This painting reveals a hidden Oldham story. It dates from the 1920s and has always been a great favourite with our visitors. Several years ago it inspired me to look more deeply and investigate, the person, the place and the specimens.
The person is Fredrick J. Stubbs
Fred was born in Liverpool in 1878 and moved with his family to Oldham where he became apprenticed to an upholsterer. He joined the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society, his first love being birds. Fred volunteered at the Oldham Municipal Library, Art Gallery and Museum which was long connected with the Natural History Society. When a vacancy arose at Stepney Museum’s Nature Study Centre, he was successful in getting the job and in 1909 left Oldham for London. Completing the booklet, ‘The Birds of Oldham’ in 1910.
Returning to Oldham in April 1919 he became the Deputy Librarian and Curator at the Library and Museum. He became president of the Yorkshire Natural History Society; was a member of the Beautiful Oldham Society and help found the Oldham Society of Artists. He worked at the Library and Museum until his death caused by pneumonia in 1932.
The Place is in the old Library, Museum and Art Gallery
This is the building opened in 1883 which many, many years later was connected to Gallery Oldham by the bridge link from the second floor. A wander through this splendid old building reveals handsome arched doorways are used throughout. Using the painting I eventually traced the actual doorway and window, which is not in the painting, but light from it bathes Fred’s microscope and specimens.
The Animals depicted are still in the Museum!
The painting depicts Fred at work surrounded by taxidermy specimens. He became an excellent taxidermist and prepared many hundreds of specimens. More detective work in the museum archive shows the Spoonbill on the desk (the tall bird closest to Fred) was prepared in 1924; the Heron (the other tall bird on the desk) was prepared in 1923 and the Glossy Ibis (on the window ledge) was prepared in 1920. So this fascinating painting depicts a real person, place and objects. It also shows beautifully how our historic collections complement each other. The original 1883 building expected to reopen to visitors as OMA in 2021.
Links between Oldham and Stepney Museums
Oldham and Stepney Museums are 230 miles apart but were connected for more than one reason in the early twentieth century.
Fred Stubbs volunteered at the Oldham Municipal Library, Art Gallery and Museum during 1908. When a vacancy arose at Stepney Museum’s Nature Study Centre, Fred applied and secured the post. When Fred moved to Stepney from Oldham in 1909 Stepney was already at the cutting edge of natural history museum development.
The School Nature Study Union was set up in 1902-3 to help educate families in crowded inner-city areas who may have had no experience of the natural world. Miss Kate Marion Hall, the first woman museum curator in the country, was employed by Whitechapel Museum later Stepney Borough Museum, from 1894 to 1909. She introduced a number of new ideas during her tenure in one of the poorest areas of the country. Kate and the curate of the parish Claude Hinscliffe with the help of an anonymous donation transformed a small disused mortuary building in a churchyard in to a Nature Study Museum. This was a welcoming place for all and remained open till 10pm, with up to a thousand visitors a day. She included living plants and animals including an observation beehive, an aquarium and a weather station alongside traditional museum objects such as taxidermy. So this was where Fred worked and absorbed ideas.
When Fred returned to Oldham ten years later he would have taken up his post in our 1883 building. However I am in doubt as to where the ideas came from when Werneth Park Study Centre (WPSC) opened its doors in 1938 after its donation to the town by the Lees family. WPSC had aviaries, bee hives, an aquarium and glass houses as well as traditional museum displays. Some older readers will remember it. It is sad that Fred died suddenly before the work was completed but all the Stepney innovations were used at WPSC.
However, there was still a further Oldham connection. Richard Cottam also of Oldham became student assistant to Fred at Stepney Museum for 3 years – approximately 1911 -1914. Fred and Richard knew each other from their Oldham days where they were both members of the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society. Then Richard was a piecer in a cotton mill studying insects in his spare time. He worked in Stepney until 1914 when he took the post of Assistant Economic Entomologist in the Sudan and Egypt working for the government where he stayed until returning to the UK in 1939. Gallery Oldham took the bequest of Richard Cottam’s Butterfly collection in 1963. Museums hundreds of miles apart but connected through natural history.
The Stepney Nature Study Museum closed during the WW2 but the building remains and sadly is on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register.