New year, new Special Collections and Archives website!

Happy January everyone! It’s still relatively early into 2022 but we are already excited to show you something we’ve been working on for over a year now – the new look Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) website! In this post, we’ll show you around the new site and answer some questions about its creation, how we’ve designed it and what this means for you as users.

Why did the SC&A website need changing? 

Screenshot of the new SC&A homepage. It is much more visual and core links to search our collections are front and centre of the page.

Screenshot of the new SC&A homepage. It is much more visual and core links to search our collections are front and centre of the page.

Short answer to a question we could discuss for hours: the old SC&A website looked, well, old. Whilst we worked really hard to keep all the information updated, including pages for new collections as they were acquired, the University has switched to a much more modern design of website in the past couple of years and our web pages needed to fit that new template. There are a lot of advantages to the new site: it’s incredibly visual, should look better on mobile devices, and is much easier for staff to keep updated behind the scenes.

For the SC&A team, the new website format has also allowed us to complete some work we’ve been planning for a while: making a single website for all of our collections, including the British Cartoon Archive. We’ve transferred over all the information from previous pages, and where that hasn’t been possible we’ve kept all the old site information working. It’s also been a great chance for us to tweak some of the things that didn’t work so well on the old site and to highlight information that’s previously been somewhat hidden.

What content on the updated website is new?

Screenshot of the collections showcase section of the new SC&A homepage, highlighting some of our core collections.

Screenshot of the collections showcase section of the new SC&A homepage, highlighting some of our core collections.

There’s so much new content on the SC&A website that it’s hard to narrow it down, but a couple of sections really stand out for us. Firstly (as you can see above), the homepage has a brand-new Collections Showcase section, highlighting some of the fantastic material in our care. We’ll be changing this up to tie in with key events, anniversaries and exhibitions – so do keep checking back.

Screenshot of our new Digital Resources page, which collates all our learning, teaching and events resources in one place.

Screenshot of our new Digital Resources page, which collates all our learning, teaching and events resources in one place.

Secondly, we’ve added a new page for all of our digital resources that we create as part of our Education and Engagement work! This page includes links to videos of past events, introductions to using our collections, and even some films of items we look after to give you an idea of what we hold. The digital resources listed here are accessible to everyone and we’ll be updating the page when we add more content.

Screenshot of the SC&A homepage showing links to search our collections.

Screenshot of the SC&A homepage showing links to search our collections.

We’ve also done a lot of work with our wonderful Library Systems colleagues to ensure searching our collections is easier than ever before. Our homepage now has a dedicated searchbar for SC&A material in LibrarySearch (no more typing your terms into the main catalogue and filtering by location), and there are links to the British Cartoon Archive catalogue and the SC&A archive catalogue too. These search links are the first thing you’ll see on our new homepage.

Do you still have pages for all your collections?

Screenshot of our new look Collections A-Z page.

Screenshot of our new look Collections A-Z landing page.

Yes, and (we think) it’s better than ever! For the first time, you can directly search all our collections pages and see which main collection they’re a part of. This is particularly useful for our bigger ‘parent’ collections such as the British Cartoon Archive and the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive which contain many different individual collections within them.

Screenshot of the David Low Collection page on our new website with a famous Low cartoon as its background.

Screenshot of the David Low Collection page on our new website with a famous Low cartoon as its background.

As you can see in the example above, we’ve also added pages for all of the British Cartoon Archive collections individually for the first time so it should be a lot easier for you to understand what we hold and how to access it.

Screenshot of the collections page for the David Drummond Pantomime Collection.

Screenshot of the collections page for the David Drummond Pantomime Collection.

Some of our old Collections pages held a lot of information so in some cases, we’ve transferred this into documents or into catalogue listings where appropriate. If you can’t find something please just ask us.

Have any URLs or links changed during the move to the new site?

Yes and no! Our main homepage address has changed from to to come in line with the Library’s URLs which changed last summer. However, we’ve been working with our IT colleagues to ensure that all the old addresses should redirect to the new ones where needed. This work will continue over the next few weeks so if you don’t see the new site yet, don’t panic!

I can’t find [X page] or [X information] any more, where is it?

We’ve worked really hard to ensure that all the content on the old site has been migrated safely (ncluding making lots of backups of pages), and we’ve tested the site with colleagues a lot, so hopefully this shouldn’t be the case. However if you do have trouble locating any information please do send us a screenshot with details to and we’ll look into it ASAP.

We hope you enjoy exploring our new site! We’d love to hear your thoughts on the refresh so do get in touch with us if you have any comments.

10 things you probably didn’t know about windmills

Did you know that Special Collections & Archives hold not one, not two, but four collections relating to windmills and their history? To celebrate National Mills weekend (being held virtually over the bank holiday, 9 – 10 May 2020) we thought we’d put together some interesting facts based on our marvellous mill material! (Alliteration encouraged but not necessary.)

We challenge you not to find windmills awesome after this post

We challenge you not to find windmills awesome after this post

1. Windmills are important sources of local history

We’re so used to living in an age with electrical everything, but before the industrial revolution happened mills were vital sources of power across the UK and Europe. They didn’t need to be near water sources to generate energy and were used for all kinds of work, especially grinding wheat to make flour – vital in a world before mass imported food.

Because mills could be found almost everywhere until the 19th century, they’re a unique source for exploring local history and a great starting point for archive research: who owned the mill? What was it used for? Where was it in the community and how long did it operate for? If it’s no longer around, what’s replaced it on the site? Who worked in mills and how much did they earn? Mills are a great resource for economic, local and art historians alike.

2. Know your mill types: tower mill

Lots of tower mills: note the brick and cylindrical body

Lots of tower mills: note the brick and cylindrical body

If you’ve been following our #WindmillWednesday hashtag on Twitter, you’ll notice that there isn’t just one type of windmill to explore. We traditionally associate windmills with tower mills – they’re fairly cone-like in shape, often brick-based and the sails are attached to a wooden roof that can rotate in the direction of the wind. Tower mills have existed since the 13th century but they became popular from the 16th century onwards; however they’ve always been more expensive to build than other types of mill. In the UK, the tallest existing tower mill can be found at Moulton in Lancashire.

Moulton windmill's workers must have been extremely fit to get all the way to the top (image taken in 1938)

Moulton windmill’s workers must have been extremely fit to get all the way to the top (image taken in 1938)

3. Kent has so many windmills there’s an entire book about them

At one point, Kent had over 400 windmills – with Deal and Sandwich hosting 6 each! Today 12 still exist; Kent County Council look after 6 of them. The definitive work about Kent’s windmills was written by historian William Coles-Finch (1864 – 1944) in 1933. Windmills and Watermills was republished in 1976; we have several copies of each edition. We often get asked “why do you have things relating to windmills anyway?!”; our answer – alongside the local history and generally awesome elements – relates to the creators of the three main mill collections we hold. Keep reading for more information…

4. Know your mill types: post mill

Post mills, not to be confused with post boxes

Post mills, not to be confused with post boxes

Post mills are the earliest known type of European windmill and generally the most affordable to build. They can be recognised easily – they have a blocky, boxy structure that sits on top of one post, often hidden by a cylindrical base. Architecture aside, the main difference between tower mills and post mills is that in post mills the mechanisms are enclosed within the box of the mill (around a single post, hence the name) and it’s this part that turns. In comparison to a tower mill, this is a huge difference – in tower mills it’s only the top of the mill that rotates. Sometimes you’ll see post mills without the cylindrical base, but as it’s pretty useful for storage many are built with this area included as part of the design. In the UK, the longest working post mill can be found in Outwood, Surrey; the oldest non-working mill is in Great Gransden, Cambridgeshire.

Great Gransden windmill shows off its best side (1979)

Great Gransden windmill shows off its best side (1979)

Miller Stanley Jupp looks mighty proud of his Outwood windmill, as he should (1961)

Miller Stanley Jupp looks mighty proud of his Outwood windmill, as he should (1961)

5. The Muggeridge family really liked windmills

The Muggeridge family - father and son

The Muggeridge family – father and son

The largest collection of mill material we look after belongs to the Muggeridges. William Burrell Muggeridge (1884 – 1978) started taking images of mills in 1904 and continued for most of his life; we hold his glass plate photos. William passed his love of all things windmill onto his son, Donald (1918 – 2015) who spent much of his spare time cycling around the UK with his wife Vera. Vera and Donald were interested in all things heritage-related and windmills formed a large part of that interest. Donald’s photographs also reside with us. You can read more about the Muggeridges here.

6. Know your mill types: smock mill

Smock mills in all their finery

Smock mills in all their finery

Like tower mills, smock mills only rotate through the top of the building where the sails are attached. The main difference between smock mills and tower mills is that smock mills are generally constructed of wood and have 6 or 8 sides, whereas tower mills are made of brick and generally cylindrical in shape. Because of their multiple sides smock mills resemble smocks traditionally worn by farmers. In the UK you can find the oldest existing smock mill in Lacey Green, Buckinghamshire.

Lacey Green smock mill looking mighty atmospheric (1934)

Lacey Green smock mill looking mighty atmospheric (1934)

7.  Not just the UK: windmills across the world

The majority of our mill collections focus on UK windmills, but they’re well documented across Europe and beyond. The Netherlands is particularly famous for milling – in 1850 they had 10,000 windmills in operation out of Europe’s 200,000 total! After the Second World War Donald Muggeridge moved to North America (Canada then California), so his collection contains many photos of American mills and others across the globe from his travels. You can explore the listing of Donald’s adventures here.

8. C.P. Davies was also a big mill fan

Our other significant mill collection belonged to C.P. Davies, a Kent based librarian in the 20th century. The Davies collection differs from the Muggeridges’ in that it is much more text and ephemera based – you can find newspaper cuttings, articles, pictures and handwritten notes amongst its c.100 boxes. Davies was primarily focused on mills along the south coast (Kent and Sussex), but there’s information about a wide variety of mills across the UK and Europe. You can browse the listing of the collection here.

9. One final Kent name to remember: the Holman family

Two of the scrapbooks from the Holman family. There's at least one cute sheep photo within.

Two of the scrapbooks from the Holman family. There’s at least one cute sheep photo within.

If you’ve visited Special Collections & Archives on an open day in the past few years, you may well have seen one of our gorgeous windmill scrapbooks. These scrapbooks were made by John Holman; his collection also includes engineering notebooks and many other memorabilia relating to mills. The Holmans were a famous milling family in Kent; they built twelve wooden smock mills across the county between 1793 and 1928, of which six still stand. The Holman milling business (which included engineering and designing mill parts too) ran for 150 years. If you’re interested in finding out more about them, The Mills Archive have a wonderful biography of the Holmans online.

10. Mills have switched from practical structures to heritage buildings

Nowadays most mills aren’t in use for power generation as there are far more efficient methods, and the number of buildings that still exist are far fewer. As you might expect given their structure and components, windmills are at risk from bad weather, neglect and occasionally fires – there are a lot of photos across all our mill collections that record the damage time does to these marvellous machines. However many mills now are managed either through county councils (Kent County Council looks after eight of twelve remaining) or via volunteer charities. They often open for visitors in the summer months, and initiatives like the National Mills weekend help to raise support and awareness.

If you’ve read this far…congratulations! You may now call yourself a molinologist, aka someone who studies mills! Maybe one day you will find yourself seeking out windmills far and wide, like the author of this blog:

Zaanse Schaans windmills in 2018 and 1982.

Windmills: guaranteed to make you happy!

Resources and references:

Kent County Council have a fantastic resource pack to teach children (and adults) about windmills:

The Mills Archive is a fantastic site for molinologists of all ages but we particularly like their biography of the Holman family: 

For much-needed reading, the Wikipedia pages on windmills are a great place to start (and very thorough):

The majority of our windmill collections are catalogued; you can view details of their contents here: 

We are continuously cataloguing our library of mill-related books, and you can view up to date listings on LibrarySearch:

All photographs used in the hybrid images in this post are from our Muggeridge collection:

James Friell a.k.a. Gabriel a.k.a. Jimmy Friell a.k.a. Field pt.2

Earlier this year Special Collections & Archives hosted two student interns with the generous support of Kent’s Work-Study scheme. Becca and Emily worked on our James Friell collection from the British Cartoon Archive, helping to sort, repackage and list this large collection of cuttings and original artworks. In this second of two posts written by Becca and Emily, they give an overview of their time with us:


Hello! We are two interns, working with the Special Collections and Archives, as part of the Work-Study scheme.

I am Becca, a final year Classical and Archaeological Studies undergraduate student. Although my interests are mainly in a far earlier period than is covered by the Friell collection, I’ve found the cartoons both interesting, funny, and in some cases, still relevant – they clearly stand the test of time!

I am Emily, a final year History undergraduate student. The Friell collection has been fascinating to work with, largely my historical interests and expertise surrounds modern political history, as such the collection has helped me with my studies and vice versa.

The Collection

The Friell collection primarily contains newspaper cartoon cuttings and original artwork of the late political cartoonist, James Friell, also known by his ​Daily Worker ​pen name, Gabriel. The University of Kent has one of the biggest cartoon archives in the UK and the pieces in their Friell collection easily numbers in the thousands. The collection also features personal items such as small biographies written by Friell himself, personal greetings cards sent to friends, and rough sketches. It’s fantastic to work with a collection as complete as this, where we can read about Friell’s life in and outside of cartoons, and see not only the published work, but the original concepts and artwork, too.

The Task

Before and after: the original folders and boxes for the cuttings are on the right, and the repackaged on the left.

Our first task with the collection was to sort through the thousands of cartoon clippings from both ​The Daily Worker ​and The Evening Standard. ​This involved date ordering the clippings and repackaging the collection to conservation grade standard. Our next task was to then research the original artwork in order to date the pieces, as well as cross referencing with the cartoon clippings we had previously worked with, to organise the artwork and make it accessible for readers.

What were the main challenges with working with this collection?

Newspaper cutting from the Friell collection

One of the biggest challenges of working with the Friell collection was also one of the best parts: it is completely uncatalogued and little work had been done on it until we began. Whilst this meant that we had a mammoth task of sorting the collection from scratch, it was also great to know that when we finished the project, we would’ve been responsible for sorting and caring for an entire collection from start to finish.

The biggest challenge came from working with the original artwork within the collection. Whereas with the cuttings, the date was often written on the cartoon or printed on the newspaper, the majority of the original artwork was both undated and in no discernable order – cartoons from ​The Daily Worker ​in 1948 mingled freely with those from 1957, where Friell had begun signing his work with his surname, rather than the familiar Gabriel. The only way we had to date these artworks was to search through the cuttings to find the corresponding date that the cartoon had been printed. When faced with thousands of cuttings and thousands of original artworks, you can forgive us if there were tears! Nevertheless, we powered on and in just a few weeks, had the majority of the original artwork listed, dated, and linked to their corresponding newspaper cutting.

What has been the best thing about working in Special Collections & Archives?

Our Templeman exhibition cases in the Templeman Gallery

We have loved the variety. Whilst caring for and sorting the Friell collection was our primary project, we had the opportunity to help install the Our Templeman exhibition in the Library’s Gallery space, including cases dedicated to the Maddison collection and David Drummond Pantomime collection. This not only taught us the practical handling and displaying skills necessary for exhibition work, but also gave us the opportunity to work with varied collections outside of Friell.

David Drummond Pantomime exhibition case

The whole experience has been fantastic, the Special Collections & Archives team are so lovely to work with and the feeling of completing a task the size of the Friell collection was amazing. Most of all, this internship has provided us with invaluable experience, which has meant that we both have either secured a place in further education or a graduate role within the archive sector, something that seemed unattainable without this role.

2018 Highlights from the SC&A Team

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but the end of the year has crept up on us remarkably stealthily! (Although all the Christmas decorations and festive events around campus may argue otherwise…) With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look back at 2018 and share with you our particular highlights – work you may know about, projects you may not, or collections that are waiting for you to explore them.

In no particular order…

Karen (Special Collections & Archives Manager): “2018 has been a fantastic year for Special Collections and Archives. In February we welcomed our new University Archivist, Tom, who began work almost immediately on the fabulous “Our Templeman” Exhibition. The exhibition was created to celebrate the completion of the library extension and refurbishment as well as 50 years since the Templeman Library first opened its doors.

We are Archive Accredited and therefore Awesome

In March we had a party! We were very excited and proud to receive the National Archives Accreditation Award – and of course like all good parties we had a cake. In the summer we were lucky to be able to recruit two Bursary funded Interns. Janee and Philip spent the summer working on the Maddison collection and revealed some interesting discoveries from this science collection through a series of blog posts and pop-up sessions.

Interning at SCA: far more fun than making endless cups of tea and photocopying

Interning at SC&A: far more fun than making endless cups of tea and photocopying

Tom Ritchie needed a venue to demonstrate a Meccano based reconstruction. SC&A were happy to play host to Tom and the Meccano Men (they are real people!). We eagerly watched as the Differential Analyser was constructed and then opened the doors to a whole host of diverse people who were interested to see how meccano played an important role in the development of computers.

What do you get when you cross archives and toys?

What do you get when you cross archives and toys?

And just to whet your appetite about what is to come next year – in the summer we received a new collection, which focuses on the history of Music Hall – in the New Year we will reveal more about it but here is a taster of what is to come…”

Your Christmas starter for ten: what links all these items?

Your Christmas starter for ten: what links all these items?


Helen (Library Assistant, Curation & Metadata): “The ‘Prescriptions’ exhibition of artists’ books, on wellbeing and medicine, took place at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in 2016. Books by 82 artists, from 15 countries exhibited their work and many of them subsequently donated or deposited their works at the University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives. The books deal with topics including “cancer, chronic illness, disability, mental health, surgery, medicine and wellbeing” (Bolaki & Ciricaite, 2017).

A rare sighting of the endangered cotton glove (Karen Apps, 'Losing Touch', 2016)

A rare sighting of the endangered cotton glove (Karen Apps, ‘Losing Touch’, 2016)

Working with these poignant, and sometimes harrowing, books proved to be a rewarding challenge. It was very moving to handle a succession of very personal artworks, created with care and documenting painful experiences. The collection as a whole captures a great breadth of different experiences. Many of the artists faced an initial shock and disruption around a diagnosis but came to terms with their illness and made peace with the impact it had on their lives. My experience cataloguing the collection took a similar trajectory, from a sense of intrusion and uncertainty to acceptance and even comfort.”

Rachel (Library Assistant, Curation & Metadata): “It’s been great to be part of a project to catalogue and digitise material from the Queen’s Own Buffs The Royal Kent Regiment Collection. It contains material from the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) and the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent regiment who merged in the 1960s. There’s a variety of material in the collection, ranging from prisoner of war accounts to the Buffs Golfing Society records, as well as plenty of books surrounding the history of the Buffs, who are one of the oldest regiments of the British Army, tracing their roots back to the 16th century. As part of my work I spent a lot of time with the Dragon and the Queen’s Own Gazette, the regimental journals of the two regiments. They’re full of information on the history of the regiments, as well as plenty of reports of their leisure time, giving a fantastically detailed picture of life in these regiments from the late 19th century onwards.

The Buffs are for life, not just for Christmas

The Buffs are for life, not just for Christmas

My personal highlight was finding Pte. A. Baker listed as missing in an issue of The Queen’s Own Gazette from 1916. Arthur Percy Baker was my great great uncle who worked as a train conductor before the First World War. He died at the Somme in July 1916 and is one of the 72,000 men listed on the Thiepval Memorial.”

Who Do You Think You are in action

Archives have all the answers (sometimes)


Jo (Senior Library Assistant, Special Collections & Archives): “This year we’ve been full steam ahead with our education and engagement offering, welcoming over 900 visitors through group sessions in the Autumn Term alone! It’s always brilliant to see people who’ve never looked at or touched historic material before engage with our collections, but two particular sessions stand out:

No books were harmed in the making of this photo, apart from the one which is art

No books were harmed in the making of this photo, apart from the one which is art

In the Spring Term, we revamped our sessions to support a final year English course where students write and self-publish their own book. In previous years, groups have come in to look at modern poetry exclusively – but this year we pushed things a bit beyond that. One Reading Room table focused on a history of print from the early modern period to the present day – spanning everything from rare books to playbills and zines. The other table was split into modern poetry on one section and artists books on the other. By looking at the history of print material first, students were then able to see how contemporary works play on printing traditions – and it worked so well, we could barely get them to leave after three hours!

We were very glad to have more responses than 'old dusty things'

We were very glad to have more responses than ‘old dusty things’

In the Autumn Term, we undertook the obviously-very-small challenge of welcoming every single first year History student into Special Collections & Archives through their mandatory ‘Making History’ course. Using some of the reading I’ve inhaled through my MA, we planned a detailed 50 minute session that was split into parts – and included hiding the archive material in boxes so students couldn’t get distracted from the first activity about physical and digital archives. We’re looking forward to working with the School of History further to improve our support next year, but it really was wonderful to meet the very enthusiastic first years.”

Tom (University Archivist): “My highlight of 2018 was working on the exhibition the “Our Templeman” celebrations in March, marking the completion of the Templeman extension and refurbishment and the 50th anniversary of the library first opening. This was one of the first tasks given to me after starting work here in February and it allowed me to totally immerse myself in the University Archive in digging out a pictorial history of the library. It also allowed us to showcase some of our amazing other collections. We brought it out again for the start of the new academic year and it was great seeing how many staff, students and alumni engaged with it.”

Templeman Time-machine: spot the difference!

Templeman Time-machine: spot the difference!


Elspeth (Digital Archivist): “I’ve loved having the opportunity to explore two oral history collections from Special Collections & Archives through digitisation and cataloguing. The collections comprise unique, original oral history recordings, which are not archived in any other institution or heritage centre. They were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, now an obsolete format, in the late 1960s and 1970s, so it is fantastic that we were able to have these digitised to ensure that the testimonies included on them are preserved and able to be made accessible.

The first of the two oral history collections, The Barker Oral History Tapes collection, comprises interviews with c. 100 people in Kent recorded in the late 1960s. The interviews were part of an oral history project, funded by the ESRC, directed by Professor Theo Barker (founding professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Kent in 1964) and John Whyman (Lecturer in Economic and Social History and Master of Rutherford 1996-1997), who were interviewing older respondents for their memories of life in Kent before 1900. Barker was an early supporter of oral history as a research methodology, and he became the Oral History Society’s first Chairman in 1973. The second collection is the Winstanley Oral History Collection.  This collection comprises interviews with over 160 people in Kent (mainly east Kent), recorded between 1974 and 1976. The recordings were undertaken as part of an SSRC-funded oral history project (called ‘Everyday Life in Kent before 1914’), looking at life in Kent at the turn of the 20th century.

Both collections, and the first-hand testimony within them, is unique. The interviews provide insight into life in the county in the period between 1890 and 1950 (although the focus is on life at the turn of the century), and cover topics such as work, industry, society, war, community, and women’s history. The testimonies will also provide a linguistics resource, providing a rich resource for those studying dialect and the changes in Kent dialect over time. The recordings can be accessed via the Special Collections & Archives reading room (email

What’s been your highlight of 2018? Let us know below!

We’d like to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Our Reading Room is closed from the 19th December 2018 and will reopen on January 14th 2019. This slightly longer-than-normal closure period allows us a week to develop our collections, so we’ll be spending 5 days in January working on exciting projects in our storage areas!

A brief history of alchemy; or, My Alchemical Romance

First performed in 1610 by the King’s Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a satire centred around three con artists who use subterfuge, guile and wit to relieve targets of their belongings. Jonson makes no attempt to conceal his low opinion of alchemy and its practitioners, with the titular alchemist an obvious fraud and this makes it a useful springboard into thinking about alchemy in its historical context. The Templeman Special Collections and Archives holds a copy of Jonson’s First Folio from 1616 in its pre-1700 collection which contains the play and so in order to demonstrate how the Maddison collection could be useful for study and research beyond the history of science, we are going to use The Alchemist as a framing device for this week’s blog post.

Title page from 'The Alchemist' by Ben Jonson in Jonson's First Folio of 1616.

Jo says we are not allowed to have favourites because it makes the other books sad. The Jonson Folio (Q C 616 Jon) is Philip’s favourite. Don’t tell Jo. Or the other books.

‘Alchemy is a pretty kind of game, / Somewhat like tricks o’ the cards, to cheat a man / With charming.’ (2.3.180-182, The Alchemist)

To the uninitiated, alchemy can seem a vague art form that seems to cover a range of random topics. Whilst researching for this post we read about people trying to turn base metals into gold or silver, about some trying to create a source of eternal life and others searching for ways to raise the dead. Alchemy has spanned a large number of fields in its history from supernatural and spiritualism to medicine and early chemistry but what many fail to realise is that alchemy was in fact an early science intent on answering many of the same questions we strive to answer today. It was only in the 1700s that a strong distinction between ‘alchemy’ and ‘chemistry’ was established; prior to this time that the study of both subjects was much more fluid.

A pictorial diagram of the four base elements in a cross. Each element is represented by a creature. Clockwise from top: fire (ignis) is an angel; earth (terra) by a bear; water (aqua) by a dragon-looking creature; air (aer) is a long-necked bird.

The dragon-demon-sea monster thing is our spirit animal.


Alchemy has a long history, dating back to  antiquity and it is possible to track its early modern evolution through the Maddison Collection in the form of dedicated volumes, notes and annotations, and handwritten recipes.The roots of Western alchemy are founded in the classical idea of the basic elements – fire, water, wind and earth – and it is primarily this Eurocentric alchemy which is covered in the Maddison Collection. Variant forms of alchemy have been practiced across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, China, and India. It is the various cultural and religious influences which make each strain of alchemy unique.

A taoist philosopher, alchemist, medical writer and poet, Ko Hung was the originator of first aid in traditional Chinese medicine.

A taoist philosopher, alchemist, medical writer and poet, Ko Hung was the originator of first aid in traditional Chinese medicine.

These aforementioned roots of alchemy are derived from the classical world and continued to evolve through the ages in Western Society by adopting and discarding knowledge from various influences. However, the core of alchemy always reflected its origins through its continued use of classical mythology as a communicative device. In multiple volumes within the collection the reader is able to see various illustrations utilised to express a concept or recipe in relation to alchemy, but to those unversed in identifying these alchemical signs these illustrations appear to be merely depictions of ancient myths and folklore.

Colour illustration of a peacock in the vase of Hermes

This peacock is serving all kinds of fabulous perfection.

‘Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then/ Proceeds she to the perfect.’ (2.3.158-9, The Alchemist)

There were alchemists working across Europe through the medieval period into the early modern. The collection’s earliest works on alchemy come from Agrippa, a German polymath, legal scholar, physician and theologian,who was an important alchemist in the early sixteenth century. He is an interesting man to study, as during his career he turned away from the occult and focused much more his theological work, rejecting magic in his later life.

Just look at all those instruments! Agrippa’s getting the band back together.

Just look at all those instruments! Agrippa’s getting the band back together.


Paracelsus is another influential figure in alchemical circles, also well represented. A respected physician, alchemist and astrologer during the German renaissance, Paracelsus is known as the father of toxicology, as well as being one of the first medical professors to use chemical and minerals in medicine. John Dee, Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole were also important names in the history of alchemy and all of these alchemists have works related to them within the Maddison collection.


Guess who’s back, back, back. Back again, Boyle’s back! Tell a friend.

Guess who’s back, back, back. Back again, Boyle’s back! Tell a friend.


It is unsurprising that Boyle engaged in alchemy alongside his more conventional scientific research. Many regarded alchemists as great experimentalists, who engaged in complicated experiments, which they then documented and amended. Cleopatra the Alchemist was a Greek Egyptian alchemist from the 3rd century whom focused on practical alchemy and is considered to be the inventor of the Alembic, an early tool for analytical chemistry. She along with other alchemists such as Mary the Jewess focused on a school of alchemy which utilised complex apparatus for distillation and sublimation, important techniques still in use in the chemistry lab today. Cleopatra the Alchemist’s biggest claim to fame is as one of only four female alchemists who were supposedly able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone.

This was one method of distillation being utilised in 1653, which looks very similar to a modern day distillation technique! On a large drum sit 2 identical vessels, and in between them is a ventilation shaft allowing smoke to escape. The two vessels on the drum are connected by long thin spouts to two conical flasks,designed to receive the run off liquor.

This was one method of distillation being utilised in 1653, which looks very similar to a modern day distillation technique! On a large drum sit 2 identical vessels, and in between them is a ventilation shaft allowing smoke to escape. The two vessels on the drum are connected by long thin spouts to two conical flasks,designed to receive the run off liquor.

‘I am the lord of the philosopher’s stone.’ (4.1.156, The Alchemist)

Twenty-first century readers may be more aware of alchemy than they realise. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone placed alchemy front and centre in contemporary culture. Other references in popular culture include manga and anime Fullmetal Alchemist and fantasy video games, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy, amongst countless more. F. Sherwood Taylor points out the misconception of alchemists as ‘magicians or wizards’ that is common to these modern representations, writing that ‘as far as we know the alchemists sought to accomplish their work by discovering and utilizing the laws of nature […] never […] by “magical processes”’ (p.1, The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry, F. Sherwood Taylor). The Philosopher’s Stone was one of the primary goals of alchemy. Supposedly the catalyst needed to turn base metals such as mercury, tin or iron into the noble metals, gold and silver, it was also theorised to cure illnesses and extend lifespan. Alchemists disagreed on just about every aspect of the stone; from what it symbolised to how it was created. What all alchemists did agree upon was that the Philosopher’s Stone was a tangible possibility and someone had managed to make and use it in the past. During our research we discovered a series of images related to transmutation that may be related to the Philosopher’s Stone. You can see those, with added captions, as part of the Adventures series here

Image of A New Light of Alchymie book

J K Rowling’s Half Blood Prince anyone?

‘If all you boast of your great art be true; / Sure, willing poverty lives most in you.’

(1-2, Epigrams VI, “To Alchemists”, Jonson)

The fortunes of alchemy and its practitioners waxed and waned through the centuries. Renaissance alchemist and thinker, John Dee is a prime example. A key adviser to Elizabeth I, after James I succeeded the throne Dee was accused of being a ‘Conjurer, or Caller, or Invocator of Divels, or damned Spirites’ and died impoverished.

John Dee books in the Maddison Collection

Maddison Collection and it’s not Boyle! What a shock!

Most other alchemists did not suffer quite so dramatic a reversal of fortunes, but the legality of alchemy was dubious and throughout history it was often concealed in coded language or symbolic imagery. Renaissance legal scholar, Sir Edward Coke, wrote on its illegal status in The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (1644), citing the 1404 Act Against Multiplication, which forbade ‘multiplication […] That is, to change other metals into very Gold or Silver’ (Institutes, p.74). Robert Boyle campaigned to overturn this law and it was repealed in 1689.

As the eighteenth century wore on and the scientific method took hold, alchemy became increasingly discredited and chemists, wanting to distance themselves from alchemists, succeeded in separating the disciplines.The decline of alchemy in Europe was in conjunction with the rise of modern science, which placed a high significance on quantitative experimentation and which regarded the “ancient wisdom” so highly prized in alchemy as redundant and useless.

Starting with gold? I thought we were trying to make it! This is alchemy for the 1%.

Starting with gold? I thought we were trying to make it! This is alchemy for the 1%.

Did alchemy work? Mostly not, but it was the forerunner to modern chemistry. Advancements in technology have now made some alchemical feats possible. For instance, it is now possible to turn lead into gold. It takes a chemist who knows what he is doing and a lot of time, energy and money, but changing lead to gold has been done. The method of doing so is nothing like what is recommended in the various alchemy books within the collection but the once scoffed at dream is now a possibility.

The Alchemist may treat its subject matter as a joke and its practitioners as charlatans but the tangible contribution of alchemy to scientific knowledge should not be undersold. As  Sherwood Taylor notes, ‘the hopeless pursuit of the practical transmutation of metals was responsible for almost the whole of the development of chemical technique before the middle of the seventeenth century, and further led to the discovery of many important materials.’ (x, F. Sherwood Taylor) They may not have attained everlasting life or succeeded in transmuting lead to gold, but the alchemists did pave the way for their successors to develop modern scientific theory.

Tune in for the next blog post where we will be investigating the man behind the Maddison collection, R. E. W. Maddison!


Further reading

On Alchemy

John Read, Prelude to Chemistry (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1939) [Maddison 23B1]

J. S. Thompson, The Lure and Romance of Alchemy (London: George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., 1932) [Maddison 24A14]

Sherwood Taylor,The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1951) [Maddison 24A7]

Arthur Edward Waite, The Secret Tradition of Alchemy (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1926) [Maddison 24B20]

On John Dee

Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee (1527-1608) (London: Constable, 1909) [Maddison 13C8]

Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) [Maddison 13C7]

Past exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, 2016: ‘Scholar, Courtier, Magician: the lost library of John Dee’

On The Alchemist

Ben Jonson, The workes of Beniamin Jonson (London: W. Stansby, 1616) [Q C 616.JON]

Previously in Philip and Janee’s blog posts:

The honourable Robert Boyle; or, reaching Boyle-ing point? 

Introduction; or, how do you solve a problem like the Maddison Collection?