News from the Archives: Noah’s Ark – a toy with contemporary relevance

Winterbourne was built in 1904 for John and Margaret Nettlefold and bequeathed to the University of Birmingham 40 years later by John Macdonald Nicolson. Follow our dedicated team of archivists as they explore Winterbourne’s past and share with you the special objects, photographs and documents contained within the Winterbourne Archives.

This toy set, probably used by John Sutton Nettlefold during his childhood in the 1870s, is on display in the dressing room on the first floor of Winterbourne House. It is modelled after the Biblical story of Noah and his ark. In this story God threatens to destroy life on earth because of the destruction caused by humans. Noah is called upon by God to build an ark that will house two of each animal so they can be saved from God’s flooding. At the heart of this story is the message to conserve and look after life on earth.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark toy sets were incredibly popular in the Victorian era for well-to-do families. These sets were usually made as ‘cottage industry’ family enterprises in Germany. Instead of large factories making toys, individual families would produce full sets or even just one type of animal. The people making them used to call them “misery beasts” because of the amount of work that had to be done by hand to keep up with the huge demand.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark

Historically these Biblical toy sets would usually be used only on Sundays, the same day as church services. Sometimes they would be the only toys allowed to be used on that day!

Toys during the Victorian era were often teaching supplements for contemporary ideals.  Playing with the Biblical Noah’s Ark model on Sundays served to reinforce the values and lessons taught during services.

However, if we have a look at Mr. Nettlefold’s set it looks like it was used not just on Sundays! Some animals are missing a partner, tufts of fur have fallen off, different materials are used, and the sizes vary quite a lot. This seems to tell us that the set was used by many generations in the family and might have received some additions from other playsets as years went by. Now at Winterbourne we are taking a turn to look after these creatures to make sure they can still be enjoyed by children in the future.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark

The set at Winterbourne House contains some interesting creatures from around the world; bears, elephants, tigers, lions, and polar bears to name a few. When this set was made these sorts of animals, seen as ‘exotic’, were immensely popular. Animals from different areas of the British empire were brought over to England in the exotic pet trade during the 19th century. Animals such as the ones in the toy set could be bought from traders and would be kept in early prototypes of zoos, travelling menageries, or even held in private collections. These animals were seen as emblems of the empire’s global reach. At the time, this trade was unregulated. The knowledge needed to care for these animals was not thoroughly researched or developed.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark

Animals like those represented in Mr. Nettlefold’s set, some of which are now endangered species, were also hunted during the Victorian era. The hunted animals were seen as trophies and this depleted populations of these special creatures. It was only much later that people began to realise that the hunting and trading of these animals posed a threat of extinction. The story of Noah and the ark is about the conservation of animals, but at the time this toy set was made, this message wasn’t being followed.

Today, many of these animals still face the danger of becoming extinct. Because of human activity contributing to global warming, many polar bears are losing their homes through the melting of ice caps. Tigers are still being hunted for their fur and their habitats are being cut down. This is a similar story for many of the animals you see here. The message from this toy set it as important as ever because if we don’t act now to protect these real creatures, the only way we will get to see them is in the form of toys like these.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark


This article has been written by Ruby Kerrison, who is studying at Melbourne University.  She undertook at placement at Winterbourne in January 2020 as part of the International Museums and Collections Award Programme.

One comment on “News from the Archives: Noah’s Ark – a toy with contemporary relevance

  1. Liz Riley

    Reply

    Great job Ruby!
    Making history relevant to our current dilemmas is crucial. Highlighting the links between the specific animals in the Ark collection, colonisation and it’s ongoing effects made for very interesting reading.

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