There, that got you looking. And to those of you who have happened upon this History Girls blog via google, welcome! And sorry, but this blog entry is about The Hunterian Museum and not any kind of unsavoury clerical activity.
The Hunterian, wonderful museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, repository of said rectum, as well as bits and bobs once attached to the second Marquis of Rockingham, giant squids and many other creatures, human and animal. The things in jars though, have never done it for me. At my school there was - and isn’t memory strange because I swear I saw it and smelt it but cannot now believe it – a baby in a bath of formaldehyde. That was at least whole, but I hated looking. And I can only look at the jars fleetingly, the Bishops’ bum at a glance could be a frilly floating flower, and I am content with that.
I am ambivalent about the skeletons too. I must admit to staring hard at the bones of Jonathan Wild, the villain of the early 1700s, a thoroughly corrupt thief taker. But I cannot look long at Charles Byrne, The Derry Giant, knowing his sad story.
What does fascinate is the fantastic eighteenth century brass chandelier on the staircase, every bit as wonderful as those in Bevis Marks and a gift from the Barber Surgeons Hall when it was demolished, and John Hunter’s (the man who began the collection) actual table. Not the full human body sized one, but the little occasional table shaped one that he did his early morning pre-breakfast dissection on. It is beautiful, sloping to the centre with a brass drainage grille. John Hunter was so good at dissection, embalming and preservation that he boasted ‘I can give a dead man almost any look’.
But most of all I love a precious instrument box from the late eighteenth century, covered in fishskin and lined with worn, but still shining, red velvet. The tools carefully packed tight like small children head to toe in a bed. This item struck me as the equivalent of a Mac Air book. Cutting edge technology, in a wonderfully designed package.
I am on part two of a story about an anatomist/surgeon’s apprentice. So that box is most definitely the one he takes with him everywhere. In my story it was bequeathed to him by his master, a fictional version of Hunter, who set up the best anatomy school and museum in Great Windmill Street in the eighteenth century.
I can see my protagonist screwing his feet into his boots and picking up that very instrument case, then running out into the night and making his way to Dover as fast as he can.
I suppose I better get on with it….