Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Lighting technology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

One of the special catalogue cards for lighting appliances

One of the special catalogue cards for lighting appliances

Man has used various sources of heat and light for millenia. The museum's collections include many different forms of lighting appliance from the simplest to the 'newest' (examples of the electric lighting added to the Museum in 1904). The first donor of a sizeable collection was Henry Balfour, the first Curator of the Museum.

Lighting collections at the PRM

On 10 November 2008 there were 3,219 lighting related artefacts in the Museum. 1,518 of these were donated or bequeathed by Henry Balfour [47 per cent].

The majority of lighting related artefacts have always come from Europe, with Asia as the second most represented continent. There has been a little change (but very minor) in the continental representation since 1945.

739 lighting related items [23 per cent] in 2008 came from England, of which Balfour donated 342 [46 per cent of all English lamps etc, 10 per cent of the total lighting collections]. However, lighting appliances are not a very significant part of the English collections as a whole (being around 2 per cent of the total, and twentieth in the list of most popular classes of artefacts in the English collections).

There were two peaks in the acquisition of English lighting artefacts by the Museum, the 1930s and a smaller peak in the 1960s. The peak in the 1930s is because of the Balfour bequests, the peak in the 1960s is because of the bequest from F.W. Robins. See on for details of both these events.

So it can be seen that Balfour gave almost half of the lighting collections in general in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the same proportion of the English lighting collections.

Henry Balfour and Lighting

Front of another of the special catalogue cards for lighting appliances

Front of another of the special catalogue cards for lighting appliances

Reverse of the same special catalogue card for a French lighting appliance

Reverse of the same special catalogue card for a French lighting appliance

It can be argued that an interest in technology influenced most Pitt Rivers Museum activity until fairly recently. During Balfour's curatorship, many separate projects were established to look at particular technologies in greater detail. Henry Balfour himself was very interested in stone tool technology, fire-making and lighting. He published a little about the first two technologies but he did not publish about the third of his interests.

The first account of Henry Balfour working on lighting related items was in 1893, just described in the Museum annual report, 'During the year 1893, the following series have been more or less systematically arranged in the court, and for the most part furnished with suitable labels ... series of Lighting-appliances ...'. Although it seems unlikely, very shortly Balfour reported that he had amended this display again:

In one of these cases, to which an upright case, glazed on both sides, was added, the series of 'Smoking-appliances, stimulant and narcotic drugs' has been satisfactorily classified and arranged with labels, and the series of 'Lighting-appliances', which before had shared a case with the above series, was relieved from overcrowding and rearranged with better effect. [1894-5 Museum Annual Report]

The 'lighting appliances' display in the Court [Ground Floor] of the Museum then remained as it was until 1909 when it was proposed to move this display into another area:

During the year 1909 the former “duplicate-room” has been equipped for exhibition of specimens, so that it will form part of the Museum itself. Wall-cases, table-cases, and drawer-cabinets have been erected in this room, and it is proposed to devote the exhibition space thus acquired to a series illustrating Primitive Lighting-applicances, the existing collection of which will be greatly increased. This will eventually release for other purposes one of the exhibition cases in the Museum Court. [1909 Annual Report]

It is not known exactly where this room was.

In 1915 Winifred Blackman,[1] a volunteer at the Museum started work cataloguing the lighting appliances owned by Henry Balfour in greater detail:

The card-catalogue has been continued steadily. Miss Blackman has catalogued the valuable collection of spear-throwers, and was engaged in cataloguing a very large collection of primitive lighting-appliances which will eventually be added to the Museum. [Annual Report for 1915]

He obviously intended from the first to donate this collection to the Museum, but in fact it only came to the Museum after his death. Work on the catalogue by Miss Blackman continued in 1916, where again reference was made to accessioning the appliances 'shortly' in the annual report for the year.

Henry Balfour was rather more fulsome of his praise of another volunteer who worked on the catalogue of his lighting appliances:

The card-catalogue of the collection of Lighting-appliances, presented by me in 1932, was practically completed by Sir Francis Knowles, who also commenced a card-catalogue of the series of primitive Surgical and Medical appliances. I am greatly indebted to him for his valuable voluntary assistance. [1933-4 Museum Annual Report]

Henry Balfour's collections of English lighting appliances and what it might tell us about his interests

As can be seen above Balfour charged two volunteers at the Museum with cataloguing his donations in 1932. This detailed lamp catalogue was written onto catalogue cards, a card for each artefact, filed in a separate drawer. The same catalogue system was used to classify some other lighting artefacts, though not all acquired before 1939 (it is not known what differentiates those included from the excluded). A total of 444 lighting artefacts are classified in this way of which all but one are English, but only 318 were donated by Balfour.

Each item is classified into Series, Group, Division and Class. For example two 'lanterns made from bottles mounted in tin, made by gipsies' donated by James Edge Partington [1912.55.50 and 51] were classified as

Detailed lamp card catalogue entry - Box 4 Lamps, Series T-Z and I - XIX, Group: Y, Division: Lanterns, Class: Glass, Number: G-1. Description: Lantern made by gypsies from a glass bottle, with frame-work of tin The candle socket and saucer for catching the grease Locality: Hampshire How Acquired: Pres'd by J. E.-Partington 1912

Detailed lamp card catalogue entry - Box 4 Lamps, Series T-Z and I - XIX, Group: Y, Division: Lanterns, Class: Glass, Number: G-2. Description: Lantern made from a glass bottle by gypsies, with frame-work of tin The bottle is broken off below the neck Height 24 cm Locality: Hampshire How Acquired: Pres'd by J. E.-Partington 1912

The descriptions on these cards is much more precise than the accession book description, 'lanterns made from bottles mounted in tin, made by gipsies', which is much less specific. It is clear from the card entries for all the artefacts that each object was examined individually, the length or other dimension was always measured and the description was more detailed.

It is not clear what source was used to classify series, group, division, class and number. In Blackwood's Classification [1970] she set out the following divisions for lighting:

Classified geographically
Apparatus for making lamps
Fuel and fillers

Accessories not otherwise classified
Manufacture of candles
Candle shades
Candlesticks and holders
Night-light containers
Apparatus for making rush-lights
Rush-light holders
Rush-light shades
Tapers and taper-holders

Lighting technology in the Museum after 1939

In 1939-40 the first annual report written not by Henry Balfour but by T.K. Penniman, the new Curator, reported that Mr F.W. Robins [2] was working ' on the collection of lighting appliances'. [Find out more about Robins and his book here] In the next annual report he noted:

Mr. Robins, author of The Story of the Lamp, is continuing the catalogue of several thousand lamps and lighting appliances when he can get to Oxford. [Museum annual report 1940-1]

In the following annual report Penniman stated that he felt:

Another catalogue which ought to be published is that of the even larger collection of fire-making and lighting appliances

Although this catalogue was never published, in the annual report for 1951-2 it was reported:

Miss Mary Cabot Wheelwright [3] and Mrs. Maude Rex Allen [4] both came from the United States, the one interested in our Navajo specimens, the other to work on our collection of fire and lighting appliances - one of the best of its kind in the world. The bulk of this collection is unfortunately stored in Miss Blackwood’s room, where it is not as accessible as it should be, and one of our aims has always been to make it more available to students of the subject.

Most lighting appliances not on display were now stored in a room adjacent to the museum above the museum workshop. This storage was improved in 1954-5 according to the annual report for that year. They were only moved to other storage shortly before the workshop and surrounding rooms were demolished to make way for the new extension in 2004. In the Annual Report of 1949-50 Penniman reported that some of the lighting appliances had been removed from storage and displayed:

Space was also miraculously devised for storing  material from three cases in the Court, and the Curator was then able to bring out of storage a part of the large Balfour collection representing the history of illumination.  One case shows the history of rush-lights and candles, a second that of oil lamps, and a third that of lanterns.  Space was also found in the case displaying fire-making to show developments in Europe from about 1800.  Some of the Balfour specimens are exceedingly rare, and the whole collection illustrating fire-making and lighting appliances is for both quality among the first two or three in the world.  Choice for exhibition was made much easier by the previous work done on classification by Mr. F.W., Robins, which made it possible to see that no type in our possession was wholly unrepresented.

In the Museum Annual Report for 1962-3 it was reported:

Among accessions to the Museum we must first mention the bequest of our old friend Mr. F.W. Robins, who for many years had visited us regularly and had helped and advised us on our very large collection of lamps and lighting appliances. At the request of Mrs. Robins, the Curator, who was unable to go to Bournemouth himself, asked Miss Blackwood to take his place, and she spent three days in going through the very extensive collection of lamps and lighting appliances, and making a selection of specimens, many of which are illustrated and described in the well-known book by Mr. Robins published by the University Press in 1939, The Story of the Lamp (and the Candle). Like our own collection, that of Mr. Robins was large and covered the world.

Further Reading

Blackwood, Beatrice. 1970. The Classification of Artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum Occasional Paper on Technology XI

Robins, F.W. 1939 The Story of the Lamp (and the Candle) Oxford University Press


[1] Winifred Susan Blackman (1872-1950) was awarded the Diploma in Anthropology at the Museum in 1915. Her first contact with the Museum was in 1912 when she started work on the museum catalogues. She carried out fieldwork in Egypt from 1920 and was also Librarian at the Department of the Social Anthropology from 1919.
[2] Frederick William Robins: little is known, by the Museum, of this antiquarian, collector and author. He was well known as a collector of 'lighting, domestic and otherwise'. ['Some Lamps from the F. W. Robins Collection' D.M. Bailey The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3/4 (Winter, 1963-1964), pp. 88-91
[3] Mary Cabot Wheelwright see http://www.wheelwright.org/about.html
[4] Mrs. Maude Rex Allen, author of 'Japanese Art Motives', otherwise nothing is known of her.

 Technologies & Materials