Cruel Beauty

Humber Museums Partnership - Cruel Beauty

About Cruel Beauty

The Cruel Beauty exhibition highlighted items with a bitter sweet reputation. Their use may be harmful but their appearance, simplicity and or craftsmanship is a thing of beauty.


Visitors could have a different look at objects that may be harmful but were beautifully made, like antique weapons. Some items were cruel but so cleverly designed and interesting mechanics, like man traps or a medical scarifier. Also there were local stories in the Crime and Punishment section. Together with the crimes committed the exhibition told of the not always fair punishments.

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  • Bloodletting

  • Corset

  • Walking stick

    Walking stick

Morbid Fascinations

The public’s fascination with a good murder mystery has been around for much longer than Inspector Morse. It was once quite normal for members of the public to visit crime scenes. Public hangings were also a popular form of entertainment. In 1849, 10,000 people witnessed the execution of Mr. and Mrs. Manning who had been found guilty of murdering Mrs. Manning’s lover. People would also visit mental hospitals to gaze at the unfortunate inmates as a form of entertainment. London’s Bethlem Hospital, known by its nickname of Bedlam, was part of the tourist trail along with such sites as London Zoo and Madame Tussaud’s.

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  • Penny dreadful

    Penny dreadful
  • Wapping

  • Prospect_of_Bridewell


Engines of Destruction

Imagine traps, not for animals, but for humans. Man traps were meant as a deterrent to trespassers and poachers. When they actually caught a person they would inflict horrible injuries. The definition of poaching is: to catch and kill animals on someone else’s land without permission. Traps with teeth became illegal in 1827. Afterwards “humane traps” were still used until 1861. Despite not having teeth, humane traps could still cause lasting damage to a person’s leg.

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  • Codrington

  • mantrap demo Sodbury

    mantrap demo Sodbury
  • humane mantrap

    humane mantrap

After Death

The Victorians were masters at mourning. When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into mourning and remained so until her own death in 1901. She dressed only in black and wore black jewellery. It was fashionable for families to have memento mori’s. Translated from Latin this means ‘Remember you must die’. Such objects were there to remind people of those who were no longer with them and also the fact that everyone is mortal. There are many different types of memento mori, such as ornaments, cards, jewellery and chapels.
Another type of popular memorial was the posthumous photograph. These photographs showed a deceased person as if they were asleep. Sometimes they were by themselves, sometimes together with family. There are photographs of parents holding their dead child or siblings gathering around their dead brother or sister. The coronet on display was placed on the coffin of the Duchess of St Albans in 1837. The Duchess lived in London when she died. It took four days for her body to arrive at Redbourne Hall. Here at her late husband’s seat, her body was interred in the family vault at St Andrew’s Church.


Humans have hunted animals for food for thousands of years. Originally hunting was purely for survival – to get meat for food, skins for clothing and bone products for tools. Over time the reasons for hunting certain animals changed. In some cases the by-products such as skins and ivory, became the main reason for the kill. By-products like ivory and tortoiseshell were used to make luxury and decorative items such as ornaments, furniture inlays, piano keys and combs. This encouraged the killing of animals purely for these materials rather than for food.
In 1800 there were about 26 million African elephants, by 1979 poaching, hunting and habitat loss saw this number fall to just 1.3 million. In 1989 the trade in ivory became illegal and the elephant population rebounded. But in 1999 and 2008 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) allowed two sales of stored ivory. Unfortunately this led to an increase in demand for ivory and a massive rise in the illegal killing of elephants for their tusks. Today there are only about 415,000 African elephants in the wild with more being lost to poaching every day.
CITES banned the trade in tortoiseshell in 1973. Unfortunately the demand for the product has not disappeared. Fresh products made from illegally sourced tortoiseshell are still coming onto the market.

Fashion Victims - Part 1

Corsets and Crinolines
Most fashions from the 1500s until the early 1900s required a stiff-boned corset. Many women enjoyed their slim, corseted waist but tight-lacing could cause health problems. Corsets reduced lung capacity, making it difficult for women to catch their breath. Tight-lacing could also cause indigestion and other stomach-related health issues.
The cage crinoline was fashionable from 1856 until the late 1860s. It replaced the layers of petticoats a lady had to wear to support the bell-shaped skirt of the period. At the height of the crinoline’s fashion it measured 6 feet across. This made it difficult for women to get through doorways and to sit down. They were also very dangerous to wear. Many women suffered serious burns and some even died from getting too close to open fires.
Killer Heels
Before the 1850s most shoes were straight rather than shaped, causing foot deformities. It was fashionable to have small feet, so some women chose to bind their toes to fit into small shoes. In the 1970s the fashion for platform shoes was adopted by men and women. This fashion was responsible for many broken bones from falls. People continue to suffer injuries from high heels today.

Fashion Victims - Part 2

Diseased Dresses
Beautiful long, trailing skirts were fashionable throughout the Victorian period. It was seen as inappropriate for a woman to expose her ankles during this period. But the streets were filthy with animal excrement and mud. These beautiful skirts trailed through the filth, dragging disease into homes.
Dressed to Kill
In the 18th and 19th century, poisonous chemicals were used in the production of some fashions. Hatters used mercury to felt fur to make hats. Arsenic and benzene were used to make bright clothes and accessories. People polished their shoes using products containing benzene. These chemicals were hazardous to the health of workers during the manufacturing process. People wearing the affected garments also became ill through poisoning from the chemicals.
Flammable Fashion
Cheap alternatives of the latest fashions have always been sought after. In the mid-19th century, scientists experimented with chemicals to produce alternatives to ivory. Celluloid was used for hair combs, sequins and other adornments. It was very flammable and was responsible for the injury and even death of some wearers. Cheap versions of expensive materials were also developed. Rayon was a very popular, but flammable, alternative to silk in the 1930s and 1940s.

Household Poisons

A Victorian store cupboard could be a dangerous place. Here poisons and foodstuffs were found on the same shelf. In the 20th century a common poison found in many everyday items and food was arsenic. Famously it was used in wallpaper to create vivid arsenic-green colours. People got terribly ill, both physically and mentally, unaware the cause was their wallpaper. The arsenic pigment used for wallpaper was also used in the production of other goods, such as paints, shoes, canvasses, wood, books, fabric and toys. It was even used in baby powder. During the 1870s Violet Powder killed at least 13 children due to its high levels of arsenic. Another ingredient that threatened people’s health on a daily basis was Plaster of Paris, made from powdered gypsum. Bakers added this powder to bread to make it heavier and whiter. It was potentially fatal to children. Chemicals bought from the chemists were not always clearly marked and so people could easily mistake poison for a cooking ingredient. One such poison is carbolic acid, used in cleaning products. There are many historical cases in which it was mistaken for soda or baking powder. In 1902 the Pharmacy Act made it illegal to have dangerous chemicals in normal bottles.

Law and Order

From the 12th century serious and capital crimes were dealt with at the Assizes. These were held twice a year in Lincoln and other major towns and cities. A visiting judge from London led the court. Anybody awaiting a court session was locked up until the assizes came to the area. A Justice of the Peace held Quarter Sessions four times a year to hear criminal charges and appeals. A local Quarter Session record from 1791 shows an order to erect a notice board in Barton upon Humber. The sign warned that vagabonds would receive punishment according to the law. A whipping post stood nearby, enforcing the threat of punishment. Quarter Session courts were held in all three parts of Lincolnshire; Holland, Kesteven and Lindsey. The sessions were held at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas. Monthly Petty Sessions dealt with minor crimes such as small theft, assaults and unruly behaviour. This court also decided if cases needed to go to the Quarter Sessions. In North Lincolnshire Petty Sessions and later magistrates courts were held at Barton upon Humber, Brigg, Epworth, Scunthorpe, Crowle and Winterton. In 1971 the Crown Court replaced Assizes and Quarter Sessions.

North Lincolnshire Gunsmiths

In North Lincolnshire there were gunsmiths in Kirton in Lindsey, Crowle and Brigg. Around 1842 John Lofley started his business in Brigg from 12 Market Place. The business evolved and was run by other family members until 1889. Lofley’s clients included the Earl of Yarborough and Sir John Nelthorpe from Scawby. Around 1892 George Henry Hockey took over the Lofley business and premises. Hockey worked as a gun maker at the same address probably until the Midland Gun Company took over in about 1905. Other gunsmiths and sellers in Brigg were:
• Joseph Parish around 1797
• Richard Withers around 1821
• Frank W. Lightwood 1909-1922
• Charles Leonard around 1926
• Lincolnshire Gun and Ammunition Co. 1930-1935
Smith of all Trades
Many gunsmiths supplemented their income with other side trades. Gunsmiths often undertook other types of metalworking, but not all side trades complemented gun making. Examples of gun makers’ side trades listed in an 1855 Lincolnshire directory include: auctioneer, saddler, fishing tackle warehouse, bell hanger, engraver, ironmonger, clock maker, locksmith and gas fitter.

Ornate Guns

Detail photographs of weapons displayed in this exhibition.

Pretty Poisonous Plants

Walking through the countryside or park we come across many plants that are beautiful to look at. But some of these beauties can actually be quite unfriendly. Some plants can give you a rash while others can make people seriously ill. The Royal Horticultural Society is a good source to find out more about Britain’s poisonous plants. One example is the yew tree. Birds feast on the bright red arils, the outer casing of the seed. But all other parts of a yew tree contain taxane alkaloids, which are highly poisonous. During the Medieval period, according to folklore, Woody nightshade was thought to be a deterrent against witchcraft and was hung around the neck of cattle. The plant has also benefitted people with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. The Romans used Woody Nightshade to ease rheumatism and asthma. However, the leaves and berries are poisonous and can cause severe illness when eaten. The Stinging Nettle is much less poisonous but still feared. Nearly everybody has felt the result of brushing against a nettle. The toxins can leave a burning and itchy rash for up to 12 hours.

Unhealthy Healers

Before there were GP’s and dentists, there was the Barber Surgeon. As well as cutting hair and shaving beards, this man would happily relieve you of a toothache, perform operations and amputate limbs. All without any anaesthetic. At most you would get some alcohol or a herbal remedy for the pain. A Barber Surgeon would also help you with more complex problems. He could practice bloodletting to balance out your fluids or humours. Bloodletting or lancing is an ancient and much relied on medical procedure. For thousands of years physicians believed many illnesses could be cured by bloodletting. This would cure them by resetting the balance of humours within the patient’s body. As well as knives and scarifiers, leeches were also used to relieve a body of blood. Today bloodletting is no longer a common practice. Amputation is one of the most painful procedures people can think of. Before antibiotics a severely wounded limb was very likely to become infected, it was usual to remove the limb as a preventative measure. In 1846 an American surgeon demonstrated surgery with ether as an anaesthetic. Soon surgeons in other countries followed his example.

Humber Museums Partnership