19 September 2023

A Comberford family
myth and the first
keeper of the Ashmolean
Museum in Oxford

‘Three knocks are always heard at Comberford Hall before the death of a family member’ … family lore recorded by Robert Plot of the Ashmolean Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my recent visits to Oxford, I have been in the Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street a number of times, most recently in search of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

This most recent visit was motivated in part by a search for the portrait in 1853 of John Ruskin (1819-1900) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) – a painting that inspired the pose by my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), for a late Victorian portrait photograph.

But there was another family connection too. One of the vignettes and stories in history and folklore recorded by Kate Gomez in her book The Little Book of Staffordshire (Stroud: The History Press) is the belief or superstition: ‘Three knocks are always heard at Comberford Hall before the death of a family member.’

It is a story that was first recorded, as far as I know, by the 17th century historian, Robert Plot (1640-1696), the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Robert Plot was born in Sutton Barne in Borden, Kent, in 1640 and was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford (BA, 1661, MA, 1664, DCL, 1671). He became the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Professor of Chemistry in 1683, after Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) persuaded Oxford University to design a museum around and for his collection. The museum was first located on Broad Street.

Although Plot’s beliefs about alchemy have been discredited, his views and values are stereotypical for his time. He was an early historian of Staffordshire, and he published The Natural History of Staffordshire in Oxford in 1686. It was Plot’s second book, following The Natural History of Oxfordshire, published in 1677.

Plot began to work in earnest on Staffordshire in 1679. His studies of Staffordshire were instigated at the invitation of Walter Chetwynd of Ingestre Hall. But Plot’s principal reason for selecting Staffordshire was in honour of his patron, Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum, who was born in Lichfield in 1617.

Plot travelled throughout Staffordshire. By early 1681, and had prepared an accurate map of the county. He received extensive support and co-operation from local landowners. The book was progressing well, the illustrations were in hand, publication was imminent, and there were many illustrious subscribers, including Sir Christopher Wren. The chapter layout was similar to that for The Natural History of Oxfordshire, although the content was treated in more detail.

This detailed research led to a delay, however, and that delay was extended by Plot’s appointments as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and as Professor of Chemistry. The book was finally published in April 1686. Critics say the book was more philosophically based than his first book and to be his greatest achievement during this period.

Plot’s work on Staffordshire combines scientific enquiry with local folklore to provide an intriguing account not merely of the county’s natural history, but also its geology, pre-industrial manufacturing and culture during the 17th century, and Plot details the natural curiosities he found in Staffordshire.

In his Natural History of Staffordshire, Plot records this superstition about ‘the knocking before the death of any of ... the family of Cumberford of Cumberford in this County; three knocks being always heard at Cumberford-Hall before the decease of any of that family, tho’ the party dyeing be at never so great a distance’ – Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686), pp 329-330.

Plot also recalls that when a burbot, a rare fish, was caught at Fazeley Bridge in August 1656, Colonel William Comberford had it drawn from life and placed the drawing in Comberford Hall.

In his Natural History of Staffordshire, Plot also describes a double sunset viewable from Leek, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, well dressing, and, for the first time, the Polish swan, a pale morph of the mute swan. His description of pottery-manufacture in Burslem, North Staffordshire, is also of interest.

Plot dedicated his Natural History of Staffordshire to James II and in 1688 he was named Historiographer Royal. His ambition to continue the multi-volume series for all England was, however, never realised. He died in 1696.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford … Robert Plot was the first keeper, when the museum was based in Broad Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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