Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

F.W. Robins and Lamps

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Tom Penniman, who served as Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum from 1939 to 1963, was always keen to accept the help of volunteers to augment the work of the paid members of museum staff. One of the volunteers he mentioned in his first Annual Report was Frederick William Robins, who 'is continuing the catalogue of several thousand lamps and lighting appliances when he can get to Oxford'. [1940-1 Annual Report] Presumably Robins access to Oxford was limited by the outbreak of the Second World War. The following year it was recorded that

Many of our collections ought to be published. Mr. Robins, author of The Story of the Lamp, has by now catalogued about 1,200 lamps in our series illustrating illumination and fire-making at all times and in all areas, and considers it one of the largest and best in the world, and about the least accessible, through lack of space and publication. [Museum Annual Report 1941-2]

It is not known therefore, exactly when Robins had started work at the Museum, but his work must have been concluded by 1962-3 when the Museum received a bequest from him:

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.[Annual Report 1962-3]

In his prologue to The Story of the Lamp, Robins states that his own collection 'of some eight hundred specimens' helped in his research for the book. The frontispiece gives his qualifications as 'Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Member of the Museums Association, Egyptian Exploration Society etc'. Not much more is known about him, though his collection is now disseminated in several other museums, including here at Oxford and the British Museum.

In his prologue Robins points out that:

It is rather startling to find that, apart from questions of detail in the design and construction of lighting appliances, there had been no important change in methods of illumination from the first invention of a primitive lamp until about a century and a half ago. [Robins, 1939: vi]

He also points out that:

A host of stories and sayings attest the way in which the lighting appliance is interwoven with the ordinary life of the people ... [Robins, 1939: vi]

He finishes the prologue by emphasizing that:

History, geography, ethnology, science, art, the story of commerce and industry - all have their reflections in the story of the lamp. Naturally so, since it was almost as intimate a human possession as the dog. [Robins, 1939: vii]

He recognizes Henry Balfour's help in his acknowledgements.

His book is divided into the following sections and chapters:

Section I From the torch to the candle
I The fire
II The torch
III Splinters and rushlights
IV Dips and candles
V The candlestick

Section II The lamp itself
VI The stone lamp
VII The shell lamp
VIII The saucer lamp
IX The Greek Lamp
X The Roman Lamp
XI Classical metal lamps
XIII 'Late' Pottery lamps
XIV Float-wick lamps
XV The Hanukkah Lamp
XVI Indian votive lamps
XVII Medieval lamps
XVIII Crusie types
XIX Open stand lamps
XX Enclosed spout lamps
XXI Central wick lamps
XXII Modern oil lamps
XXIII Gas lights
XXIV The coming of electricity

Section III Sidelights
XXV Animal lamps
XXVI Lanterns
XXVII Mine lamps
XXVIII Lighthouses
XXIX Street lights

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Further Reading

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

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