Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Volunteer Curator
The villains of this story are those minerals that have a remarkable aptitude for decay. The heroes? Those people who intervene and “stop the rot”. With a bit of luck, the heroes have left behind clues as to the date of their intervention.
I had the opportunity to purchase a mineral collection assembled by the noted mineralogist/dealer, J.R.Gregory (the collection dates back to c.1870). The pine box was in a poor condition and the contents, even though all specimens were present, were in disarray. After curating the specimens, cleaning and attending to the box, it was apparent that some of the original card trays had been replaced with home-made cardboard trays. Over the course of many years some of the specimens had suffered from the ravages of time and chemical decomposition. The two main culprits were as follows; firstly, halite or rock salt. In damp conditions this rock is hygroscopic/deliquescent and the resultant solution has a habit of ruining the tray and entering other adjacent trays causing further damage, especially to the specimen and its associated label. Secondly, the other main culprit is pyrites, which can emit sulphur and in the presence of water vapour produce sulphuric acid, again inflicting damage to many neighbouring trays and specimens.
It is the choice of replacement home-made card trays that gives clues as to the date of remedial action. In this particular case the two villains, rock salt and pyrites, had caused damage to at least 6 card trays which had been replaced. The cards used during this restoration relate to a reminder to the public to cast their vote in the local bi-election, and this candidate was a Henry Vivian (see below).
Further cards invite the members of the Liberal Workers to a declaration of the poll result, dated Monday 5th December 1910 (see below), the venue being The Claughton Music Hall, Birkenhead (it is interesting to note that the Claughton Music Hall became the Claughton Picture House in 1912- a sign of the times!).
Henry Vivian successfully defended his seat as the member for Birkenhead in January of 1910 but lost his seat in the December of 1910 in a further parliamentary vote.
A further two trays were made from trade cards issued by T. G. Best & Co., Shipbrokers of 20 Royal Liver Building, Liverpool, which opened in 1911 (see below). Best has an entry in Gores directory of 1911 and is described as Ship Owners of 63 & 64 Drury Buildings, 21 Water Street, Liverpool. So, I believe it may be said with a degree of confidence that repairs were undertaken to the box and contents at a date close to 1910/1911 when a diligent owner decided that action was required to conserve the specimens. The cards may have been surplus to requirements and may have originated from someone closely associated with the Birkenhead parliamentary candidate. Henry Vivian withdrew from Birkenhead after his defeat and never returned, so that it is unlikely that he was the owner of the collection. Nevertheless, the collection was purchased from an auction house in Liverpool and it may be inferred that for over a hundred years the furthest it travelled was across The Mersey.
If we assume a date of approximately 1870 for the purchase of the collection and remedial action was taken by 1912, it allows 40 years for the decomposition to have taken place (probably much faster). For those readers who have mineral and/or fossil collections, the moral of this article is a reminder to inspect them on a regular basis and to check for pyrite decay or any other chemical decomposition and take any necessary action to preserve its integrity. If action is taken it may well be worth, for posterity sake, including a note of explanation and a date.
P.S. Most of my writings describe mineral collections but many pyritised fossils can deteriorate equally quickly. In the past I would have enjoyed collecting fossils but the current lack of space (because of minerals) means that should I start fossil hunting now I would likely face divorce proceedings!!
P.P.S. For those readers interested in political affairs, here is a link to a short history of Henry Vivian’s early career.