Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, F.Z.S., F.R.G.S., F.R.A.I., J.P. - there’s a name to conjure with; soldier, adventurer, hunter and conservationist. If it weren’t for the photographs, documents and exhibits at the Powell-Cotton Museum one would be forced to assume he was the fictional illegitimate love-child of Rudyard Kipling and Capt. W.E. Johns. In an age where derring-do has largely become derring-done, his solo expeditions to ‘darkest Africa’ and ‘the Orient’ conjure images of the English gentleman of old; upright, stern, courageous, unfazed by shot, shell or lion attack – think Sid James in Carry On Up The Khyber, sipping tea as the ceiling disintegrates above him.
My 12 year old daughter and I undertook our own expedition to deepest, darkest Birchington-on-Sea to visit Quex House and the Powell-Cotton Museum.
Powell-Cotton’s 28 expeditions between 1889 and 1939 through Africa and Asia amassed a hoard of close to 2000 specimens. From elephants, giraffes and tigers to moths, scorpions and butterflies - he collected everything. Whilst to modern eyes the idea of ‘conserving’ species by actually shooting them, transporting the skins back to England and having them stuffed appears contradictory, the truth of the matter is that this extraordinary collection is still of inestimable value to the academic community to this day and the museum continues to work closely with the Natural History Museum in London. DNA gathered from one of the antelope specimens has recently been used to ensure the survival of that species, albeit in captivity.
..forced to assume he was the fictional illegitimate love-child of Rudyard Kipling and Capt. W.E. Johns
The major attractions of the museum at Quex House are the vast dioramas, lovingly designed and created by Powell-Cotton himself and the taxidermy carried out by the age’s leading taxidermist Rowland Ward. The three major galleries, the oldest dating back to 1896 – the world’s largest, unchanged Natural History Diorama, create tableaus of the African Savannah, the Himalayas and the Rainforests, with painted backdrops accurately depicting where the specimens contained therein were actually found. The Primate diorama alone is the largest and most content diverse in Europe. An ambient sound track heightens the illusion of presence.
In his book ‘Unknown Africa’ Powell-Cotton had predicted that in the future some wildlife might only be seen in museums such as this and in homage to that forecast the museum currently adorns the specimens with coloured ribbons denoting their level of endangerment – their Red List status. The intention is to repeat this exercise every year in order to help gauge and advertise the vulnerabilities of the Natural World.
The remaining galleries, six of them including the Passage Gallery, contain a wealth of ethnographic items from Powell-Cotton’s travels and those of his two daughters, Antoinette and Diana, both of whom pursued anthropology and then medicine, Diana as a Doctor and Antoinette as a Nurse and Midwife. Diana lived and worked in East Africa and took up ornithology in her spare time. Antoinette retired to come and support her mother at Quex House and took up archaeology - which had been a long term interest anyway as her father was interested in that as well. These items include a fine display of edged weapons from Malaysia, India and Indonesia (my daughter’s favourite display ), as well as important African domestic artefacts, from combs and beaded headdresses to Stone Age pottery, Imperial Chinese porcelain and Japanese Netsuke.
One of the galleries is currently dedicated to life at Quex House during World War 1, when Cotton-Powell allowed the house to become an Auxiliary Military Hospital run by the Birchington Voluntary Aid Detachment. There are a host of photographs showing the wards set up in the galleries with the dioramas still on show in the background, the wounded soldiers relaxing over meals in the now demolished conservatory and nurses undertaking bed-making competitions in the gardens.
..large tears and rips on the back and front of the tunic
There are perhaps two most remarkable displays in the museums.
First, is a case containing Cotton-Powell’s actual white linen safari suit. Unremarkable at first sight, albeit showing him to be of smaller stature than perhaps one might have thought, however, on closer inspection there are large tears and rips on the back and front of the tunic and in the case is a copy of Punch Magazine. You will need to visit the museum to understand the significance of these items.
The second involves the statue of a lion that Cotton-Powell bought at auction in London in 1912, this too can be found in Gallery 3. It is a large statue, with the black lion on a bulky plinth. On each side of the plinth there are hunting scenes. One of the scenes depicts a European hunter and his bearer shooting an elephant. Once again, you will need to visit the museum to unravel the mystery.
Once one has fully absorbed the treasures contained within the galleries, one can move on to Quex House itself.
The house is much smaller than one would have initially thought, it being a ‘Gentleman’s Residence’, but it too is packed with fascinating artefacts and history.
For instance outside the salon windows stand two cannon salvaged in 1836 from H.M.S. Royal George by the Deane brothers of Whitstable, the inventors of the diving helmet and what my daughter thought was a Chinese cannon outside the entrance door to the salon is in fact the breech of a cannon the brothers salvaged from the Mary Rose, long before she was raised and housed in Portsmouth – the Mary Rose that is, not my daughter.
The Entrance Hall hosts items from the Napoleonic wars including what appears to be an enormous pocket watch, but is actually a clock liberated from Napoleon’s personal carriage after the Battle of Waterloo. On a slightly more macabre note there is also a lock of Napoleon’s hair.
..a Congreve Rolling Ball Clock
Upstairs, there is a fine library overlooking the house lawns, lined with ancient tomes, bringing to mind Professor Higgins study in My Fair Lady. It also contains a fascinating clock, operated by a ball-bearing on a tilting steel plate – a Congreve Rolling Ball Clock. A day room with a trompe l’oeil painting of cherubs above the fireplace and fine porcelain in a cabinet along with a bedroom with a mighty four poster bed complete the upstairs.
Outside the gardens roll away from the eye pleasantly containing specimen trees, including a Medlar Tree, which whilst not uncommon is certainly the first I’ve ever seen. The real treasure though is the Victorian Walled Garden. The micro-climate it generates and the old heated green-houses promote the growth of various exotic plants, including a lovely collection of cacti.
The Museum regularly hosts ‘Night At The Museum’ events and promotes educational visits for schools, families and academics.
A cup of tea at the pleasant tea rooms just outside the Museum, making friends with a local cat and we were done. My daughter, hitherto physically welded to her iPhone/laptop/DS* (delete where applicable) had thoroughly enjoyed her day out, she had even taken notes from the fabulously helpful staff, who were welcoming and friendly from the off and deserve great praise for their knowledge and patience, particularly as they are all volunteers.
An extraordinary day out at an extraordinary museum with extraordinary exhibits - the legacy of an extraordinary man.Neil Proctor - Editor