Sunday 24 April 2022

Mysteries at the McLean Museum - Sugar Connections?

You will need all your psychic abilities to get to the root of this week's Mystery at the McLean!  Another display cabinet at the McLean Museum in Greenock (part of the Watt Institution, Kelly Street) holds some (what seems to me) random objects.  Here's the object that caught my attention - in the photograph below.  

Obviously a set of overalls with "JW" embroidered on the front.  What on earth does this stand for?  If we are not possessed of psychic powers, then what are us lowly mortals visiting the museum supposed to make of this display?  

As an old Greenockian, I assumed that the "JW" refers to Walkers - once upon a time important sugar refiners in the town.  A quick check at the online collections site (Inverclyde Council website) confirms that this is indeed a uniform jacket dated 1965-1970 from John Walker & Co, sugar refiners, Greenock. (The National Library of Scotland have two wonderful old films from the 1960s showing sugar being processed in Greenock.  Check them out here.)

The only notice in the entire case is the same "Remembering Sugaropolis" label from another case containing a wooden spoon.  The notice is quite small and very difficult to read.  For those who are not local, Sugaropolis was the name given to Greenock when it was a major sugar refining centre in Britain.  There were some other items which perhaps had a more obvious sugar connection - some jars of samples of sugar, a machete and a sugar sack. 

So, if this is a case referring to Greenock's sugar refining heritage, what do the other objects inform us about the sugar industry? The piece of paper on top of the Walkers uniform - what is that?  An employment record of someone who worked at Walkers, perhaps?  No!  It is a document dated 1798 stating that Captain Andrew Ramsay of the ship Union of Greenock could trade between Great Britain, North America, West Indies and Europe.  Just about 200 years before the uniform on which it rests!  An amazing piece of local history in its own right, but what has it got to do with the overalls or sugar?  No explanation is given.

Then, in the same case, are these bottles - what have they got to do with sugar?  Well, there is no notice as to what they might be, but on zooming in on my photograph I could make out the word "Hoytema & Co".  A quick check on Google led me to discover that they were late 18th century Dutch gin bottles found in Nigeria.  So, the connection to Greenock's sugar trade is?  Obvious ... eh, isn't it??

What about this lovely stoneware jar in the display case.  It is labelled "MacSymon Company Ltd" - a grocery shop owner in Greenock in 1880 and later Liverpool.  His shops presumably sold sugar - perhaps that's the connection?  Was it stored in jars like this?

Why is nothing labelled in this collection of what seems to me, random artifacts?  If they are connected, why is there no information as to how?  Sadly, I discovered that I had photographed the exact same display in September 2021 - nothing had changed and no information cards had been added in the intervening 8 months.

It won't be long till cruise ships arriving at Greenock bring lots of visitors to the area.  Many will seek out the museum expecting to learn about local history.  As a Greenockian, I hope they will visit the Watt Institution because the staff are lovely, the building is amazing and there is a fabulous art collection.  Whether they will be any the wiser as to Greenock's wonderful history and heritage is very much in question as long as the museum continues to randomly display objects without any explanation as to their meaning or importance. 

Check out other Mysteries at the McLean - Children of Greenock  - Wooden Spoon - Magician's Clock - Spanish Armada Relic - click on links.

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