• Sadie

Charles Dack Museum curator and folklorist, Kesteven Lunatic Asylum and the Rembrandt connection.

Athough St. Margarets did not witness any of Charles Dack’s vital events; birth, marriage or death, he lived the majority of his life in Fletton. As a resident of Fletton he had influence as a member of the Parochial Church Council. But as we shall see through his many interests, his influence extended to Peterborough and beyond. A biographical sketch of Charles records ‘there is little worth knowing that he does not know’ and yet we know remarkably little about Charles the man. This article owes much to Dr Francis Young and his book Peterborough Folklore. It is brief in it’s coverage and if anyone can add more information this would be greatly appreciated.


Charles was the son of Johnathan Dack and Mary Ann Leak. Johnathan, a walking postmaster, and Mary were married in 1847 and Charles was born a short while later in East Dereham, Norfolk. Johnathan died whilst Charles was still young. Mary subsequently married James Norton, a railway station master. As with so many other railway workers it was his employment that brought the family to Fletton. In 1871 the family were living at 1 Station Yard and Charles was employed as a railway clerk. Mary died just four years later in 1875 aged 56. Charles never married, he lived at either Station Yard or 4 Nene View throughout the remaining census years and he remained employed by the railways.


Charles was an antiquary and collector, he was an amateur authority on ceramics, a speciality in old glass and as a hobby was absorbed by tokens and coins. He was also interested in local topography and prints. He was an accomplished musician, speaker and writer and a collector of cuttings and stories about local folklore. He raised £2,500 for the restoration of the west front of the cathedral and was amongst other roles, assistant secretary and subsequently honorary curator of Peterborough Museum from 1880.


Charles was a pupil of John Speechley the famous Cathedral organist, he was also secretary to the famous Cathedral oratorios. Until 1880 he was organist at Reverend Murray’s Chapel in Westgate, Peterborough, although the presentation recorded below was reported by The Northampton Mercury on 1 May 1875.


‘At the Westgate Congregational Church, on Monday, a handsome chased silver inkstand, silver pen-holder, and gold pen, also a silver pencil case to match, was presnted to Mr. Charles Dack, organist, as an acknowledgement of his gratuitous services as organist’.


In addition Charles’ appointment as the Honorary Local Representative at the Peterborough centre for the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music for Local Examinations in Music, was announced in The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury on Friday 17th December, 1897.


There is evidence of how far afield Charles Dack’s interests took him in The Scotsman on Tuesday 9th October 1888. At The Glasgow International Exhibition there were on display ‘Relics of Mary Queen of Scots. These include three items exhibited by Charles: a portrait of Mary, a bed quilt finished by the Queen while captive at Hardwicke and a set of books relating to Mary. Also exhibiting a drawing of her execution was another instrumental figure in Peterborough history Dr. T. J. Walker’.


Charles’ interest in Mary Queen of Scots, was further reported in the Northampton Mercury on 11th January 1890 when it was recorded that, ‘[Charles Dack] who is well known in the realm of antiquarian lore’ published a ‘pretty brochure’ accounting the The Death of Mary the Queen of Skottes, which was based on a compilation of original documents. The list of subscribers extended to six pages. Headed by the Queen it included the most well known antiquarians, historians and book lovers of the day.


As mentioned Charles was involved in the Peterborough Museum before it was known as such. The Peterborough Natural History Society and Field Club was founded in 1871 to promote interest in local natural history. Members included the surgeon at the hospital, Dr. T. J. Walker, and local chemist Mr. Bodger. Within a decade, the Society had widened its interest and laid the foundation of a museum and a library. It became the Natural History, Scientific and Archaeological Society and in 1947 took its modern title of the Peterborough Museum Society. When the Society began assembling the museum collections, the first collection was kept in a cardboard box under a member’s bed! Various buildings have housed the collection during its history, including a house on Park Road and a former chapel in the Cathedral Precincts. A permanent home was found when the former infirmary building was acquired by Sir Percy Malcolm Stewart, Chair of the London Brick Company, who donated it to the Museum Society. It was opened as a museum in 1931, with the art gallery added in 1939.

In 1899 Charles wrote a paper for the British Archaeological Association titled ‘Old Peterborough Customs and their Survival’. In 1905 he delivered an associated lecture ‘Curious Local Customs’ to the Royal Archaeological Society in London.


By the 1911 census Charles had retired and this release from occupation perhaps allowed him to persue his interests more ardently. In 1911 he published Weather and Folklore of Peterborough and District.


Charles’ recording of local folklore gives an intriguing insight into customs now forgotten. For example he records that at the turn of the century the ‘Catherine Procession’ held in honour of Katherine of Aragon and Catherine of Alexandria, on 25th November, had been replaced by a special dinner for the women and girls of the workhouse. According to The Peterborough Standard of 22nd Ocotber 1948 he was also attributed with collecting ‘16 varieties in the spelling of the City’s name…from Peeterborow…to…Peterbvrg’.


Charles died on 2nd April 1923, aged 75, at the Kesteven County Asylum. He was was buried with his mother, in the Broadway Cemetery, on 7th April 1923. What little we do know about Charles comes mainly from his personal papers. Mysteriously these were purchased by the Cambridge University Library from a bookseller Gustave David on 18th February 1921, two years prior to his death.


Dr Francis Young, quite rightly, says that more should be known about Charles Dack. Peterborough Museum does not hold a portrait of him, unlike their other early curators, nor does it hold any of his papers. Due to his lower social background Charles lacked the financial backing of other amateur folklorists of the day, and yet it was he who in his papers recognised the significance of John Clare in the study of folklore.


An article appeared in The Daily Mirror on March 13th 1922 and The Peterborough and Hunts Standard which would be worthy of a place in Charles’ own collection of folklore. It tells of a bricklayer, Mr. Alfred Rippon of Fengate, Peterborough. Alfred attended a public auction of Charles Dack’s personal effects. The sale attracted a national audience as Charles had been a collector of ‘art treasures’ for many years. Alfred was successful in purchasing a large canvas ‘in a massive gilt frame’. In the catalogue the artist was recorded as ‘unknown’ and it was the ‘fine frame’ that had attracted Alfred’s attention. It was only when Alfred cleaned the painting with ‘warm water and a sponge’ that the artist’s name was revealed ‘Rembrandt’. The purchaser, understandably stunned by the discovery, was ‘negotiating with prospective purchasers’. If the painting was indeed proved a genuine Rembrandt it would be from his most finest period referred to as ‘the time’. It would be fascinating to know what happened to the painting, if it was indeed a Rembrandt and if Charles had known about the provenance of the painting.

A case of ‘fake or fortune’!








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