Gloucestershire Archives Revealed

Dig this, dude

It’s fair to say many of us would like a go on a digger.  Perhaps not a prominent desire, but the thought of moving large piles of earth at the touch of a joystick or smashing concrete into oblivion with a deft swipe of the controls is quite tempting.

Sadly, it must remain a wish and not become a reality, for us at least – because the joy of excavating massive holes would lead to a temptation to lift things that shouldn’t be lifted, like people or cars, or even other diggers. That’s a very good question: can a digger lift another digger?  Well, for as long as we’re not allowed to play with diggers, we won’t find out.  We think it probably could though.

So why all this talk about construction machinery?  Well, it’s because we’re awash with it at our Alvin Street premises in Gloucester: diggers, excavators, dump trucks and all manner of large and powerful machinery that we are (sensibly) banned from having a go on.  But we have fun watching them in our breaks, seeing them go about their destructive and constructive business to create new facilities for Gloucestershire Heritage Hub and build three more specialist storage rooms for the Archives’ collections.  You’ll probably know all about this if you’ve been following our Blogging a Building posts or visited recently.

Unfortunately, none of the machinery on our site is made by the old Gloucester firm, Muir Hill Ltd, which moved from Manchester to Gloucester in 1962.  The firm was based at the site of the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company on Bristol Road and specialised in the manufacturing of dumpers, loaders and shunters.  Gloucestershire Archives holds a significant amount of this firm’s business records: collection D4557 contains photographs, slides, publicity material, artwork, administrative, financial and property records; and D14248, a smaller collection, contains similar items.

Muir Hill machinery 1

Looking through some of the Muir Hill catalogues, and judging by the range of dumping tractors featured in them, it seems dumping was a popular activity. The company also manufactured high lift shovels, tractors, scrapers and, surprisingly, standard gauge locomotives used for light shunting work.  The locos are notable for being pre-diesel machines, powered by petrol or paraffin.  They were advertised with the same advantages over steam power as diesel and electric locos (though the latter two came along years later): “instant operation and always ready for duty” – just like the Archives’ staff.

Muir Hill machines were exported around the world.  One of the sales information sheets quotes an Australian distributor calling the firm’s 161 model “This Beaut Tractor” and ends with the conclusion “there seems to be no doubt that the 161 is a far better tractor than the existing big yanks”.  This could be a comparison to another type of tractor, or confirmation that Gloucester engineering was far superior to anything the US could produce at the time.  We think the latter and, regardless, it’s nice to have some Aussie praise.

One of the photographs in the collection shows a peculiar high lifting shovel machine, rather like a rickety wooden shed on tracks, with a window and protruding lifting arm. Intriguing!  Especially since most of Muir Hill’s machinery was manufactured from far sturdier material.  Perhaps the boss was away when this quirky contraption was produced, leaving the workers free to knock something together quickly on the Monday and spend the rest of the week betting on horses or getting to know the local bar staff?  Thankfully not – a closer look at the photo reveals the words ‘Ruston and Bucyrus’, the name of a rival manufacturer, painted down the shaft.  Evidently they didn’t produce such quality machinery.  It’s certainly a relief to think the engineering designers of Gloucester didn’t expect a worker shovelling heavy boulders, coal and soil to be protected from a stray falling rock (and almost certain death) by a few thin strips of processed tree.  Instead, they thoughtfully encased them in the safety of metal – so the descendants of these operators can say “Thank you, Muir Hill people”.

Rickety tractor

Many of the machines produced by Muir Hill seem similar to the tractors and dumpers used today, so it’d be great to compare them and see if the old Gloucester technology could match today’s efforts. Could a Muir Hill pick up a JCB, for example?  Or could it go faster?  And which would be best at lifting tractors?  If there are any Muir Hill digger, dumper or shovel owners out there, we’d love to host a competition to find out (who knows, if we promise to operate the shed on wheels carefully, the site manager might even allow it!).  We could all wear high vis jackets and give the machines a fluorescent makeover – it’d become a high vis historic digger race off.  Imagine that!


…and we wonder why we’re banned from building sites.

Anthony Phillips and Jenny Rutland, Archives Assistants

Gloucestershire’s archives revealed (1)

There are countless hidden gems in Gloucestershire Archives’ collections.  These range from beautifully illuminated medieval manuscripts to nuggets of priceless information and funny facts, often concealed in ordinary-looking documents.  These treasures are usually uncovered in the Archives’ research room, either by visitors using our collections or by Archives staff that handle them as part of our access arrangements.

It seems a shame to keep these special finds a secret so we thought we’d set up a new blog series to share them with you, beginning with a post we’ve written ourselves.  Here it is:

Have you ever felt like eating Hens’ Turds?  We have, but we were put off by their unappetising appearance.  Mind you, it turns out they aren’t meant to be eaten raw, as they taste as bad as they look in their uncooked state – quite acidic with astringent qualities. But they do become edible with processing…

Before we go any further, we should explain that Hens’ Turds are actually a variety of apple: a cider apple native to Gloucestershire and listed as critically rare in 2000. We’re guessing this is still the case – so you’d be more likely to find half a hen’s tooth in a field of haystacks.

We know about this unusual species thanks to a book in our collections: one that a recent visitor wanted to look at. It’s called ‘Native Apples of Gloucestershire’ by Charles Martell (ref. B544/56497) and contains a detailed inventory of all known indigenous varieties of Gloucestershire apples.  Before checking it out, we thought we’d test our apple knowledge by listing the names of as many apples as we could. And we came up with a total of ten (listed as ‘the magnificent ten’ below).  None of them were from Gloucestershire, though. Maybe you can do better?

Well, how did you get on? More than ten types of apple is good.  More than twenty is even better.  And a whopping fifty would be seriously impressive.  But the prize fund is reserved for anyone with a list of over 190 varieties, because that’s the number listed in the book as native to Gloucestershire alone.

Martell set out to create his definitive account because many varieties of local apples were gradually disappearing. And his findings are useful for conservation and reference purposes. So if you want to identify an apple as being of Gloucestershire origin, or you’ve stumbled across a new example of Belchers Pearmain, this is a marvellous book to consult. Browsing its contents, we discovered: the last record of a Captain Kernel tree was before 1960 in Tibberton; there aren’t any Dainty Maids left in Cam; Rissington Redstreak has also been lost; and, sadly, there are only two Hard Knock trees remaining in Oxenton and only one Old Tankard in Westbury-on-Severn.

This trend reflects the ever decreasing acreage of traditional orchards in the County – currently around 3,000 acres, considerably less than the 15,000 estimated in the mid-1800s. Fortunately, Martell is propagating some of the lost and rare varieties of local apples, and these now form the National Collection of Gloucestershire Apples.

Interestingly, according to local legend, there’s also been an apple-linked manslaughter. Apparently, the Kill Boy apple came by its name after an Oldbury-on-Severn man became so fed up with the foolish antics the boys collecting fruit one harvest time that he threw an apple at one of them, hitting him on the head. The apple was so hard that it killed the boy. ‘Nasty weapons, those apples.

Finally, we thought we’d mention that our Alvin Street premises have an apple related link too.  The site was once home to Wheeler’s Nursery, which supplied apple trees to Queen Victoria.  Sales particulars of the nursery in 1853 (ref. D3269) advertised that it consisted of 2000 apple and pear trees.

Well, that’s it from us for now.  We really need your help to find and share more fascinating facts from our collections.  So please let us know if you’ve an interesting story to tell and would like to write a blog article about it!

PS For those who are interested, here are our magnificent ten apples: Braeburn; Royal Gala; Cox; Cameo; Bramley; Jazz; Zari; Pink Lady; Golden Delicious; and Granny Smith.

Jenny Rutland and Anthony Phillips, Archives Assistants