What is the Mortimer Collection?


The Mortimer Collection is one of the founding collections of Hull Museums. Today, we’re talking about its history.

Made up of around 66,000 fascinating historical objects, the Mortimer Collection is an impressive haul of prehistoric and medieval finds. We can now see some of them at the various galleries in Hull City Centre.

The items were curated by two brothers, John and Robert Mortimer. Born into a farming community in Fimber, East Yorkshire in the 1800s, the regularly took seasonal breaks from school to help out in the fields.

At this point in time, archeology wasn’t really heard of as a serious discipline. In fact, searching for significant articles underground was a sign of a ‘weak mind’, especially in the countryside.

John’s first experience with the activity was when a collector visited the village in search for flint arrowheads. The man showed him an example and asked the 23-year-old to keep an eye out for similar pieces.

John found his first ever barbed flint arrowhead just a few years after this incident. This, along with his visit to London in 1851 to see The Great Exhibition, sparked his interest in the subject. He also visited the British Museum whilst in the capital, which helped him to develop a passion for geology.

The siblings decided to seize the opportunity to collect artefacts from their local area. Appealing to farmhands and other boys who worked in the fields, the men managed to gather quite a few items. The labourers were rewarded with special prizes.

In the meantime, the Mortimers began to self-fund excavations of burial mounds in the Yorkshire Wolds. The money came from John’s corn merchant business and helped the collection expand with the discovery of chalk fossils and a few prehistoric instruments.

They eventually acquired enough material to set up a museum in Driffield. This was hugely successful, attracting scientific gentlemen from around the world to study the artefacts.

As Mortimer grew older, he witnessed the selling off of findings from his fellow collectors. Canon Greenwell had sold his work for a tidy profit and the objects ended up scattered and taken away from the region.

John wished for the Mortimer Collection to remain in the area that it was found, but he couldn’t afford to just give it away for free. He made an offer to the East Riding County Council for them to purchase the archives for half the price of its original value.

The Council declined, probably due to the fact that they had nowhere to house the extensive acquisition.

Nevertheless, it was at this time that Thomas Sheppard, who would soon be appointed as curator at Hull Museums, wrote to a local newspaper expressing his wish for the collection to be housed in Hull.

‘For every ten persons who would see them at Driffield, a thousand or more would see them in a prominent place for Hull,’ he argued.

It was true, the growing city was a much more convenient spot for people to study the artefacts.

Mortimer still desired for the collection to remain in Driffield. However, in his will he made it clear that if this was not possible, his life’s work could be purchased by the City of Hull.

Two years after his death in 1911, Hull Museums obtained the vast accumulation of historic items that the brothers had amassed over the years.

If you would like to take a peek at this collection, head to the Hull and East Riding Museum on the High Street. Open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4:30pm.

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