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Time Capsule discovered at Surgeons Hall Museums

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18 Dec 2014


A team of builders currently working on the redevelopment of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd)’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums got a curious surprise recently when they discovered buried, under the College’s iconic Playfair Building, a 105-year-old time capsule.

The builders from John Dennis Ltd who made the fascinating find are working on the redevelopment of Surgeons’ Hall Museums, which is currently closed to the public as it undergoes a Heritage Lottery funded transformation to convert it into a modern, public museum using its internationally-important collections, amassed since the 15th century, to tell the history of medicine.

snuff tinScheduled to reopen in autumn 2015, before this current building project, the Museum had not been radically altered since 1908 and it would seem that the Edwardian construction workers charged with transforming this architecturally renowned building all those years ago, decided to leave something for those who would follow them. On Friday 28 November 2014, the builders currently working on the site unearthed the time capsule, buried beneath the south east corner of the College’s Playfair building. Stored within a snuff tin were two newspapers from 19 March 1909, two postcards and a list of names dated 26 March 1909.

Commenting on this astonishing discovery, RCSEd Director of Heritage Mr Chris Henry said:

“We were aware from historical records that there was an ‘official’ time capsule buried in the College’s grounds from 1830, but finding this time capsule came as a complete surprise. It must have been placed secretly by the construction workers during the 1909 extension work, without the knowledge of the College! Considering the tin has been underground for over 100 years, it is in surprisingly good condition, as are the contents.”

The snuff tin ‘capsule’ would have originally contained Kendal Brown Scented Snuff, manufactured in the Lake District town of same name, in the Lake District, by Samuel Gawith. Given that a regular tin held 10g of powdered tobacco, the time capsule tin would have held a considerable amount of snuff, perhaps shared by the men during their working day. The snuff brand is still in production today, using much of the original machinery from the inception of the company in 1793.

Labour LeaderThe first newspaper discovered within the snuff tin, ‘The Labour Leader: A Weekly Journal of Socialism, Trade Unionism and Politics’, was set up by  Scottish socialist Keir Hardie M.P. Hardie is regarded as one of the pioneers of the Independent Labour Party and Labour Party, which grew out of the trade union and socialist movements of the nineteenth century. The newspaper carries a number of articles concerning socialist movements throughout Europe, and includes stories on the Paris Strike, ‘The Liberal Betrayal’, ‘Welsh Notes’ on the threatened coal strike and the Russian revolutionary ‘Azeff Affair’.

The second newspaper ‘The Illustrated Carpenter and Builder’, is a weekly journal published by John Dicks and established in 1877. It includes all manner of building-related articles, discussions, floor plans and scale drawings. This week’s cover story concerns the designs for a suburban house “near London”, to cost £500. This equates to approximately £52,500 today.

Also included within the capsule were two postcards depicting the Scottish National Exhibition of 1908, which took place to the west of the city in the grounds of the Saughton Hall Estate. It featured a Senegalese village, a water chute, helter-skelter and a figure eight railway. Over 3.5 million people visited the exhibition over six months, with entrants being charged 6d.


list of namesFinally, there was the piece of paper listing all the joiners from Scott Morton & Co. who carried out interior design work during the 1909 construction. Scott Morton and his brother John set up business in 1870 and, through a number of permutations, the company continued until 1966. It was then taken over by Whytock & Reid, the company who actually made most of the furniture for the 1909 renovations, including all ninety seven Playfair Hall chairs which are still in use.

Mr Chris Henry concludes:

“This fascinating piece of College history will become an important part of our redisplay as it gives us an insight into the lives of those who were part of the process of building the College’s physical identity as we see it today.”

RCSEd is the UK’s oldest surgical Royal College and its Museum - originally developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine - has been open to the general public since 1832, making it Scotland’s oldest medical museum. The Museum hosts a large, historic collection of surgical pathology artefacts, including anatomical specimens, surgical instruments and a pocket book made from the skin of the infamous murderer, William Burke. Its archive also holds a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle crediting Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Fellow, Dr Joseph Bell, as the main inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes.

The redevelopment project to transform the Museums will see the creation of new displays and galleries, doubling the number of items which can be viewed by the public, and showcasing innovative audiovisual and interactive elements. The Playfair-designed building will also be conserved and transformed with contemporary additions such as a new glass atrium, providing the public with easier access.  The enhanced Museums will also boast a 17th century dissecting theatre, while a new, dedicated education suite will increase opportunities for learning for schools, families and special interest groups.

Visit the Surgeons Hall Museums website for further information about the redevelopment plans.

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