Story of Memorial to David Livingstone – 9 Gathering Relics

Continuing our story of how the David Livingstone Memorial was created in the late 1920s. An interesting account from 1940s, this time explores how all the artefacts and relics were gathered.

“The Memorial in Blantyre now contains a collection of relics which for completeness and intimate personal interest can hardly be equalled anywhere in the world, but it would be only a slight exaggeration to affirm that we did not collect these objects. They collected themselves with very little search on our part. As soon as it became clear that we were in a position worthily to house and care for these treasures, they began to flow in steadily and the stream continues.”

“One of our difficult problems has been to assure ourselves of the authenticity of the many objects offered to us. Great names, unlike rolling stones, tend to gather moss, and we have had to reject numbers of things for which a Livingstone connection was confidently claimed. For example, the shuttles he was supposed to have used in boyhood have been offered to us in considerable numbers; but Livingstone was a spinner, not a weaver. True, a local tradition tells of how when, as occasionally happened, the ‘Jennies’ got ahead of the looms, when that means, more yarn was being produced that the weavers could cope with, spinning was stopped and the boys put on to help at the looms. But to establish the connection of any particular shuttle with our young spinner is well nigh impossible.

Again, there was offered to us a book, which if genuine, would have been of supreme value. It carried the inscription “Neil Livingstone’s Holly (sic) Bible” and it was claimed that it was the book that had been so often ‘taken’ at worship in the home in the Shuttle Row. Unfortunately, further investigation forced us, most unwillingly to the conclusion that this bible (in itself a rare edition) had belonged not to Livingstone’s father, but to a Neil of the next generation.

More recently, there was sent to us by a prominent business man in the South, a pair of gold rimmed spectacles in a handsome mother of pearl case, which was said to have been used by the Explorer. They were right for the period, hand made, with pebble glasses, and of a strength to suit what would have probably have been Livingstone’s age at the time. It was hard indeed to have to refuse these. But the Livingstone family was empathic that there was no tradition to hint that the explorer ever needed glasses, and a picture in Stanley’s ‘How i found Livingstone’ which purports to depict the doctor’s writing up his famous diary, shows him without spectacles.”

“There is not space to give here the names of our many benefactors, but to a few we must express our thanks. We our our most valuable exhibits to the youngest branch of the family, to the late Mrs. Livingstone Wilson, to her son, our vice chairman Dr. Hubert Wilson and his sister Mrs. Ruth MacDonald, one of our Governors. Of these the most precious is the little notebook that contains the record of the dying missionary’s last days.

We were equally indebted to Mr. Charles Ian Fraser for the gift of one of the gold-braided caps that were so constantly used by the missionary that it is quite impossible to think of him in any other headgear. No Livingstone collection could have complete without it. This cap was given to Mr. W.F.Webb of Newstead Abbey (Livingstone’s big game hunting friend) where the Explorer wrote his second book, ‘The Zambesi and its Tributaries’. It remained there when the property came into the possession of Mr. Fraser, who most generously presented it, with other important relics to us.

“Relic hunting has its dramatic moments. One morning, I had an unknown caller who brought with him a small tin box. To explain its possession, my visitor told that some thirty years before he had, as a furniture remover taken part in the clearing of the house in Rothesay Terrace, Edinburgh which had been the home of Livingstone’s elder daughter Mrs. Livingstone Bruce. A good many odds and ends remained and the men were given permission to divide these among them and this case had fallen to his share. He had at the time no suspicion of the value of his find. Obviously, it had been a medicine case, but when opened, it was found to contain a large variety of small objects, every one of which had direct connection with Livingstone or his family and some were of an unusually intimate personal nature. Among the few drugs that remained there was a small bottle of calomel. Now the last recorded act of the dying explorer was to ask his ‘boy’ Susi to give him a dose of this drug, and it well have been taken from this very bottle. The relics were gratefully accepted and now fill a most interesting case in Blantyre.

“One day the post brought home to my home what at first seemed a musty mess of , in places, rat and white any eaten woollen rags. Inspection showed that these were parts of an old overcoat, the seams of which were mostly rotted away. A covering letter explained that the gift was from Charterhouse School. The old coat was one that had been bartered by the explorer for food for his half starved carriers to an old African chief and years after presented by the latter to Bishop Chancey Naples who in turn gave it to his old school. The stitching of the seams was a most intricate jigsaw puzzle, but the old ‘ulster’ now hangs on our walls, one of the most conspicuous of our exhibits. “

I’m sure these primary exhibits will feature in the new, renovated museum given their documented and approved history.

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