The Curiosity of Wheezy Jack

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In a corner of the Ashmolean Museum is a group of portraits which may not be entirely comfortable with each other.

When museums were just cabinets of curiosities, just collections of hoarders and travellers, John Tradescant collected a stunning array of artefacts: The Ark. You can read the story of how Elias Ashmole connived to acquire the collection after Tradescant’s death here. 

Suffice to say that the two men may not be quite so civil with each other in the afterlife as they are, hanging on walls on the bottom floor of the museum.

Fortunately, just along the way, just a few paces from the portrait stand-off, capers some saucy light relief on loan to the museum.

And this is where those of you who are easily shocked should leave us. For the character who capers around in the same gallery is from the Wicker Man school of country lore. He is weird, and strange, and the museum’s label had my mind boggling there, for a while.

Let me tell you a little about Jack Of Hilton.

Jack caused quite a commotion back in the 17th century. It seems everyone who was anyone knew about him. Not on account of the fact that Jack is one of the best endowed brass images to come out of the 13th century – really, quite astonishing; but rather, because he was known for his unparalleled ability to wheeze.

This here is Jack:

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It is possible you might be a little too distracted to notice the hole at Jack’s mouth. Jack is not just a pretty face et al. He is a hearth blower: a mediaeval device which holds just over four pints of water.

When men were men and fires were fires, they would leave Jack to get piping hot, and the water inside would turn to steam. the steam would force air, taken in through a hole in is back,  out of Jack’s mouth, and he would fan the flames of the fire.

He had his uses. But his wheezing must have been memorable, for it brought all manner of people to see and hear the spectacle of naughty Jack at work. Including Dr Plot: naturalist. The first professor  of Chemistry at Oxford.

And the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.

The label next to Jack reads: “For many years, he performed an important function in an annual ritual (involving a goose) attending the granting of tenancies within the manor estates.”

Well, I nearly had a fit of the vapours. I could think of only one way Jack could be used alongside a goose, and it wasn’t pretty.

I was forced to endure half a day of boggling before an article in the Black Country Bugle set my mind at rest. Sort of.

So the lord of Hilton Manor had smaller lords who were tenants of his; and every New Year’s Day the oddest ritual helped the tenant of nearby Essington pay homage.

He would bring this goose. And in typical disjointed English tradition, with no apparent logic to the business whatsoever, Jack would be required to stand and wheeze lustily whilst the goose was chased three times round the fire. And then, alas, off to the kitchen. And the Lord of Hilton would eat the goose, and give the Lord of Essington a goose of his own to eat.

And that’s it. There was nothing remotely conjugal going on between Jack and the goose.

Thank heavens. Because though I am not easily shocked, it would just be too weird, wouldn’t it?

It will give Elias and John something to talk about through those long lonely winter nights.

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48 thoughts on “The Curiosity of Wheezy Jack

  1. Fantastic! – Great sleuthing Kate! The Ashmolean is my favourite museum in the world but I’ve never seen Jack (his loan must be quite recent I guess) The last time I was able to visit was four years ago when they had the mask exhibition. I wish all museums were designed like the Mole – makes uncovering mysteries seem obligatory! 🙂

    1. It does, Bia, I’m so glad someone else feels the same way. They have managed to keep the feeling of the old cabinet of curiosities.
      If there is one museum I love more than the Ash, it’s the one just down the road – the Museum of Science. Now that, to me, is treasure trove.

  2. My favorite professor at college, Dr. Jan Hallenbeck, would have loved this. He delighted in shocking me (and others) as freshman in Medieval History with graphic and grizzly tales/ photos, but garnered many followers right through to the end of our 4 years- with many History majors coming out the other end. I adored him. He died too young- and after a tragic taking by Alzheimer’s. The deities are cruel sometimes. However, your posts, your love of history, often stir memories of Dr. H. I am beholden.

  3. “Well, I nearly had a fit of the vapours…” Quite.

    Exactly what he had to be so priapic about you don’t elaborate on, Kate. Wisely, I suspect. Best left to others’ imagination.

    1. Did the mediaevalists need a reason? I still can’t get to the bottom (phnar, phnar) of their attitude towards sex. The fact that expensive commissioned manuscripts had illustrations every bit as bawdy as Jack indicates that it was quite acceptable to mix the religious and what we perceive as profane.

      1. I’m aware that the exhibitionist figures that we see in Romanesque churches — so-called sheela-na-gigs, acrobats, face-pullers and so on — were, rather than an encouragement to lewdness, a warning against the Seven Deadly Sins. You have only to see the deliberately leering countenances of these faces to realise that medieval peoples saw the wages of sin as ugliness, first and foremost, followed by hell.

        The calm, almost blissed-out faces of angels and saints were beautiful by comparison. Many of these churches were found on pilgrimage routes to places like Compostella and were probably ‘sermons in stone’ for the illiterate.

        As for Jack, I have no idea…

  4. “It is possible you might be a little too distracted to notice the hole at Jack’s mouth.” Yes, I was. Perhaps you could suggest to the museum that they give just a bit more information on the sign about the relationship between Wheezy Jack and the goose. The choice of words, or lack of them, definitely leaves interpretation open to innuendo. I’m glad you answered the disturbing question, Kate. 🙂

    1. It’s the museum in Oxford, Tandy. Stuffed with wonderful things, it began with John Tradescant’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ collection called the Ark; and has grown from there. The most enchanting collection of nick-nackery you could ever hope to find.A story in every glass case.

  5. Laugh you all may, but it is a most important historical item, because its provenance is clearly affirmed by legal and manuscript documents from the 1590s onwards and remained in the ownership of the Vernons of Hilton Hall, Staffordshire, for more than 400 years. It has been the subject of two learned articles published by the Society of Antiquaries, London. It was initially loaned to the Ashmolean museum and then generously bequeathed to it by the late Peter Vernon upon his death in 2013.

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