Herbert Toms from http://rpmcollections.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/herbert-toms/

Pitt-Rivers' assistant and Curator at Brighton Museum

Herbert Samuel Toms was born in Dorset on 15 April 1874 in Winfrith Newburgh, the son of an under-gardener. He had a brother who became a small-holder and three sisters. As a child he attended the local village school and stayed on as a pupil teacher until the end of 1892.

It was probably whilst he was a pupil-teacher that he came to the attention of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and was invited to join his excavation staff in January 1893. He spent only three years working for the General, during that time he superintended the excavation of Bronze Age enclosures at South Lodge Camp and Martin Down. He married Mrs Pitt-Rivers' Breton maid, Christine Sophie Marie Huon, with whom, according to Bradley, he carried out most of his earthwork surveys. They were a very devoted couple and had one son, Armand. Mrs Toms lectured in her own right on subjects such as Breton folk-lore and lace-making. She died in 1927 after a long illness.

In 1896 he left the the General's employment to work at Brighton Museum where he stayed until his retirement in 1939. He died the following year. He was the founding member of the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Club and in 1912 he formed its Local Earthworks Survey. Between 1907 and 1927 he published detailed studies of a large number of archaeological sites in Sussex. Throughout his career in Sussex he gave many public lectures and wrote many letters to newspapers on archaeological topics, and also published papers in academic journals, mostly in local archaeological journals in Sussex, Dorset and Wiltshire though he did publish four in The Antiquary.

The letters in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum's Pitt-Rivers manuscript collection show that Toms asked Pitt-Rivers for help in becoming a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries before 1900. He also wrote to the General to seek more general advice.

According to Bradley:

No doubt sorting and cataloguing these [excavation finds] was an ideal preparation for museum work, as it was for two of the General's other assistants. Toms also gained useful experience in working with Pitt Rivers' ethnographic collection, and this bore fruit when he came to display similar material in Brighton. As a museum curator he particularly regretted the fate of the General's collection, writing to Gray in 1911 after a visit to Dorset: 'Went to the Museum 4 times. How neglected! The beetles are playing the devil with many of the wooden objects. What a pity the old chap died before the arrangement of the ethnog. part was completed! [Bradley, 1989: 31]

During some of his holidays after he moved to Brighton, he returned to Cranborne Chase and relooked at sites that he and the General had excavated, especially Woodcutts, Angle Ditch and South Lodge Camp. Merrifield records that:

... H.S.T. used to return every year for his solitary annual holiday to his childhood haunts in Dorset, where he occupied himself, as might be expected, with long walks and the study of local ponds and folk-lore. [Holleyman, 1987: 38]

In 1913, as a result of his research during his holidays, he published a new survey of Woodcutts. Toms comments of his surveys of Angle Ditch and South Lodge Camp, in a letter to Harold Gray in 1911:

To use one of Peacock's expressions - "Now I had a grand time" in the old district. I was exploring the whole time, & to tell you of all I saw would require another quarto volume. My primary object was evidence as to the high antiquity of some of our downland cultivation terraces. The result of some 120 miles walking down there is that I've got positive proof of their Bronze Age (or even earlier) origin ... What a wealth of Early Brit. Villages in the Genl's district.' [Bradley, 1989: 34]

In Merrifield's personal account of Toms he says:

[Toms] was tall, upright and brisk in his movements, superficially as military in his bearing as in his style of moustache. Yet his only military service had been in a Home Defence Battalion, ... for age and a heart condition had kept him out of the trenches. ... His views tended strongly towards pacifism and he had no admiration at all for militarism and soldiers as such. I suspect that the military stamp had been unconsciously impressed upon him at a much earlier age, when he had been recruited as a bright village boy in Dorset by the great General Pitt-Rivers and subjected to a discipline as rigorous as any that he would have encountered in the armed forces. Pitt-Rivers planned and executed his excavations like military campaigns and Tom's participation in these as his assistant in his formative years must have left its mark upon him. No doubt the General insisted on what he regarded as a proper bearing and manner in his subordinates as strongly as he did on unquestioning obedience and meticulous attention to detail. [Holleyman, 1987: 31]

This brought home to me ... that a provincial museum curator is expected to be a polymath. Yet Toms had come to the Brighton Museum as an archaeologist with superb training as an excavator, but without knowledge of other subjects except ethnography, with which he was already familiar from the General's collection at Farnham, and unaided had taught himself sufficient of the natural sciences to catalogue and manage important zoological, mineralogical and geological collections, to say nothing of the collections of applied art, such as ceramics and glass, which were also new to him. [Holleyman, 1987: 32]

In this Merrifeld may have underestimated Pitt-Rivers' training of Toms as (if Toms did have contact with the second collection) he would have been very familiar with different types and sorts of ceramics and glass.

Pitt-Rivers had other influences upon Toms:

As a museum curator, Toms was less concerned with popular presentation in the exhibition galleries or with the educational potential of the collections than with the proper care and recording of them. His principal legacy was a meticulous system of accessioning, in which every object could be related by a small red number painted unobtrusively upon it, to the full record of its source, identification and original provenance in the museum register. This also included dimensions and sufficient description to enable the specimen to be identified with certainty if the number on it became obliterated. Detailed accessioning was an innovation introduced by Toms to the museum ... Tom's care in recording was undoubtedly instilled in him by Pitt-Rivers, whose words he was fond of quoting: "If it has lost its register number, throw it into the first ditch you come to" - a dictum that should not be taken quite literally either by archaeologists or curators. H.S.T. was less aware of the need for a classified card catalogue, though he compiled a few simple card indices. Instead he relied on a good memory and an orderly storage system, in which like subjects and associated finds were always kept together. “Always keep ‘em together” was another dictum of Pitt-Rivers that Toms was fond of quoting, with a chuckle because it had given rise to a standing joke among the General’s assistants. The query “What?” to this instruction was answered monosyllabically and anatomically. [Holleyman, 1987: 36]

As Pitt-Rivers influenced Toms, he in turn influenced Merrifield:

My personal debt to H.S. Toms is immense, for he introduced me to a wide range of subjects and interests that were quite new to me ... By a demonstration on Brighton beach he taught me to recognise human workmanship in flint and encouraged me to look out for flakes, pot-boilers and sherds of prehistoric pottery in ploughed fields and rabbit scrapes on the Downs. He taught me to recognise the various types of earthwork, whose study he had pioneered in Sussex. He taught me to use a camera, and at least the theory of surveying and excavation, though his own activity in the field had, alas, come to an end before I met him ... He introduced me to the wonders of primitive art (or "Savage Art" as he more correctly called it in his great lecture on the subject to the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society, for it is far from primitive), and showed me that astonishing bargains of that kind were then still occasionally to be picked up on the barrows of Upper Gardner Street, Brighton. ... Above all, he introduced me to folk-lore ... I have however never quite accepted, any more than Toms himself did, that human technology and artifacts are necessarily more worthy subjects for study than human beliefs and customs ... [Holleyman, 1987: 36-37]

Bradley sums up Toms' character:

Toms' character was full of contradictions. Despite his military bearing, his views inclined towards pacifism. He was committed to the Victorian rationalism that had inspired General Pitt Rivers, yet he was also interested in the spiritualist movement. His brisk outgoing manner concealed a deeper melancholy, and for all the vigour of his writing, he was not confident of its reception. He was sure of his opinions and the quality of his work but he must have been aware of his lack of formal education. [Bradley, 1989: 37]

Bradley summarises Toms' career:

Toms [was] the heir of General Pitt Rivers. Behind the mass of detail presented in 'Excavations in Cranborne Chase' there is one overriding  objective, which the author brought with him from his anthropological work. Pitt Rivers wished to study, as exactly as he could, the evolution of material culture.  His preferred medium was excavation. Toms' ultimate objective, although never declared so explicitly may have been rather similar, He used the methods of field survey to establish the relative chronology of the different kinds of earthwork monument surviving on the chalk. ... That is why Herbert Toms is such a transitional figure in the history of field archaeology: if his working methods anticipate those is use today, he owed his basic approach to the General's teaching. [Bradley, 1989: 46, emphasis Bradley's]

It seems that Toms had a continuing relationship with Pitt-Rivers until his death in 1900 and thereafter retained his respect for the General, Merrifield remarks that after Mrs Toms' death, Herbert Toms got rid of many of his possessions, and 'retained only a few of his books, including of course the precious volumes of the Cranborne Chase Excavations, given to him by the General when he left for Brighton...' [1987: 34]

The final word on Toms should perhaps rest with Merrifield, his protege:

Characteristically, on one of the last occasions we met, when the war-clouds were already threatening and museum work was beginning to seem irrelevant, he drew my attention to the exquisite beauty of some of the small works of art in our Japanese collection at Brighton Museum, pointing out that these were the products of a harsh, oppressive and militaristic society, in which nevertheless the contemplation and appreciation of beauty could continue. Whatever fate had in store for us these could survive and it would be for the museum curators of the future to ensure they did. [Holleyman, 1987: 39]

Read a lecture by Toms given in 1909 here.

Bibliography for this article

This webpage is based upon

Richard Bradley 1989 'Herbert Toms - A pioneer of analytical field survey' in Bowden, Mackay and Topping, From Cornwall to Caithness: Some aspects of British field archaeology: Papers presented to Normal V. Quinnell, BAR British Series 209.

Duffin, Christopher J. 2011 'Herbert Toms (1874-1940), Witch Stones, and Porosphaera Beads' Folklore 122, April 2011, 84-101

Holleyman, G. A. 1987. Two Dorset Archaeologists in Sussex: Lieut. General Pitt-Rivers in Sussex, 1867-1878 and Herbert Samuel Toms, Curator of the Brighton Museum, 1896-1939, by G. A. Holleyman, F.S.A., to which is Added Some Personal Memories of H. S. Toms by Ralph Merrifield, F.S.A. and a Chronological List of Published Papers, Reports, and Miscellanea by H. S. Toms, Henfield, West Sussex: privately printed.

See also here for more information about Toms.

AP, September 2011

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