Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Tankard and trowel — Topping-out at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel

John Hood takes part in the topping out ceremony

John Hood takes part in the topping out ceremony

The topping out ceremony

The topping out ceremony

On 24 February 2006 Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, donated a ceremonial trowel and tankard in presentation boxes to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM].

These gifts had been given to him on 9 February 2006 during the topping-out ceremony for the new extension to the PRM. The photographs on this page show the extension being built, the ceremony itself and the subject of this biography, the ceremonial trowel. John Hood is wearing a brown coat in the photographs, and the bearded man is Michael O'Hanlon, director of the museum. Other men are representatives of the builders, Sir Robert McAlpine.

Topping-out ceremonies

Topping-out is a ceremony traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building, or these days, the last iron beam. The ceremony marks the overall completion of the building's structure (the building is not completed, or ready for transfer to the owners or clients, it is a stage during the building process). According to wikipedia, such ceremonies are common in England, Germany, Poland and the United States.

A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags or streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workmen are treated to a meal.' [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topping_out]

According to Simpson and Roud [2000, see "building trade" in further reading list below for source]:

What passes for building trade lore nowadays are ‘official’ customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.

The reference they give is the only complete reference to this custom in Folklore. It is surprising that this custom has not been covered more in this journal because, as Simpson and Roud say, it is now customary for most large building projects.

My little boy of four years old was taken one day lately to see the house now in building for us in Barnet. It had already been arranged that he should formally lay the date-stone when it was ready, but he wanted to be able to help at once, so the workmen good-naturedly let him lay a brick. As he was leaving the house afterwards, the head bricklayer called after the nurse, ‘the little boy will have no luck with the stone if he don't wet the brick!’. When she told me this, I took back the child later in the day with a small coin to give to the friendly bricklayer who had superintended his work, and I found the words ‘no luck’ scribbled upon the brick he had laid. On our next visit to the house, we found that the words had been smudged out, but after the laying of the date-stone, which we were careful to ‘butter’ with a variety of coins, we noticed that even the smears were carefully washed off. In my native district (the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire) this would have been called ‘paying his foot-ale’. The builder of our house tells us that when the first chimney is finished he himself will have to give the men a pint of ale apiece, after which they will hoist a flag on the roof-tree. If they do not get the ale, they will very likely hoist a black flag, and perhaps even refuse to continue the work. [Milne, 1900: 457]

In a 2001 article, Robinson explains the American tradition of 'topping-out' and how that relates to older European traditions. According to him, in America:

'Topping out" is the term used by ironworkers to indicate that the final piece of steel is being hoisted into place on a building, bridge, or other large structure. The project is not completed, but it has reached its maximum height. To commemorate this first milestone the final piece of iron is usually hoisted into place with a small evergreen tree (called a Christmas tree in the trade) and an American flag attached. [Robinson, 2001: 243]

whilst in Germany:

The custom of topping out is still widely practiced in Europe. I have found references to the custom in France .... I have also found a reference to the custom in Spain (see Violanti 1951: 173-183). The topping out custom is most widely practiced in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In Germany, where the custom is known as Richtfest,
the ceremony consists of fastening a small fir-tree (or in some areas a wreath made from the branches of a fir-tree) to the top of the newly completed frame. Dignitaries are invited to make speeches, or recite poems for the occasion, and food and drink are served to the assembled workers and visitors. The custom is so common in
Germany that it is still practiced during the construction of individual houses. [Robinson, 2001: 245]

and Denmark:

In Denmark the custom is known as rejsegilde. ... Peter Michelsen's 1981 study "Sporgsmdl og svar om rejsegilder." ... using some 2,200 handwritten pages on the topping out custom collected in the Danish National
Museum, discusses and evaluates some 230 versions of topping out ceremonies in Denmark from the 16th to the 19th centuries. ... The way the garland is placed differs according to different locations in Denmark. In the eastern
part of the country, for example the garland is attached to a vertical pole affixed to the roof. In Jutland the wreath is suspended by a rope from what appears to be a gallows affixed to the roof. And in the western part of the country several garlands are raised on poles covering the entire length of the roof. One of the pictures accompanying the article shows a Danish flag flying above the garland. All the ceremonies end in a celebration of some kind. [Robinson, 2001: 246]

While in England:

The custom has also been reported in England. In 1900 a correspondent to the journal Folklore reported that when the first chimney is finished he himself [the builder] will have to give the men a pint of ale apiece, after which they will hoist a flag on the roof-tree. If they do not get the ale, they will likely hoist a black flag, and perhaps even refuse to work ... The next year W. Henry Jewitt, reporting in the same journal, wrote that it was customary to give the workman liquor for a "rearing" when the "roof principles were fixed." He then recounts the story of a Lancashire man who being a teetotaler ... would not give money to encourage drunkenness among the men, but presented each of them with a cheap bible, which of course found its way to nearest "pawn-shop" for whatever it would fetch. [Robinson, 2001: 246]

Robinson concluded that a tree, flag and liquor were all part of the English topping-out ceremony, and all were present at the PRM topping-out. All the participants and the audience of museum staff were given an (alcoholic or soft) drink beforehand and a meal afterwards and a branch (rather than a tree) was fixed to one of the high beams. According to the Museum's Administrator, Cathy Wright, the flag proved more controversial. McAlpine wanted to show a flag during the ceremony, but the Museum worried that as they were a museum that tried to show a global perspective, a union flag might seem too 'parochial' and non-inclusive. However, it is obvious that showing a flag was so important to the builders that they felt they had to have one. It can be clearly seen behind the podium fixed to the back wall in the photographs on this page.

The PRM extension

In March 2004 the Museum was awarded £3.7 million pounds by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to build a new extension to the Museum's well-known galleries on South Parks Road, Oxford. The builders were Sir Robert McAlpine.

The extension was formally opened on 22 November 2007 by Michael Palin, the famous Monty Python actor and traveller, and Patron of the Friends of the Museum and John Hood.

The new extension is a large building, described in the formal University press release for the opening as:

The new extension provides major new research, teaching, and public facilities, as well as enabling the Museum’s staff to work on site alongside the collections. It includes a new conservation laboratory, library, and purpose-designed collections management facilities for visiting researchers. It also features an exhibition gallery along with a lecture theatre and seminar room, which will be available for wider public use when not required for university teaching. [see news release site given below]

The opening was followed by a public Celebration weekend for family activities. At the opening phase 2 of the developments of the Museum were announced, see here for more information.

The topping-out ceremony at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Members of the museum staff were asked to attend and congregated on the still barely completed ground floor where some drinks were available. The then curator of music collections (and co-director of the Other Within project) Hélène La Rue had arranged for her colleague, Andy Lamb (from the Bate collection) to pipe everyone up the stairs to the future top floor of the building via a temporary scaffolding staircase. On the top floor a podium for the dignatories had been erected (see photographs) and the ritual was carried out by John Hood, Mike O'Hanlon and the representatives of the builders. There was also a toastmaster and Scottish piper (as can be seen in one of the photographs on this page). Mike O'Hanlon recalls that there was a ritual form of words that were uttered by the builders, though he is not sure what they were. There were also short speeches from the other dignatories. All present then moved to the University Club for a light lunch.

2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony

2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony

The new PRM extension being built, 07 October 2005.

The new PRM extension being built, 07 October 2005.

The new extension being built, 31 January 2006

The new extension being built, 31 January 2006

The artefacts

2006.78.2 Ceremonial trowel
Dr Hood was given the silver-plated trowel as a memento of the topping-out ceremony. It was made by Swatkins from silver-plated metal and wood. The upper side of the trowel blade has been inscribed with 'Presented by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd to Dr John Hood Vice Chancellor Oxford University on the occasion of the "Topping Out" Pitt Rivers Museum 9th February 2006.' The underside of the blade is inscribed with 'SWATKINS' 'SILVER PLATED' 'MADE IN ENGLAND'. Swatkins are a British silverware 'awards' manufacturer, that is they make and sell trophies, championship cups, shields, medals, and ceremonial trowels! The trowel and a spade was used by John Hood to ritually fill in a hole with cement, the hole was then smoothed by Eddie, one of the builders. The trowel was presented in a blue box which can be clearly seen in the first of the photographs on this page.

2006.78.2 Ceremonial tankard
Dr Hood drank the toast of beer at the ceremony from the tankard. The base of the tankard has been stamped with the maker's mark and an inscription. The front of the tankard has been inscribed with 'Presented by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd to Dr John Hood Vice Chancellor Oxford University on the occasion of the "Topping Out" Pitt Rivers Museum 9th February 2006.' The tankard was made by Royal Selangor. According to their website, 'Royal Selangor is the most well-known brand in pewter'. They are based in Malaysia and have a workforce of more than 600 skilled craftsmen.

Two sets of tankards and trowels were given by the builders on the day, the other set was given to Michael O'Hanlon, the Director of the Museum who had been very involved in the the development of the project, he chose to keep his gifts.

The Pitt Rivers Museum and its history

Museums are very bad at recording their own history. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, there has been a piecemeal attitude to it. These days most important events in the museum are formally photographed by the Museum photographer (for example, exhibition openings, openings after major building work, formal lectures etc, special fund-raising events and special events for visitors). In addition some manuscripts are kept. Before about 1980 things were much more ad-hoc, records kept by individual members of staff were sometimes kept and sometimes discarded after they left. The museum has large numbers of manuscripts in its manuscript collections left by staff like Henry Balfour, Beatrice Blackwood, and Tom Penniman. Of course, not all of these relate directly to the Museum, its activities and collections, but many do.

But other events have left no record. For example, you would think that a party would have been held to celebrate the first opening of the museum in Oxford after 1884 when Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt River gave the founding collection to the University of Oxford. However, despite extensive research in the museum and university archives and local and national newspapers for the period 1884 to 1890 and beyond, no record of such an event can be found. [Petch, 2007] Of course, one may never have happened but unfortunately this will never be proved, one way or another, unless some evidence is found in the future. In 1984 a centenary exhibition was held in the Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum: the first 100 years 1884-1984, and copies of the poster for the exhibition were kept by the Museum.

The Museum has also kept and accessioned some artefacts connected to its own history, for example some of the original electric light-bulbs, and some of the older museum labels and exhibition labels. The museum has had relatively few instances of major building work during its 125 year history, so it is good that artefacts that commemorate the largest and most expensive building project in the museum to date were accessioned.


It is clear from the above that the tradition of topping-out in the building trade is not only an English one but practiced throughout the Europe and North America (at least), and that it may well have derived from German or Scandinavian practices. Certain constances seem to happen in each country: the tree or branch, the drink and the flag.

Oddly the Pitt Rivers Museum's own topping-out ceremony was very international. John Hood, one of the main University participants, was born and brought up in New Zealand; another, Mike O'Hanlon (the museum director), was born in Kenya. As was common at the time, many of the builders were from mainland Europe; indeed, many were from Poland which wikipedia suggests is one of the countries where topping-out ceremonies are common.

The museum was also keen to use the opportunity to stress its committment to being a global collection, as the banner behind the Vice-Chancellor in one of the images on this page shows, the slogan for the day was 'Pitt Rivers Museum Anthropology and World Archaeology: The whole world under one roof'. Finally, although one of the objects was made in England (the trowels), the other (the tankard) was made in Malaysia, bringing another international connection to the occasion.

It is interesting to speculate why topping-out ceremonies are apparently more popular than ever today, and also why they have become so formalised. There seems, in England at least, to be little historical background to the tradition (or else Simpson and Roud would, I am sure, have referenced it). The occasion itself seems to be directed by, and for, the builders principally, rather than for the future owners of the building.

The ceremony does not seem to be directly linked, as so many similar rituals are, at diverting bad luck from a project. There seems to be little articulation of what happens if a topping-out ceremony does not occur though the Milne [1900] account does suggest a degree of ill-will may eventuate.

Further reading

Jewitt, W. Henry 1901 'Customs in the building trades' Folklore vol. 12 p. 104

Milne, Alice M. 1900 'Customs in the London Building Trades' Folklore vol. 11: 457-8

Petch, Alison. 2007. 'Opening the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 19 pp. 101-112

Robinson, John V. 'The "Topping out" Traditions of the High-Steel Ironworkers' Western Folklore, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 243-262



"building trade" A Dictionary of English Folklore. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. 5 February 2009 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t71.e121>