One of the highlights of last years’ travel in northern England was our visit to Hadrian’s Wall. In Roman Wall Blues, I wrote of the magical museum at Vindolanda, the Roman town just south of the wall, and contemplated the lives of those memorialized within. Earlier that day, we had walked through Chesters Fort, where the wall crosses the Tyne, the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain.
Adjacent to the fort is a small but significant museum. It was here that we learned that what we are able to walk through and and wonder at today, we owe to the dedication, foresight, and finance of one man: John Clayton, one of the great unsung saviours of Britain’s historical heritage. His monument is the Chesters Roman Fort Museum which houses the Clayton Collection of 5,500 catalogued items from many sites on the central section of the wall.
A classically educated Victorian gentleman who combined demanding roles running the family law firm and acting as town clerk for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Clayton had a passion for archaeology and the Roman military legacy in his beloved Northumberland.
Were it not for Clayton, large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared as the industrial revolution fuelled the demand for stone to build factories, mines and mills. His role in the preservation and survival of Chesters Roman Fort is undisputed.
During the early 19th century, Clayton lived at Chesters House in the parkland surrounding the Roman fort, and from an early age he was fascinated by the Roman relics surrounding him. By the 1830s, he began buying land to preserve the Wall. This was at a time when what is now a World Heritage Site was little understood, and indeed, was being unthinkingly destroyed through the quarrying and removal of its stones for reuse in industrial and urban development.
Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum), Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall, carried out restoration work, and brought early tourism to the area by displaying some of the finds at Chesters. Clayton managed the estate and its farms for sixty years, generating the funds to finance to fund further preservation and restoration work on the Wall. He never married, and died in 1890.
The museum housing the Clayton Collection was opened adjacent to the fort site in 1903, 13 years after his death. Today, it is privately owned, but is curated by English Heritage on behalf of the Trustees of the Clayton Collection, and it has been refurbished to brin to contemprary standards of conservation, display, and interpretation. And yet, great care has been taken to respect its period character, and to retain the feel of a 19th century gentleman antiquarian’s collection, with many of the labels and original cases having been retained.
Click his name to read more about John Clayton and his museum.
see also my alternative Roman history in Roman Holiday.
And the video, Roman Holiday in History.