Exciting discoveries at Sir John Soane’s Museum and a cobalt mine in Cheshire

Two recent discoveries in very different sites in England are offering close connections to unknown workers of the 19th and 20th centuries. In Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London, restoration work is underway in the architect’s drawing office. While working on the colonnade that supports the drawing office, the museum’s conservation team found an intriguing set of objects in the base of one of the hollow columns.

above A pipe, travel ticket, and wood shavings make up the time capsule found within a hollow column at Sir John Soane’s Museum.
A pipe, travel ticket, and wood shavings make up the time capsule found within a hollow column at Sir John Soane’s Museum. IMAGE: Jane Wilkinson / Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Soane (1753-1837) left three of his own time capsules, or ‘repositories’, in his house-museum with instructions that they were to be opened in 1866, 1886, and 1896. This newly uncovered time capsule is more recent than Soane’s repositories but, like the architect’s (which contained many of his own papers and correspondence, as well as lottery tickets and false teeth), it offers an evocative impression of a person from the past.

A pipe (with tobacco in the bowl), a ticket for travel from the London station of South Kensington costing 3d (pennies), and some wood shavings make up the relatively humble group of items stashed away in the column. The wood shavings could potentially have been included as a sign of the profession of the unknown person who deposited them, possibly while doing their own repair work. Staff at the London Transport Museum have said that they believe the District Line ticket dates from 1928 or 1929. There are no records of major works at the Soane at that time, so the identity of the concealer of the objects and what they were working on remain elusive.

Other finds come from a 19th-century cobalt mine at Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Alderley Edge has seen mining activity since prehistory, but just for a short while between 1808 and 1817 it was exploited for cobalt, used for blue colouring in pottery and glass, when the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) interrupted imports from continental Europe. (The same wars also spurred Soane to commission vast lecture drawings from his office and to use his collection to compensate for his students’ lack of travel opportunities.)

Explorations of an early 19th-century cobalt mine at Alderley Edge found personal items like this miner’s shoe. IMAGE: Ed Coghlan / Derbyshire Caving Club.

The Derbyshire Caving Club, who lease the mines from the National Trust, discovered the cobalt mine in autumn 2021. As well as mining machinery, they found personal objects like clay pipes and leather shoes. Other intimate links to the miners come from fingerprints left in the clay used to hold candles and inscriptions in candle soot, including the initials W S and the date ‘20th Aug 1810’. Ed Coghlan of the Derbyshire Caving Club said, ‘We found other more basic initials and numbers in what we believe were the “cribs” or rest areas, as if someone had been learning and practicing their writing. But the “WS” is stylishly written, with quite a flourish.’

These objects have been recorded and left in the mine, which is thought to have been abandoned in 1810. National Trust archaeologist Jamie Lund said, ‘It leaves the mine as a time capsule, protecting a place that was once a hive of activity for future generations to explore and enjoy.’ For now, the public can explore the site virtually through a new immersive fly-through, available via www.nationaltrust.org.uk/alderley-edge-and-cheshire-countryside