Why does Macclesfield have an Ancient Egyptian collection?


Silk and Wealth

Silk and Wealth

Walking around the Silk Museum, you will come across many names of Silk Manufacturers from the Macclesfield area. However, the name that you would see the most is Brocklehurst.

The Brocklehurst family were the most prominent silk mill owners in Macclesfield in the 19th century. Their involvement in the industry went back to the mid 18th century, when they produced silk covered buttons.

Since silk production was the main industry in Macclesfield, the Brocklehursts became very wealthy and influential in the town, owning banks and even becoming MPs.

The fortune that the Brocklehursts made through silk opened up opportunities that would have been impossible for the average worker living in Macclesfield at that time.

Image: Silk Buttons made By Brocklehurst, 1800

Silk and Travel

Silk and Travel

At a time when a day-trip to the seaside was a new experience for their employees; the money, leisure time and social standing the Brocklehursts gained through the manufacture of silk meant that they could travel practically anywhere. And they did.

Between them, the Brocklehurst family travelled all over the world. Francis Dicken Brocklehurst took in the USA, Australia and China among many other countries on his round the world trip. Thomas Unett Brocklehurst (His elder brother) visited India, China, Japan and Mexico.

But it was their cousin, who went to Egypt.

Marianne Brocklehurst lived with Mary Isabella Booth in their home, Bagstones, near Wincle. Marianne and Mary had a wide range of interests but they both loved history and travel. Egypt was their perfect destination.

Marianne and Mary were not typical tourists, prioritising adventure, learning and experience over comfort and speed.

They camped in the desert, bartered for provisions and explored ancient sites.

In total they visited Egypt five times in 1873-74, 1876-77, 1882-83, 1890-91 and 1896.

Image: Marianne and Mary Changing Money at Keneh, sketched by Mary Isabella Booth (MIB)

Silk and Collecting

Silk and Collecting

Wherever Marianne and Mary went, they collected interesting antiquities. On their travels around Britain and Europe, they would buy attractive objects and even found Roman mosaics and coins by rummaging in the dirt in England. When they travelled to Egypt and the Middle East they did the same.

They found pottery and statue fragments, flints and fossils as they explored Egyptian sites. While the personal discovery of these was quite exciting for Marianne and Mary, their most visually impressive objects were purchased. Egyptian antiquities were not cheap, so again Marianne’s silk fortune came into play.

The transaction we know most about took place on Marianne and Mary’s first trip to Egypt in 1873-74.

In an act that demonstrates both the cost of artefacts and the unsavoury side of Victorian collecting, they bought the mummy and mummy case of a woman named Shebmut together with a papyrus. This cost Marianne and Mary £100, the equivalent of almost £11,000 in 2020.

However, they were not content to merely possess these objects, they wanted to know the stories that they told. They contacted Egyptologists to find out more about their collection and translate inscriptions, visited museums and wrote labels for their objects.

Image: An original display board of Egyptian fragments found by Marianne Brocklehurst and Mary Booth

Silk and Philanthropy

Silk and Philanthropy

To the Brocklehurst family’s credit, they did not use their wealth to benefit themselves alone. They also set up and funded public institutions to improve the lives of the ordinary people of Macclesfield. They created public parks, almshouses, hospitals and baths as well as financially and practically supporting schools and churches.

In Marianne’s case this philanthropy took the form of a museum which she had built in West Park. This was the first museum in the town that was open to the public and free for everyone to visit. It was founded:

‘with a view of affording educational advantages and giving inclusive recreation to the people of Macclesfield’.

Inside, the artefacts and paintings Marianne and Mary brought back from their travels in Egypt, the Middle East and Europe would take centre stage. They were displayed alongside other interesting objects that their friends and family had collected from around the world.
The museum was enormously popular, attracting 15,000 visitors on opening day.

Mary Booth and Marianne Brocklehurst also founded and ran a number of local branches of national organisations. This included the Macclesfield branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). The EEF collected donations from wealthy individuals to fund excavations in Egypt. The finds would be divided between Egypt and public institutions in Europe and the USA. Marianne’s museum benefited from this, with scientifically excavated material joining the public displays.

Image: West Park Museum on Opening Day, 3rd October 1898 

The Brocklehurst Legacy

The Brocklehurst Legacy

As you gaze into the Egyptian cases in the Silk Museum today, it is clear that there are two threads running through the current display.

On the face of it, it is a display like many others that are dotted around local museums in the UK. It covers standard Ancient Egyptian topics like Everyday Life, Religion and Mummification. However, beneath this runs a story that ties the collection to Marianne Brocklehurst and Macclesfield.

Marianne Brocklehurst’s silk fortune not only paid for her travel, collecting and museum building but also shaped her as a person. It gave her the independence and freedom to explore Egypt, the philanthropic nature to want to share her finds and, more negatively, the colonial sense of entitlement of the wealthy Victorian collector.

Without the silk industry the Brocklehursts would not have become wealthy and without the Brocklehursts’ wealth, Marianne Brocklehurst would not have collected Ancient Egyptian artefacts.

Because of this, Macclesfield’s Ancient Egyptian collection is as much about Marianne, Macclesfield and silk as it is about Ancient Egypt.

Image: The current Ancient Egyptian Display in the Silk Museum, Park Lane, Macclesfield