100 Years of Lancaster City Museums

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Take our surveys to help us find the people's favourite object from our shortlist, drawn from the collections of Lancaster City Museums. To help you decide we have split our shortlist up into catagories, just click on a category below and vote for your favourite object in that area. In celebration of our centenary year you can also see all these objects, and vote for your favourite, in our museums from October 2023.

Take our surveys to help us find the people's favourite object from our shortlist, drawn from the collections of Lancaster City Museums. To help you decide we have split our shortlist up into catagories, just click on a category below and vote for your favourite object in that area. In celebration of our centenary year you can also see all these objects, and vote for your favourite, in our museums from October 2023.

  • The pre-Roman period covers the prehistoric era to the date of the first human villages in the local area. As this predates written evidence and records, it is hard to imagine what the landscape looked like and who inhabited it. While the collections don’t contain any dinosaur remains, we do have some fossil evidence from when the Carnforth area was a warm shallow sea, that hints at early animal life from around 350 million years ago. The collection also contains objects from the Neolithic (or Stone Age) to the late Bronze Age (around 3,000 years ago), which can tell us about the beginnings of human communities in this area as people began to move beyond a hunter-gatherer society.


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  • Lancaster was a site of great importance in the Roman period because of the Roman Fort which was located on Castle Hill from around 80 AD. There were another six forts elsewhere in Lancashire at Burscough, Castleshaw, Kirkham, Manchester, Over Burrow, and Ribchester. These forts and their inhabitants brought new innovations with them such as bathhouses and new forms of craftmanship, as well as the wealth to pay for these items. A great many artefacts and objects dating from this period can be found in the collection that offer insight into the military and social significance of the fort at Lancaster. Even the city's name probably comes from the Roman era: 'Lancaster' might derive from the name of its river - 'Lune', and the Latin for a fort or castle - 'castrum'.  

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  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, Lancashire became a borderland between various different kingdoms and peoples. By the 600s it was part of the kingdom of Northumbria, located on its southern border with the kingdom of Mercia. There is also important evidence of Viking activity in areas like Heysham and Warton, thanks to their proximity to the Irish sea and the trading opportunities that this brought. Although little is known about the history of the Lancaster district at this time, it seems to have been an important centre of Christian worship, with pilgrims travelling to particular religious sites such as St Patrick’s chapel in Heysham.


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  • In the medieval period, Lancaster and the surrounding area found itself at the heart of several political struggles. The first written record of Lancaster’s name comes from this time, noted in the 1086 Domesday Book. Soon after this date, construction began on the castle in the 1090s. The lordship (and later the Duchy) of Lancaster was connected with the careers of infamous men like King John (r. 1166-1216), the ‘traitor’ Earl Thomas of Lancaster (d. 1322), and Duke John of Gaunt (d. 1399), via whom the Lancastrian kings claimed the right to the throne during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). Lancaster was also besieged by the Scots under the leadership of Robert the Bruce and fell victim to a major pandemic, the Black Death. Despite these turbulent events, the area continued to be important for religious communities like the one at Cockersand Abbey, who helped to shape and cultivate the landscape.


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  • During the 1500s and 1600s, Lancaster and the surrounding area underwent a period of great change as the Reformation closed many of the religious institutions that had wielded so much influence in the previous era. Such was the religious fervour in the area that in 1536 the ‘pilgrimage of grace’, a northern rebellion against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, came to Lancaster. In 1539, Henry responded by closing Lancaster Priory. The Tudor and Stuart period also witnessed the infamous Pendle witch trials, and the area was faced with further conflict during the English Civil War. The Judges’ Lodgings were built in 1625 by Thomas Covell, the judge responsible for jailing the Pendle witches. At this time, the Dalton family rose to prominence in the area and began building their family residence at Thurnham Hall. During the Civil War they remained committed royalists, like most of the Catholic gentry, and later supported the Jacobite cause. This period also witnessed the emergence of the Quaker community towards the end of the 1600s.


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  • Lancaster and its surrounding communities began to expand rapidly during the Georgian period. Thanks to the River Lune, the town became an important trading centre between northern England and the British colonies in the West Indies. Local merchants made huge profits dealing in products such as mahogany, rum, sugar, and tobacco. Lancaster was also a significant contributor to the transatlantic slave trade. Industries such as cabinet-making, shipbuilding and ropemaking developed to serve the port and make use of the commodities it provided. The town grew in prosperity and many of Lancaster’s historic buildings were constructed during this period, such as the Quaker Meeting House (1708), the Custom House (1764), and the Grand Theatre (1781). The Lancaster Canal was built to provide transport links to Preston in the south and Kendal in the north, via the impressive Lune Aqueduct. A brand new port was built at Glasson Dock to expand the area's capacity for maritime trade, and connected to Lancaster by a branch of the canal. The building that now houses Lancaster City Museum also dates from this era, built between 1781 and 1783 to serve as a covered market and Town Hall.


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  • The Victorian period saw the Lancaster district develop even further, with the population of the city quadrupling over the course of the 1800s. This was despite the decline of Lancaster as a trading port: the Lune began to silt up and the town struggled to compete with the larger port at Liverpool. Instead, Lancaster was shaped by a booming textile industry, making linoleum and oilcloth. It was during this period that Charles Dickens stayed at the Royal Kings Arms and Richard Owen, who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, was born. The infrastructure of the area also developed substantially. Railways were built between Preston and Lancaster, and then Lancaster and Morecambe. Gas streetlamps were introduced and then replaced by electric street lighting. The Royal Lancaster Infirmary was built at this time, and the first local newspaper was created. Several villages grew together to create the town of Morecambe, which the Victorians began to cultivate as a seaside resort. Piers and pavillions were constructed to entertain visitors, and the grand Winter Gardens were opened on Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.


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  • The beginning of the 20th century was an era of great transition across Britain. Lancaster's Queen Victoria monument in Dalton Square was built in 1906 and this was soon followed by the construction of a new town hall in 1909. When war broke out in 1914, the area contributed substantially to the war effort. Over 44,000 men served in the King’s Own Royal Regiment in France, India, Greece or protecting the British coastline. There was a national projectile factory on Caton Road that produced large quantities of munitions, and a national filling factory at White Lund. A prisoner of war camp was created at the old wagon works on Caton Road. After the war several memorials were created, including the Westfield Memorial Village which was founded to provide accommodation for injured soldiers and their families. Despite the financial insecurity of the post-war era, Lancaster continued to grow. The first of our museums was established in 1923, and Lancaster formally became a city in 1937. As paid holidays became a legal right in the UK, Morecambe also expanded as a holiday resort. The Midland Hotel was built in 1933, along with a lido, new pier pavilions, cinemas, and various shops.


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  • Between the Second World War (1939-1945) and the present day, Lancaster, Morecambe and the surrounding area adapted to modern challenges. During the war men from the area served in the armed forces as far afield as Karachi in modern-day Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Meanwhile, Morecambe became a training ground for armed personnel and many boarding houses were requisitioned to provide accommodation. The district also became home to evacuated children from cities like Manchester. After the war, local industry began to return to normal, manufacturing linoleum and developing an engineering industry. In 1945, the Miss Great Britain competition (originally the ‘Bathing Beauty Queen’ contest) began in Morecambe, and continued to be hosted there until 1989. Other changes took place in Lancaster: furniture production ceased in 1962, but the area continued to manufacture linoleum and cultivate its growing engineering industry. In 1964, Lancaster University was founded. The Maritime Museum was created in 1985. In 2004 Lancaster became a Fairtrade City. In 2007 the University of Cumbria was established in the city and in 2011 Lancaster Castle ceased to be a prison. With the coming of the pandemic in 2020, the city continued to evolve and adapt to the modern era.


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  • The history of our area is intimately connected with the ocean thanks to its coastal location, which has made it an important trading centre. The region's link with the sea has shaped the lives, work, and leisure activities of its inhabitants for centuries. Many local industries were and still are tied to the sea and to local waterways. Morecambe Bay’s potted shrimps, for example, remain a delicacy that has long employed and provided sustenance for the local community. Local people have also been employed on vessels heading out to sea, fishing in the River Lune or managing harbours and inland waterways such as Glasson Dock, St George's Quay, and the Lancaster Canal. The making and breaking of ships were once large industries that provided jobs to many people. Some items from these ships were then recycled into other products such as furniture. Away from the coast, the creation of the Lancaster Canal expanded the area’s trading networks. Yet it's worth remembering that even some of the seemingly innocuous parts of this profitable maritime history were connected to the transatlantic slave trade. The canal, for instance, was paid for in part with profits from slave-produced goods, and then used to transport more of those same goods.


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  • Thanks to its overseas connections, the Lancaster and Morecambe area has often been a hub for local industry. These industries have included the manufacturing of a range of different products such as furniture, stained glass and watches, to name but a few. Perhaps one of the most famous businesses once connected with the area was Gillows of Lancaster and London (later Waring & Gillow), a furniture making business founded in 1730 by Robert Gillow of Lancaster. Gillows was particularly well known for making cabinets out of mahogany imported from the West Indies. There was also a substantial oilcloth and linoleum industry in Lancaster from the mid-1800s and into the twentieth century. The Williamson family, who created Williamson Park and the Ashton Memorial, ran a huge linoleum factory beside the river and exported their products across the world. Stained glass was also an important industry, and between 1825 and 1996 Lancaster was home to three notable firms: Abbot & Co, Seward & Co, and Shrigley & Hunt. They provided stained glass for many buildings across Lancaster, including Lancaster Priory and the City Museum.


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  • This area has been home to many scientists and innovators who made contributions to various fields such as chemistry and medicine. Edward Franklin (1825-1899) was an organometallic chemist who grew up in Lancaster and was one of the discoverers of helium. Another renowned Lancastrian scientist was Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), best known for his criticism of Charles Darwin’s theories surrounding evolution, although he agreed with the principles of evolution and coined the term ‘dinosauria’ in 1842. Sir William Turner (1832-1916) was an anatomist and medical education reformer who became a follower of Darwin and corresponded with him, advising him on his draft works. The cultivation of so many scientific minds in Lancaster was partly due to the town's facilities. Lancaster was home to the Cottage Laboratory on Green Ayre (near to Sainsburys) which allowed apprentices to conduct experiments. The Mechanics Institute (later known as the Storey Institute) on Mary Street also provided apprentices and mechanics with books and other resources. These facilities made access to scientific education easier, although notably only for white men: educational restrictions remained for women, and many of these institutions were founded on the profits of slavery.


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  • The museums are home to many works of art depicting scenes from across the local area, or created by artists who lived in and around Lancaster and Morecambe. Indeed, the first object in our collection catalogue is a watercolour scene of the Crook of Lune created by Robert Rampling, an artist who was born in 1835 in Liverpool but later moved to Lancaster. The collection contains a wide array of different paintings, including portraits of various historic figures connected with Lancaster’s history. Many of the our pieces were originally owned and exhibited by the Storey Institute, an educational organisation constructed between 1887 and 1891 that aimed to promote art, science, literature, and technical instruction. In recent years our collection has expanded to include works created by contemporary artists, showcasing local talent and documenting daily life in our district.


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  • From the invention of the camera people from this area have been snapping photos which help us understand our local history better. There were several local photographers who captured large numbers of images of this area from Sam Thompson who conducted a photographing survey of Lancaster's Streets in 1927 to John Walker who immortalised his beloved Sunderland Point and the people who lived and worked there. There were also many high street photographer's studios in Victorian and Edwardian Lancaster and Morecambe where people could pop in to experience the new novelty of having your photograph taken. The collections also hold the Morecambe Bay Publicity Archive which records the Morecambe holiday experience and helped promote the area in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. 


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  • Over the decades, Lancaster, Morecambe, and the surrounding area have received a great deal of attention from leading archaeologists and metal detectorists. Before this, antiquarian authors recorded their observations and posed questions about Lancaster’s built environment. Many of the objects found in our collection have been discovered thanks to the archaeological investigations of previous scholars. For example, the series of excavations held at Mitre Yard that examined the bathhouses there have led to numerous discoveries about Roman Lancaster. Not all excavations have focused on Roman sites; a great many hoards have been discovered in this area. A hoard is a store of valuable objects or money that has been buried or hidden. Some of our hoards, such as the Scotforth hoard, date back to the Bronze Age, while others such as the Yealand Redmayne coins come from the Middle Ages. More recent discoveries such as the excavation of the eighteenth-century Delftware pothouse on St George's Quay can reveal previously forgotten industries with surprising connections. Some of the ceramics made here, for instance, were exported to colonies in the West Indies - another link between Lancaster and the profits of the transatlantic slave trade.


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  • We often tend to describe people in the past only in terms of their professions or their social status. But what did local people do in their free time or on their holidays? Morecambe became a significant holiday destination in the Victorian period, thanks to the railway that connected it to Yorkshire in the mid-1800s. Until 1993, it was home to the largest Pontins resort in the country. The resort primarily attracted visitors from Yorkshire, Scotland and elsewhere in Lancashire. The Yorkshire connection gave Morecambe the nickname ‘Bradford on Sea’. All this meant that the town was blessed with an abundance of facilities and entertainment such as theatres, ballrooms, and the enormous Super Swimming Stadium. They may have been built for visitors, but they were enjoyed by local people too. Sporting events were another crucial way that people entertained themselves outside of their working hours, participating in local cricket tournaments or the Cross Bay Swim, the number of hobby or interest clubs represented in the collections seems almost endless!


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  • It is sometimes easy to view history as a series of pivotal events enacted by a few key figures, but how did ordinary people in the past live day-to-day? What similarities did they share with us and what has changed? What did they eat and how did they interact with one another? Objects can provide insight into the daily lives of local inhabitants in Lancaster, Morecambe, and the surrounding area since the Roman times. They would have been used regularly by the people that lived here, in the same way that you might use your phone or toothbrush. However, they are important objects because they illuminate the social values, religious or spiritual beliefs, and economic circumstances of society in the past.  


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  • The history of transport and travel is an important way for us to understand how people in the past interacted with and navigated the local landscape. Thanks to the coastline and waterways in the Lancaster and Morecambe area, water transport was important to the region. Yet the unusual landscape also posed a great many challenges and even dangers to the people that lived or passed through here. From Roman times (and probably before), crossing the sands of Morecambe Bay was a convenient but risky shortcut for travellers who chose to brave the perilous quicksands, shifting channels and speeding tides to avoid the long, slow route around the coast. That only changed with the arrival of the railways - an important invention for commercial enterprise as well as the growing tourist industry at Morecambe. This area was also home to innovations such as Thomas Edmondson’s Railway Ticket machine, which revolutionised the printing of train tickets.

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  • From the 17th century until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (a slow process which only began in 1833), Lancaster was closely involved with the transatlantic slave trade and its products. For much of the 18th century the town was the fourth largest slave-trading centre in England. Many Lancaster merchants and families owned or invested in slave ships. Young men from across the area worked on those ships or as agents in the British colonies, dealing in various slave-produced goods such as mahogany, spices, rum, cotton, and gunpowder. Over time, the families of these men accumulated property, plantations, and slaves. Men such as Abraham Rawlinson, MP for Lancaster between 1780 to 1790, and Thomas Hinde, twice mayor of Lancaster, held significant influence in the area due to the wealth and influence they gained through the slave trade. It is important for us to acknowledge the continuing legacy of this history because so many of the area’s landmarks were funded by profits made from enslaved people, such as the canal, prominent buildings, and even hospitals.  


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  • Museum collections are not an exact reflection of the history of an area. Depending on when and how objects are donated and collected some voices are heard more strongly through the collection than others, and some people are barely reflected at all. Some of the objects in the collection, like a medal awarded to a suffragette, a bone carved by a prisoner of war, or a postcard showing working people marching for their rights let us get a rare view of some of these lesser-heard voices. But we still need to do more to help the collections more accurately reflect everyone in our community. 


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Page last updated: 17 Jan 2024, 03:52 PM