Last week I introduced you to one of the Midlands’ greatest tourist attractions, at least in the 1700s. Not a castle or a stately home, but a museum, which was welcoming visitors to 12 Sadler Street, Lichfield, from the 1740s onwards.

This cabinet of curiosities (in reality quite a lot of cabinets) was owned by Richard Greene, a Lichfield surgeon and apothecary. Richard and his brother, who was headmaster of Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school, had a long-standing interest in local history, and the collection grew out of that.

So what exactly was to be seen in 12 Sadler Street, and what became of the collection, when Richard Greene was no longer around to look after it?

There’s little doubt about what was the museum’s star exhibit, and certainly the largest. It was a clock in the shape of a medieval church tower. The clock was more than nine feet tall, and richly decorated with figures from the Crucifixion, which appeared and disappeared when the hour struck.

The machine was a strangely gloomy affair, if the truth be told, with a revolving Pontius Pilate and Virgin Mary. But to cheer the whole thing up, it also played five tunes, including a minuet by Handel. So it was a clock and an 18th-century jukebox all rolled into one.

The musical clock must have been one of the first exhibits donated to Greene’s museum, if he did not commission it himself. It was certainly in Greene’s hands by 1748.

Next to this, it was probably a cabinet close to the door (and opposite to a case full of muskets and pistols) that attracted most attention. It was filled with objects brought back from the South Seas by David Samwell. Samwell had been the surgeon on board the Discovery under Captain Cook. He had passed his collection on to Anna Seward in the cathedral close, and Seward had passed them to Greene.

Miss Seward was more than miffed when Greene received a commemorative medal for displaying the Cook memorabilia, and she got nothing.

Lichfield Museum founder Richard Greene
Lichfield Museum founder Richard Greene
 

Thus the Lichfield public got to savour the fruits of exotic travel without leaving the safety of Staffordshire. Like any good museum, Greene’s house was the doorway to another world.

Unlike some of his contemporary collectors, Richard Greene’s pockets were not bottomless, and he begged and borrowed as much as purchased. Many of the natural objects in Greene’s collection came from Sir Ashton Lever, a fellow collector, who opened a museum of the natural world – shells and fossils, mostly, but also live animals – he called a Holophusikon in Leicester Square in 1774. Greene was permitted to take some of Lever’s duplicates and “superfluities” back to Lichfield. As far as we know, however, there was nothing living in Greene’s museum, other than the visitors.

Nevertheless, Greene’s museum had the range and variety typical of 18th century private collections. There was the handle of a crossbow, reputedly found on the site of the Battle of Bosworth, cheek-by-jowl with a medieval crucifix and painted altar-piece. There were also specimens of Roman coins, suits of armour, and illuminated manuscripts.

Not that Richard Greene was entirely stuck in the past. He also owned examples of modern scientific instruments, some the work of his friends in the Lunar Society, as well as anatomical specimens, and ceramics from Josiah Wedgwood.

But if the item had a famous provenance, all the better. Greene had picked up a prayer-book, formerly belonging to Henry VIII’s last wife, as well as pairs of gloves worn by Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

Had this treasure-trove remained in Lichfield, it would be the match for any provincial museum in the country today. Sadly, this is not what happens to private collections.

On Richard Greene’s death in 1793, dissolution of the collection began. In 1799 Greene’s son sold the fossils and minerals to the fossil hunter Sir John St Aubyn, MP for Penryn in Cornwall. The armour, along with the souvenirs from the South Seas, went to William Bullock, who displayed them in his purpose-built Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly. Most of the rest was acquired by another squirrel of antiquities, Walter Honeywood Yate of Gloucester.

And so, it seemed, Lichfield said goodbye to its museum.

And then, quite against the grain, the Lichfield attraction was revived. Greene’s grandson, Richard Wright, like his grandfather a Lichfield surgeon, got the objects back off Yate and installed them in a new museum, first on the south side of the cathedral close, and then in Dam Street. And here they remained until Wright’s own death in 1821. Only then was Greene’s museum finally and irrevocably dispersed.

A handful of items from the museum are still to be found at the Lichfield Heritage Centre, but if its proprietors ever wanted to reassemble the whole lot, they would have to beg and borrow even more energetically than the original proprietor. And they would have to venture even further afield.

The marvellous musical clock is now to be found in the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, whilst one of the medieval manuscripts is housed in the Huntingdon Library in Berkeley, California. Some of the armour is in the Tower of London, and one painting is at the National Museum of Wales.

No doubt Richard Greene would take all this as a ringing endorsement of his taste and discernment.