modelled and presented by George Hector, 1959.’ I had discovered that the model had been featured on the mining industry’s ‘own newsreel,’ the Mining Review, that George Hector was a retired miner, and that one of his models was in Buckingham Palace (a research trail which would unfortunately lead nowhere), yet it was the Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report of 1960, located at the Old Palace, that gave me the most thorough background to the model.
The first issue that struck me was that in this report is included the full text of a letter from George Hector to the Dean of York Minster, in which Hector offers his model. In this letter the model is clearly referred to as being entitled ‘The Veteran Miner’ and there is no mention of Barnsley Main Seam in these correspondences. Under this title Hector writes that this very model ‘took a first class prize at the Miners’ Arts and Crafts this year ’(1). The Dean goes on to write in his report that the model ‘shows ‘the veteran miner’ at the coal surface in Barnsley Main Seam’(2), from which we can only assume that it was by word of mouth that we know George Hector located his miner in Barnsley Main.
The model is unusual in the context of York Minster because of its industrial subject. It is written in the Friends’ report that an offering of this sort ‘had happened only once to the Minster, when, in the 1920s, Middlesbrough offered it a model of the S.S. “Vale of Pickering”, one of the River Tees’s industrial fleet.’ It was said that these offerings brought industry ‘into the regular prayer life of the church – which by right should be a Mother to all the energies of men.’(3). This tone continued throughout the Dean’s write-up, and it was seen as particularly fitting that the donation had been made to the Metropolitan church, as the mining industry in Yorkshire was spread across all five diocese. The place of mining in Yorkshire was of great importance, and the raison d’être of many communities in Yorkshire and throughout the north of England, in particular. This importance was not lost on the Dean, nor was its significance dwarfed by the model’s new surroundings, and, as the Dean wrote, the model ‘added to the Minster something more than the Model itself – a perpetual reminder of a great community to which we all owe so much, and a call to remember it constantly before God.’(4)
George Hector was a disabled mining instructor from Sheffield who had made models since his schooldays. It is likely that the Veteran Miner was to be his last piece as his eyesight had been damaged through accident(5). Although it cannot be said for certain, it appears probable that George Hector is the same George Hector from Sheffield who is described as 7 years old in the 1911 census. He had three brothers, with himself and his 11 year old brother both at school. His other brothers, aged 14 and 17, and his father, are both shown to work in the mines. Given this, it is more than likely that George Hector would himself be working in the mines within 7 years(6).
Aside from this, I was unable to find much out about George Hector. The puzzle still remains as to why he chose Barnsley Main to set his scene, given that he, his father and his brothers, would spend their lives working in Sheffield (I assume…). We can only say for certain that George Hector still lived in Sheffield at the time of the Model’s offering and that, upon the Dean’s visit to the Hectors to inspect the Model, George Hector and his wife were waiting ‘with steaming cups of tea.’(7)
The setting of Barnsley Main offered me a note of personal interest, as my father was born and raised in Barnsley and, after talking to him about my IPUP internship, it emerged that his school had overlooked the fully functioning Barnsley Main. The internet provided me with my research on the mine and some harrowing statistics. Barnsley Main was located on the site of England’s worst ever mining disaster. It was known as the Oaks Colliery in 1866 when, on 12 th December, an explosion occurred, killing 334. As rescuers worked in the mine the following day, a further explosion killed 27 more. The mine was no stranger to disasters, having suffered the loss of 73 men and boys in 1846. Further disasters occurred in 1942, with the loss of 13 lives(8), and 1947, with the loss of 9(9). The first mine on this site was sunk in 1838 when it was known as the Oaks. The pit was closed in 1966, having opened as Barnsley Main c1899, it reopened in 1985 to accommodate those put out of work by the closure of the nearby Barrow pit, only to be closed again in 1991, this time for good(10).
Whilst my research on the mine itself had been pretty morbid, it went to illustrate the fact that this model deserved its place inside the Minster. It may be a small model with no religious depiction, but it represents an industry to which men sacrificed their lives, but which also built tight and strong communities, an industry to which ‘we all owe so much.’(11)
It was with two Google-based discoveries that I turned out the most unexpected finds in my research. This very model had been the title piece of Pearse Hutchinson’s Poetry Anthology Barnsley Main Seam(12), and, perhaps most surprisingly, the title of the preface to Arthur Lindley’s Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Carnivalesque Subersion(13). Both these pieces pick up on the juxtaposition of model and Minster, and both seem to take a rather dim view on the Minster half of that combination. This is a view which I doubt George Hector would have agreed with, however, they do raise some good points.
Lindley writes that ‘Politically, it asserts the equality of nameless workers with the effusively names soldiers, aristocrats, and clergy whose memorial space it shares and whose authority you might read it as indicting.’(14) Whilst I am under no doubt that this is not an indictment, and that George Hector would likewise be adamant this it is no such thing, Lindley does effectively sum up the ‘equality’ of the miner with all those whose images surround him. Yet this is an equality which is graciously accepted and encouraged by the Minster, as shown in particular in the Dean’s report, and something which George Hector was honoured to provide.
Hutchinson’s poem, naturally enough, provides a more poetic description of the model and its surroundings. Whilst still not quite over-enamoured with the Minster, the poem does focus much more on the importance of the model, as opposed to its ‘indicting’ message to the Minster. There are three lines in the penultimate stanza which effectively sum up the model’s place inside the Minster.
Men like us made you,
You could not be.
Far from an ‘indictment’, this message is a reminder that it is men like the Veteran Miner who literally built York Minster, who built communities and provided their backbone. Furthermore, the model is a reminder to those who may take the view that it is somehow not on a par with its surroundings, that it is precisely because of people like this miner that these surroundings exist at all, and that should never be forgotten.
Some mysteries remain, which is no bad thing. The placement of the Veteran Miner in Barnsley Main Colliery is the main loose end, and one which I assume had some personal significance for George Hector, yet this model’s message would remain the same were it depicting any other colliery, and that must be seen as an important point to make.
Brief mention was made earlier of a model of Hector’s having been presented to Buckingham Palace, a model which, having contacted Buckingham Palace, no longer appears to reside there. It would have been of great interest to have seen this model, what it depicted and whether or not it could have offered any further context to the Veteran Miner, yet this was not to be.
The IPUP Director, Helen Weinstein, brought the interns together to discuss presenting our findings in a way which was accessible to the public and the main means of doing this would be our object labels. We were to write no more than 50 words in language aimed at an intelligent 12 year old, so as to make these museum interpretation labels attractive to read. Anything too long and visitors won’t bother to read them, and I don’t blame them, and anything more complicated would alienate anyone without the required level of literacy, or fluency in English. It was definitely a challenge to think that all our research would have to be summarised in 50 words, and I’d be lying if I said that I was completely happy with my label. But this was the challenge, and it is only because I had so much more to say that I did not feel entirely content with my 50 words. Indeed, I see it as a positive indication that substantial research has been done and care taken over it that 50 words did not seem enough. Whilst in this sense I was not entirely satisfied, I do feel that I managed to create an effective and informative label which people will read and, hopefully having read it, begin to appreciate the model a little more, and there’s not much more I could ask for.
Furthermore, we were given the opportunity to write a webpage on our object and a blog on our experiences. Whilst my blog might have gone on a bit, I’m hopeful that I’ve managed to fill them both with fairly interesting things… If you’ve got this far then I have. The webpage allowed me to essentially expand my label, giving further information but still in a way accessible to anyone who wished to view it, and it is good to know that our webpages are going to be a very useful resource for present and future curators, researchers, tour guides, education officers and so forth. Also, I hope it will tempt the wide variety of audience who will use the website to come to the Minster and seek out this intriguing model for themselves.
On completing the IPUP internship I was very happy with the experience. I had been able to apply my academic skills to something other than an essay, and given that, I had the freedom to follow my research wherever it led me. In translating that research into presentable information I could write free from academic conventions and employ a bit more creativity, which in turn meant that it was a much more enjoyable write up experience. I was struck by how much work can go into writing one interpretation label, and I’ve been careful to try to read as many as I can since discovering this. But, it has to be said, anything greater than 50 words certainly looks like a daunting read a couple of hours into a museum visit. The approach IPUP has taken in providing a webpage along with a label seems to me to be a very sensible one, with those who are interested able to take a further interest in certain objects.
My academic skills definitely stood me in good stead in approaching the IPUP internship, knowing where and how to research and the areas of interest were all second nature to me. Whilst I wasn’t writing my research up in an academic manner, it was a welcome relief to write something with more freedom. Indeed, adapting my style away from an academic manner made my text much more accessible and I was able to effectively communicate my findings.
I’d recommend the IPUP internship to anyone interested, especially if they aren’t entirely sure whether they’re suited to it. I can guarantee that there will be something there for them. It is good to be able to get away from academic research for a while and get stuck into some personal research in which it isn’t procrastinating to follow a tangent for a couple of hours. It’s a rewarding experience to see your work go towards something other than an essay which perhaps two other people will ever read. You could end up writing something, or being involved in something, which hundreds will see during a single day, and that makes a welcome change. The opportunity to get your work published on the website is also a rewarding experience, and it’s good to see something tangible come from your efforts.
1 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
2 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
3 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
4 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
5 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
6 1911 Census available online
7 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
8 Ministry of Fuel and Power (Sept. 1942) Explosion at Barnsley Main Colliery, Yorkshire: Report (His Majesty’s Stationery Office: London)
9 See http://www.healeyhero.co.uk/rescue/pits/Oak3.htm#Diedhttp://www.yale.ac.uk/exchsite/pages/gresford.htm, http://www.dmm-pitwork.org.uk/html/oaks.htm, http://www.dmm-pitwork.org.uk/html/disast_high.htm, http://www.dmm2.org.uk/uknames/u1947-01.htm all accessed 1st July 2010
10 http://www.nmrs.org.uk/NMRS%20Mines%20of%20Coal%201854.pdf accessed 6 th July 2010
11 (1960) The Friends of York Minster Thirty-Second Annual Report, pp. 12-15
12 Hutchinson, P., (1995) ‘Barnsley Main Seam’, in Barnsley Main Seam, (Gallery Books: Co. Meath, Ireland), pp.29-31
13 Lindley, A., (1996) Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Carnivalesque Subversion, (Associated University Press: London)
14 Ibid., p.10