Category Archives: Anna Margaretta Brereton

The Brereton Donation – Cathy Terry, Social History Curator






Sandwiched between records in the museum’s accession register for 1929 recording gifts of  ‘The art of Garden Design in Italy’ and ‘A green-backed gallinule’ from Hickling is a tantalising  brief entry recording the donation by Miss Brereton of Briningham Hall of a mahogany bedstead fitted with damask patchwork, and furniture for a room of 1800 – 1810.

The donor was Katherine Blanch Brereton, great-great granddaughter of Anna Margaretta Brereton, the designer and maker of the wonderful Brereton hangings, currently on display in ‘Frayed’.

In this blog post I would like to pay tribute to this remarkable woman.  As the result of Katherine’s foresight and generosity  Strangers’ Hall gained its single most interesting collection, and certainly the one that has delighted generations of visitors, textiles researchers and family historians over the years.

Born in Norwich in 1861, Katherine overcame parental opposition to take up a career in nursing and made her mark as a nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.  Her obituary in The British Journal of Nursing  October 1930 reads;

We much regret to record the death of Miss Katherine Blanche Brereton, M.B.E., R.R.C., J.P., and a member of the Guy’s Hospital Nurses’ League. She received training as a lady pupil at Guy’s Hospital from June, 1890 to June 1891, and after working as a Staff Nurse at the Wirral Children’s Hospital, she obtained her midwifery training at the York Road Lying-in Hospital, returning to Guy’s as Sister of Bright Ward in 1893.  In 1899 she went out to South Africa on the Staff of the first Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein.  In 1901 the Government appointed Miss Brereton a member of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Management of the Concentration Camps in South Africa.  She visited all the Camps in the four colonies, and on returning to England in February 1902 received with her Col- leagues the thanks of the House of Commons, and during that year also the South African War Medal and the Royal Red Cross.  In I903 she accompanied Mrs. Fawcett (afterwards Dame Millicent) to South Africa on a mission to promote the conciliation of Boers and Britons, and later set herself to learn farming in order to manage the family estates.  Her final gift was the bequest of her body to the Medical School of Guy’s Hospital.

On her return to Norfolk in later life, Katherine took on the administration of the family estate, became a JP and was heavily involved in the Temperance Movement, no doubt exciting controversy by closing her local village pub. Clearly she also belonged to that group of influential supporters whose efforts did so much to bolster the Norwich museums in the 1920s and 1930s.

What prompted Katherine to make the donation to Strangers’ Hall we shall never know.  The set was given during the year before she died, and apparently despite some opposition from elsewhere in the family, but we might guess that she had a hunch that this family heirloom had a significance above and beyond a set of patchwork hangings, beautiful though they are in their own right.  It was a sure instinct…


Around this time a forward-thinking curator of Strangers’ Hall, Frank Leney, was exploring open display interpretation in room settings’ based on Scandinavian models of folk life museum. He was thrilled to accept a donation which allowed him, at one stroke, to display an 18th century Norfolk lady’s bedroom, complete with all its furniture, furnishings and textiles. No other donor contributed in this way. Katherine’s gesture, intended to ‘enhance and enrich the displays’, accorded well with Leney’s ambitions to set up Strangers’ Hall as the museum of English Folk Life . Everything was displayed in ‘The White Room’ (now the Walnut room), where it proved a massive visitor draw.  Some thirty years later Pamela Clabburn, the former curator who did so much to enrich and publicise the NMS costume and textiles collections, found the set in a poor state. Together with a small team of enthusiasts, she conserved the set according to the standards of the day and rolled the hangings to minimise further light damage.

In 2003, NMS received a request to include the bed-hangings in the prestigious international exhibition ‘In search of the Hexagon’ at the Château de Martainville, near Rouen, curated by Janine Jannière.  Further conservation work allowed the set to be safely displayed on a specially constructed bed-frame, designed by Melanie Leach, textile conservator.  And this year, it has formed one of the highlights of ‘Frayed’.


Katherine can’t possibly have anticipated the continuing relevance and excitement of the hangings to successive generations of museum visitors.  The interest for me as a curator is the way in which the perceived historical value of key pieces like the Brereton bed-hangings change over time.  Such objects can be appreciated in terms of fashion and design, technology and construction or family history, but the comparatively modern reading in the context of the therapeutic role of textiles and the idea of ‘emotional objects’ is undoubtedly the most potent.

I like to think that Katherine would have approved whole-heartedly of their inclusion in Frayed as a ‘textile on the edge’.

With thanks to the Brereton family for kind assistance with research for this blog post.





Frayed in Print – The Quilter

An article by Carolyn Ferguson about the Brereton bed hangings and the Frayed exhibition is featured in the Winter 2013 issue of The Quilter. 

The Quilter is the membership magazine of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles:

For a preview, click here:  The Quilter

Anna Margaretta Brereton: let us cherish her memory – Carolyn Ferguson

I feel that is has been a privilege to have been able to research the Brereton bed hangings for they are not only a wonderful set of early patchworks and interior design of the early nineteenth century but also give a poignant history of a Norfolk family.

Anna Margaretta Lloyd (1756 – 1819) married her first cousin John Brereton on in 1780 and was to make her home at Brinton Hall, near Melton Constable in Norfolk. In the following 20 years she was to know both great happiness and terrible sadness for 5 of her 10 children died, 4 in infancy. It is said that the death of her son John at the age of 14 in 1800 was an event that altered Anna Margaretta’s life forever.

The Rev. William Upjohn in his ‘Testament to Departed Worth’ after Anna Margaretta’s death in 1819 gives some indications of the trauma of this event. He describes how John’s sudden and unexpected death plunged her into an ‘abyss of sorrow’ which nearly destroyed her mind and body. Rev Upjohn attributes her salvation to religion but I believe that the art of patchworking also played a part for we know that the act of designing and making patchwork is known to be therapeutic for those who suffer both mental and physical stress and illness. The very act of stitching gives help to those in need.  Additionally the conversation of any group of women who are sitting round a table at their sewing will be wide ranging for the lack of eye contact caused by a concentration on stitch allows women space to air their problems and personal feelings.

The hangings are said to have made been made, from cotton and linen fabrics, between 1801 and 1805. This is a time when elite women such as Anna Margaretta would have had considerable input into home furnishings. Patchwork hangings were not uncommon and would have provided a considerable ‘project’ for any competent needlewoman, particularly someone who wanted something to fill empty time.

The first years of the nineteenth century were a time when cotton and in particular cotton chintz was starting to become widely available. Manufacturers embraced their freedom to trade with enthusiasm and developed new designs, new dye stuffs and new methods of printing for cotton cloth. There is no count of the number of individual fabrics in the hangings but there are certainly a great number of different designs. The family have suggested that visiting friends and family provided fabrics but this seems unlikely unless such people were part of the textile trade. It seems more probable that her husband John used his business interests within the textile trade to access to off cuts and samples and even books of samples for his wife as some of the patches show marks consistent with sample fabrics. In 1792 John is variously described as trader, draper, grocer, tallow chandler, soap boiler and feed factor and we can surmise that he may have returned with fabric on his frequent trips to London.

In her patchwork Anna Margaretta used a variety of geometric shapes, including hexagons and long, sometimes called ‘coffin’ hexagons, pieced blocks and appliqué. Perhaps most remarkable is her use of ‘broderie perse’ for the baskets of flowers that she frames with wreaths of hexagons. She uses her embroidery skills to create patchwork pictures from lengths of chintz fabric. The researcher can ponder how she learnt this technique. Was her inspiration provided by floral designs on quilted petticoats or had she admired Indian embroideries of the eighteenth century?  The hangings are like an early nineteenth century garden for they use a large number of floral fabrics; we see examples of large sun flowers, daffodils, peonies, morning glory, chrysanths, roses and many other flower types. We forget the seasons but marvel in their associations.

It is possible that Anna Margaretta had help in her work. Family history states that Anna Margaretta’s daughter Mary helped her mother and may have even finished the set of hangings after Anna Margaretta’s death. It is true to say that the coverlet does show fabrics that were produced in the late 1820s and 1830s and also exhibits evidence of remodelling.  We know also that Anna Margaretta’s sister Elizabeth married her husband’s twin Abel Brereton and that they and two unmarried daughters lived nearby. Whoever the helpers or any subsequent needlewomen were, they reinforce the lasting vision of Anna Margaretta Brereton in providing posterity with a unique set of early bed hangings that represent a full compendium of early nineteenth century chintz fabrics.

Additionally as Rev. William Upjohn writes of Anna Margaretta, we must ‘cherish her memory as a bright example of cheerful godliness’ and ‘imitate her example in everything’.