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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (114) 19 September 2023

‘Together we can be a mighty river of justice and peace’ … a peaceful walk by the River Nidd in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XV, 17 September 2023). We are also in the Season of Creation.

The Calendar of the Church of England today recalls the life and witness of Theodore of Tarsus (690), Archbishop of Canterbury. Before today begins (19 September 2023), I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a theme in this Season of Creation, the annual Christian celebration to pray and respond together to the cry of Creation;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The theme of the Season of Creation this year is ‘Let Justice and Peace Flow’

A mighty torrent can move mountains:

The Season of Creation is the annual Christian celebration to pray and respond together to the cry of Creation: the ecumenical family around the world unites to listen and care for our common home, the Oikos of God.

The Season of Creation began on 1 September, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, and it ends on 4 October, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology beloved by many Christian denominations.

Each year, the Season of Creation Ecumenical Steering Committee proposes a theme for the Season of Creation. This year, the theme is ‘Let Justice and Peace Flow,’ and the symbol is ‘A Mighty River’.

Our individual actions during the Season of Creation are important. Celebrating creation, taking part in clean-ups, planting trees, and reducing our carbon footprint are some of the immediate actions we can take.

We must also recognise that as we need a mighty movement of justice, individual actions are no longer enough. Justice also includes paying historic debts. At a global level, nations with power and wealth have a duty to deal justly and honestly with communities that suffer most from the climate and ecological crises. They have not dealt righteously with their less wealthy neighbours in global forums. They have not fulfilled their promises of financing the losses and damages that vulnerable communities are suffering from, or funding necessary biodiversity initiatives in less wealthy nations, nor have they made the necessary sacrifices to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming.

Nevertheless, Global South nations, working together for more than 30 years, managed to win a victory at COP27 in making wealthier nations realise their moral duty to provide financing for loss and damage.

The recent decisions at COP15 to preserve biodiversity are also hopeful and require similar perseverance. The new UN Treaty on Oceans marks a historic moment for protecting marine biodiversity in international waters, adding to the hope of more persistent global responses to the climate crisis. These victories have been achieved by those with less power working together.

Together we can be a mighty river of justice and peace, that brings new life to earth and future generations, a river that can move the mountains of injustice.

Find out more about the Season of Creation HERE.

‘Our individual actions during the Season of Creation are important’ … street art in Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Luke 7: 11-17 (NRSVA):

11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Let Justice and Peace Flow.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (19 September 2023) invites us to reflect in these words:

Let us pray for all who are teaching us to care for creation and for the growing realisation we must all work together to care for Earth.

The Collect:

God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Keep, O Lord, your Church, with your perpetual mercy;
and, because without you our human frailty cannot but fall,
keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful,
and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow</b>

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org