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The American Museum at Claverton Manor

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Oct 2017

Fab at 50

Trust a lady to ‘miscalculate’ age. Being born in 1961 would by my reckoning make one 56. But we forgive Judy Grant this minor indiscretion because, at the October gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society, she gave us such a varied and interesting presentation, titled ‘Fab at 50’, about the American Museum at Claverton Manor near Bath. Judy presented a selection of museum artefacts, and the fascinating stories behind them, representing the colonial history of America and links with the old country.

One of the most atmospheric exhibits is Conkey’s Tavern, a mid 18th century public house repatriated to the American Museum. This tavern was founded by William Conkey in 1758 at Pelham, Massachusetts, and is a famous place in the forming of the American Constitution as it was the meeting place for ‘Shay’s Rebellion’. In 1786, after the war of independence, there was a popular uprising against the swingeing taxes imposed by the new American government. The rebellion championed concepts such as ‘no taxation without representation’ and had a major impact on the way the constitution was written.

A wonderfully carved statue of a Red Indian in resplendent regalia used to attract custom to a tobacco store. It reminded us of the old links between Bristol and America through tobacco. Henry Wills founded his own tobacco shop in Castle St. in Bristol in 1786, importing his tobacco from a newly independent America, and going on to become one of the largest employers in Bristol. Many statues like the museum’s example were used in 19th century shops, often carved by craftsmen who were more used to carving figureheads for the prows of ships. As iron and steam came to dominate shipping through the century their services were less in demand and so they applied their carving skills to more commercial objects.

Judy told the story of an interesting artefact that was actually found in England. This was a fantastically carved ‘scrimshaw’ whale tooth showing a whaling ship on its voyage. The museum’s curator, on finding the scrimshaw tooth, sent it to the museum to confirm that it was genuine. The museum sent confirmation back by the local village post office, together with a message that said ‘buy all teeth’. The curator was amused next morning to find a crowd of locals outside his front door offering to sell him their teeth.

Then there is the copy of Oscar Wilde’s Poems inscribed with all felicitations to Mrs Jefferson Davis, wife of the former confederate president. Oscar Wilde was in the middle of his American tour of 1882. Somewhat like the Beatles 80 years later, he ‘gigged’ across 150 American cities, the popstar celebrity of his day, famous for being famous. He invited himself to meet the former president and arrived for dinner on the occasion of the daughter’s 18th birthday. Perfectly predictably the aging politician ‘did not like the man’, but I can imagine that his daughter, and perhaps his wife, were completely enthralled.

Items from a famous 1,250 piece silver dinner service told the story of J W Mackay, a prospector who struck it rich at the Comstock silver lode in Nevada in the 1870s. His wife Louise tried to install herself into New York high society but was snubbed by the ‘old money’. She took her family off to Paris and London where she was received in a more enlightened manner (amazing what money can do). She entertained the Prince of Wales and American presidents and was present at an audience with Queen Victoria. J W died in 1902 worth 30 million dollars, which was quite a pile of silver in those days.

Our thanks to Judy for an illuminating talk about the American Museum.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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