Hannah Beswick, the ‘Manchester Mummy’

Guest Contribution by Robert McCombe

The history of the University of Manchester is far from straight forward, entailing physical relocations, mergers, separations and expansion. As might be expected, the ideas that underpinned the various bodies and institutions have shifted almost as much over the years. One way to approach these movements is through a particular aspect of the University – its Museum and the people associated with it. There are a large number of recognised and lauded figures who played prominent roles in this history, but this article approaches one very particular woman; Hannah Beswick (1688-1758). Her relationship to the University reflects its evolution, touching upon the unconventional and unsavoury through the merging of two very distinct entitles; Owens College and the Manchester Natural History Society (MNHS).

Hannah was wealthy Oldham resident who became recognised for her subsequent mummification following her death and the display of her remains at her surgeon’s house and latterly the Museum of the Manchester Society of Natural History, before her eventual burial in 1868. Her preservation was a reflection of a personal preoccupation with mortality and a fear of being buried alive. The use of her body traced the increasingly formal and respectable atmosphere engendered within museums as ideas of curiosity and morbid voyeurism became replaced with notions of education and respectable taxonomies.

As both a person and an object she was explicitly local in her context and her treatment encapsulates the development of University and Museum and the shifting boundaries between spectacle and science, boundaries that saw both physical and intellectual shifts. Yet unlike the numerous other human remains in Manchester Museum, she no longer remains on display, nor is any mention made of her. What I want to argue, in fact, is that there is a rich history of unseen objects and local history that eventually became literally reburied as it refused to fit emerging ideals of a morally respectable and civic culture that emerged through the establishment of the University’s predecessor, Owen’s College and the nascent Manchester Museum.

Charles White, mediumDr. Charles White, Manchester Surgeon

To return to the question of Hannah Beswick’s identity; she was the daughter of John Beswick of Failsworth, Hannah was born in 1688, into a wealthy family. Apparently increasingly fearful of being buried alive, following an experience of her brother’s near living burial in York, she commissioned her family physician, the Manchester surgeon Dr Charles White (1728-1813), to ensure that a similar fate did not befall her.[1] Popular stories indicate that Dr White was paid a significant sum of money to embalm Hannah. However, the lack of any such explicit mention of this process within the will suggests that a briefer period of close observation was intended rather than any more permanent solution such as embalming.[2] Nonetheless, White, a well-recognised collector of curiosities (such as the skeleton of highwayman Thomas Higgins) and student of the anatomist William Hunter (1718-83) was familiar with the principals of embalming and conducted the process upon Hannah.[3]

While the details of Hannah’s preservation are unknown, Hunter’s preferred process (and therefore White’s probable approach) consisted of injecting the body with a mixture of vermillion, turpentine, and oil of lavender and rosemary. Following this, organs were removed and cavities packed with plaster of paris. [4] Following her preservation at Cheetwood, Hannah was placed within a wooden case in White’s home in Sale, Ancoats Hall, where she remained until his death. She was bequeathed to a Dr Ollier, who then in turn donated the remains to the recently established NHSM Museum in 1828. The donation to what was ostensibly a collection focusing primarily upon Natural History was not as odd as it immediately appeared. Contributions to the Society provided a point of patronage and social recognition and covered a variety of objects from the obvious to the obscure and curious including other human remains such as a bitumen coated Peruvian mummy, a Maori head and one Egyptian mummy ‘Asroni’.[5]

The wider fascination with displays of human remains had continued into the nineteenth century in a variety of guises. At the more professional – and therefore respectable – spectrum was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) desire to become an auto-icon and tool of anatomical education.[6] In stark contrast were the public unwrappings that formed part of an emerging trend known as ‘mummymania’. Taking place across the country, Egyptian remains were displayed and dissected in both private and public displays, designed to, nominally at least, inform, but primarily to entertain.[7]

The display of Hannah in Manchester fell somewhere between these two extremes mentioned above. Despite the Society’s focus upon fauna, flora and conchology, she highlighted the often arbitrary methods of collecting and her designation and display as a ‘curiosity’ emphasised this. Nonetheless, contemporary museum guides made some attempt to provide a little information about her origins, but were unable to place her within an obvious taxonomic framework. This uneasy situation continued until the collection in its entirety was sold to the recently established Owen’s College in 1868, as the Society was unable to continue financially or logistically.[8] The geologist William Boyd Dawkins, then head of the College’s own collections, expressed his dismay at the lack of obvious organisation of taxonomy with the Museum.[9]

As problematic as the collection itself and the display of remains such as Hannah’s may have been, the College itself was far from unimpeachable. At the point of sale, Owens College had recently relocated to its current site on Oxford Road, but its earlier establishment in 1851 on Quay Street had seen as variety of criticisms levelled at it. A Free Lance article of 4th January 1868 described the area as ‘difficult to imagine a public edifice in a less reputable and pleasing locality.’[10] Henry Brierly, a loyal member of the College agreed, observing that

‘the entrance from Deansgate was guarded by a very Scylla and Charybdis of disreputable licenced houses…traditions of our day reported that a former Owens College porter had been inveigled, robbed and ejected in puris naturablis[11]

Such an environment was greatly at odds with the aspirations of the College. Aware that other Institutions in Birmingham, Durham and even Kings College, London were in financial difficulties, the decision was made to move to more salubrious quarters and expand on Oxford Road under the auspices of Thomas Ashton.[12] It was also at this stage, well over a century after her death, that Hannah was permanently removed from display.

The use of a new site on Oxford Road from 1868 can be seen as a deliberate attempt to engineer a location towards the purpose of polite middle class discourse for the College and through this, the Museum.  Given Owens’ establishment of the College, a key figure in the role of patronage can be established, although his direction through his will was minimal, meaning that these decisions cannot be attributed to an individual, but rather the various governing bodies of the College. The relocation and design of the new buildings by Alfred Waterhouse can also been seen as part of a wider attempt to redefine the role of both College and Museum. With Waterhouse having designed the South Kensington Museum (Now the Natural History Museum), the choice of architect reflected ambition and aspiration in a specific museal context. Considered within the context of Manchester city itself, the Museum can be viewed as an extension of middle class control tied together by one architect. Waterhouse also designed the Assize Courts and Town Hall. While out on the city’s periphery, the Museum can be seen as an architectural shift from civic control towards a place of cultural control, or at least influence.[13]

As well as the upheaval of a physical relocation and architectural redefinition, Hannah’s removal was also due to the role of another significant individual from the Museum’s history. R.D Darbishire, one of the early members of the Museum Committee and its Commissioner, had been involved since the early days of the 1868 Commission that sifted the Natural History Society’s collections for ‘suitable’ material as well as acting as a personal donor. His most notable donation was the collection that became known by his name – the Darbishire lithics.[14] He was also a Legatee and Committee member of the Whitworth Institutive (later to become the Whitworth Art Gallery), and he played important roles in establishing both sites and the nature of their collections. Objects considered to lack an edifying or educational purpose were disposed of by the commissioner of the newly formed Manchester Museum.[15] The difficult and complex meanings placed around Hannah’s remains evoking troubling concepts of spectacle and entertainment, rather than morally certain education meant that her exclusion had always been probable. Yet others, such as Asru, emerged with the opening of the Museum in 1889, while predating the establishment proper of an Egyptian collection, reflecting the continuation of an ad hoc approach to the Museum’s collections.

Yet if she was not to be put on display, the troubling question of what to do with Hannah’s Christian remains…remained. Following consultation with the Bishop of Manchester, surviving relatives and the Home Secretary, a discreet and unmarked burial took place at Harperhuy Cemetery, near Manchester.[16] The reason given for the secrecy was the fear of grave robbers, who might seek to profit further from Hannah’s notoriety. Although the worries proved unfounded, descendants viewed the incident as a ‘scarcely creditable episode’.[17]

Hannah Beswick’s preservation, exhibition and movement through private to public viewing reflects the ability of the modern, as well as the ancient dead to have new meanings placed around them post mortem and for these in turn to evolve, become forgotten and rediscovered.  She went from being an individual, to a source of wealth and bequests, to a curiosity, and an inconvenience before finally being recognised as an individual again in the course of her final internment.

Selected Further Reading

Alberti, Sam (2009) Nature and Culture: Objects, disciplines and the Manchester Museum (Manchester, Manchester University Press)

Anon. ‘Response to Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian March 31st 1900

Dobson, Jessie (1953), “Some Eighteenth Century Experiments in Embalming”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Oxford, Oxford University Press) 8 (4), 431–441

Fiddes, Edward (1937) Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University (Manchester University Press, Manchester)

Grimshaw, William (1900) ‘Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian, 4th May

Gunn, S. (1999) ‘Middle class. modernity and the provincial city: Manchester 1860-80’ in Kidd, A, and Nicholls, D, (1999) Gender, Civic Culture and Consumerism: Middle class identity in Britain 1800-1940 (Manchester University Press, Manchester)

MacGregor, Arthur (2008) Curiosity and Enlightenment (Yale, Yale University Press)

Rogers, Beverley (2012) ‘Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian mummies on show’, Popular Exhibitions, Science nad Showmanship, 18401910 (London, Pickering and Chatto), 199-218

Zigarovich, Jolene (2009), ‘Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life (Duke University Press) 33 (3), 65–104

[1] Grimshaw, Wlliam ‘Miss Ann Beswick, The Manchester Guardian 4th May 1900

[2] Ibid  and Anon. ‘Response to Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian March 31st 1900

[3] Dobson, Jessie (1953), ‘Some Eighteenth Century Experiments in Embalming’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Oxford University Press) 8 (4), 433

[4] Zigarovich, Jolene (2009), “Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England”, Eighteenth-Century Life (Duke University Press) 33 (3), 86

[5] Asroni (now Asru) is the sole survivor of the earliest human remains collected by the Society and is currently on display in the Egyptian Gallery at Manchester Museum.

[6] MacGregor, Arthur (2008) Curiosity and Enlightenment (Yale, Yale University Press), 279-80

[7] Rogers, Beverley (2012) ‘Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian mummies on show’, Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 (London, Pickering and Chatto), 199-218

[8] Alberti, Sam (2009), 20-2

[9] Alberti (2009), 22

[10] Fiddes, Edward (1937) Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University (Manchester University Press, Manchester), 25

[11] Brierly, Henry Memories of Quay Street and Owens College (Private Printing), 6-7

[12] Fiddes (1937), 63-6

[13] Gunn, S. (1999) ‘Middle class. modernity and the provincial city: Manchester 1860-80’ in Kidd, A, and Nicholls, D, (1999) Gender, Civic Culture and Consumerism: Middle class identity in Britain 1800-1940 (Manchester University Press, Manchester), 116-118

[14] Manchester Museum Annual Report 1908-9, 9

[15] Alberti (2009), 22

[16] Grimshaw, Wlliam ‘Miss Ann Beswick, The Manchester Guardian 4th May 1900

[17] Grimshaw (1900)

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