Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers and his connections to London

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. 1998.271.66

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers lived in London for over fifty years, from the age of five. He lived in a number of houses in the City:

1832 - ?1852 - 3 St James’s Square, London, SW1 (off Pall Mall) [his mother's house]

1855 - 1 Chesham Street, London, SW1 (parallell to Sloane Street) [his mother's house]

1858 - 1862 - Park Hill House, Brompton Crescent, Clapham, London (unclear) [1]

1863 - 1865 - 1 Chesham Street, London, SW1 [his mother's house]

1866 - 10 Upper Phillimore Gardens, Kensington, London, W8

1878 - 30 Sussex Place, Onslow Gardens London (unclear, possibly WC1)

1879 - 19 Penywern Road, Earls Court, London, SW5

1880 - 1900 - 4 Grosvenor Gardens, Belgravia, London, SW1W

Most of these addresses were taken from Thompson, 1977. The most prestigious addresses appear to be the first and last. St James Square lies in the heart of the city of Westminster, the only square in St James's. According to wikipedia, it has predominantly Georgian architecture and a private garden at its centre. It is now home to many blue-chip companies and the London Library. Number 3, where Pitt Rivers lived when a boy, is described as:

No. 3: The original house had many owners and tenants, including the holders of at least three separate dukedoms, and was worked on by various architects including John Soane. The present building is a 1930s office block.

Grosvenor Gardens is a continuation of Grosvenor Place, and was originally owned by the Grosvenor Estate, the property of the Dukes of Westminster, and close to Buckingham Palace.

London was where his family lived while he was growing up, it was also one of his family homes throughout his life. He must have used his London homes a lot as he was often in London not only to conduct private business but to attend meetings of the many societies and institutions of which he was a member.

In addition, from 1874 he displayed parts of his large display in the basement of Bethnal Green Museum, this was transferred to South Kensington Museum in 1878. In 1884 this collection was donated to the University of Oxford and became the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in that City.

Archaeology, Pitt Rivers and London

Pitt Rivers donated a total of 792 artefacts from London (both Greater and the City of London) as part of the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Most of these artefacts are classified as archaeological (708), 72 are ethnographic and 12 are classified as Other (that is, models, facsimiles etc). These web pages concentrate on the largest part, the archaeological collections from London.

Pitt Rivers carried out several pieces of archaeological work in London, these are discussed here:

In essence this was Pitt Rivers' period of salvage archaeology when he tried to intervene in excavations dug for building purposes to save as much archaeological information as possible. Not only was the centre of London being redeveloped as a international metropolis with new railways, stations and public buildings to reflect London's new importance, but London itself was expanding very rapidly and new suburban housing was required for the burgeoning middle classes, so areas like Acton were developed. He seems conscious of this:

... while the remotest parts of Europe are being searched for the vestiges of lake dwellings, and the most valuable reports on the same subject are receive from the four quarters of the globe, similar remains are in daily process of destruction at our own doors by persons who are ignorant of their meaning, and of the importance that attaches to them. This certainly ought not to be. Matters of so much interest in connection with the prehistoric origin of our own capital ... are, I venture to think, well deserving of all the scientific knowledge and attention that can be brought to bear upon them. [Pitt Rivers, 1866: lxxix]

The 1877 item is a strange one, it reflects Pitt Rivers' report to the Anthropological Institute of a waterman's find in the River Thames near Hampton Court and shows yet again his ability to keep his ear to the ground and hear of developments very early and also his ability to intervene to conserve artefacts once discovered.

Pitt Rivers' methodology in London
Pitt Rivers did not live in an age (or a class) which would have expected him to have had to carry out his own hard work in excavation. This was true for all his excavations. On his estate, after 1880, he employed a series of workmen and assistants who carried out the unskilled labouring, and skilled archaeological detailed work, for him. [See Bowden and Thompson for much more detail on this] However, in London, he had often to tak advantage, opportunistically, of the many building projects that were changing the face of the city for ever in the 1850s-1870s rather than setting up and running his own excavations.

Pitt Rivers seems to have acknowledged the help he received in his London work more readily than he did at other times:

Careful search was made here, as in the high terrace, for flint implements; and as a proof that the total absence of human relics did not arise from any neglect in looking for them, I may mention that one of my most experienced men, who, on account of his numerous finds in the high terrace I called my flint-finder, was afterwards employed in Brown’s Orchard; and although he laid down with his own hands upwards of three miles of gravel upon roads, and the same inducements were offered him as on the former occasion, he never found in this gravel so much as a single flake or chip which could be ascribed to the hand of man. [Pitt Rivers 1872, 461-2]

Pitt Rivers took great care to verify information connected with objects in his collections and was very proud of his ability to detect fakes. There is this account of an attempt to hoodwink him:

In all cases when sections are given, I took particular care to test the accuracy of the statements of the workmen as to the exact positions of the implements, and I have no doubt of their correctness in each case. Shortly after I commenced my visits to Acton, some rather ingenious attempts at forgery were foisted upon me, by chipping, varnishing, and, when dry, burying the flints thus prepared in the ground; but upon my pointing out at once to the workmen the precise manner in which each chip had been made, the recent character of the whole, the varnishing, the burying, and the economy of time and labour which might be effected by looking for the real implements when at work in the gravel, instead of wasting so much time over very imperfect imitations, they at once saw that it was impossible to deceive me, and I never afterwards found any attempt made to impose upon me.’ [Pitt Rivers 1872: 458-9]

The importance of his finds in London
Interestingly, the items he caused to be collected in Acton were the first to be listed in an account given in 1883 to the Hebdomadal Council by the ‘Committee of Members of Convocation appointed to consider the offer by Major-General Pitt-Rivers ... of his Anthropological Collection to the University and advice them’ dated January 19 1883:

The following rough summary of the contents of the Collection may serve to illustrate what has been said:—
(1) A collection of prehistoric weapons and instruments, including a specially valuable series of Palaeolithic weapons from Acton....

London as a venue for buying artefacts
Pitt Rivers bought many of the items in his collections from dealers and auction houses, and many of these were located in London. As one of his assistants, Harold St George Gray explained:

The General was a zealous collector to the end of his life. Gray recalled that he had, ‘with my old chief had much experience in buying in the London sale-rooms and elsewhere. By arrangement, on some occasions, the General, myself and a friendly dealer were apparently bidding against one another and opposing, at times, Sir Wollaston Franks and Sir Hercules Read, who were buying for the British Museum and Canon Greenwell; these, I can assure you, were exciting times. [Gray papers quoted in Bowden, 1991: 144]

For further information about Pitt Rivers' collecting practises see Alison Petch, 2006.

Further Reading

Bowden, M. 1984 [reprinted 1990] General Pitt Rivers the father of scientific archaeology Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum
Bowden, M. 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Alison Petch, 2006, 'Chance and Certitude: Pitt Rivers and his first collection' Journal of the History of Collecting 2006 18: 249-256
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1866 ‘On Objects of the Roman period found at great depth in the vicinity of the old London Wall’ Archaeological Journal 24 [1866] 61-4
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1867 'A description of certain piles found near London Wall and Southwark, possibly the remains of Pile Buildings' Journal of the Anthropological Society of London vol 5 [1867] pp. lxxi-lxxxiii
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1869 ‘On the Discovery of Flint Implements of Palaeolithic type in the gravel of the Thames Valley at Acton and Ealing’ Report of the British Association of the Advancement of Science [1869] 130-2
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1872 ‘On the discovery of Palaeolithic Implements, in connection with Elephas primigenius, in the gravels of the Thames Valley at Acton’ Journal of the Geological Society of London 28 [1872] 449-66
Pitt Rivers/ Lane Fox A.H. 1878 ‘On the discovery of a dug-out canoe in the Thames at Hampton Court.’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute 7 [1878] 102-3
Thompson, M.W. 1976 Catalogue of the correspondence and papers of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt -Rivers (1827-1900) Royal Commission on Historical MSS List 76/75
Thompson, M.W. 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon UK

For more information on St James Square see this page.


[1] In one of those peculiar 'coincidences' of which life is made, another Park Hill House, this time in Croydon, South London, was the home of John Wickham Flower, another contributor to the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum (via the University Museum of Natural History).