Tag Archives: Brereton Bed

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: the Conservation Side – Deborah Phipps, Textile Conservator

My name is Deborah Phipps, I work as a textile conservator for Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. I work on all aspects of textiles and historic dress conservation, from packing and conservation remedial work, to display solutions.

I started work on “Frayed” in July this year, after having carried out an assessment of the objects on Ruth’s (the exhibition curator) list. This is the first process for conservation; at this time, measurements and images are taken and the physical condition of the object is noted along with any recommendations for conservation work and display ideas.

The star of the show; the Lorina Bulwer sampler, is an amazing piece of social history expressed in stitch. This object is in two pieces and together they measure approximately 4m long. The sampler is constructed of hundreds of pieces of fabric on both front and reverse and all the edges are bound with fabric scraps as well.

Because the sampler has been well used by researchers, students and curators, some of the more fragile fabrics were starting to show signs of wear. Also, the front surface was rather dirty and dusty. So I vacuumed the whole thing with a specialist vacuum cleaner called a Museum Vac, which has variable suction control, and used a small soft goat’s hair brush. The damaged areas of the edges were protected with a layer of fine nylon conservation net, which was stitched in place with polyester threads. In the image below, I am pinning the net in place on the reverse of the sampler, prior to stitching in place.


Another object in the exhibition that I particularly enjoyed working on. is the Elizabeth Fry quilt. This is made from three pieces of fine linen seamed together. This ground fabric has then been decorated with applied patchwork hexagons, a central motif (now missing) and an outer border.

What makes this object stand out, is the obvious variety of makers who worked on the piece, the patchwork motifs show a variety of stitches some neatly executed, some done in a less practiced hand. The border is a good place to see how different stitchers viewed the task of piecing the fabrics together. Mostly, they are randomly pieced, but at least one stitcher preferred her patches in lines of colour, as can be seen on the right of the image below.


The quilt is suffering from a problem with the dye used for the darker colour fabrics; to get the darker colour a pre dye treatment known as a mordant (this helps the dye molecules attach to the fibres) was used. Unfortunately, the mordant also accelerates the deterioration of the fibres resulting in weakened fabrics and areas of loss. This is often seen as holes within a printed pattern on the fabric, or as a general weakness through the whole piece as shown in the images below.

debbie1c debbie1d

These fabrics are vulnerable to more losses and so to help support them, lines of laid couching were worked across the affected areas. These stitches go through all the layers of fabric and so help hold loose pieces in place.

These are my personal highlights of the exhibition, there is so much more to tell; my next post will be about installing the Brereton Bed.

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’.

Let’s Get This Show on the Road! Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator


Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator (left), and Lynn Tye, Museum Trainee, get the Brereton Bed Hangings ready to install.  Photograph, Liz Elmore.

As the objects arrive and are meticulously placed in the gallery I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how we got to this point, to set the scene before we open in just two weeks time. My name is Ruth Battersby Tooke and I am the curator of ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’. The exhibition was conceived at the end of 2012 in response to the exciting news that the ‘other’ Lorina Bulwer letter, that we had seen pictures of when it was auctioned in the mid 2000’s was in the Thackray Museum, Leeds. I had a telephone call from the Curator, Lauren Ryall-Stockton asking me if I knew anything about Lorina as she had searched for the name and found the ‘Hidden Histories’ report. Exciting events like this are few and far between in the museum world and I dashed out of my office and across to the Bridewell Museum to find Ruth Burwood and share the news – cue much geeky air punching as the realisation that the Lorina letter was in a public museum collection and not in private hands which meant that all of the researchers that we had worked with  would have access to the object, a transcript and goodness me, we could also loan it and put it on display….

 So the work of developing an exhibition around these two extraordinary objects began. It was Jo O’Donoghue, Curator at Great Yarmouth and her enthusiasm and vision that encouraged a broader approach, one that set the context of textiles and Mental Health. From this point I began working with the strengths of the Norwich Costume and Textile collections, the way in which we have collected people’s stories as well as the objects and amongst those amazing stories were three other textiles that had relevance to the idea of making textiles as a therapeutic act. Not only an occupational therapy, a meaningful and structured way of busying the hands to still the mind, but also a powerful way to communicate, a creative and expressive way to release an inner voice.

 So by displaying the Brereton Bed-hangings, John Craske’s ‘Evacuation of Dunkirk’ woolwork picture and a patchwork quilt made by Newgate prisoners under Elizabeth Fry’s direction we had powerful themes which put these textile objects in the context of therapy but also each creation was still very much referring to individuals and their often complex experiences.

 More on all of these fascinating objects in future blog posts…

 The next key piece of the puzzle was the Elizabeth Parker sampler from the V&A. This potent object is often mentioned as a source of inspiration for contemporary textile artists and has extraordinary resonance as a testimony, reading almost like a tortured diary entry, the words have such a power to speak directly to the reader although it was written nearly 200 years ago. Enter Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the V&A and creator of the hugely successful ‘Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’ exhibition at the V&A. Sue had been to visit us in Norwich to view the Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter and was hugely supportive of our exhibition and helped to secure the loan of the Elizabeth Parker sampler in order to be able to unite all of these immensely important objects together in one show.

 I work with other curators in the Eastern Region who have Costume and Textile collections, we deliver training events as part of the SHARE scheme and meet up regularly to talk about our work. At one of these meetings I outlined the project and immediately Clare Hunt of Southend Museums mentioned an Occupational Therapy kit donated recently to them. We were delighted to be able to borrow this for the exhibition as it provides a valuable part of the story, from the early history of Occupational Therapy as a medical discipline at the end of the First World War to these ready made kits being distributed to ex-service personnel at the end of the Second World War shows so clearly how the solace of stitch has clear benefits to those who need it in difficult times.

 Next time, more information on the stories behind the objects on display and we will introduce the contemporary artist’s whose work adds a whole new dimension to the exhibition.